J. Cheng was born on June 3, 1929, in Kaifeng, along the Yellow
River in the Henan Province, a province of east-central China
with a population of 77-millions. it was the poorest farm country
in China. Cheng is the son of Chen-Yu and Shin-Nan Cheng, a farming
family that goes back many generations.
for Cheng, his family's legacy of basic farm living came to an
end when his father passed an exam after high school that awarded
him a scholarship to college. Only two such awards are given each
year by the government to Henan Province. His father went to Peking
(Beijing) for higher education and became a professor at a university
teaching history and political science. He then worked for the
government on land-reform policy, eventually becoming the head
of the Ministry of Land Reform. Later, Henan Province elected
him as a senator in the Chinese government.This assured that Cheng
would not become a struggling farmer like so many of his family
passing a tough written exam, Cheng was allowed to attend the
Nankai Middle School that is known for having the best and brightest
students. This is the same school that many of today's top Chinese-government
officers attended, including the former premier Chou En-lai. Cheng
received a B.S. in physics and chemistry, but due to a disagreement
with his professor over his research results, he was unable to
complete his Ph.D.
a boy, Cheng loved to take electronic devices apart and then reassemble
them. He also loved photography. Both of these interests would
become pivotal talents in his adult career. During one evening,
a blind fortuneteller told his family that Cheng would travel
beyond China, work with small things, and marry a non-Chinese.
his family moved to Taiwan, Cheng passed a stringent English exam
for study in America. He borrowed $50 and enough for air fare
to fly to the United States, looking to further his education
and opportunities in 1957. He landed in Florida and attended Florida
State University for graduate work in physics and meteorology.
To earn money, for three summers, he worked as a dishwasher, a
waiter, and, soon after, a headwaiter at a Chinese restaurant.
At the university, he became a technical assistant working for
Dr. Seymour Hess, head of meteorology and an expert on the atmosphere
of Mars. Cheng's early mechanical expertise came into play at
Florida. He helped design very sensitive equipment to measure
"water vapor" in the atmosphere of Mars in an experiment to confirm
that the white caps on Mars were ice (water) and not frozen carbon
dioxide. As a result of his work, he won two summer scholarships
to Columbia University's Institute of Space Physics and UCLA'S
Institute of Planetary Physics, the first ever for a foreign student.
he was working at Florida State University for Hess, he read most
of the papers by New York's Vincent SCHAEFER on ice-and-snow-crystal
research and appreciated the work Schaefer was trying to do in
cloud seeding. Many of Cheng's friends and colleagues told him
that Schaefer had a reputation as a great person with whom to
work and in the area of atmospheric science, at the time an emerging
field. He wrote to Schaefer, after studying everything about him,
and asked for a job at the Atmospheric Science Research Center
(ASRC) that Schaefer and others created in 1964 in Albany, New
York. In 1966,
began his first job as a technical assistant for Schaefer for
$1.25 per hour, working for 10 hours a week. Cheng stayed at ASRC
for 32 years. Schaefer watched and mentored his student Cheng
and, after one year, gave him an order to set up a laboratory
to study and assist other ASRC scientists on the subject of atmospheric
particulates. Cheng created the Laboratory for Atmospheric Particulate
Analysis and was put in charge as manager.
who earlier had discovered cloud seeding with Irving LANGMUIR
and Bernard VONNEOUT, directed Cheng to work on three projects
regarding particulate matter:
1. To see particulates in terms of their sizes and shape and
to study their physical property;
To discover their chemistry properties and what they were made
To examine particles (aerosols) in different conditions or in
three phases (vapor, liquids and solids).
four years, Cheng developed the lab into one of the best microscopy
labs, outfitted with the most modern equipment.
working for Schaefer, Cheng made several amazing observations
in three major research fields-cloud physics, marine aerosols,
and environmental sciences-all later confirmed by other scientists,
based on the study of single drops of water.
first research project in the late 1960s with Schaefer, titled
"Ejection of electrical charged ice particulates from a frost
surface," was based on frozen water drops, ice pellets, and hail.
This major discovery helped explain how the electric charges were
generated in a thunderstorm cloud. Their discovery was confirmed
20 years later by scientists from MIT doing similar work. His
photomicrographs that captured the activity became the featured
cover in Science Magazine in 1970; it showed the freezing of a
super cooled water drop and the ejection of micro droplets. More
than 160 scientists from 25 countries requested a reprint of the
photograph and article that eventually also appeared in more than
30 international science magazines, 15 encyclopedias, and a science
second water-drop project dealt with the formation of acid rain,
marble erosion, and plant damage. Cheng demonstrated in the laboratory
that flyash from electric power plants catalyzed the reaction
of sulfur dioxide in water droplets to form sulfates. By studying
the marble constructed city hail in Schenectady, New York, he
noticed that sulfur dioxide reacted with liquid water on the surface
of the stone to produce sulfuric acid. Small pollutants such as
flyash act as a catalyst in the reaction, making the marble change
into gypsum, which crumbles. When fly-ash particles are injected
in water drops that are 2 to 3 millimeters in diameter and are
exposed to sulfur dioxide, needlelike sulfate crystals appear.
Cheng believed that this reaction is probably implicated in leaf
damage. This experiment was confirmed by the Canadian EPA in 1995
who conducted similar experiments.
in 1986, he discovered with ASRC colleagues that sea-salt particles
(marine aerosols) were hollow and not solid as formerly believed.
The sea produces marine sea-salt aerosols by the bursting of bubbles
at the surface. The small droplets are then carried high into
the atmosphere by mixing and by convection. Previous thoughts
on the subject assumed they were solid and that their mass could
be calculated if their diameters were known. Cheng's discovery
that they are hollow makes this calculation much more difficult.
Cheng's findings were confirmed by scientists from the Institute
of Meteorology in 1997 in Germany.
also noticed that seawater droplets ejected sulfate particles
when they changed phase; that could be important in the global
State University of New York recognized him in 1978 with the SUNY
Chancellor Award for Excellence in Professional Service. He retired
from the ASRC in 2000 as Emeritus (Research scientist).
as predicted earlier by the fortune teller, married Leida Sutt
of Estonia in 1961, a non-Chinese woman; they have two sons and
one daughter. Their son Mark is a computer animator whose film
credits include Dinosaur and Mouse Hunt.
has published many papers in atmospheric science and coauthored
Solar Energy Experiments for High School and College Students
(1977) with Thomas Norton and Donald Hunter and Air Pollution and Control in 1985. The latter book was the first of its kind
in the Chinese language, was endorsed by the Director of the Chinese
National Environmental Protection Bureau, and was published by
their Environmental Science Service. It was distributed to all
national, state, and city environmental officers as a handbook
and to universities and research institutes as a reference book.
He has utilized his experience as a consultant and teacher locally
in the Albany New York Medical Center, V.A. School of Microscopy,
the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Air
Resources Division, the Auto Emission Testing Lab, and others.
Cheng has traveled extensively abroad especially to his homeland
China, where he has given 14 seminars and visited more than 25
universities and other institutes, and to other European countries
and Russia giving talks and seminars. His photomicrographs have
been in demand by popular and scientific publications worldwide
for their art as well as content.
is currently creating a CDROM that contains all his research papers,
magazine covers, and hundreds of his photographs. Remarkably,
his achievements have all centered aroundthe study--
a single drops of water.
Rittner : Author and historian
- Don Rittner is a historian,
archeologist, environmental activist, educator,
- and author living in
the Capital District, Schenectady County, New York;
- in December, 2004 he
was named official Schenectady County Historian