Science Poetry

Being Spontaneous

“Quietly, mightily,
Josiah Willard Gibbs
Formulates concepts for 
STEM fields galore. 
Physical, chemical
Tools: spontaneity 
Can be explored.”

Not all of the April 2020 poems were chemistry-focused, so I’ll shift ahead to the next one that was, posted on 6 April 2020.  As highlighted in the hashtags, this was the first poem in a week of “Twitter bios,” in which short biographies of scientists were presented in the double-dactyl poetic form.  In this stringent form, one of the lines should be a single word that is a double dactyl in itself.  While not all of the poems from this week managed this, this first one did, highlighting “thermodynamical” in the sixth line.   

“Quietly, mightily, /
Josiah Willard Gibbs /
Formulates concepts for / 
STEM fields galore.”
Josiah Gibbs was a scientist who made enormous contributions to several scientific fields, “formulat[ing] concepts for STEM fields galore.”   One of his most famous papers was “On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances”; however, his choice of journal was an obscure one (Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences), which meant it took several years for the impact of his important work to reach an appropriately wide audience!  The two adverbs of choice for the double-dactyl structure attempted to highlight this, via the combination of “quietly” and “mightily.”  

“Physical, chemical /
Thermodynamical /
Tools: spontaneity 
Can be explored.”
Gibbs’s work was fundamental to the field of chemical thermodynamics, and several equations and concepts bear his name.  The most famous of these is likely the Gibbs Free Energy, represented with a capital G.  The Gibbs Free Energy is a state function, and the change in this quantity for a given chemical reaction can be quantified (Delta G, or 𝛥G), by taking the free energy of the products minus the free energy of the reactants.  If 𝛥G has a negative sign, it means the reaction will proceed spontaneously (naturally).  

This is a particularly useful quantity for chemists because it defines spontaneity at constant temperature and pressure.  Moreover, it allows chemists to discern whether a process will be spontaneous by considering the system (reaction) alone; this is often more convenient than directly using the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which also defines spontaneity but requires consideration of both a system and its surroundings to do so.