Today in Science History – February 11 – Josiah Gibbs

Josiah Willard Gibbs

Josiah Willard Gibbs (1839 – 1903)

February 11 is Josiah Gibbs’ birthday. Gibbs was an American chemist who didn’t get much recognition for his work until after his death.

Gibbs began his career with the first American engineering doctorate and a position tutoring Latin and Natural Philosophy at Yale. After a three-year tour working in European laboratories, he discovered a new love in the study of chemistry and physics. After returning to Yale, he was appointed their first Professor of Mathematical Physics.

He worked on a variety of projects including the development of vector analysis as a mathematical tool, optics, and statistical mechanics. His largest contribution was combining the study of thermodynamics and chemistry. He introduced the concept of chemical potential energy and free energy. This was a concept that related different energies such as chemical, electrical, and thermal to the entropy of the system and the system’s ability to perform mechanical work.

Gibbs ideas laid the groundwork for mathematical physical chemistry, statistical mechanics, and chemical thermodynamics.

Notable Science History Events for February 11

2009 – Willem Johan Kolff died.

Willem Johan Kolf

Willem Johan Kolff (1911 – 2009)

Kloff was a Dutch-American physician who was a pioneer in artificial organ research. He constructed the first dialysis machine to replace the function of kidneys. Dialysis machines are directly responsible for saving thousands of lives of people suffering from renal failure.

He also worked on devices to aid with the function of the lungs and heart.

2005 – Samuel Alderson died.

Crash Test Dummies

Taking the hit, so you won’t have to…

Alderson was an American engineer best known as the inventor of the crash test dummy. This device is used to study the effects on a person during a vehicle collision. They have helped in the development of many safety features of the modern automobile such as seat belts, airbags, and compressible frames.

1993 – Robert W. Holley died.

Robert W. Holley

Robert W. Holley (1922 – 1993)

Holly was an American biochemist who shares the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Warren Nirenberg and Har Gobind Khorana for research into how DNA controls the synthesis of proteins. He determined the sequence and structure of alanine tRNA, which incorporates the amino acid alanine into proteins. This helped determine the synthesis of proteins from messenger RNA.

1973 – Johannes Hans Daniel Jensen died.

Johannes Hans Daniel Jensen

Johannes Hans Daniel Jensen (1907 – 1973)

Jensen was a German physicist who shares half the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics with Maria Goeppert Mayer for their theories of nuclear structure. They independently proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus where the protons and neutrons are ordered in concentric layers or “shells”.

1970 – Japan launches their first satellite.


Ohsumi satellite

Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) launched their first satellite, Ohsumi 5. This successful launch would make Japan the fourth country to put a working satellite in orbit. It remained in orbit until August 2, 2003, and burned up in the atmosphere.

1924 – Jacques Loeb died.

Jacques Loeb

Jacques Loeb (1859 – 1924)

Loeb was a German-American physiologist best known for his experiments on parthenogenesis or reproducing without male fertilization. Loeb managed to artificially cause sea urchin eggs to develop by slightly changing the chemistry of the water.

1898 – Leó Szilárd was born.

Leó Szilárd

Leó Szilárd (1898 – 1964)

Szilárd was the Hungarian physicist who initially developed the idea of a nuclear chain reaction. He also created the first nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi during the Manhattan Project.

Szilárd was also the author of the letter Albert Einstein sent to President Roosevelt leading to the creation of the Manhattan Project. He also started the petition calling for a demonstration of the atomic bomb rather than dropping it on a city. After the war, Szilárd left physics for biology. He became one of the founding members of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

1868 – Jean-Bernard-Léon Foucault died.

Jean Bernard Léon Foucault

Jean Bernard Léon Foucault (1819 – 1868)

Foucault was a French physicist who is best known for the Foucault pendulum. This pendulum demonstrated the Earth’s rotation for the first time.

Foucault devised a method to accurately measure the speed of light using a rotating mirror. He shined a light through a slit towards a distant rotating mirror. The mirror would reflect the light back towards the slit at an angle relative to the rotational speed of the mirror. The amount of deflection could be used to determine the speed of light. Foucault’s measurement of the speed of light in 1862 was within 0.6% of the accepted value today. He used this same technique to determine the speed of light in water.

He also discovered eddy currents in metals. An eddy current is an electrical phenomenon where a conductor is exposed to a changing magnetic field relative to the motion of the conductor. This causes a circular flow of electrons that oppose the changing magnetic field.

1847 – Thomas Alva Edison was born.

Edison was an American inventor and businessman who created many devices like the light bulb, the phonograph and motion pictures. He applied the principles of mass production to the process of invention by hiring many people to develop new technologies and inventions. He built the first industrial research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

1839 – Josiah Willard Gibbs was born.

1813 – Anders Gustav Ekeberg died.

Anders Gustav Ekeberg

Anders Gustav Ekeberg (1767 – 1813)

Ekeberg was a Swedish chemist who discovered the element tantalum. He isolated the element from the mineral tantalite that was thought to be made up of two elements named after the children of Tantalus: Niobe (niobium) and Pelops (pelopium). It was later determined that pelopium was comprised of a mixture of niobium and Ekeberg’s new element, tantalum.

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