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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index G > J. Willard Gibbs Quotes

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J. Willard Gibbs
(11 Feb 1839 - 28 Apr 1903)

American mathematical physicist and chemist who was one of the founders of physical chemistry and contributed to vector analysis. His major work was in developing thermodynamic theory.


Science Quotes by J. Willard Gibbs (5 quotes)

A mathematician may say anything he pleases, but a physicist must be at least partially sane.
— J. Willard Gibbs
Attributed. Cited in R. B. Lindsay, 'On the Relation of Mathematics and Physics', The Scientific Monthly, Dec 1944, 59, 456.
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Mathematics is a language.
— J. Willard Gibbs
Remark at a Yale faculty discussion concerning the difference between languages and mathematics for elective course requirements. Quoted, “as he is reported to have stated,” in The Yale Scientific Magazine (1927), Vols. 1-4, 17.
Science quotes on:  |  Language (293)  |  Mathematics (1328)

One of the principal objects of theoretical research in my department of knowledge is to find the point of view from which the subject appears in its greatest simplicity.
— J. Willard Gibbs
In letter published in Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1881), 420.
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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.
— J. Willard Gibbs
Elementary Principles in Statististical Mechanics (1902), Preface, viii.
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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.
— J. Willard Gibbs
Elementary Principles in Statistical Mechanics (1902), ix.
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Quotes by others about J. Willard Gibbs (3)

The concept of an independent system is a pure creation of the imagination. For no material system is or can ever be perfectly isolated from the rest of the world. Nevertheless it completes the mathematician’s “blank form of a universe” without which his investigations are impossible. It enables him to introduce into his geometrical space, not only masses and configurations, but also physical structure and chemical composition. Just as Newton first conclusively showed that this is a world of masses, so Willard Gibbs first revealed it as a world of systems.
The Order of Nature: An Essay (1917), 126.
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To prove to an indignant questioner on the spur of the moment that the work I do was useful seemed a thankless task and I gave it up. I turned to him with a smile and finished, 'To tell you the truth we don't do it because it is useful but because it's amusing.' The answer was thought of and given in a moment: it came from deep down in my soul, and the results were as admirable from my point of view as unexpected. My audience was clearly on my side. Prolonged and hearty applause greeted my confession. My questioner retired shaking his head over my wickedness and the newspapers next day, with obvious approval, came out with headlines 'Scientist Does It Because It's Amusing!' And if that is not the best reason why a scientist should do his work, I want to know what is. Would it be any good to ask a mother what practical use her baby is? That, as I say, was the first evening I ever spent in the United States and from that moment I felt at home. I realised that all talk about science purely for its practical and wealth-producing results is as idle in this country as in England. Practical results will follow right enough. No real knowledge is sterile. The most useless investigation may prove to have the most startling practical importance: Wireless telegraphy might not yet have come if Clerk Maxwell had been drawn away from his obviously 'useless' equations to do something of more practical importance. Large branches of chemistry would have remained obscure had Willard Gibbs not spent his time at mathematical calculations which only about two men of his generation could understand. With this faith in the ultimate usefulness of all real knowledge a man may proceed to devote himself to a study of first causes without apology, and without hope of immediate return.
A.V. Hill
Quoted in Larry R. Squire (ed.), The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography (1996), Vol. I, 351.
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After Gibbs, one the most distinguished [American scientists] was Langley, of the Smithsonian. … He had the physicist’s heinous fault of professing to know nothing between flashes of intense perception. … Rigidly denying himself the amusement of philosophy, which consists chiefly in suggesting unintelligible answers to insoluble problems, and liked to wander past them in a courteous temper, even bowing to them distantly as though recognizing their existence, while doubting their respectability.
The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography? (1918), 377.
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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