My Research Endeavour

Peter Chung Chieh

Retirement is a major turning point and this point is a distance behind me now. The world is constantly changing and coping with changes is an important part of life. There are many points where we face crossroads in life. Our choices are based on incomplete sets of information. My story shows how I coped with changes. My reflection on my research activities also reflects the changes during my past. Thank goodness my life goes on. Unfortunately coping with changes is more difficult as I age.  

An Early Lifetime Goal

As a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, I saw the research activities of professors much more than their teaching activities. That experience was carried over to my appointment as an assistant professor. Naturally, I devoted more time to research and publish results in order to do a good job. Furthermore, I made up my mind to be a scientist at a young age. As a boy, I dreamt of working in the laboratory to discover the secrets of nature.

Enduring the fear and hardship of the second Sino-Japanese war was all I knew as a baby. That was followed by the Civil War, and I went into an army for survival. The unit I was in was no match to the communist and I ended up in Taiwan blindly following the retreating soldier. General Sun Li-jen (孫立人), the Commander in Chief of the Army, noticed me and other children in the army. He collected all of us into the Youth Regiment (YR, 幼年兵总队). He planned to educate us so that we can serve the country better during training. A year later, the government disband the YR and this more than disappointed General Sun. He felt sad and he privately supported five of us to attend the Chengzheng School (诚正学校) he founded to educate children of army officers. He place us five under the care of sister-like cousin, Sun Ju-jen (孫菊人) and her husband Mr. Wang Jingyou (王景佑), the principal of the Chengzheng School.

Two years later, 1955, General Sun was suddenly in great danger under a cloud of accusations. Few trusted the government-controlled media and rumors going around in whispers. The populace knew well that Chiang K.S. simply trumped–up the charges to purge a national hero and able general who won the respect of all and enjoy a great international reputation. The purge would pave the way for his son, Chiang Ching-guo, to inherit his presidency. Chiang Ching-guo controlled the secret agents, the finance, and the forces. His agents fabricated and provided the so called charges. We were prevented from seeing the General, and we worried about Sun’s life and the life of our own.

After months of propaganda, the Chiang Regime finally spared the life of Sun Li-jen, but kept him isolated and under constant surveillance indefinitely. During this dark period, my young mind told me that there was neither truth nor justice in political or in public life. The media simply spread lies, and we were even taught lies in school. I decided to devote my life to science, although I knew little what science really was, but I thought the truth of nature was real and worth pursuing.

When I entered high school. C.Y. Yang and T.D. Lee, two Chinese-Americans, won the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics. The media in Taiwan glorified their honour making all Chinese proud. The glorious reports overwhelmed me and reaffirmed my determination to do pure scientific research. In hindsight, fixing a lifetime goal too early was not necessarily a good thing because it limited my vision and I had not looked into my potential and paid attention to other career paths such as applied sciences and technology. We cannot change the past, and therefore I felt no regret. On the other hand, setting a goal had given me a hope and something to pursuit in my life and let go the bitterness and fear.

Living under the Chiang-Regime white terror, doing well in school and hopefully getting in a university was a pathway for a scientific endeavor. A chance to study abroad after getting a degree was the dream of most youths those days. I quietly pursue along this path, and had done well in science and math subjects in school and got in the Chemistry program in the National Taiwan University. General Sun was happy for me and he asked his pilot relative to buy me a slide rule. Thus I sought an opportunity to meet him through Mrs. Jingying Z. Sun who brought me to see General Sun and told the guards that I was her adopted son. The guard let us see the General and I became a member of the Sun family.

Atomic-Bomb Curiosity

I was a single child. Thus, my mother loved me dearly even though we live in poverty and our village was under constant threat of Japanese attack. There was neither alarm nor information system in our little village but airplanes in the sky made us tremble due to fear. Explosions and gun fires made us panic, but we had no idea what to do in case Japanese came. We children were particularly scared of the brutal Japanese soldiers. Horror and fear were parts of the normal life. Out of the blue, we heard that two atomic bombs dropped in Japan ended the war. Japan surrendered unconditionally. Wow! The amazing atomic bomb aroused my curiosity. 

Before our Chemistry class advanced to the third year, an Isotope Building was under construction beside our Chemistry Building. We knew we would have a chance to perform experiments with radioactive materials at the 4th year. Visiting professor John W. Winchester from MIT taught us nuclear chemistry. He sometimes mixed radioactivity with atmospheric and space chemistry.  He moved to Florida State University later. We learned that splitting uranium or plutonium atoms with neutrons releases a lot of energy, and the fission reactions took place in atomic bombs as well as nuclear reactors. For a research project, Professor Chen Yingmou would get some nuclear fission products from the nuclear reactor of National Tsinghua University and he wanted me to analyze and separate the rare earth elements using liquid chromatography. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to research on things related to the atomic bomb. For my B. Sc. research project, I used an automatic system to collect samples and radioactivity detectors to do the analyses. 

Following competitive exams, I got in the Graduate School of National Tsinghua University, the alma mater of General Sun Li-jen. I was very glad as this would enable me to talk about the history and culture of Tsinghua with General Sun. 

Following competitive exams, I got in the Graduate School of National Tsinghua University, the alma mater of General Sun Li-jen. I was very glad as this would enable me to talk about the history and culture of Tsinghua with General Sun. 

After I studied in Tsinghua for a year, Professor C.H. Wong walked in the lab one day while I was preparing a sample. He told me about X-ray diffraction and projects he had in mind. He wanted me to be his disciple. As a graduate from the prestige Caltech, his arrogance was well known among faculties and students. Thus, I told him I would like to think about it. Following the first visit, he came by often and was eager to have me as his student. The discovery of X-ray was the prelude of the discovery of radioactivity. As a master student, the discovery of X-ray diffraction and the ability to determine the atomic arrangements in crystals sounded interesting. Professor Wong was the lonely crystallographer in Taiwan and the field was new. Partly because of his insistence, I entered a discipline called crystallography. I learnt bit by bit from performing various experiments. The discipline needs intensive calculations and thus the ability to use computer was a must. Lecturer Z.Y. Lee was helping us with the computer work. All these kept me busy. For my thesis, we determined the crystal structure of a sodium-cadmium alloy.