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Willis R. Whitney
(22 Aug 1868 - 9 Jan 1958)

American chemist and research director who founded the General Electric Company's research laboratory and directed pioneering work there. He is known as the 'father of basic research in industry' because it became a model for industrial scientific laboratories elsewherein the U.S..


by Willis R. Whitney
General Electric Company, Schenectady, N. Y.

from The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry (1921)

Willis R. Whitney
Willis R. Whitney (source)

[p.161]  If I were to try to justify my receiving the Perkin Medal, I think I would begin by assuming that now good intentions are being rewarded. As the aim of the award is to promote or stimulate research, I must find the ways by which I can most directly do so, and so I ought to say something about the biggest things in chemistry. No matter how irrelevant some of my remarks may seem, I hope you will believe that they are aimed with that high intent. While it is a great honor, it is also a wonderful opportunity to write something which may be read by 15,000 or more American chemists.

In America, patents are granted to individuals for their new disclosures. Such patents are not granted to organizations, to companies, or even to laboratories. This is really an antique limitation, for discoveries are often the result of combined [p.162] efforts. And so I look at the Perkin Medal, in my case, as an award directed to me, but belonging to the Research Laboratory to which I belong, it having not yet become customary to award such medals to laboratories. In any case, I heartily thank the various men and organizations which made this Medal possible, and the Committee of Award who have chosen that my name shall stand on that honor list headed by Perkin.

I am not going to tell of the specific researches in which I may have cooperated, nor of the good fellows who have carried them out in our laboratory, though I should like to do so. One reason is that this is, to a considerable extent, being done all the time, through our laboratory system. We have always followed the plan of individual publication as completely as seemed desirable from the scientific point of view and as rapidly as consistent with fair commercial conditions. Moreover, I, being almost the only man in our laboratory who does not often personally carry through separate researches, have already summarized the work of others until it is overdone.

What I have to say oscillates about a central point. This point I see so well that I am surprised that every one does not see it too, and make more use of it. I am also at a loss to know why so many men go through college keeping their eyes mainly on a ball of some kind or other, when the world is so full of greater interest. Perkin's life contains all the data which we need in analyzing scientific research, and shows at once what I shall repeat throughout this paper, that our great advances are usually made by men who are trained in their particular line of work and are working diligently just beyond the boundaries of the known.

Perkin was a student of chemistry in one of the best college laboratories in England, under a great teacher (Hofmann), who was so imbued with the chemical research spirit that he tried to keep Perkin from stopping to develop technically his discovery of mauve. He actually left such an impression on this young man's mind that, after years of commercial success, Perkin returned to pure scientific research and enjoyed it for the rest of his life.

The essentials appear to be: first, the teacher, enthusiastic pioneer, hunting, and fishing along that ever-expanding outer rim of knowledge; then the laboratory and equipment, supported by some far-sighted government, individual, or organization; and then the school boy, with shining morning face. Don't say it can't be done, and that Perkins, Faradays, and Pasteurs are born, not made, for the process is entirely standardized. We in our schools have not realized the proper sequence, because we have used so much of our energy in bringing large numbers of men part of the way only.

On receiving the first Perkin Medal at the time of the Jubilee Celebration, Sir William Perkin said that he had all his life insisted on the importance of research, and that this medal would accomplish a valuable result if it helped to encourage and stimulate activity in that direction. He then proceeded to tell the interesting story of his subsequent discoveries. Such a story is the strongest force he could have used to support his wish to promote research, and it is true that, although it would have been more agreeable to him if some one else could have told the story, everyone who heard it, and the countless chemists who live to read it, are glad that no one else did tell it.


No greater satisfaction in connection with my own life's work could come to me than to contribute to the encouragement and stimulation of research. If I can help it to an appreciable extent by telling any unpublished portions of my own story, I will willingly disregard for a few moments a natural reluctance to talk about myself.

I learned that Professor Perkin became a chemist through the influence of an Englishman named Hall, with whom he came into contact when under 15 yrs. of age, and, moreover, an event which increased his desire to become a chemist was seeing an experiment showing the growth of certain crystals. I have the honor to have started as a chemist in this identical manner, and I will tell a little more about it, because I have always wished I had some way of expressing my gratitude to my particular Mr. Hall. When I was about 15 yrs. old, an English mill owner and one of the leading citizens of my home town, Mr. William C. J. Hall, assisted in establishing a Young Men's Christian Association. He had also long been interested in the microscope, and was a scientist such as we seldom find among business men to-day. He formed a free evening class for about half a dozen boys — all that could work together around the rotating table on which he placed his immense microscope. This was so arranged that specimen, instrument and illuminating system did not have to be disturbed as they passed from one boy to another for observation. He did not merely show his specimens, of which he had thousands, but taught us how to prepare them in all the various ways now more or less common. They were all wonderful to me, and still are. My mother gave me some money which, combined with that of one of the other boys, purchased a small microtome, and my father gave me $75.00 for a microscope. Under Mr. Hall's guidance I bought the instrument, with the understanding that whenever I wanted a better one, the old one would be taken back at the original price. I later procured one for $250 which, throughout 35 yrs., I have used almost daily. One of the first experiments I tried with the microscope was to precipitate metallic silver from silver nitrate solution onto a speck of copper filings. Anyone who has watched these beautiful crystals grow knows that they are surpassingly wonderful. They constituted my first chemistry. It was those little bottles of salts and bugs in alcohol that led someone to call me a chemist, and it apparently determined my future work. It does not seem now as though anyone else ever enjoyed a tenth of the pleasures my old microscope introduced to me. I find them inseparably interwoven with about everything I know. Even the barren North Pole reminds me of Andree and Amundsen and microscopic algae which drifted across the polar circle from the Lena delta. The equally barren Sahara reminds me of Darwin and De Vries and the diatoms which were carried by the wind from central Africa and fell on the deck of the Beagle, hundreds of miles away.

In trying to put the truthful personal and human element into these notes, as previous Perkin medalists have done for the help of would-be research men, I find I cannot lay valid claim to the insurmountable difficulties or to especially commendable early struggles which have helped so many others. Perhaps even this admission, however, may have its place for the encouragement of some research man. I was early taught that a dollar a day was a fair wage and that frequently this was unearned, and I quit worrying about pay so long ago that the date is not important. I once asked the president of a large technical school for a salary increase of $75 a year and was shown that it could not be done. Perhaps that wise president convinced me that financial rewards are not the main thing. At any rate, I believe it.

In mapping milestones not mentioned before, I want to express my indebtedness to Professor A. A. Noyes, who showed me some of the interesting things in the science of chemistry. He let me work with him on some physicochemical researches, and this work was responsible for my later spending two years with Ostwald in Leipzig, and a summer with Friedel in Paris. Work with these men gave me a feeling of surety in chemistry that no mere talk could ever have done. I ought to say that one of our first joint researches, so far as publication was concerned, had the peculiar effect of freeing me forever from the wiles of college football, and if that is a defect, make the most of it! Dr. Noyes and I conceived an idea on sodium aluminate solutions on the morning of the day of a Princeton-Harvard [p.163]  game (as I recall it) that we had planned to attend. It looked as though a few days' work on freezing-point determinations and electrical conductivities would answer the question. We could not wait, so we gave up the game and stayed in the laboratory. Our experiments were successful. I think that this was the last game I have ever cared about seeing. I mention this as a warning, because this immunity might attack anyone. I find that I still complainingly wonder at the present position of football in American education.


I would prefer now to talk about the biggest things in chemistry, not so that I may be facetious, nor yet to form a companion piece to a talk on the “Littlest Things.” Far from it. In fact, so far from it that after having some of my thoughts in preliminary notes for years, with a conviction that they ought to be expressed, I have always deferred it. I feared that I was not just the man to say it.

We are all interested in the detailed and specific advances which constitute our science. We know that it is from these little things that the largest ones grow. We see a certain similarity between the history of Professor Perkin's mauve, with its subsequent enormous development of the dye, medicine, and explosive industries, and the development of the living acorn into the spreading oak tree. But we should sometimes look at the forests from the plains, without obstructions. And we want to know our chemistry, too, in its relation to the general landscape. Some kind of an inner man advises us not to think exclusively of the littlest things, the parts of some whole, but sometimes to give constructive thought to the ultimate objects, to our aims at large, our chief pretensions, our real ambitions, our main direction of motion. Are these consistent with, or independent of, our temporary and apparently vacillating movements?

I know from experiment (as we usually say) that no two chemists would agree at first as to what constitute the most important things of chemistry. I have found, however, that if we say that the “possibilities” are the biggest things, then to-day there is some agreement between experts.

Tested Laws — Chemistry is one of those branches of human knowledge which has built itself upon methods and instruments by which truth can presumably be determined. It has survived and grown because all its precepts and principles can be re-tested at any time and anywhere. So long as it remained the mysterious alchemy by which a few devotees, by devious and dubious means, presumed to change baser metals into gold, it did not flourish, but when it dealt with the fact that 56 g. of fine iron, when heated with 32 g. of flowers of sulfur, generated extra heat and gave exactly 88 g. of an entirely new substance, then additional steps could be taken by anyone. Scientific research in chemistry, since the birth of the balance and the thermometer, has been a steady growth of test and observation. It has disclosed a finite number of elementary reagents composing an infinite universe, and it is devoted to their interreaction for the benefit of mankind. The rate of this advance in chemistry is in our day almost incredibly great.

Mark Twain's little history game has given me a view of our rate of development, and particularly of modern as compared with ancient affairs, that I want to pass along to you. Possibly some of you have thought of the rate of mental development, of material development, and of power developments as involving only a fairly uniform change through all time. This is not so at all. But to shorten this story: I started from a certain point in the woods with a measuring tape and marking tools, and laid out a winding path 1000 ft. long. I cut smooth marking places on all trees along the way and on some large rocks. I appropriated one foot length of this patch for each year's history since William the Conqueror (the year 1000), and spent the rest of my time properly locating prominent events along the path, down to 1920 ft. I was impressed by the 45-ft. length of Queen Elizabeth's reign, near the middle of the way, and such a short distance from Columbus and the discovery of America. Stockings and pins and sugar (except as medicine) came into the path about there. But of interest to us particularly is that all the great chemists began to arrive together near the 1850-ft. point. This seemed very recent. It meant that most of the superstitions about matter began to disappear only about 250 ft. back, so to speak. You all know the story, but for 75 or 80 per cent of my measured path, and for the interminable portion representing all time prior to 1000 A. D. (which I let wind, without construction or destruction, back the mile or more which might still have been historically illustrated), there had been no need for more than four supposed elements : earth, air, fire, and water. It was not the old facts, but the dimensions which impressed me. While a foot is ample space in which to erect monuments to everything we know about any year chosen in the fifteenth century, and a single tree could be sign-post for all the cards on events for any century a little earlier, there was great lack of space for descriptive matter beyond the 1800-ft. point. All down the line, to within a stone's throw of the end, individual man-power had been the important energy, and then, as power, it almost disappeared. Within 200 ft. of the end, which stood for the present day, steam had been put to use, and there came in turn the myriads of machines which multiplied a thousand-fold the previous constant and limited muscular power of man. No one can accurately determine the added spread of effort, due to this substitution of coal for human strength, and then of machines, one for another.

Within 30 ft. of the end of the path, a score of new chemistries had grown into activity, and every single one seems more promising than the original stem: physical, colloidal, subatomic and radio, metabolic, biologic, enzymic, piezo, therapeutic — all growing infants. Thus the time seems almost near when, to quote Carnegie, “the mind, like the body, can be moved from the shade into the sunshine.”

This interesting game of Mark Twain's actually chokes itself off mechanically when one tries to post modern chemical work at one foot per year. New facts now take about that space when posted edgewise in abstract journals, a dozen items per page. What this game, applied to chemistry, has done for me is to show me the almost inconceivably great strides in countless lines which constitute our modern chemistry, and it leaves me with the feeling that no one in the world has ever had such possibilities open to him as the present-day student of chemistry.

Perkin was a well-prepared research chemist when he made his discoveries. He was just the kind of man of which we produce too few Only a very small number of our students get so far in the science as he went under Professor Hofmann, and nowadays, in order to go so far, one must go much farther, for, as Wendell Phillips said, “to be as good as our fathers were, we must be a good deal better.” The process Perkin followed is the same one which has led to most of our discoveries. It is the encouragement of natural inquisitiveness under the best conditions. It is using the newest knowledge and best tools in exacting pieces of work. No short-cut and easy process would have produced dyes from tar. Such efforts could not even find a way to make tar acceptable for road material.

One of the biggest things in chemistry for us to-day is to learn how to bring about the productive teaching of chemistry. The desirable qualities are illustrated by the life of Wohler, who prepared the first organic compound, when the consensus of opinion (and infinite argument) favored the theory that organic compounds were producible only through a mysterious vital force. Pasteur's work is another case of a trained research chemist, and every American should learn his ways. What such explorers seek are not imaginary points on a drifting field [p.164] of perpetual ice in an uninhabitable world, but something which may possibly help every individual who lives after them.

We might have similar results developing in chemistry today, but they call for the good teachers and the highly trained observer, with well-backed faith. These two, high training and faith, are an uncommon pair with us They seldom grow within the same Yankee.

Inorganic chemistry — I need not repeat what is known about the many disclosures of inorganic chemistry. How, within the past few years, chemical science has at least doubled the number of available metals, and so raised to the nth power the possible alloys. All these new metals are gradually coming into use, as you know.

I am often reminded of metallic calcium in this connection, because it is really still being born, but the process is the old one. It was produced by high-grade electrochemical research, and the discoverer, in describing the process, said, “We do not know now of any use for this new metal, but when its properties and production are understood, it will probably find its place.” It is almost useless to think otherwise. Here is a chemical element the compounds of which are as numerous and whose ores are as rich as those of any element known. The isolation of the metal is not so simple as in the case of zinc, copper, iron, or tin, and its properties are different, but, as usual, it is differing properties which determine the new use. It is worth telling in passing that, during the war, we made this metallic calcium and found two widely different uses for it. One was as a suitable generator of hydrogen to maintain very high pressure of this gas inside certain deep-sea sound detecting devices, where the sea water itself was the other reagent. The reaction was slow and well suited for this work. The other use is as a continuously reacting purifier for argon in the tungar rectifier. This latter is now the basis of a considerable manufacturing business. It is interesting, from the chemical research standpoint, because it consists of a bulb made of a special new glass, a tungsten wire spiral, an artificial graphite electrode, a little argon gas, and some metallic calcium. Within the spread of my brief experience, there was a time when any part of this combination would have been an impossibility from lack of every one of these chemical materials. And so I note such researches as Professor Lehner's, on selenium oxychloride, and I say to myself, “Watch it grow.” To add such a liquid to our little category will prove an ever-growing utility.

Organic chemistry — We ask ourselves: Can there be greater fields of new organic chemical research than that which met Perkin as a student? Is not tar the last big raw material? The answer is simple. New fields are greater in number because the territory of chemical knowledge is so greatly broadened and the new tools are so numerous. The results will depend solely on mentality—not tar. Is it not within reason that another as great a field as dyestuffs will be developed directly from carbon itself, for example? The entering gates to organic chemistry, reached by the shortest road, were apparently opened when calcium carbide was first made. Thus, starting with two of our most abundant mineral products, coal and limestone, and adding water alone, we are supplied with the endothermic gas, acetylene. From this point, almost anything organic seems possible. When we realize that the manufacture of acetone, alcohol, etc., has been thus made possible from these inorganic raw materials, we might as well expect, by the same road, useful food as certainly as medicaments.

I am repeatedly pointing to need in our country for the highest class of chemical preparation. It is not enough to talk of the importance of fuel, of the conservation of coal, of the possible use of benzene or alcohol in our motors. Such have already become engineering problems, and we have a hundred thousand engineers in the country capable of solving them. Some of these men have already carried out the manufacture and use of hexahydrobenzene in motors, for example, but the chemistry itself, as a science, though still infinitely promising, is relatively neglected.

Agriculture — Possibly one of the biggest things in chemistry lies in agriculture, but it would be futile for me to treat of its research by the modern truthful, but standardized, method. It is admitted that we need more and better fertilizers. We now use nearly $200,000,000 worth annually. It is true that we have recently spent many million dollars on nitrate plants. We also think we need half a million tons of potash annually, and of this we can see how to produce locally only about 10 per cent. We want synthetic ammonia and we can get it, because, during the war, we were forced to adopt production methods derived from foreign chemical research.

I do not need to go further with agriculture in order to prove that I am not a real farmer, but I insist on doing so because I want to make clear the thought that possibly our troubles in general with Nature are sometimes due to our personal limitations, not to the limitations of Nature.

It looks to me as though possibly man had developed most of the cultivated fruits of the field along the line of maximum human exertion and immunized them to everything else. I draw this hasty conclusion from a single experiment of my own. Last year I procured some special high-grade seed corn and treated portions of it in widely different ways. In one case the kernels were planted, properly spaced, through holes in large sheets of paper placed on new ground which had had its grass killed by a year's covering with gravel, which was then removed. The paper was to discourage the weeds and make hoeing unnecessary. Other hills were planted without the paper, and still others in which the soil was taken up, softened, and replaced. None of these new-type gardens was disturbed during the summer. Less radical experiments, including nothing at all but muscular effort, were tried on other hills in an old-type garden. Knowing how corn had been produced through thousands of years of applied work, the results could have been foreseen. All that grown on new soil, protected by paper from weeds and from evaporating winds, took the whole summer to grow about a foot high. It looked very mature, but didn't bother to produce any ears. That which had been about buried in modern artificial fertilizer, and well hoed, pulled through somehow, and that which had been manured and most energetically hoed did the best and gave a normal corn crop.

The growing of corn and grain is an older process than making wire nails, and cannot so easily be improved. It has developed with no fair regard to human labor, and will take more novelty of effort to change it than was employed in freeing manual labor from nail, screw, and bolt making, or from the production of artificial indigo or synthetic camphor.

When one reads of the experiments of Loeb on the rate of growth of bryophyllum shoots as influenced by various schemes of cutting leaf from stem, etc., one can hardly doubt that new truth, learned for itself alone, in some such way, may at least rearrange some parts of future agricultural research. Anyone who has annually tried to kill a burdock by any means short of complete eradication, or who has watched the persistency with which a lot of wild chicory will grow to maturity in the almost imaginary crack between a reinforced concrete roadbed and the adjoining separate curbstone, will appreciate the thought that some time, somehow, man may successfully direct his researches towards the growth of useful vegetation with reduced, not increased, human labor.

Medical Research — Many biggest things in chemistry are coming from chemical research in the field of life and health. When I recall the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and think of the international character of its men and work, I incline to the belief that, through such researches in chemistry and allied sciences, the countries of our world may be more [p.165] certainly finally allied than by the system of countless peaceful words coupled with increasing arguments. There I have seen Carrel, French scientist of the purest type, keeping chicken tissues growing on microscope slides for nearly a decade, in order that he may carry out those quantitative experiments which lead to exact medical science. In such an institution a class of refined and exhaustive work can be done whose results stand as foundation stones on which doctors and surgeons of all lands may build at once. The diplomacy of such institutions leaves room for no international spies. The results, as soon as verified, are published to all quarters of the globe. Jacques Loeb, studying the amphoteric properties of gelatin or the temperature coefficient of the life-reactions of fruit flies, is putting permanent points of observation on the graph of human knowledge where all may see, confirm, and use them. The little Jap, Noguchi, a most attractive enthusiast and a co-worker of Dr. Flexner's for nearly 20 yrs., is now all wrapped up in yellow fever work. He has isolated the germ and prepared the preventive vaccine and the immunizing sera. Thus he adds some of the finishing touches to that story of a fight which has been under way since 1900, when Dr. Lazear knowingly risked and lost his life by letting a certain mosquito bite him.

Brain — If we think of the brain as the workshop of the mind and then look back over the history of the growth of brains, we find that this workshop first appeared as a relatively very small portion of the mass of the early animals. All the prodigious vertebrates of the mesozoic period had exceedingly small brains in proportion to their bodies. The brain size in comparison to the size of the animal has always been on the increase. In man and his forerunners this is also well known. But it is significant that, even with man, there is no continuing brain growth when he is kept from doing or thinking something new. The Egyptian fellaheen, who were kept at unchanging labor for many centuries, possessed the same size brain cavity at the end as at the beginning of that period. But the diameters of the brain cavities of the early man-forms after the chimpanzee (the Trinil, Piltdown, and Neanderthal men) stand to man as at present in about the relation of the numbers 12, 13, 14, and 15.

And yet, in this most modern workshop, the energy which is consumed is so small, when compared to the work done by other organs of the body, that it cannot be measured as energy at all. It is easy to measure the work done by the little finger and express it in calories consumed from the food eaten. The most extensive mental exercise is much more economical of energy. In other words, we have not yet taxed the mind's workshop from the energy or work point of view. All this means that, following the direction of natural development, there need be no lack of that brain power or mentality which is needed to handle all that he may wish to know and think.

Mind — The biggest thing of all in research is the mental effect, the projecting of a beam of light into the infinite and the growth of man's appreciation. I can scarcely touch the many connections here. But in delicacy and sensitiveness, the mind far transcends the wireless receivers which yet read, half around the world, a message sent by a few watts of energy. And I need say nothing about its possibilities as a power producer or controller. In cooperative work, minds multiply, instead of adding together, and growth of mind depends on the experiments or the reactions with things. Whether mind is a polarized energy, or merely a long habit, may still be in doubt, but there can be little doubt as to what expands it.

Not very long ago it was safer to conceal new truths than to disclose them. If a man wished to die by some horribly ingenious method, he had but to discover something like the rotundity or mobility of the earth and insist on it. For advocating justification by faith alone, he would be burned alive. Dabbling with intangible matters which led only to disputation was gradually replaced by increased attention to immediate surroundings.

Is it too much to say that, through research into materials, the main advances in physical and mental welfare take place? Where do we meet contradiction if we say that, except for research, or experimental study of matter, we stand still or mill about in circles filled with superstitions? Particular attributes of the human mind may well have reached higher altitudes in some previous age, as is usually claimed. In specific lines of human undertaking we can but accept this as true. We have no Homer among our poets, no Cellini nor Angelo nor De Vinci among our artists. Plato and Aristotle and many others ages ago equaled our present-day logicians. Such are the nuggets of truth which the seeker for values in history is apt to dig up. As architects or sculptors or hewers of stone we may be retrogressing, and in any selected development we may have passed the zenith, but all the time the knowledge of the universe and of each atom of it, from the tiny flower of the crannied wall to the sun which brings it forth, and the stars which so immensely exceed this, has been rapidly increasing. The only perpetual motion is the growth of truth. Possibly faith, hope, and love are not at a maximum in our age, but they may be, and through all ages there seems to run Tennyson's one “increasing purpose.” Only one sure line of continuing increments can be traced. It is not the line of the search for waters of eternal youth. It is not the series of philosopher-stone experiments, though a few of them contributed to the steady growth of our horizon. It is not the line of ascetism, stoicism, religious tolerance, or intolerance of any form, nor yet the political systems of the widest variety. They are now useless except as they added to the accumulating mass of truth. Appreciation of environment has always increased.

Religion — The natural desire for religious truth has been responsible for most colleges and universities. They served first to encourage learning and prepare religious teachers, but only recently has it become the recognized duty of universities to seek truth by investigations of material things. Goldwin Smith wrote of Oxford in the early days that:

For the real university students, the dominant study was that of the school of philosophy, logical and philosophical, with its strange jargon; an immense attempt to extract knowledge from consciousness by syllogistic reasoning instead of gathering it from observation, experience, and research, mocking by its barrenness of fruit the faith of the enthusiastic student. … The great instrument of high education was disputation, often repeated, and conducted with the most elaborate forms in the tournament of the schools, which might beget readiness of wit and promptness of elocution, but could hardly beget habits of calm investigation or paramount love of truth.

The uptrending curve of recognized facts might be called Nature's appreciation curve, or the growth of mind. While cattle eat, drink, and die with no more appreciative attitude towards their surroundings than shown in previous ages, mankind has accumulated, by experiment, everything that distinguishes him. But certainly the end of this growth is far away and still out of sight When men can talk so glibly about their closeness to a Creator and yet uniformly show, by destructive warfare, their extreme remoteness, surely the great undertaking whatever it means, is not nearly complete. We have much to learn.

May it not be possible that the human urge for new truth, the world trend for clearness of vision in material things, will be justified? Can there be a better way of appreciating the wonders of creation than by looking into them, uncovering, understanding, and appreciating them?

I should identify all search for scientific truth with the highest religious aim, no matter what the cult. I would point out here that our inactivity and inappreciation in the presence of infinite, undeveloped truth is the most inexcusable type of error [p.166]  and unfaithfulness. It is intense faithlessness, no matter what conception of a Creator we adopt.

There is no better (perhaps no other) way of going forward in the new paths which instinctively attract us than by using new material knowledge. Is it not possible that words of affection, of sympathy and promise of all kinds, helpful, heartfelt, and beautiful as they may be, are only the paper money of our transactions, and that, behind them, there should be gold of service, in which to pay the promises?

I do not look at this as crass materialism. We all know that the mere chemical reactions of the brain are not the whole story. A measuring machine, repeating automatically all the motions of the scientist, would not interest us at all. Appreciation of the infinite is not mechanical, but truth is necessary for appreciation. John Burroughs has said:

Every day is a Sabbath day to me. All pure water is Holy Water, and this earth is a celestial abode. It has not entered into the mind of any man to see and feel the wonders and mysteries and the heavenly character of this world.

Yet most of what even John Burroughs sees and appreciates is outside of the infinitely beautiful and orderly realm of modern chemistry. When we are first old enough to ask ourselves questions, we are so mature that we seem already surrounded by an infinitely complex and interesting environment.

A persistent and age-old instinct makes us want to wander
Into regions yet untrod
And read what is still unread
In the manuscripts of God.

And it has developed that in no other way may we hope to understand and appreciate. Chemists should naturally be the first and greatest appreciators. Research is appreciation.

Image added (not in original article) from source shown above. Text from: The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry (Feb 1921), 13, No. 2, 161-165. (source)

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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