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 seas.
Schaefer, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
'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
you already had ideas racing about in your head, if your
curiosity so frequently opened up into ideas, theories
of approaches to solving problems.
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.
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.
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.
Vincent 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 him.
Roger Cheng? The same energy, drive, precision, and nobility
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
is 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.
is what I see in the picture of the two scientists. Greatness
- By Linda Champagne
- Editor, Writer, Videographer
- Historian, Town of