These days, the conversation at Yale seems to often come back to two topics: naming controversies and science initiatives. With respect to both, Yale has a wonderful opportunity that I fiercely hope it will not overlook.
Our shiny, new — and very beautiful — Yale Science Building stands in the footprint of the former J.W. Gibbs Laboratory building. This means, of course, that there is no longer a building named after J.W. Gibbs at Yale. I find this absolutely disappointing, as Gibbs was a man who donated his entire stellar career to this institution.
Josiah Willard Gibbs was the quintessential Yalie. He received the first doctorate in engineering in the United States from Yale. He then served as a professor at Yale for all but three years of his career. He is buried in the Grove Street Cemetery, at the base of Science Hill.
But his attendance here is not what makes him stand out. Gibbs is known to any student who has taken an introductory chemistry course by his free energy equation. He was the one who decided to use vectors in physics. His impact reaches every corner of modern science. Albert Einstein — yes, that Albert Einstein — called him “the greatest mind in American history.”
And what has Yale done to show its pride in its beloved scientific son, especially as the Board of Trustees keeps reminding us how much it supports science at Yale? Well, we have two or three small plaques and displays about where he lived, where he worked and how he looked when his image was depicted on a U.S. postage stamp. This, I contend, is not enough.
One might argue that Yale is, indeed, going to name a University site after Gibbs. A 2017 article in the Yale Alumni Magazine stated that there are plans to name a path after him. For the love of Gibbs, do not name a path after him. Gibbs’ famous equation is specifically not a path function; it is a state function (the way in which a system gets to a part on the function does not matter to its current description). To be most faithful to his scientific contributions, then, we should name a state — Connecticut, of course — after Gibbs. But I would settle for a building, because Yale actually has control over that.
As published in the Yale Daily News last month, President Salovey said there is a “a great danger” in creating “political litmus tests around charitable giving.” In that case, he could avoid litmus tests (except those involving actual pH paper) altogether by naming a science building after a nonpolitical and not currently living figure who did not complicate the renaming with dubiously sourced money.
This is a logical step. It highlights the interdisciplinary nature of science at Yale; it avoids the renaming-public-relations mess with which Yale has been dealing lately; it publicly demonstrates Yale’s commitment to science research and education; and it rightfully reminds us of the unbridled genius our Yale education can foster every time we speak the building’s name.
The real kicker is that Gibbs isn’t the only Yalie who has been overlooked with regards to naming on our campus. Perhaps in the future we could christen a physics building “Edward Bouchet” — a brilliant educator and the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in the United States — or “Lars Onsager” — an ingenious professor who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1968. Both had deep ties to the University.
The spirit of science is one of tradition, of building on that which other scientists have illuminated. We should remember this by looking up to see these names in our hallowed halls, thereby rededicating ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge every day.
Yale can lay claim to the education of many outstanding, influential people who gave our university not money but stature. I strongly suggest we embrace our Edward Bouchets, Lars Onsagers and J. W. Gibbses by recognizing them in our daily language and on the faces of our handsome facilities.
Yale, this isn’t a matter of money. You should put your nametag where your mouth is.
GIOVANNA TRUONG is a first year in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .