Josiah Willard Gibbs

American scientist (1839–1903)

Josiah Willard Gibbs (February 11 1839April 28 1903) was an American theoretical physicist, chemist and mathematician. One of the greatest American scientists of all time, he devised much of the theoretical foundation for chemical thermodynamics, as well as physical chemistry and statistical mechanics.

One of the principal objects of research in my department of knowledge is to find the point of view from which the subject appears in the greatest simplicity.


  • One of the principal objects of theoretical research is to find the point of view from which the subject appears in the greatest simplicity.
    • From Gibbs's letter accepting the Rumford Medal (1881). Quoted in A. L. Mackay, Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (London, 1994).
  • His true monument lies not on the shelves of libraries, but in the thoughts of men, and in the history of more than one science.
    • From Gibbs's obituary for Rudolf Clausius (1889). See The Collected Works of J. Willard Gibbs, vol. 2 (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1928), p. 267. Complete volume
  • In all these papers we see a love of honest work, an aversion to shams, a caution in the enunciation of conclusions, a distrust of rash generalizations and speculations based on uncertain premises. He was never anxious to add one more guess on doubtful matters in the hope of hitting the truth, or what might pass as such for a time, but was always ready to take infinite pains in the most careful testing of every theory. With these qualities was united a modesty which forbade the pushing of his own claims and desired no reputation except the unsought tribute of competent judges.
  • The laws of thermodynamics, as empirically determined, express the approximate and probable behavior of systems of a great number of particles, or, more precisely, they express the laws of mechanics for such systems as they appear to beings who have not the fineness of perception to enable them to appreciate quantities of the order of magnitude of those which relate to single particles, and who cannot repeat their experiments often enough to obtain any but the most probable results.
    • From the preface to Elementary Principles in Statististical Mechanics (1902), p. viii. Full book
  • We avoid the gravest difficulties when, giving up the attempt to frame hypotheses concerning the constitution of matter, we pursue statistical inquiries as a branch of rational mechanics.
    • From the preface to Elementary Principles in Statististical Mechanics (1902), p. ix.


  • Mathematics is a language.
    • At a Yale faculty meeting, during a discussion of language requirements in the undergraduate curriculum. Quoted in Muriel Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1942), p. 280.
  • The whole is simpler than its parts.
    • Quoted by Irving Fisher in "The Applications of Mathematics to the Social Sciences," Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 36, 225-243 (1930). Full article
  • Anyone having these desires will make these researches.
    • About his own scientific work. Quoted in Muriel Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1942), p. 431.
  • I wish to know systems.
    • Quoted in Muriel Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1942), p. 4.
  • A mathematician may say anything he pleases, but a physicist must be at least partially sane.
    • Quoted in R. B. Lindsay, "On the Relation of Mathematics and Physics," Scientific Monthly 59, 456 (Dec. 1944)
  • If I have had any success in mathematical physics, it is, I think, because I have been able to dodge mathematical difficulties.
    • Quoted by C. S. Hastings in "Biographical Memoir of Josiah Willard Gibbs 1839-1903," National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs, vol. VI (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1909), p. 390. Complete memoir

Quotes about Gibbs

Alphabetized by author
  • Unassuming in manner, genial and kindly in his intercourse with his fellow-men, never showing impatience or irritation, devoid of personal ambition of the baser sort or of the slightest desire to exalt himself, he went far toward realizing the ideal of the unselfish, Christian gentleman. In the minds of those who knew him, the greatness of his intellectual achievements will never overshadow the beauty and dignity of his life.
    • H. A. Bumstead, "Josiah Willard Gibbs," in The Collected Works of J. Willard Gibbs, vol. 1 (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1928), p. xxvii.
  • In the last generation, this country produced one of the most eminent men of science in the whole world. His name was quite unknown among us while he lived, and it is still unknown. Yet I may say without too great exaggeration that when I heard it mentioned in a professional assembly in the Netherlands two years ago, everybody got down under the table and touched their foreheads to the floor. His name was Josiah Willard Gibbs.
    • Albert Jay Nock, The Theory of Education in the United States (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1932), p. 104. Full Book
  • On the one hand, the student has been informed by some writers that the only certain way lies in the use of the entropy-function and the thermodynamic potentials; on the other hand, he is told with equal authority that the method used by the original investigators has been the consideration of cyclic processes, and that the former method is nothing but a mathematical (perhaps unnecessary) refinement of the results obtained by the latter. These extreme attitudes appear to me to be unfortunate, and more especially when one observes the physical clearness introduced by the use of cyclic processes, but at the same time remembers that most of the results obtained by separate investigators using cyclic processes had, with a great many more, previously been found by J. Willard Gibbs by means of a purely analytical method.
    • J. R. Partington, A Text-Book of Thermodynamics with Special Reference to Chemistry (1913)
  • Let a drop of wine fall into a glass of water; whatever be the law that governs the internal movement of the liquid, we will soon see it tint itself uniformly pink and from that moment on, however we may agitate the vessel, it appears that the wine and water can separate no more. All this, Maxwell and Boltzmann have explained, but the one who saw it in the cleanest way, in a book that is too little read because it is difficult to read, is Gibbs, in his Principles of Statistical Mechanics.
    • Henri Poincaré, La valeur de la science (Paris: Ernest Flammarion, 1908), pp. 182-3
  • Willard Gibbs is the type of the imagination at work in the world. His story is that of an opening up which has had its effect on our lives and our thinking; and, it seems to me, it is the emblem of the naked imagination —which is called abstract and impractical, but whose discoveries can be used by anyone who is interested, in whatever "field"— an imagination which for me, more than that of any other figure in American thought, any poet, or political, or religious figure, stands for imagination at its essential points.
    • Muriel Rukeyser, "Josiah Willard Gibbs," Physics Today 2(2) (Feb. 1949), p. 6.
  • ...only one man lived who could understand Gibbs's papers. That was Maxwell, and now he is dead.
  • Maxwell, and then Boltzmann, and then... J. Willard Gibbs... expended enormous intellectual effort in devising... statistical mechanics, or... statistical physics. The uses... extend far beyond gases... describing electric and magnetic interactions, chemical reactions, phase transitions... and all other manner of exchanges of matter and energy.
    The success... has driven the belief among many physicists that it could be applied with similar success to society. ...[E]verything from the flow of funds in the stock market to the flow of traffic on interstate highways ...
    • Tom Siegfried, A Beautiful Math (2006) Ch. 7: Quetelet's Statistics and Maxwell's Molecules, pp. 142-143.
  • Many men have had intuitions well ahead of their time; and this is not least true in mathematical physics. Gibbs' introduction of probability into physics occurred well before there was an adequate theory of the sort of probability he needed. But for all these gaps it is, I am convinced, Gibbs rather than Einstein or Heisenberg or Planck to whom we must attribute the first great revolution of twentieth century physics.
  • [Gibbs' 1878] paper stands today as one of the most profound contributions to the world of human thought and […] places him with the greatest of the world's geniuses.
    • Mark W. Zemansky, Heat and Thermodynamics, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), p. 613.
  • ... a comparison of the American regard for inventive skill as opposed to skill in pure science. Our greatest inventive genius, Thomas A. Edison, was all but canonized by the American public, and a legend has been built around him. One cannot, I suppose, expect that achievements in pure science would receive the same public applause that came to inventions as spectacular and as directly influential on ordinary life as Edison’s. But one might have expected that our greatest genius in pure science, Josiah Willard Gibbs, who laid the theoretical foundations for modern physical chemistry, would have been a figure of some comparable acclaim among the educated public. Yet Gibbs, whose work was celebrated in Europe, lived out his life in public and even professional obscurity at Yale, where he taught for thirty-two years. Yale, which led American universities in its scientific achievements during the nineteenth century, was unable in those thirty-two years to provide him with more than a half dozen or so graduate students who could understand his work, and never took the trouble to award him an honorary degree.
  • ... the magnificent structure of Gibbsian statistical mechanics [cannot] be viewed as founded upon ideal classical gases, Boltzmannian kinetic theory, and the virial and cluster expansions for dilute fluids! True, this last route was still frequently retravelled in textbooks more than 50 years after Gibbs’ major works were published; but it deeply misrepresents the power and range of statistical mechanics... asking ‘‘What does statistical mechanics convey to a physicist?’’ and replying: ‘‘It means that one can compute the second-virial coefficient to correct the ideal gas laws!’’ Of course, historically, that is not a totally irrelevant remark; but it is extremely misleading and, in effect, insults one of America’s greatest theoretical physicists, Josiah Willard Gibbs.
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