IOWA STATE CHEMICAL ENGINEER DRIVES ISSUE OF NEW STAMP HONORING FATHER OF THERMODYNAMICS
Just ask Ken Jolls: If you can’t lick ‘em, then…buy the self-adhesive kind. But only after you get the stamp you really wanted in the first place. Jolls did.
On November 4, the U.S. Postal Service announced the release of a stamp honoring U.S. scientist Josiah Willard Gibbs as part of its 2005 “American Scientists” series. Available to the public early next year, the stamp is being issued in no small part due to Jolls’ dedication to Gibbs’ legacy. Other scientists in the issue include geneticist Barbara McClintock, mathematician John von Neumann, and physicist Richard Feynman.
Gibbs is widely acknowledged as the father of modern thermodynamic analysis, a method for describing transfers of energy between systems and their surroundings as dictated by the laws of thermodynamics. Sometimes referred to as a chemist, the nineteenth-century Yale scholar, according to Jolls, is in fact a “thermodynamicist”a change in title on the stamp made at Jolls’ behest.
In considering the stamp, Jolls said, USPS background researchers came upon his Gibbs Models Website based on research by Daniel Coy, Jolls’ former doctoral student and recipient earlier this year of the college's Professional Progress in Engineering Award. Because of his own expertise in thermodynamics and knowledge of Gibbs’ contributions to the field, USPS asked Jolls to serve as a consultant on the issue.
“Of course I said yes,” Jolls recounts, “so we started getting material together. We got through the first cut, and they wanted suggestions for a design to go along with Gibbs’ picture. I argued that the design had to be related to Gibbs' famous three-dimensional energy-entropy-volume surface, and we finally settled on the map of the USV surface that I had dug out of the tombs at the Berkeley Library from Maxwell's 1875 Treatise on Heat. USPS accepted the idea and sent a draft design to me about a year and a half ago for comments.”
Jolls also got the Postal Service to incorporate the differential equation of the Gibbs surface function, dU = TdS PdV, into the design as well. Still, he feels his greatest victory in influencing the design came with the emphasis on the visual interpretation of Gibbs’ ideas.
“Thermodynamics is the most hated subject in science,” Jolls claims. “That’s partly because many people teach it from the left side of the brainnumbers, rules, equations. But Gibbs himself said in the first sentence of his first paper that, if you really want to understand these ideas, you need to make use of visual analogies.”
But therein lay the problem. “Gibbs wrote three papers about his formulation of thermodynamics,” Jolls continues, “the exact basis of what we do today. And some of his explanations used very clever visual analogies. But surprisingly, Gibbs didn't draw any pictures. The ‘visualizations’ were all done in wordsand pretty stiff words at that.”
Gibbs did, however, have the foresight to send his formulations to the renowned British inventor and visual thinker J. C. Maxwell. Realizing the significance of Gibbs’ insights, Maxwell made a three-dimensional clay model of Gibbs’ most famous visual analogy for the properties of the three phases of watersteam, liquid, and ice. A century later, Jolls would use sophisticated computational methods and computer graphics to generate images of the Gibbs models, including many that had never been seen before.
“I had stumbled along with inferior equipment and average students until 1987, when I won an NSF grant to get the first Silicon Graphics machine on this campus,” Jolls recalls. “Then, a year later, Dan Coy came back to ISU to get his PhD with me. He took my ideas, figured out how to do the computational work, and in the end generated the first-ever coherent set of the complete family of Gibbs models, about 30 of which appear on the Web site.
“None of this would have happened had it not been for Dan,” Jolls adds.
Until now, Jolls’ and Coy’s models haven’t gotten much exposure beyond that Web sitewith one “notable” exception. In response to a request for pictures of “things engineering” a number of years back, Jolls remembers, he sent the Iowa State Editorial Office the graphic of a yellow, red, and blue rendering of the Gibbs USV model from Coy’s dissertation. The image caught the eye of the artist working on the ISU mural.
“Now Dan's model shows up when bits and pieces of the mural are used as backgrounds,” Jolls says. “The weirdest place is on that ‘Visitor Parking Only’ sign in front of Alumni Hall. Dan and I have laughed about it by saying that the monetary value of his work is probably the fine people have to pay if they park there illegally.”
Or, beginning next year, the 37 cents consumers will pay for a stamp.