The Greatest Simplicity
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'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,