A poet’s lost biography of the forgotten scientist who founded physical chemistry, shaping much of the 20th century—as well as an ingenious and expansive treatise on American creativity, character, and remembrance.
Josiah Willard Gibbs (1839–1903) was an American visionary whose work shaped a century of science by bridging classical mechanics and quantum physics. A kindly and shy bachelor who lectured at Yale in relative obscurity for more than thirty years, he single-handedly created the field of physical chemistry without ever completing a single experiment. By applying the second law of thermodynamics to chemistry, Gibbs enabled future scientists to predict what states a substance can assume and under what conditions. The implications for industry, agriculture, and warfare were vast. For this and other achievements he was hailed by Einstein as “the greatest mind in American history”—yet he remained essentially unknown.
To the acclaimed poet Muriel Rukeyser, Gibbs “lived closer than any inventor, any poet, any scientific worker in pure imagination to the life of the inventive and organizing spirit in America.” As such, Rukeyser’s thoroughly researched and lyrical tribute to Gibbs is much more than a traditional biography. It is an alchemical compound of philosophy, history, ethics, and literature writ large—a monolithic work of homage that is not only the story of a single thinker’s far-reaching legacy, but the story of a country, a century, a global epoch of scientific creativity that would color every realm of the human imagination and aspiration, from poetry to politics.
As the iconic author and critic Maria Popova writes in her introduction, Muriel Rukeyser was remarkable American genius in her own right, who won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her debut poetry collection, Theory of Flight, in her early twenties and composed her staggering, more-than-biography of Gibbs before she was thirty. Both an ingenious celebration of the creative spark that burns through boundaries and a gorgeous ode to a forgotten man that was itself forgotten, the Marginalian Editions reissue of Willard Gibbs offers readers a transformative window into two of the most fearlessly original minds in American history.
Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980) was a prolific poet, playwright, biographer, novelist, children’s book author, and political activist. Her first collection of poetry, 1935's Theory of Flight, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. During her life she was the recipient of a National Institute of Arts and Letters award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Levinson Prize for Poetry, and the Shelley Memorial Award, among other honors.
“Willard Gibbs is, in my opinion, one of the most original and important creative minds in the field of science America has produced.”
– Albert Einstein
“A quiet, mousy man who changed the foundations of the world by a few formulae scribbled on a piece of paper . . . If this man of mystery, this prophet without honor, had not lived when he did, the first World War might never have been fought . . . It has remained for a poet, Muriel Rukeyser, to put him into a biography which is also a study of the development of American culture since the beginning . . . Miss Rukeyser makes Gibbs . . . a symbol of American greatness, a figure to put beside architects of the American spirit as varied as Walt Whitman and Lincoln . . . This is a biography which all Americans should read.”
– John Chamberlain, New York Times
“[Gibbs’s] work gives a key to the understanding of some central tendencies in the intellectual and social history of the past hundred years . . . [Rukeyser] is almost unique among our poets in her intellectual inquisitiveness. Her Willard Gibbs witnesses to that desire to see all round the objects of her interest which led her to go to aviation school before writing Theory of Flight, and to make both a documentary and a first-hand investigation of certain phases of the social scene before writing U. S. 1.”
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