J. Willard Gibbs (1839–1903) was an American scientist who spent most of his professional life at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He made award-winning contributions to the fields of mathematics, physics, and chemistry, as well as pioneering statistical mechanics. Rukeyser was deeply fascinated by Gibbs and published a biography in which she calls him a “source of power.”

“Gibbs” was originally published in A Turning Wind (1939)

It was much later in his life he rose
in the professors’ room, the frail bones rising
among that fume of mathematical meaning,
symbols, the language of symbols, literature…threw
air, simple life, in the dead lungs of their meeting,
said, “Mathematics is a language.”

Withdrew. Into a silent world beyond New Haven,
the street-fights gone, the long youth of undergraduate
riots down Church Street, initiation violence,
secret societies gone : a broken-glass isolation,
bottles smashed flat, windows out, street-fronts broken :

to quiet,
the little portico, wrought-iron and shutters’ house.
A usable town, a usable tradition.
In our war or politics.
Not science.
Civil War generates, but
Not here. Tutors Latin after his doctorate
when all of Yale is disappearing south.

There is no disorganization, for there is no passion.
Condense, he is thinking.      Concentrate, restrict.
This is the state permits the whole to stand,
the whole which is simpler than any of its parts.1
And the mortars fired, the tent-lines, lines of trains,
earthworks, breastworks of war, field-hospitals,
Whitman2  forever saying, “Identify.”
Gibbs saying
“I wish to know systems.”

To be in this work.   Prepare an apocryphal
cool life in which nothing is not discovery
and all is given, levelly, after clearest
most disciplined research.
The German years
of voyage, calmer than Kant in Koenigsberg,3  to states
where laws are passed and truth’s a daylight gift.

Return to a house inheriting Julia’s4  keys,
sister receiving all the gifts of the world,
white papers on your desk.
Spiritual gift
she never took.
Books of discovery,
haunted by steam, ghost of the disembodied engine,5
industrialists in their imperious designs
made flower an age to be driven far by this
serene impartial acumen.
Years of driving
his sister’s coach6  in the city, knowing the
rose of direction loosing its petals down
atoms and galaxies.     Diffusion’s absolute.
Phases of matter!     The shouldering horses pass
turnings (snow, water, steam) echoing plotted curves,
statues of diagrams, the forms of schemes
to stand white on a table, real as phase,
or as the mountainous summer curves when he
under New Hampshire7  lay while shouldering night
came down upon him then with all its stars.
Gearing that power-spire to the wide air.
Exacting symbols of rediscovered worlds.

Through evening New Haven drove. The yellow window
of Sloane Lab8  all night shone.

Shining an image whole, as a streak of brightness
bland on the quartz, light-blade on Iceland spar
doubled!9 and the refraction carrying fresh clews.10
It will be an age of experiment,
or mysticism, anyway vastest assumption.
He makes no experiments.11     Impregnable retires.
Anyone having these desires will make these researches.
Laws are the gifts of their systems, and the man
in constant tension of experience drives
moments of coexistence into light.
It is the constitution of matter I must touch.

Deduction from deduction : entropy,12 
heat flowing down a gradient of nature,
perpetual glacier driving down the side
of the known world in an equilibrium tending
to uniformity, the single dream.13
He binds
himself to know the public life of systems.
Look through the wounds of law
at the composite face of the world.

If Scott14 had known,
he would not die at the Pole, he would have been
saved, and again saved—here, gifts from overseas,
and grapes in January past Faustus’ grasp.15
Austerity, continence, veracity, the full truth flowing
not out from the beginning and the base,
but from accords of components whose end is truth.
Thought resting on these laws enough becomes
an image of the world, restraint among
breaks manacles, breaks the known life before
Gibbs’ pale and steady eyes.

He knew the composite
many-dimensioned spirit, the phases of its face,
found the tremendous level of the world,
Energy : Constant, but entropy, the spending,
tends toward a maximum—a “mixed-up-ness,”
and in this end of levels to which we drive
in isolation, to which all systems tend,16
Withdraw, he said clearly.

The soul says to the self : I will withdraw,
the self saying to the soul : I will withdraw,
and soon they are asleep together
spiralling through one dream.

Withdrew, but in
his eager imperfect timidities, rose and dared
sever waterspouts, bring the great changing world
time makes more random, into its unity.


(c) Muriel Rukeyser

  1. ^ “The whole is simpler than its parts.” A student of Gibbs’, Irving Fisher attributes this statement to him, explaining that “Gibbs’ chief intellectual characteristic consisted in his tendency to make his reasoning as general as possible, to get the maximum of results from the minimum of hypotheses.”
  2. ^ Along with Gibbs, the writer Walt Whitman is one of what Rukeyser identifies in the biography as the four great men of the time (the other two being Lincoln and Melville). According to Rukeyser, Whitman “expressed face after face of a loose belief in order to set down the contemporary scene, stroke by stroke and look for look as he knew it” in his work.
  3. ^ The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was born and spent much of his life in Königsburg.
  4. ^ Gibbs’ sister. He lived with her, and later her husband, in their childhood home all his life.
  5. ^ Gibbs worked with train technology, including a patented design for a railway brake and advances in speed regulation:

    Gibbs governor

  6. ^ Although the automobile had been invented, this likely refers to a horse-drawn carriage.
  7. ^ Later in his life, Gibbs took summer vacations in New Hampshire’s White Mountains
  8. ^ Sloane Physics Laboratory at Yale University, where Gibbs did much of his work.
  9. ^ Some minerals, such as quartz and Icelandic spar, can cause double refraction, or birefringence, meaning that an object viewed through them will appear doubled:

  10. ^ Archaic spelling of “clues.”
  11. ^ Gibbs was known for preferring theoretical work to experimental work. Irving Fisher relates a conversation Gibbs had with “a youthful investigator who had made a laborious experimental study of certain relationships and who was, with pardonable pride, telling Gibbs of his conclusion. After listening attentively Professor Gibbs quite naturally and unaffectedly closed his eyes, thought a moment, and said, ‘Yes, that would be true’, seeing at once that the special result which this young investigator had reached was a necessary corollary of Gibbs’ own more general results. For him, it required no experimental verification. The young man’s work had, from Gibb’s viewpoint, been almost as much wasted as if it had been spent in a laborious set of measurements of right angle triangles on the basis of which measurements he should announce as a new and experimental discovery that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. It is worth noting that, though Gibbs did his work in the Sloane Physics Laboratory, he never, as far as I know at least, performed a single experiment.”
  12. ^ In thermodynamics, entropy is a way of describing how much randomness, or disorder, is in a system. Entropy is higher in a gas than a liquid, and higher in a liquid than a solid, because as the molecules become less tightly packed, they lose order.
  13. ^ Physicist Marshall Thomsen suggests, “This refers to the heat death of the universe. As the universe evolves into a more disordered system, energy becomes more smeared out and mostly uniformly distributed, aside from statistical fluctuations. Once this happens, interesting processes will cease—there won’t be any stars (localized energy sources) to power life on planets, etc. Heat flows from hot regions to cold regions (like the sun to the earth), but once the energy is ‘smeared out,’ the temperature will be uniform and there will be no more heat flows.”
  14. ^ Robert Falcon Scott was a Royal Navy officer. He led two Antarctic explorations. The first was successful; the second ended abruptly when Scott’s party discovered that a Norwegian group had beaten them to the site. The members all died on the return trip.
  15. ^ In Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, Faustus sells his soul to the devil in exchange for magical powers. To impress a duchess, Faustus fetches her grapes even though it is January and grapes are out of season.
  16. ^ All systems, in the absence of interference, tend toward increased entropy and disorder.