The picture at
first seems to be just two pleasant looking men at a formal
event. But this is a picture that has many stories behind
it. Above all, the stories inter-twine in a lifetime of work.
And these two particular people are examples of how good men
become great men, reaching beyond limitations, through supportive
mentoring and collegial sharing. The men are both very accomplished
research scientists with a world reputation. Both started
in respectable, but humble, circumstances. And literally,
they began their lives half a world away. Beyond the seven
the older man at the left of the picture, was born in Schenectady,
New York in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Schenectady,
a hotbed of engineers working for the General Electric Company
in the most explosive time in history of inventive men, and
an occasional woman, reaching in every direction to create
a highly technological modern world, with electricity at its
core. Though Vincent Schaefer had to quit high school to help
his parents feed the family, and he never had the money or
time for college, his life was filled with what he always
called Serendipity. For him it was a word with a capital 'S'
and an exclamation mark. It led Vincent to his great mentor,
the Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir. From many eager applicants,
Langmuir hired the machinist apprentice Schaefer to build
laboratory equipment. This happenstance ended up ensuring
the brilliant young Schaefer of the laboratory space and funding
to explore the mysteries and practical values of such natural
phenomena as snow, ice and rain-including the seeding of clouds
for weather modification. Above all other values from Dr.
Langmuir, Schaefer learned to tap the potential of all with
whom he worked. New scientists working under Schaefer's direction
were offered the world to explore, the courage to follow both
their minds and their hearts.
And the younger
scientist in the picture beside Vincent Schaefer? Roger Cheng,
born on the family farm along the Yellow River in China. By
chance, another young boy like Schaefer, who couldn't keep
his hands away from any piece of equipment that was in range.
Apart it came, and back together, usually still working, these
were the toys and tools to train his mind. Following the path
of his father, who won scholarships with his fine mind, Roger
began to succeed in every pathway he pursued. Not without
study, not without determination. But where was this to lead?
This was a family who didn't even know a non-Chinese person,
whose life was traditional They took risks only to survive,
during invasions of Japanese soldiers and under war-imposed
What was the
meaning when the much honored, old, blind fortune teller told
the family's fortunes one night after dinner. And raid that
Roger would go beyond the seven seas, bring to the family
a non-Chinese daughter .in-law, and work with very small things.
Serendipity was to make each of those predictions come true.
As a young college
student, whose family home now was Taiwan, Roger managed to
pass the stringent English exams for study in America. He
went to Florida to study physics. Times were tough. When Roger
needed money to stay in college, where did he go for summers?
To stay with another student friend in New York City and work
as a waiter. Soon to become the head waiter, because he always
pushed the envelop and tied to do his best.
So, here's where
the smaller bow tie comes in, the one that Roger is wearing.
He doesn't forget his humble jobs. He saves the bits and memories
of his passage through life. For the big occasion, the grand
evening with Vincent at the University at Albany, Roger picks
up the old tie, the one with the memories of the struggles
behind him, which enhances the success of his work, the warmth
of his friendships, especially this one with his great mentor,
Vincent Schaefer. "It's the first time I ever saw Vincent
in a bow tie!' Roger recalls as he looks at the picture. These
were men who preferred the field to do their research, the
practical clothes for the real world. That world where clues
came from observation and science followed nature.
Let's go back
to Florida and Roger's undergraduate days. A fellow student
once said, casually,to Roger, The scientist Schaefer up in
New York is doing some interesting things with the atmosphere.
" 'What?'" It
became Roger's study, to find out what this Schaefer was doing.
The atmosphere. Rockets were just entering into earth orbits.
Space New worlds. For a man who had already traveled around
the world, here was another great adventure.
If you already
had ideas racing about in your head, if your curiosity so
frequently opened up into ideas, theories of approaches to
And Vincent Schaefer
saw in the young Cheng what he knew from his own past in the
world of Schenectady Research laboratories with Irving Langmuir.
Given the right place, and the support, the time to look into
a problem, the insights that lead to scientific discoveries
would come. That first dusty microscope that Roger Cheng was
allowed to use became, after a decade or so, finer and finally,
the best of machines. The powerful machine that combined with
Roger's mastery of micro-photography, provided the world of
science with truly new insights into the forms and actions
of snowflakes, of sea salt crystals, of small happenings and
electrical releases in the transformation of forms that many
researchers had looked at and looked for, but few could see.
Yes, that the
old, blind fortune teller was finishing his predictions as
he held the head of the young Chinese boy. And Roger could
not even guess at what his small world of science would involve.
Or how the teachings of one great scientist. Irving Langmuir
would change Roger's life because of "Serendipity!'
--our unscientific word that is the basis of scientific discovery.
Being on the route to one place, when another place lures
you, begs you to pay attention, explore, consider, for but
a moment. And mystery to discover the unknown, is the most
exciting search in all the world. From terrible struggles
in China, from weary nights checking the data in the lab,
from refusing to give up because some professor tells you
that you can't be right won't give you the chance to try to
show it just might be possible. So you walk away with no doctorate
degree, and you end with a man who never finished high school.
And you have the words of your mentor, your Serendipity Schaefer,
always ringing in the back of your brain: "Never give up Roger.
If you think you might be right, just keep going." Because,
Miss Serendipity is waiting, right around the next turn.
The years of
struggle to have his theories and experiments confirmed have
taken Roger to conferences and research laboratories all over
the world, from India, to Germany, to China and right here
in the United States, to colleagues at Harvard, and always
back to SUNY Albany. The doubters disappear. The affirmations
mount up. But that is not Roger's only search. What he is
after is getting the science he knows, the deepening understanding
of the multitudinous ways that the earth's air is being polluted
inside and outside, getting that message to the poor women
hovering over small coal fires in basement kitchens in his
former homeland--who will soon be dying of lung cancer if
their lifestyles don't change. Getting the message out there,
into the minds of all people, about how the ash from the power
plants are, indeed, destroying the farmers' plants within
a few miles, even of the plants manufacturing the needed power.
What has Roger to do with all his understanding? He has reached
a major pay-back time in his life, to bring the knowledge
to students, citizens, government officials. To help where
he can with what he has learned.
Schaefer, from hearing him when he first addressed the faculty
and students at State university of Albany, as it became,
back in 1960. Then knowing him through my own research as
a writer and resident of his home community of Schenectady
County, I've watched him with admiration for his science and
his nature: 'A consummate teacher,' I've always described
And Roger Cheng?
The same energy, drive, precision, and nobility of spirit.
When tasked some
college students I was teaching at the end of a semester of
an environmental history which of our many speakers they most
appreciated, they all agreed that it was Roger Cheng. He told
them never to give up their dreams, their pursuits. And the
students highly respected his work. But bottom line, they
said was "his purity of spirit."
more than citations of successful discoveries. Underneath
is the value of the spirit, the respect a person has for life
in each form, in each person.
This is what
I see in the picture of the two scientists. Greatness of values.