Unintended Lessons

  • James H. Lee

There are three kinds of smart people:

Smart people ask all the right questions. They go to good schools, get the right jobs, and go on to have successful lives.

Really smart people ask all the wrong questions. These are the troublemakers of the world. They ask the all wrong questions for all the right reasons. They make great entrepreneurs, but often find themselves in conflict with authority figures.

Really, really smart people know to just keep quiet, or ask simple questions that are almost entirely incomprehensible. My father would open up casual family conversations with questions like "how can you measure the molecular weight of clay?", or, "how can you determine the concentration of dust in air?", or "why is it that you can see a small object behind a much larger object during an eclipse?"

My father's conversational response to the last question is that gravity bends light, and that theoretically, it might be possible to see far away objects using a gravitational lens. There was little reason to watch Carl Sagan on TV, when you could have dinner with Dad.

He was just so smart, yet extremely modest. Also, he seldom talked about himself. So, I may need to make up a few things, and that means the working title for this presentation might be called "Unintended Lessons My Father Taught Me." The first lesson was that...

The world is a much richer and interesting place when you don't need to buy it off the shelf.

Dad was born on a family farm outside Abilene, Texas, during the late 1930's. The farm initially had no electricity, but it had tools and things that needed to be fixed. My father learned early on that if he really wanted something, that he could often make it himself. By the time he was in high school, my father welded together a radio tower for his father and won a National Science award for a motorized telescope that he built.

These were early indications that he was capable of remarkable things.

When it was time to go to college, there were three schools in Abilene to choose from. My father decided to go to McMurry, because he felt the faculty there was the most open-minded. He graduated from McMurry college in 1961. He received a National Defense Education Act Fellowship and earned his PhD in Physics at Ohio University, where he met his future wife, Virginia at an on-campus social mixer.

As a graduate student with scarce resources, dad relied heavily on his ability to make things. He made a crib for his first daughter using simple hand tools. Later, he built his own hi-fi system, and the furnishings for a machine shop where he would build prototypes for work.

But in particular, he excelled at measuring the world. It is perhaps no surprise that his summer job while at Ohio University was for the U.S. Bureau of Standards. Shortly thereafter, he accepted a position and lifetime career at DuPont at the Engineering Physics Laboratory.

My dad was a natural-born inventor, and he was recognized with somewhere over 20 patents. An early breakthrough for my father was commercial electron spectroscopy for chemical analysis, a method for analyzing the chemical composition of surfaces.

He designed a fiber optic switch for DuPont, and held patents for early bar code scanners, blue lasers, solid state lasers, digital radiography, holographic image projection systems, controls for fiber temperature measurement, a reflectance spectrophotometer to directly measure color, particle size analysis for titanium dioxide, and many, many other things.

Which leads me to the next lesson, and that is to...

Be kind to your co-workers because they may be the only ones who truly understand you. The friendships that my father formed at DuPont lasted his entire lifetime. These guys knew exactly where he was coming from.

We may never know the full scope of my father's work, some of which was classified or considered a trade secret. These things don't get published or receive patents - they only receive the respect of one's peers.

He "retired" in 1999 as a DuPont Fellow, the highest science position within the organization. Clearly, he was well respected and at the peak of his profession. His preferred tools included light, optics, x-rays, lasers, and electronics.

Dad never really stopped inventing things. He kept curious and engaged throughout his entire life. It is quite possible that he generated almost as many patents per year during retirement as he did during his entire 33-year career at DuPont. This was the final lesson my father taught me....

You may be the most productive when you don't actually believe that you are working. My father was a physicist, yet he felt that his most valuable contribution to science was in food safety - he developed a fast and easy test for e coli, which he did while technically retired and consulting for DuPont. He was playing outside of his sandbox, and having a good time doing it.

The fine line between work and play was often so blurred as to make one thing almost indistinguishable from the next. He absolutely loved his work and spent long weekends in his shop, solving problems and building new devices.

Play nice, have fun, and keep asking questions. This is what my father taught me. Our family thanks McMurry University for feeding his immense curiosity and recognizing his contributions to the field of science.

Jerald D. Lee was inducted to the McMurry University Science and Math Wall of Honor on October 24, 2015. Acceptance speech presented by James H. Lee.