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Who said: “God does not care about our mathematical difficulties. He integrates empirically.”
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Thumbnail of Willis R. Whitney (source)
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..


What Curiosity Can Do For You

A Story of Willis R. Whitney

from Boys Life (Jun 1942)

Heading art for What Curiosity Can Do For You - A Story of Willis R. Whitney

 

Illustration of Willis Whitney curious about the behaviour of a dog

Why do turtles go downhill in the fall and uphill in the spring? How can you tell the age of an Indian arrowhead? Do ants have nervous breakdowns? Do you know? Have you ever wondered? These are some of the many things Dr. Willis R. Whitney is interested in finding out.

Now Dr. Whitney isn't, professionally, an expert on turtles or ants or arrowheads. He's just a chemist. But he's found answers to all these questions because he's just naturally curious about everything. Which is one reason why he's done so much for all of, and also why he's one of the most respected scientists in America – besides being the founder of the General Electric Research Laboratory and a vice president of G.E.

It was back in 1900 that Dr. Whitney came from M.I.T. where he was teaching chemistry, to start a new kind of laboratory for G.E. At first he spent only half of his time on the new job, and had only one assistant. Today the research lab has several hundred trained scientists and technologists working on problems of electricity, chemistry, milk allergy, and other sciences. And the scientific adventures of these men have helped produce better lamps, radio tubes, X-ray tubes, and many other products we use every day.

Illustration of Whitney Willis with research apparatus

Dr. Whitney believes in what he likes to call “fool experiments.” But they generally turn out to be not foolish at all. From one of these came a lamp filament twice as efficient as Edison's early ones. Another showed that radio waves can produce artificial fevers for treating disease. And he's suggested thousands of important and successful experiments for others to perform. Perhaps the most valuable of Dr. Whitney's experiments was the laboratory itself. His ideas have guided its growth: over the years hundreds of young scientists have been inspired by him to be curious about things they see, to ask themselves questions, and then to try experiments to get the answers.

Dr. Whitney once said, “Somebody is always reflectively monkeying with some of the parts of an infinite universe – monkeying as distinct from aping.” He's done a fair amount of such monkeying himself; he's still having a lot of fun doing it. And he believes that anybody endowed with a normal amount of curiosity who does the same will have fun, too, and will perhaps make valuable contributions to our knowledge and to the world's progress.

For more about Dr. Whitney's interesting hobbies, ask for a copy of his story, “Things I've Been Thinking About .” Write to department 6A316, General Electric Company, Schenectady, N.Y.

Text and images from Boys Life (Jun 1942), 29. (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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