George Duffey ’42

George Duffey ’42 grew up on his family’s farm in Iowa, surrounded by cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and plenty of chores. Learning came from the local one room schoolhouse and Popular Science magazines that he and his older brother Loren Duffey ’41 read from cover to cover. For fun, they would build crystal radios and experiment with a Tesla coil, powering it with a battery and their Model T coil. In stark contrast to the gadgetry that children turn to in this generation, George would often return to the schoolhouse to read the unabridged dictionary. 

George Duffey
George Duffey

After studying physics at Cornell, he found himself amidst a sea of scientists who had fled Europe to collaborate on world changing work. Albert Einstein, whom he recalls as shy, taught at Princeton while George pursued his advanced degrees there.

The world has changed since then. “There is less respect for science. It shows up today in the attitudes of politicians who aren’t willing to accept the results of science on climate change. I think going back even to the ‘40s there was concern among scientists about the environment. There were some who were uneasy about the atomic bomb,” he says. “I’m disturbed that the population knows so little about science. They seem to equate science with technology, and it’s not the same. In science, the fundamental question is why. In technology, it’s how.”

Loren worked on gliders during World War II, then in aviation and NASA. George spent a lifetime teaching and writing physics textbooks at South Dakota State University.

Retirement is an relative word for this Cornellian. Since retiring in 1991, he has continued to write physics textbooks, trading in his typewriter for a computer, “It makes it easier since computers come with a special program for math equations.  We weren’t necessarily smarter than students today, we just had to work harder,” he says. George also has an amateur radio license, whiling away the hours conversing with his son in Albuquerque, N.M., and people in 100 different countries.