Gibbs Symposium 2003 to Honor "One of the World's Greatest Scientists" at Yale

World-renowned physicist, chemist and mathematician J. Willard Gibbs will be honored with a symposium at Yale on Friday, February 28 from 1 to 5 p.m. in Davies Auditorium,15 Prospect St.

The event honors Gibbs’ most important work at the 100th anniversary of his death. The symposium is sponsored by the Faculty of Engineering, the Departments of Physics and Chemistry, the Program in the History of Science and Medicine, and the Provost’s Office. The afternoon will feature lectures from researchers around the world.

“Celebrating Gibbs’ contributions is part of our effort to foster scholarly communication between the science and technology community and the humanities and social sciences,” said Daniel Kevles, the Stanley Woodward Professor of History, who is a speaker and coordinator of the symposium.

“Gibbs is certainly Yale’s greatest scientist, but many would argue that he is also one of America’s foremost scientists; albeit little known outside the physical and mathematical sciences,” said Pierre Hohenberg, deputy provost for science and technology at Yale.

Speakers at the symposium and their lecture topics are: Ole Knudsen, University of Arrhus, Denmark, “Gibbs in Europe” ; Diana Kormos Buchwald, California Institute of Technology, “Who Read Gibbs: Physical Chemistry at the Turn of the Century”; Martin Klein, Yale University, “Gibbs and Statistical Mechanics a Century Ago”; and Daniel J. Kevles, Yale, “Engineering and Physics in Gibbs’ America.”

Gibbs was born in New Haven in 1839. He was the seventh in an unbroken line of American academics stretching all the way back to the 17th century. His father was a professor of philology at Yale, noted for his role as the translator for the Amistad trial. Gibbs studied mechanical engineering at Yale and in 1863 earned the first Ph.D. in engineering in the United States. His thesis looked at shaping gear teeth. He taught at Yale and held patents for railway brake systems and other mechanical devices. Gibbs studied mathematics and physics in Paris, Berlin and Heidelberg from 1866 to 1869.

Gibbs applied mathematical reasoning to the experimentally determined behavior of gases, liquids and solids to create a field known as thermodynamics. Building on the work of Maxwell and Boltzmann, Gibbs elucidated the fundamental basis of thermodynamics in the behavior of large groups or ensembles of particles in what is known as statistical mechanics. His formulation is the one in use to this day, even with the advent of quantum mechanics a quarter century later.

Gibbs’ other achievements include significant contributions to mathematics. Building upon the work of Hermann Grassmann, Gibbs developed the familiar use of vector analysis. His seminal work is in thermodynamics is recognized in the quantity known as the “Gibbs Free Energy,” an extremely important concept for determining the characteristics of chemical equilibrium.

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