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
J. 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
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
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.
you already had ideas racing about in your head, if your curiosity
so frequently opened up into ideas, theories of approaches to solving
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
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
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 of
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
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 of
- Editor, Writer, Videographer
- Historian, Town of Niskayuna