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J. Willard Gibbs and the Origins of Physical Chemistry

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Abstract

Josiah Willard Gibbs was the first distinguished American theoretician of physics and the first theoretical physical chemist. As testimony to this, on April 21,1879, he was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. This organization was a body that had emerged from the strife of the Civil War and was open only to the very finest scientific minds. In fact, Gibbs, at 40 years of age, was several years below the average age of its members and, at the time, could boast of only three published papers. But they were papers of surpassing importance. According to some of his colleagues, Gibbs felt that there were already enough people doing experiments, and what was needed was a theoretician to explain all of the accumulated data. And this he did superbly. His first accomplishment showed, using elegant diagrams, how the physical integrity of any substance (or mixture of substances) was affected by changes in such properties as volume and pressure.

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Endnotes

  1. 1.
    Lynde Phelps Wheeler, Josiah Willard Gibbs, The History of a Great Mind (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 1951), p. 21.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    “One of the Prophets,” Margaret Whitney, read to Saturday Morning Club of New Haven.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    George E. Uhlenbeck, “Fifty Years of Spin,” in Readings From Physics Today, No. 2 (American Institute of Physics, New York, 1985).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Hertz to Gibbs, March 3, 1889.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Pattison Muir to Gibbs, February 14, 1880.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Rowland to Gibbs, March 3, 1879.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Mitchell Wilson, American Science and Invention (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1954), p. 298.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Lynde Phelps Wheeler, Josiah Willard Gibbs, the History of a Great Mind (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 1951), p. 99 (Wheeler’s translation).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Daniel Kevles, The Physicists (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978), p. 34.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Lynde Phelps Wheeler, Josiah Willard Gibbs, the History of a Great Mind (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 1951), p. 91.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Gibbs to Schlegel, August 1, 1888.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Anthony Serafini 1993

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