Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 75.djvu/207

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203
JOSIAH WILLARD GIBBS

student to see physical phenomena with the "clarity of vision" which Tait himself thought characteristic of the truly mathematical mind, and of which a good criterion is afforded in Helmholtz's unforgetable statement about Michael Faraday: "With wonderful sagacity and intellectual precision, Faraday performed on his brain the work of a great mathematician without using a single mathematical formula."[1]

At Yale Gibbs was esteemed an ideal teacher of physics, cordial, quick, helpful, willing to devote unlimited time to assist plodders and giving his students ample opportunity to learn "what may be regarded as known, what is guessed at, what a proof is and how far it goes." Of the qualities that make for distinction of mind and character he had the impersonal gift, "le don d'être nè essentiellement impersonnel," which Renan thought highest of all, and which, fortunately for the advance of real knowledge, has been characteristic of most of the great leaders of science. He could build no wall of personal egotism between himself and the external facts, and "few could come in contact with this serene and impartial mind without feeling profoundly its influence in all his future studies of nature."[2] We know little of his life beyond the fact that he was a man of stoic fiber, who lived and worked alone. The countenance in the portraits expresses the Puritan austerity with lines that tell of mental stress and struggles with illness, but the man himself was "unassuming in manner, genial and kindly in his intercourse with his fellow men." "In the minds of those who knew him," concludes his biographer, "the greatness of his intellectual achievements will never overshadow the beauty and dignity of his life."[3]

American contributions to physics, from Franklin to Michelson, have been characterized by originality of invention and experiment. The work of Gibbs has a place apart as that of a mathematical theorist whose ideas have found wide application in the main current of modern thought, and his true position is best described in his own often-quoted estimate of his great predecessor, Clausius. "Such work as that of Clausius," he says, "is not measured by counting titles or pages. His true monument lies not on the shelves of libraries, but in the thoughts of men and the history of more than one science."[4] The general scientific reputation of Gibbs is of this kind, while in his chosen field of activity, the austere region of physics in which Newton and Lagrange, Hamilton and Jacobi are the leaders, his is assuredly the most distinguished American name.

  1. Helmholtz, Faraday Lecture, 1881.
  2. M Bumstead, Am. J. Sc., 1903, 4. s., XLI., 201.
  3. Bumstead, loc. cit.
  4. Gibbs, Proc. Am. Acad. Arts and Sc., 1889, N. S., XVI., 465.