THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY
|JOSIAH WILLARD GIBBS AND HIS RELATION TO MODERN SCIENCE|
ASSISTANT LIBRARIAN, ARMY MEDICAL LIBRARY, WASHINGTON, D. C.
THE scientific papers of the late Professor Willard Gibbs, of Yale University, which have been brought together in a memorial edition by his pupil and colleague, Professor Bumstead, furnish one of the most remarkable examples in existence of the value and fruitfulness of mathematical methods in scientific investigation. Originally printed in the scientific transactions of his native state, some of these papers have, by reason of the speedy exhaustion of their first imprints, been much sought after, but for many years practically inaccessible, except in French and German translations.
Gibbs was not, like Edison, Langley, Rowland, the inventor, experimenter or expert in delicate measurements, nor was he the great all round physicist, like Maxwell, Helmholtz or Lord Kelvin. He was essentially and almost exclusively the mathematician, whose special function was not the discovery of isolated facts or new methods of experimental procedure, but the introduction of new currents of ideas; and it was the severe and rigorous form in which his ideas were cast that for a long period of time retarded their general adoption by the scientific world. If we accept Cayley's view that theoretical dynamics is in reality a branch of pure mathematics, then the opus magnum of Gibbs, his survey of heterogeneous equilibrium, may be fairly accounted a legitimate triumph for pure mathematics.
The enormous growth of biological science in the nineteenth century has somewhat overshadowed the importance of the deductive and analytic methods which were the very life of the science of the past, and although mathematics, beginning with primitive man's attempt to count, lies at the basis of all his exact knowledge of the material world, its true function has not always been appreciated or even understood. The synthetic or Baconian method, of which we have such supreme examples in the work of Galileo and Darwin, must always appeal by its very simplicity to scientific men, since, instead of indulging in special assumptions and hypotheses, it has obtained from nature, by observation and experiment alone, facts which, as in the Darwinian theory, can be concentrated upon some special proposition to be induced with the surety of Moltke's tactical device, Getrennt marschieren, ver-
- J. Willard Gibbs, "Scientific Papers," 2 vols., New York and London, 1908.
- "Report British Association for the Advancement of Science," 1884, 20.