Josiah Willard Gibbs in Heidelberg

S. 44-45 aus

Wheeler, Lynde P.: Josiah Willard Gibbs : the history of a great mind. - New Haven, 1951
Signatur UB Heidelberg: F 6773-25

We have even less information on the studies Gibbs pursued in the two semesters spent in Heidelberg in the year 1868-69 than for those of either of the two preceding years. An Anmeldungs-Buch for this year either was not issued or has been lost, and there are no notations on the prospectus, which has been preserved, to indicate which courses he actually attended. We only know (from the prospectus) that Kirchhoff, Hesse, Cantor, Rummer, du Bois-Reymond, and Eisenlohr were lecturing in courses on mathematics and mathematical physics; that Bunsen gave a course in experimental chemistry; and that Helmholtz lectured for the first semester in a sort of "orientation" course on the general results of the natural sciences, which was open to students from all of the faculties of the university. The work offered in mathematical physics appears to have been particularly comprehensive and, from the reputations of the lecturers, was presumably rich in content. But as to what part of this feast was enjoyed by Gibbs there is no evidence whatever. Neither have we any clue to the outside reading he did during this time.

We may however assume, without danger of going astray, that the general objectives of his study remained as they were in Paris and Berlin and that the work in Heidelberg suitably consummated the attainment of that perspective on the physical sciences and that insight into the possibilities for research which characterized all the rest of his career. One definite fact stands out from this whole period of European study, namely, that Gibbs cannot be regarded as the student of any one master. He undoubtedly gained inspiration from several, but from no one of them predominantly. In my own notes of his lectures in the 1890's I find reference to but one of his teachers of this time, Quincke, and that in regard to a very minor point. His real intellectual heritage stemmed from the masters of an earlier age, with whom however it is probably true that he first became intimately acquainted through his reading during these student days abroad.

About Gibbs' recreations during this sojourn in Europe we have only scattered recollections which have come down in the family. It is known that between terms he enjoyed short trips and it seems probable that he made excursions on horseback in the picturesque region around Heidelberg. It is also known that he took a few riding lessons at some time during the stay in Germany, (8) and the most likely place would seem to have been in Heidelberg. Hastings in his biographical memoir (9) says that in later years Gibbs would in private conversation occasionally illustrate some point with examples from his personal experiences abroad, and relates one such from the Berlin days which shows that Gibbs had some social contacts outside of the lecture halls and reveals a sly appreciation of German intellectual condescension. But although he and his sisters must have enjoyed the usual amount of sight-seeing, concerts, opera, and theater, the record of this side of their experiences is very meager.

At the close of the second semester at Heidelberg Willard and Anna, after a short return visit in the spring of 1869 to the Riviera, returned to New Haven in June.

  1. "P.R.I.," contribution of W. G. Van Name.
  2. Charles S. Hastings, "Josiah Willard Gibbs," Biographical Memoirs (National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 1909), VI, 375-393. The story runs that in a conversation with Gibbs about the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences one of his Berlin professors remarked that "its memberships appear to be pretty freely bestowed" if Gibbs himself were a member! Although it is true that the standards for admission to the academy were different from those prevailing in European academies, the implication that they were lower is hardly substantiated by the fact that the memoirs which brought-Gibbs lasting fame appeared later in its Transactions.

Redaktion:   Gabriele Dörflinger

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