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Josiah Willard Gibbs and his two shorter papers on thermodynamics

Zhigang Suo's picture

There seems to be tremendous enthusiasm among young mechanicians to master thermodynamics. I have found no better source for enlightenment than Gibbs's own writings on the subject, collected in a paperback, still in print. By common consensus, his masterpiece on the subject is the 300-page paper entitled "On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances". Although I have returned to the long paper many times for illumination, my own favorites are his two shorter papers, written in 1873, before the long one. In many ways, I think, the longer paper is an elaboration of the ideas in the two shorter ones. The title of the short papers are

  • Graphical Methods in the Thermodynamics of Fluids
  • A Method of Geometric Representation of the Thermodynamic Properties of Substances by Means of Surfaces

Together, the two papers are about 50-page long. They put the subject in the form used today. The graphical interpretation appeals to me deeply. In particular, he described the thermodynamic surface in the space with coordinates volume, entropy and energy. In the Introduction to the collected papers, it was said that Maxwell, in the last years of his life, spent considerable time in carefully constructing, with his own hands, a model of this surface, a cast of which, very shortly before his death, he sent to Gibbs.

Gibbs's description of the thermodynamic surface is embodied in much of the algebra in modern textbooks, but I wonder why textbooks do not display such a surface of a substance (e.g. water), or perhaps a photo of Maxwell's model of the surface. Perhaps the modern textbooks are too eager to give us formulas that we can take derivatives and do sums. Now that computers can do all those derivatives and sums, perhaps it is the time for us to enjoy the enchanted surfaces of Gibbs. Here is the entry on Gibbs in Wikipedia.

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Mogadalai Gururajan's picture

Dear Prof. Suo:

The Scientific papers of Gibbs is available at Google books; here is a blogpost of mine that gives the relevant links!


Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Guru:  Thank you so much for pointing out this link.  I followed it up and found many useful features.  Not only can we read books and download them, we can also search inside the books, and found related books.  

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