Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

9
The Greatest Simplicity
Willard Gibbs

A Natural Theorist

He held few positions of academic or scientific eminence. During his thirty-two years of teaching, no more than a hundred students in total attended his courses. For the first ten years of his tenure at Yale University, he received no salary. He rarely attended professional meetings or traveled. Except for an obligatory European trip to the scientific outside world, and annual excursions to the New England and Adirondack mountains, his life was confined to New Haven, Connecticut, and hardly spanned more than the two blocks separating his home on High Street and his office in the Sloane Laboratory.

Willard Gibbs made his life in other ways. His world was theoretical physics. He saw more and traveled further in that world than most of his contemporaries, including Clausius and Boltzmann. Just as others are natural writers or natural musicians, Gibbs was a natural theorist. His judgment was perfectly attuned to the theoretical matters he studied. He had no need—indeed, in nineteenthcentury America, hardly any opportunity—for close contact with informed colleagues. He knew, and did not have to be told, when he was right simply by exercising his own intuitive response and general knowledge. Few theoretical scientists have had the talent and the assurance to do their work in such isolated fashion. Only Einstein—who wrote some of his most important papers before he had even laid eyes on another theoretical physicist—may have outdone Gibbs in this respect.


Gibbs and Clausius

Gibbs's first published work was on thermodynamics. Throughout his thermodynamic studies he was strongly influenced by Clausius, and he left no doubt concerning that debt. Gibbs's first two papers were based on Clausius's equations for heat,

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Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • I - Historical Synopsis 3
  • 1 - How the Heavens Go 5
  • 2 - A Man Obsessed 18
  • II - Historical Synopsis 41
  • 3 - A Tale of Two Revolutions 43
  • 4 - On the Dark Side 51
  • 5 - A Holy Undertaking 59
  • 6 - Unities and a Unifier 71
  • 7 - The Scientist as Virtuoso 78
  • 8 - The Road to Entropy 93
  • 9 - The Greatest Simplicity 106
  • 10 - The Last Law 124
  • III - Historical Synopsis 135
  • 11 - A Force of Nature 137
  • 12 - The Scientist as Magician 154
  • IV - Historical Synopsis 177
  • 13 - Molecules and Entropy 179
  • V - Historical Synopsis 201
  • 14 - Adventure in Thought 203
  • VI - Historical Synopsis 229
  • 15 - Reluctant Revolutionary 231
  • 16 - Science by Conversation 242
  • 17 - The Scientist as Critic 256
  • 18 - Matrix Mechanics 263
  • 19 - Wave Mechanics 275
  • VII - Historical Synopsis 293
  • 20 - Opening Doors 295
  • 21 - On the Crest of a Wave 308
  • 22 - Physics and Friendships 330
  • 23 - Complete Physicist 344
  • VIII - Historical Synopsis 363
  • 24 - Iγ·∂ψ = Mψ 365
  • 25 - What Do You Care? 376
  • 26 - Telling the Tale of the Quarks 403
  • IX - Historical Synopsis 421
  • 27 - Beyond the Galaxy 423
  • 28 - Ideal Scholar 438
  • 29 - Affliction, Fame, and Fortune 452
  • Chronology of the Main Events 464
  • Glossary 469
  • Invitation to More Reading 478
  • Index 485
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