Dr. Cheng and the Library Book Orders



Dr. Cheng was a physicist, a most conscientious physicist, the kind who sits up late at night in the almost bare physics laboratory observing the behavior of beta-particles. He had been doing this for a long time, and had observed some inexplicable variations in their behavior which had not reoccurred during the past four years. He could wait another four years if necessary for a second variation, since without the second the first could have no meaning. Someone else might say the first occurrence was a mistake, people do make mistakes especially sitting up late at night in the lab, but Dr. Cheng did not consider making mistakes. If the particle could arrange its arrival out of so many chances of never appearing at all, then he should not become impatient at having to wait there for it a little while longer. Time is clearly a relative matter.

Nobody had any suspicion that there was a Mme. Cheng anywhere. In fact she was a nurse in a hospital in a distant city. She knew there would be no reason for her to come to Middlebury where her husband would be sitting up nights waiting for his rendezvous with a particle. It wouldn't make sense for her to be there, and so, as she was a sensible woman, she continued at nursing, respected by all as a conscientious worker in command of all the details. At vacation time they met midway and spent half a week together. None of her fellow hospital workers knew of Dr. Cheng, just as none of his colleagues knew anything about her, but she never felt impatient with the course of their lives, since time was not something she felt she had to discuss with herself.

Professor Cheng found his colleagues on the faculty distant, somewhat inscrutable, but always polite, so he thought it was up to him to make the first move. He would invite them to come to his laboratory an afternoon after classes, so that he could tell them something about the work he was engaged in, and what it might come to mean someday. Eleven came and sat in silence while he expounded the meaning of his research, and what interpretations he felt were safe to make at that point. They had no questions, so he explained further that this kind of research was very important, and could have far-reaching consequences. He paused. They were looking at him without expression, so he smiled and left the lecture desk, coming over to them and shaking each one's hand and thanking them for coming. They filed out and as they went down the stairs, a colleague in the English Department remarked that Cheng was indeed an odd fellow, not much of a knack for communication, you know. Wonder what he was up to, you couldn't make anything of his talk, pretty inscrutable. But nice fellow anyway.

Dr. Cheng was satisfied with the lecture, he had told his colleagues everything that a scientist could say on a subject which was generally not well understood, after which there was nothing more to say. He went back to his work, adjusting his mind to the possibility that one of these nights another variation could present itself. The idea of a particle arriving and not being registered never occurred to him, except as a possibility in someone else's research. Dr. Cheng knew he was ready for what would appear..

That fall the Committee on Reappointment met to discuss Dr. Cheng's position. They weren't sure exactly what it was that he was working on, but he seemed to be attending to it regularly, and they noted he was easy to get along with, a polite and and unobtrusive gentleman. Since he hadn't inquired about a higher salary over the years, it wasn't costing the college a lot to keep him on, so the decision was made to give him a contract for another three year stint. They weren't sure exactly why they were approving him, but they had no grounds for disapproval, so continuing seemed the easiest decision.

By mischance Dr. Cheng was appointed to the Library Committee, whose main function was to rubber-stamp without discussion the skimpy budget which the President told the Librarian would be acceptable for the coming year. In a lower level conference room in the stuffy air which sinks to the lower level of college libraries, the committee meeting proceeded. As always, issues were raised and avoided, long-range planning was again deferred, as the members flicked a sly look at their watches when they thought no one was looking. Meetings like this are known to have gone on well past six thirty! The department budgets for this year and next were read, and just a somebody was mentioning twenty nine hundred dollars for the Physics Department for the coming year...

"No, Dr. Cheng, we never told you five hundred dollars was your limit for this year, it must have been a mistake. Yes, we understand physics books are expensive, you say with such a sum you couldn't order more than ten, butv what you didn't use this year is gone, that can't be helped. But next year... No, really, nobody was trying to hide your budget from you. We are really very sorry."

It was now the end of Spring Term and May was in the air, when the students discovered that Dr. C was going away. He was somewhat surprised when at the last class of the term, his senior seminar burst into an applause, following him out the door, down the hall and only faltering as he stepped between the two wooden Greek columns and went out onto the walkway. Three of the students went from the seminar room directly to the Dean's office, and asked why in the world he had let such a remarkable man go. The Dean had never thought much about Cheng, so he was nonplused at the student's complaint. Searching about for an excuse, he asked if Dr. Cheng was systematic in his presentation of the materials, if he graded fairly, and whether he was helpful in answering students' questions.

The students were furious, too angry to speak coherently, until the one girl in the group made it all clear. "Dr. Cheng is a remarkable teacher, one of the few alive minds in this very un-remarkable school. If you had the intelligence to get more people like him, this would not be such an ordinary college. You ask what he did as a teacher? Well, he showed us where to get the materials we would need to understand physics, and said to come back when we had questions. But that was just the beginning. He taught us a great deal, but he often told us he couldn't teach us how to think, since thinking was discoverable but not teachable. His business was to get us ready, to prepare us for learning how to think, that's exactly what he wanted to do. We understood that, and we were learning from him a lesson which we couldn't have learned at any other college in the country. That's why we respect Dr. Cheng so much, and why we are totally amazed at your silly little questions about his classroom performance. You just let a valuable man slip between your fingers, and you have no idea about the importance of what he was doing.... "

The tears were leaving the corners of her eyes and running down her cheeks, the others students blinked hard. Suddenly they all went through the doorway together leaving the Dean momentarily shaken by their ardent diatribe. In a minute the telephone rang and somebody was saying, "Bob, would you be able to have lunch with the President and me....downtown or the Faculty Club as you wish?". In another minute he had forgotten about the whole embarrassing interview.

Six months later Dr. Cheng was still observing beta particles, sitting up night after night in the laboratory, doing exactly the same meticulous notetaking, except it was now in California. He had seemed pleased when in response to his inquiry, there came from the Dean of Graduate Studies at the University an offer of a position with a salary twice what he had been getting. To Dr. Cheng pay was not important, but he would take the position for oither reasons, as he said in his letter of acceptance.

The older Professors in Physics at the State University, experts as they were in the classroom art of making complex matters look simple to beginning students, found Dr. Cheng most obscure. The younger members of the department liked him well, and brought a couple of bottles of a sweet Chinese wine to his laboratory every other Friday afternoon after classes which pleased him much. He sat and sipped and talked with them about ideas and science and where it was all going. Dr. Cheng always said the simple and direct things which he had on his mind, thinking they understood him perfectly, which was still not at all true.

On his desk Professor Cheng had a pile of little, blue Library Order Cards, which he could fill out and sign with sure knowledge that the Library Committee would never challenge his expenditures. In a month he would find a polite note in his mailbox, and the books would be waiting for him at the check out desk. Now classes were over for the term, the final examinations had been graded and handed in, he had just finished signing the last of the term's paperwork. He carefully put the cap back on his pen, slipped it into his breast pocket, sat back in his chair. Looking again at the pile of blue Library Order Cards, he folded his hands and smiled in satisfaction.



William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris