J. Willard Gibbs (1873)

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The Scientific Papers of J. Willard Gibbs, Vol. I Thermodynamics, published by Dover Publications Inc., New York, and printed in the USA. This well-known 1961 edition is an unabridged and unaltered republication of the first edition of the work originally published by Longmans, Green, and Company in 1906 – three years after Gibbs’ death.

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This must be the best value for $2 in the history of scientific publishing. Its chief content is of course the hugely long and insanely difficult “On the equilibrium of heterogeneous substances”, with which Gibbs single-handedly laid the theoretical foundations of modern chemical thermodynamics – an achievement that Newton himself would have been proud of.

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The 2nd paragraph contains the shortest exposition of the Phase Rule in the entire canon of thermodynamics literature. Gibbs takes just 77 words as he plucks the rule from a single unstated equation (97) later known as the Gibbs-Duhem equation.

“On the equilibrium of heterogeneous substances” was enough on its own to seal Gibbs’ reputation as a theoretical physicist of the highest order. Yet amazingly there are two other gems in this book – the ‘graphical methods’ and ‘geometrical methods’ papers from 1873 – to add to the basket of plenty. These earlier papers are both works of genius and contain deeply profound ideas which will repay any amount of study. Their treasures are inexaustible.

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My copy of Gibbs’ masterwork came from a bookseller in Sacramento, California, who in turn got it from the library of Ambassador College Pasadena, when that institution closed its doors in 1997. The college was founded in 1947 by radio evangelist Herbert Armstrong (1892-1986), leader of the Worldwide Church of God and self-styled ambassador for world peace.

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What such a book was doing in the library of a college preparing students for the work of the ministry is a mystery. But the Lord moves in mysterious ways, and this particular volume eventually found its way to the CarnotCycle library, where it is regularly consulted and increasingly scrutinized.

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Demolition in 2012: the ruins of Ambassador College Library in Pasadena, whence came CarnotCycle’s copy of Gibbs’ book.

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Update December 2015

CarnotCycle has been fortunate to acquire the original two-volume set of Gibbs’ scientific papers published by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1906, three years after Gibbs’ death. Volume I is devoted to thermodynamics, while Volume II covers dynamics, vector analysis and multiple algebra, the electromagnetic theory of light, and other miscellaneous topics. Considering that these first edition books are well over a century old, they are in remarkably fine condition.

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