# Founders of thermodynamics and suicide

 $\Delta G < 0 \,$ In 1947, American physical chemist Gilbert Lewis, central founder of modern chemical thermodynamics, at the age of 70 was coincidently found dead in his laboratory next to an open bottle of poisonous liquid cyanide, following a lunch with a long-time rival physical chemist Irving Langmuir, who years earlier had culled off Lewis’ bonding theories to win the 1932 Nobel Prize in chemistry, whereas Lewis never won despite 35 nominations (and several student Laureates).
In thermodynamics trivia, among thermodynamics founders a curiously large number are associated with suicides or suicide attempts. This coincidence is summarized well by American physicist David Goodstein in the opening lines to his 1975 book States of Matter: [9]

"Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics. Perhaps it will be wise to approach the subject cautiously."

In sum, thermodynamics,
what many consider to be the most intellectually difficult subjects of all, is noted for its prevalence of suicides and suicide attempts by a large percentage of its founders, including German physicist and physician Robert Mayer, Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, American physical chemist Gilbert Lewis, among others.

Mayer
In 1840, German physician and physicist Robert Mayer, one of the first to state the first law of thermodynamics, while working as a ship’s doctor on a Dutch vessel which visited the East Indies, had conceived of the mechanical equivalent of heat by study of the color of the blood of his crewmates and the temperature difference between the tropics and Europe. In 1842, after returning to Germany, he began to publish his scientific theories on in obscure journals, such as Annals of Chemistry and Pharmacy, but his theories went largely unnoticed as these journals were not read by physicists. Those who did notice, however, ridiculed his work, as it was not based on experimental data. [10]

During this period, one of his sons and two of his daughters fell ill and died before the age of three. He also discovered that English physicist James Joule had claimed discovery of the mechanical equivalent of heat, while his theory was still unknown. In 1850, during an attack of insomnia, Mayer jumped out of a third-story window and fell almost thirty feet to the ground and broke both his legs. It is said that in 1851, he was placed in an asylum, but later released. [13]

He survived, but soon was forced to begin spending long series of voluntary and involuntary hospitalizations and even occasional restraint by strait-jacket. [1] Curiously, in Poggendorf’s authoritative 1863 Dictionary of the History of Science it was incorrectly claimed that Mayer had already died—in an insane asylum.

 American progressive historian Henry Adams (at his desk) shown next to his wife Clover Adams (on horseback), who in 1885 swallowed potassium cyanide less than eight months after her husband defined the new-to-be subject of human chemistry (or "social chemistry", as he put it) as the study of the attraction (and repulsion) of "equivalent" human molecules, to her in letter.

On April 12th, 1885 American historian Henry Adams, one of the first dual pioneers of human chemistry and human thermodynamics, wrote a letter to his wife Clover Adams, written while at extended stay at work in Washington, wherein he outlined the future subject of human chemistry:

“I am not prepared to deny or assert any proposition which concerns myself; but certainly this solitary struggle with platitudinous atoms, called men and women by courtesy, leads me to wish for my wife again. How did I ever hit on the only women in the world who fits my cravings and never sounds hollow anywhere?

Social chemistry—the mutual attraction of equivalent human molecules—is a science yet to be created, for the fact is my daily study and only satisfaction in life.”

Less than eight months after this letter, on December 7th, 1885, Clover swallowed potassium cyanide and was found by her husband lying dead on the rug before her bedroom fire. [15]

This subject "yet to be created", as Adams put it, would be developed in the two centuries to follow (Fairburn, Human Chemistry, 1914; Dreier, We Human Chemicals, 1948; Thims, Human Chemistry, 2007)

Boltzmann
In 1905, Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, one the founders of statistical thermodynamics, took a trip from Vienna to California to lecture on thermodynamics during the summer session at the University of California at Berkeley. By this time in his life he was plagued by a variety of illnesses: deteriorating eyesight, asthma attacks, angina, and migraines. Worse, he suffered from deep depressions that periodically carried him off into his own private hell, and had led to a suicide attempt a few years earlier. [1] Not long before the California trip, Boltzmann’s wife, Henriette, had lamented to their daughter: “Father gets worse every day. I have lost my confidence in the future”.
 $S = k \log W \,$ In 1906, Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, central founder of statistical mechanics, at the age of 62, hung himself, while on vacation with his wife and daughter, after decades of attack on his theory of the statistical behavior of molecules; a theory vindicated to the greatest extent years after his death.

The central difficulty facing Boltzmann was his strong belief in the reality of atoms and the opposition to this belief professed by his closest friends and many of his scientific peers. Yet, in spite of universal acceptance of his statistical thermodynamics theories of gas interactions, during his travel to Berkeley he was at the height of his fame. Students flocked to his lectures, and colleagues throughout the world sought his counsel. His identification of entropy with probability was recognized as a masterpiece of theoretical physics. On his sixtieth birthday, during the previous year, a collection of his papers had been published in his honor, with contributions from 117 scientists and he had received countless medals and honorary doctorates. But he was not a happy man. [1]

In September of 1906, a year after his California trip, on vacation hear the Italian seaside town of Trieste with his wife and daughter, his migraines and depressions overcame him. While the women were off swimming, Boltzmann tied a short cord to the crossbar of a window in his rented apartment, put a noose around his neck, and hanged himself. His daughter, Elsa, returned to find him dead.

Suicide, to note, seems to have been in Boltzmann’s mind in some respect during the time of his famous 1895 Lectures on Gas Theory, when during discussion of the improbability of unlikely events occurring, such as one mole of gas finding itself in one half of a container, Boltzmann commented by analogy: [11]

“One may recognize that this is practically equivalent to never, if one recalls that in this length of time, according to the laws of probability, there will have been many years in which every inhabitant of a large country committed suicide, purely by accident, on the same day, or every building burned down at the same time—yet the insurance companies get along quite well by ignoring the possibility of such events.”

Thermodynamics historian Stephen Brush comments on Boltzmann’s ironic death that: [12]

“This suicide must be ranked as one of the great tragedies in the history of science, made all the more ironic by the fact that the scientific world made a complete turnabout in the next few years and accepted the existence of atoms, following Perrin’s experiments on Brownian motion.”

In other words, in 1909, only three years after Boltzmann hung himself for having the scientific community, namely: Ernst Mach, Ernst Zermelo, and Wilhelm Ostwald, reject his belief of the existence of atoms and his interpretation of thermodynamics as an atomic and molecular phenomenon, French chemist Jean Perrin proved that atoms exist, experimentally, by calculating and determined the number of atoms in one mole of substance.
 Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest, Boltzmann's famous student, shot himself in 1933 owing to, as his associate Albert Einstein summarized, "work overload and depression".

Ehrenfest
In 1933, Boltzmann's noted student Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest, said, according to his associate Albert Einstein, to have been depressed from an overloaded workload, made arrangements for the care of his other three children, first shot his Down syndrome daughter Wassik, then shot himself.

William James
In psychological thermodynamics, American psychologist William James is noted for his 1906 reserve energy theory of mental and physical activity, which argued that reserve reservoirs of energy lay latent in the human only waiting to be tapped. In circa 1908, however, James’ theory came into contact with the repercussion of the second law of thermodynamics through a reading of his friend American historian Henry Adams’ manuscript A Letter to American Teachers of History, in which it was argued that human history is subject to degradations of energy. In response, James’ sent a letter of criticism and rebuttal to Adams arguing against Adams’ theory; followed by two later postcards in the same effort. James, who in his early adulthood had suffered from periods of depression during which he contemplated suicide for months on end, died on August 26, 1909, exactly two months after sending his last postcard to Adams. Robert Richardson, in his 2007 biography on James, comments on this last stand effort before his death: [6]

“What can one say about the philosophical bravado, the cosmic effrontery, the sheer panache of this ailing philosopher with one foot in the grave talking down the second law of thermodynamics? It is a scene fit to set alongside the death of Socrates.”

In short, Adam's Letter to American Teachers of History essentially laid question to James' theory of innate reserve energies, and this may have acted as his tipping point.
 In 1915, Clara Haber (left), wife of gas reaction thermodynamics founder Fritz Haber (right), at the age of 45, shot herself in the heart, the same day her husband left for the Eastern Front to oversee gas release against the Russians. Their son Hermann Haber, as well as Hermann’s oldest daughter, did the same.

Haber family
In the 1910s, German chemist Fritz Haber, winner of the 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his thermodynamics work, had been instrumental in the development of poisonous gas applications for use in warfare. Haber believed that the use of chlorine gas against entrenched troops would bring about a speedier victory for Germany in WWI. On April 22, 1915, German troops released about 168 tons of chlorine from more than 5,000 steel cylinders along a 6-km frontline of Ypres, against the French. There were 15,000 injuries, including 5,000 fatalities.

Several days later, in what is said to be a combination of marital discord and grave objections to her husband’s war efforts, on May 02, 1915, Haber's wife Clara shot herself through the heart, in their garden, with her husband’s military service weapon; an incident discovered by their thirteen-year old son Hermann. [4] That same morning, prior to the incident, Haber had left for the Eastern Front to oversee gas release against the Russians. In 1947, in the United States, Hermann took his own life and, shortly thereafter, Hermann’s oldest daughter did the same. [5]

Lewis
In 1946, it was reported that American physical chemist Gilbert Lewis, one of the central founders of modern chemical thermodynamics, at the age of 70, had died of a heart attack while working in his laboratory. He had been working on an experiment with liquid hydrogen cyanide, and deadly fumes from a broken line were leaking into the laboratory when a graduate student found the professor's lifeless body under a workbench. The coroner said Lewis died of coronary artery disease; however, some believe that the death may have been a suicide. UC Berkeley professor Emeritus William Jolly, who reported the various views on Lewis' death in his 1987 history of the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Chemistry, From Retorts to Lasers, said one higher-up in the department believed the suicide theory.

A possible explanation for the suicide theories was depression following a lunch with American physical chemist Irving Langmuir. Langmuir and Lewis had had a long rivalry, dating back to Langmuir's extensions of Lewis' theories on the chemical bond, and Langmuir had been awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his theories of surface chemistry, while Lewis had not received the Nobel Prize despite 35 nominations.

On the day of Lewis' death, Langmuir and Lewis met for lunch at the University of California, Berkeley--a meeting that was recalled by Lewis' last research associate, Michael Kasha, only years later. [2] It was reported by associates that Lewis came back from the meeting in a dark mood. He reportedly sat down for a morose game of bridge with some colleagues, and then went back to work in his lab. An hour later, Lewis was dead. Langmuir's papers at the Library of Congress confirm that he was on the University of California, Berkeley campus that day. Langmuir had gone to the University of California, Berkeley to receive an honorary degree.
 In 1961, American physicist Percy Bridgman, eponym of Bridgman formulas, the systematic collection and derivation of the main equations in thermodynamics, at the age of 79, shot himself in the head after living with megastatic cancer form some time.

Bridgman
In 1961, American physicist Percy Bridgman, noted for his high pressure physics work and thermodynamics formula derivation system, committed suicide by gunshot after living with metastatic cancer for some time. His suicide note read in part: [7]

“It isn't decent for society to make a man do this thing himself. Probably this is the last day I will be able to do it myself.”

Other
In the 2008 world government and politics human thermodynamics education lecture notes of American government professor Richard Hughes, he states that a reading of chapter eighteen of Greek-born Belgian physicist Grégoire Nicolis and Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine's, 1977 Self-Organization in Non-Equilibrium Systems, one of the founding books of nonequilbrium thermodynamics, will help one get “through many a rough night avoiding the thoughts of suicide.” [3]

Ettore Majorana (disappearance)

References
1. Baeyer, Hans C. (1998). Warmth Disperses and Time Passes – the History of Heat, (pgs. 101, 110-11). New York: Modern Library.
2. Coffey, Patrick. (2008). Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry, (pgs. 195-207, 310-15). Oxford University Press.
3. (a) Richard D. Hughes – California State University, Sacramento.
(b) A Thermodynamic View of Politics (PDF) – by Richard D. Hughes.
4. Smil, Vaclav. (2004). Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of the World Food (pg. 226). MIT Press.
5. Stern, Fritz R., and Stern, Fritz. (2001). Einstein’s German World, (pg. 121). Princeton University Press.

6. Richardson, Robert D. (2007). William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism: a Biography (pgs. 518-19). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
7. Nuland, Sherwin. (1995). How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter. Vintage Press.
8. Marian Hooper Adams – Wikipedia.
9. Goodstein, David. (1975). States of Matter (pg. 1). Dover.
10. Rao, Y.V.C. (2004). An Introduction to Thermodynamics (pg. 98). University Press.
11. Smith, Eric B. (2005). Basic Chemical Thermodynamics (pg. 32). Imperial Press.
12. Boltzmann, Ludwig. (1895). Lectures on Gas Theory (suicide, pgs. 17, 444). Dover.
13. Weinhold, Frank. (2009). Classical and Geometrical Theory of Chemical and Phase Thermodynamics (pg. 70). Wiley-Interscience.

● Lisa. (2011). “Science Macabre” (Italian → English), Blog, Jun 04.