Thermodynamics anecdotes

Bird in vacuum (1660)
A 1768 rendition of English physicist and chemist Robert Boyle’s circa 1660 bird in vacuum experiments, by English artist Joseph Wright, somewhat incorrectly entitled “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump” (incorrect on the fact that the bird as depicted is in a vacuum bulb, and not in the air pump); a noted thermodynamics anecdote: the odd experiment done so to test and hence disprove English scientist Thomas Hobbes' "wind theory of cold". [13]
In anecdotes, thermodynamics anecdotes are any of various famously passed around inside stories or biographical incidents related to the development or history of thermodynamics. Some of these are listed below.

Boyle | freezing live animals in a vacuum
See main: Animal in vacuum experiment
Frequently, in reading up on the history of thermodynamics one will come across a mention of how in circa 1660s Irish scientist Robert Boyle put live animals inside a vacuum and then froze them. After coming across this trivia several times one begins to wonder what goaded Boyle into such a puzzling experiment?

Historically, the first to put animals in a vacuum was German engineer Otto Guericke, the person who invented the vacuum bulb. In circa 1650, Guericke "discovered that animals in a vacuum cannot exist". [20] Not only did Guericke report that animals "die in evacuated space" but also gave rather gruesome details about the process, one example being that pikes spit out smaller fish they have recently swallowed. [21]

Boyle, in circa 1656, learned of Guericke's vacuum work, made vacuum equipment of his own, and began to undertake his own experiments.

In regards to why Boyle froze animals in a vacuum, the incident becomes clear after one humorously learns that the experiment of freezing live animals in a vacuum resulted out of a decade-long debate with English science philosopher Thomas Hobbes who promoted a theory that wind was the true source of cold and that for something to freeze, air or wind would have to blow on it (wind theory of cold). Boyle, not buying into this sort of theory, performed the experiment to show that in the absence of air or wind it was possible to freeze things, a result which thus disproved Hobbes' theory. [13]
Niagara Falls
English physicist James Joules' famous 1847 Niagara Falls honeymoon experiment, where he measured the mechanical equivalent of heat.

Jolly | On Mayer | On Physics
German physicist Philipp Jolly is noted for a double anecdote, firstly in objection to the mechanical equivalent of heat theory and work of Robert Mayer, in circa 1840 he told Mayer, somewhat mockingly, that if what you say is true, then “water should be warmed by merely shaking it.” Mayer left quietly, only to return several weeks later to Jolly’s room, exclaiming “and so it is”. [1]

Jolly, to note, was the same guy who in circa 1874 told a young student at the University of Munich, named Max Planck, not to go into physics, because “in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.” [2] Planck, fortunately, didn’t heed this advice, and completed his PhD on the second law and went on to found quantum mechanics in 1900 based on the second law. The idea that nothing new would be discovered in physics seems to have been prevalent during these decades. William Thomson stated, in a 1900 address to an assemblage of physicists at the British Association for the advancement of Science, that "there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." A similar statement, supposedly, is attributed to the American physicist Albert Michelson. [15]

Joule | Niagara Falls honeymoon
See main: Niagara Falls
Joule’s draw to experimentation, much of it done at the family brewery, was such that Joule rarely left home without scientific apparatus. Indeed, while visiting a waterfall with his wife on their honeymoon in 1847, he produced a thermometer with which to measure the change in the temperature of the water as it fell. [10]

The underlying motives behind the anecdote becomes apparently clear from a Joule’s 1847 lecture “On Matter, Living Force, and Heat”, read at the reading room of St. Ann’s Church, in which he explains that the measure of the mechanical equivalent of heat created by the friction of the wind and agitation of the water gives experimental proof for the story of genesis as described in the Bible, to the effect that God’s powers have been conserved, so to speak, or something to this effect over the "last 4000 to 6000 years" since the creation of the universe.
mean free path (perfume bottle)
A depiction of "mean free path", that of a newly-opened perfume bottle, from David Layzer's 1975 article "The Arrow of Time", which illustrates the famous Clausius-Ballot "dinning room anecdote" on the nature of the speed of gas particles and the velocity of the sent of hot food. [22]

In other words, the need to take the measurements on his honeymoon were out of a need to find an experimental proof for the story of genesis and hence the existence of God. [17]

Clausius | dining room rebuttal
See main: Dinning room anecdote
In German physicist Rudolf Clausius famous 1857 paper “On the Nature of the Motion which we call Heat”, he deduced the average speed of particles to be moving in the neighborhood of 300 to 1,000 meters per second (modern values often cite 500-meters per second or 1200-mph). This calculation drew a quick response from Dutch meteorologist Christoph Ballot who argued that if he were seated in a long dining room and the butler brought in dinner, it would be some moments before the smell of the food would reach his nose. [8] A response to this objection by Clausius resulted in the development of the concept of mean free path. [9]

● Serge, Emilio. (2007). From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves: Classical Physicists and Their Discoveries (§: Again, Clausius and Maxwell, pgs. 236-37). Courier Dover Publications.

Boltzmann | tumblers of water
In thermodynamics folklore, an oft-heard comment is that the second law has something to do with pouring a glass of water into the sea. This stems from Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann who in 1870 told English physicist John Strutt that the second law has the same truth as the assertion that you cannot recover a tumbler of water thrown into the sea. [6]

Gibbs | Mathematics is a language
Gibbs was not talkative and not prone to giving public speeches. Once at the faculty meeting, however, after long wrangling - whether the curriculum should be expanded to make more space for language classes (thus cutting down on time given to mathematics), or whether math should be taught to all freshmen instead - Gibbs stood up and defensively said: "mathematics is a language"; after which he sat down and did not say a word more thereafter. [12]

Maxwell | on Gibbs
During a visit to Cambridge University, in the years circa 1873-78, the president of Yale (likely Reverend Noah Porter, president from 1871 to 1886) inquired about possible people to promote at Yale. [3] The famous Scottish physicist, James Maxwell immediately suggested Gibbs. At this time there was also a socially rather prominent individual, named Alan Gibbs, at Yale. Thus, the president replied with pleasure. "Oh, you mean Alan Gibbs." "No! No!" answered Maxwell; "Willard Gibbs." The president's reply was: “well, but he is a nobody. He just sits in his room and writes.” [4]
Maxwell thermodynamic surface 400px
One of Maxwell's thermodynamic surfaces, that he made in 1875 and sent to American engineer Willard Gibbs as a gift.

Gibbs | Maxwell's plaster water bust
In 1875, Scottish physicist James Maxwell made his thermodynamics surface, a plaster three-dimensional sculpture of states of water, he sent it to Gibbs as a gift. Gibbs was said to have been flattered and pleased with the gift of the water sculpture from Maxwell. Owing to his typical modesty, however, whenever students asked about the sculpture, Gibbs told them it came from a “friend in England” (rather than mention that it came from the world-famous Maxwell). [5] The anecdote seems to have originated from American writer Muriel Rukeyser's 1942 biography on Gibbs, where she states that the student was the father of a "Leonard Bacon". [18]

Aside from the commonly repeated anecdote about Gibbs and his student, there also seems to have been a certain amount of mystery surrounding the details of the manner in which Maxwell sent out his sculptures and how many sculptures he actually made package. American science historian Fielding Garrison indicates that possibly up to six statues were made by Maxwell and that in his typical riddled correspondence style (see for example the origin of the symbol θ∆ics) that a certain amount of playful mystery accompanied the sending of each statue to its new host: [19]

“Copies of this model were distributed by Maxwell evidently with a certain amount of playful mystery, for each recipient thought that he was the happiest possessor of (at most) three. The writer knows of at six at least, and possibly there are more.”

J.J. Thomson | on Gibbs
Gibbs had a mailing list of over 300 of the world’s greatest scientists, to which, it has been said, he sent his publications to. Of the bunch, it was Scottish physicist James Maxwell who first took appreciation of Gibbs’ work and began to promote it. One of Gibbs’ biographers, J. G. Crowther, remarked that Maxwell became, in effect, Gibbs’ “intellectual publicity agent”. In the years after Maxwell’s premature death, in 1879, a humorous incident occurred between one of Maxwell’s successors at Cambridge English physicist J.J. Thomson, the discoverer of the electron, and a president of a newly formed American university on a faculty-recruiting mission. As the story went, according to Thomson: [5]

“He came to Cambridge, and asked me if I could tell him of anyone who could make a good Professor of Molecular Physics.” Thomson told him that one of the greatest molecular physicists in the world was Willard Gibbs, and he livened in America. The president responded that Thomson probably meant Wolcott Gibbs, a Harvard chemist. Thomson was empathetic that he did mean Willard Gibbs, and tried to convince his visitor that Gibbs was indeed a great scientist. “He sat thinking for a minute or two”, Thomson continues, “and then said, “I’d like you to give me another name. Willard Gibbs can’t be a man of much personal magnetism or I should have heard of him.’”

Thomson | wife’s dissipations
In 1885, while musing upon the subject of thermodynamics one day, Scottish physicist William Thomson suddenly realized that his wife was discussing plans for an afternoon excursion. "At what time," he asked, glancing up, "does the dissipation of energy begin?" [11] A prime human thermodynamics application of the law of dissipation of energy.

Nernst | farmyard thermodynamics
In 1920, German physicist Walther Nernst acquired Zibelle, an extensive estate in East Prussia. There were cows, pigs, a pond with carp, and a thousand acres of land, which included fields of cereals and other crops. Nernst pursued his new interest in farming with characteristic single-mindedness. It is related that on a tour of inspection on a cold winter’s morning he entered the cowshed and was astonished to discover how warm it was. Why was it heated, he asked? The reply came that the heat was generated only by the cows, the result of metabolic activity. Nernst was dumbstruck and immediately resolved to sell his cows and invest instead in carp: a thinking man, he said, cultivates animals that are in thermodynamic equilibrium with their surroundings and does not waste his money in heating the universe. So the old system of ponds on the estate was stocked with carp, which did not noticeably heat the water of their pond. [14]

Rashevsky | on the thermodynamics of biology
In a mid 1920 anecdote, recounted by American theoretical biologist Robert Rosen (who was told the story), the newly minted doctorate Russian-born American theoretical physicist Nicolas Rashevsky (Rosen's dissertation advisor) was working on the thermodynamics of liquid droplet division at the Westinghouse Corporation research laboratories, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during which time, at a social gathering, he chanced upon a casual conversation on cell division with a biologist from the University of Pittsburgh. During the course of the conversation, Rashevsky proceeded to ask the biologist whether the thermodynamic mechanisms on which he was working on was the way biological cells divide. Rashevsky was told (a) Nobody knew how biological cells divided and (b) nobody could know how biological cells divided, because this was biology. Rashevsky, an ‘ideal’ physicist, found this outrageous, that a material phenomenon (the division of biological cells) should so casually be put outside the pale of physics. This chance conversation irritated Rashevsky to the effect that he ended up switching careers and, over the next five decades, went on to found what came to be known as the “Rashevsky school of mathematical biology” and the science of relational biology.

Onsager
In the 1970s, during a visit with Norwegian-born American physical chemist Lars Onsager, whom American physicist Ronald Fox had met as a student at Rockefeller University, during the years 1965 to 1969, Fox asked Onsager whether he thought statistical mechanics would have a significant impact on the study of biological questions, such as the origin of life, to which Onsager replied abruptly “No”. [7]

See also
Thomson’s search for Carnot’s Reflections
Founders of thermodynamics and suicides

References
1. Mott-Smith, Morton. (1964). The Concept of Energy Simply Explained (pg. 82). Dover.
2. (a) Lightman, Alan P. (2005). The discoveries: great breakthroughs in twentieth-century science, including the original papers. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.
(b) Phillip von Jolly – Wikipedia.
3. Presidents of Yale – Yale University.
4. Capri, Anton Z. (2007). Quips, Quotes, and Quanta (ch. 1: Thermodynamics: Founders and Flounderers, pgs. 1-10) [PDF]. World Scientific.
5. (a) Cropper, William H. (2004). Great Physicists: the Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking, (section II: Thermodynamics, pgs. 41-134; ch. 9: “The Greatest Simplicity: Willard Gibbs”, pgs 106-23; Maxwell's water sculpture, pg. 118). Oxford University Press.
(b) Lemons, Don S. (2008). Mere Thermodynamics (pg. 146). JHU Press.
6. Lindberg, David C., Porter, Roy, Jo Nye, Mary, and Numbers, Ronald. (2003). The Cambridge History of Science: the Modern Physical and Mathematical Sciences (pgs. 494-95). Cambridge University Press.
7. Fox, Ronald F. (1988). Energy and the Evolution of Life (sections: Jacket; Preface, pgs. ix-xi; Free energy table, pgs. 16-19). New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
8. Buys-Ballot, Christoph. (1858). “Ueber die Art von Bewegung welche wir Warme und Elektrizitat nennen” (“On the Kind of Motion we Call Heat and Electricity”), Ann. Phys. 103: 240.
9. Clausius, Rudolf. (1859) [1858]. “On the Mean length of the Paths described by the Separate Molecules of Gaseous Bodies on the Occurrence of the Molecular Motion: together with some other remarks upon the mechanical theory of heat”, Phil. Mag. 17:81-91.
10. Joule – Anecdotes.com.
11. (a) Cleveland, Cutler J., and Morris, Chris. (2006). Dictionary of Energy (“At what time does the dissipation of energy begin?” —William Thomson (1885; applying the terminology of his studies of thermodynamics to a question for his wife about their plans for an afternoon walk), pg. 497). Elsevier.
(b) Bell, Eric T. (1999). Men of Mathematics. Turtleback Books.
(c) Entropy (Kelvin) – Anecdotage.com.
12. (a) Wheeler, Lynde, P. (1951). Josiah Willard Gibbs - the History of a Great Mind (pg. 173). Woodbridge, Connecticut: Ox Bow Press.
(b) J.W. Gibbs gives a speech (mathematics quotes) – Cut-the-Knot.org.
(c) Other version: Gibbs was known in Yale as a faculty member who never spoke at the meetings. Once, during a discussion another professor argued that students are better of learning another foreign language instead of taking mathematics classes. Gibbs spoke first time. He said, "Mathematics is a language". (Source: Paul Samuelson's "on being an economist".)
13. Shachtman, Tom. (1999). Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold (pg. 31-34). Mariner Books.
14. (a) Gratzer, Walter. (2002). Eurekas and Euphorias: The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes (14: Farmyard Thermodynamics, pg. 25). Oxford University Press.
(b) Farmyard thermodynamics - AmericanScientist.org.
15. William Thomson – Eric Weisstein’s World of Scientific Biography.
16. Wright, Joseph. (1768). “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump”, Original in the National Gallery, London.
17. Joule, James. (1847). "On Matter, Living Force, and Heat", A Lecture at St. Ann's Church Reading Room; published in the Manchester Courier newspaper, May 5 and 12.
18. Rukeyser, Muriel. (1942). Willard Gibbs: American Genius (The Surface, pg. 202-03). Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
19. Garrison, Fielding H. (1909). “Josiah Willard Gibbs and His Relation to Modern Science” (note 41, pg. 481), The Popular Science Monthly, 74: 470-84.
20. Benjamin, Park. (1898). History of Electricity: the Intellectual Rise in Electricity (§:Otto Guericke, pgs. 388-; "discovered that animals in a vacuum cannot exist", pg. 389). John Wiley & Sons.
21. Genz, Henning. (1994). Nothingness: the Science of Empty Space (pg. 125). Perseus Publishing.
22. Layzer, David. (1975). “The Arrow of Time”, Scientific American, 233:56-69.

External links
Anecdote – Wikipedia.
Science (category) – Anecdotage.com.
Thermodynamics (anecdotes) – Anecdotes.com.

TDics icon ns

More pages