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Frank Marble: Tsien Revisited

Frank Marble: Tsien Revisited


Caltech News 36.2 (2002)

A life in interesting times: Tsien with Marble (right)

at Los Angeles Harbor in September 1955, preparing

to board ship to China.

Tsien Revisited

First he was accused, then detained, then deported. Any of this sound familiar?

But there was a twist to this tale. A Caltech professor talks about his long friendship with the Caltech-trained scientist who became the “father of Chinese rocketry."

This past December, Frank Marble, PhD ’48, and his wife, Ora Lee, went to China to visit and help honor their longtime friend Tsien Hsue-Shen, PhD ’39. Many Caltechers, along with Americans who lived through the Red Scare days of the ’50s, have at least a glancing familiarity with Tsien’s story: a brilliant student and later colleague of aerospace pioneer Theodore von Kármán, commended by the U.S. Air Force for his contributions to its technological development after World War II, the Chinese-born scientist was accused of harboring Communist sympathies and stripped of his security clearance in 1950. Tsien and those who knew him best said that the allegations were nonsense, and no evidence ever came to light to substantiate them. Despite that, and over a barrage of protests from colleagues in academia, government, and industry, the INS placed him under a delayed deportation order, and for the next five years he and family lived under U.S. government surveillance and partial house arrest. In September 1955 they were permitted to leave for China.

Received with open arms in his homeland, Tsien resumed his research, founded the Institute of Mechanics, and, as one of the world’s leading authorities in aeronautics, went on to become the “father” of China’s missile program, a trusted member of the government and Party’s inner circle, and the nation’s “most honored scientist.”

Early in the INS saga, Tsien and his wife had planned to visit China so that their parents could meet their American-born grandchildren for the first time. But the INS impounded his luggage and charged him with concealing classified documents—the most “secret” of which, suspected of containing security codes, turned out upon inspection to be a table of logarithms. In the meantime the FBI had decided that Tsien posed a security risk and imprisoned him in San Pedro; he was freed two weeks later after Caltech president Lee DuBridge, among others, flew to Washington to intervene on his behalf. These incidents undoubtedly helped Tsien to conclude, as he confided to friends, that he had become “an unwelcome guest” in the country in which he had spent his whole scientific life. In any case, he was determined to avoid such problems again, and when he sailed to China, he deliberately left all of his research notes and papers behind.

Tsien dining with Mao.

Among the handful of people who saw the Tsien family off in 1955 were Frank and Ora Lee Marble. Marble and Tsien had struck up a warm friendship as aeronautics colleagues, and the Tsien family had stayed at the Marbles’ Pasadena home during their final weeks in the United States. After Tsien’s departure, he and Marble corresponded intermittently; then, with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in China, Marble stopped hearing from him. In 1979 Caltech named Tsien a recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award in recognition of his pioneering work in rocket science, but Tsien, although he sent a gracious acknowledgment, did not come to campus to collect it.

Time passes. In 1981, Frank and Ora Lee received an invitation from the Chinese Academy of Sciences to come to Beijing and teach combustion technology and English. respectively, at the Academy’s newly established Graduate School of Science and Technology, a small research institute partly modeled on Caltech. Shortly afterward, the Marble and Tsien families were reunited for the first time in 25 years. Marble recalls his feelings before they met. “We had had very different experiences and lived in such different circumstances. Would our old, easygoing friendship and discussions resume? Or was that something that just wasn’t going to happen?” After half an hour, he says, he had his answer. “There was no obstacle.”

Tsien with Marble in Beijing in 1991.

The two families kept in touch after that and saw each other again in China in 1991. In the years since Tsien had returned to China, Marble had taken on the project of collecting and organizing the extensive research notes—two large file cabinets worth, it turned out—that Tsien had left at Caltech. Tsien repeatedly said he did not want them back, telling Marble at their 1981 reunion, “Frank, American students need them much more than Chinese students.” A decade or so ago, however, he had a change of heart, and, with the help of Tsien’s colleague Cheng Che-Min, PhD ’52, Marble returned the collection to China. Some papers went to the Institute of Mechanics, founded decades earlier by Tsien, and others now form the core holdings of the Tsien Library, which the Chinese government had established at Xi’an Jiatong University, about 600 miles southwest of Beijing. The Chinese Academy of Sciences subsequently brought out selections from the collection as an elegant, coffee table-type book entitled Manuscripts of H. S. Tsien 1938–1955, whose publication coincided with the December 2001 symposium cele-brating Tsien’s 90th birthday.

In December 2001, receiving Caltech’s Distinguished

Alumni Award. From left, Tsien, Ora Lee Marble,

Frank Marble, and Tsien’s wife, Tsiang Ying.

When Marble went to visit Tsien for that event, he went both as a friend and as the official emissary of Caltech and President Baltimore, bringing with him the Distinguished Alumni Award that the Institute had presented to Tsien in absentia 23 years ago. Tsien is now permanently confined to bed, so Marble made the formal presentation at his bedside in a ceremony that received widespread coverage in China, and at last provided a fitting coda to Tsien’s long, complicated, and never completely sundered association with Caltech.

Marble, who is Caltech’s Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Professor of Jet Propulsion, Emeritus, spoke with Caltech News editor Heidi Aspaturian about his recent trip and earlier visits with Tsien in China.

Tsien does not speak much English any more, but his family tells me that he still understands it quite well. He was thoroughly aware that I was presenting Caltech’s highest honor to him at the official request of David Baltimore, and I think he was deeply impressed with and appreciative of that.

We weren’t able to talk much during my most recent visit, but when I saw him in 1991 and again in 1996, we had some very interesting conversations. I think in general we both felt less constrained than we had during our reunion in 1981. One comment he made to me in 1991 particularly stands out: “You know, Frank, we’ve done a lot for China. People have enough food. They’re working and progress is being made. But Frank, they’re not happy.” He felt very bad about that—almost, I think, a little bit responsible for it, although it was not an area he was involved in at all. His area of activity was military and civilian rocketry, and this was strictly a personal observation. That was about as far as he ever went in saying that things were not ideal.

He obviously has good memories of Caltech. He speaks of the Institute most fondly, and I think that he feels that his time on campus was one of the most enjoyable of his life. In a letter that his wife, Tsiang Ying, wrote us after our recent visit, she said that Tsien still loves to reminisce about Theodore von Kármán and the wonderful times he had at Caltech and to tell the old von Kármán jokes. So I think he stills feels very emotionally tied to the Institute. But it’s important to remember that during the entire five-year episode with the INS, Caltech was very good to him. The Institute continued to honor his professorship and to respect his reputation. My understanding is that Lee DuBridge, who vigorously supported Tsien, had difficulties with the Board of Trustees, some of whose members were embarrassed by Tsien’s situation.

Once Tsien returned to China, I don’t think he ever made another trip West. He did travel once to the Soviet Union. Evidently he did not endear himself to his hosts, and he never went back. Otherwise, so far as I know, he did not leave China. I would guess that this was largely by choice—he never was a great one for traveling. I think that he felt he had so many things to do at home that he had no real desire to go elsewhere.

Tsien never spoke to me about how his life and scientific career in America had ended. He was not a person for looking back or for ruminating about how things might have been. He was very much a realist, and my feeling is that he just tuned those last five years in America out. I do know that he felt, at least when all this started, that he would be able to do better work in the United States than he would initially in China, where research conditions at the time were very primitive. I believe that once he returned to China, what he found there was pretty much what he had expected. But he did have very able people working with him. Many of them had studied in the United States, and they were devoted to him. I met a few of those who had worked with him in the early days, and they had the highest praise for the way he had laid out and directed the program for rocketry development. I think that Tsien also had the great personal advantage of being technically and scientifically on top of things, and he also had the ear of the government. By virtue of his expertise and reputation he could convince officials of what needed to be done and accomplish things that other people couldn’t.

He did not talk about his experiences during that era. We were both very careful to avoid discussion about anything that touched on sensitive issues. We would talk about every other subject—family, music, literature, and some scientific work that was mutually interesting. He was very enthusiastic and intrigued about some of the work I was doing on combustion processes in vortex flows and told me, “Frank, you have been more honest to von Kármán than I have.” What he meant was that I was still involved in the fundamental research areas that von Kármán had worked in, but that he

was now in a very different mode of operation.

Tsien, of course, became a high-ranking, trusted Party official, but it was evident that he had had trouble during the Cultural Revolution. I heard from his colleagues, but never directly from him, that like many leading scientists and intellectuals, he wrote one or two letters of “confession.” Ying, his wife, had a very interesting experience. She was head of the Western Vocal Music Department at the Beijing Conservatory, and commuted between work and home on a motorbike. Apparently the Red Guard was after her in some way and so for several months—maybe as long as a year—she just lived at the conservatory until she thought it was safe to go out again. Her students brought her food and other necessities.

I also spoke to one of Tsien’s close colleagues, Ch’ien Wei-Zhang. He had earned his doctorate in Canada, was a postdoc at Caltech, and had worked with Tsien at JPL. He also went back to China and pursued a very productive career there. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard accused him of all sorts of things, and he wound up spending some time in the countryside, stoking an open-hearth furnace for a time at a steel-manufacturing facility. He had a very difficult time of it. So both Tsien’s family and his research circle were affected, although Tsien himself does not talk about that period beyond referring to it as “the 10 lost years.”

Many people have said that during his last years in Pasadena Tsien was bitter. I never sensed that. He was no doubt hurt, but I never saw him brooding about it. It was something that had happened, and, as he saw it, he had to react in a way that was appropriate. When he felt he was no longer welcome, he resigned from all the technical societies and sometimes his letters were a bit curt. That was about the extent of it. Apart from the first six months between the cancellation of his security clearance and the INS hearing, he and his family more or less went on with their lives as usual. Their circle of acquaintances and friends did narrow, which must have been hard. A lot of his former colleagues had become a bit afraid of associating with him socially.

His children were both born here, and they have spent time in the United States as adults. His son did graduate work at Caltech. His daughter studied medicine on the East Coast and has had quite a successful practice there, but she recently decided she would return to China this summer. Each of them now has a little boy. One of the tender-est pictures I have of Tsien shows him sitting in the backseat of his chauffeur-driven car with one arm around each little four-year-old grandson.

I do think that after his problems with the INS, Tsien lost faith in the American government, but I believe that he has always had very warm feelings for the American people. That came through again and again in the public statements he made, both here during the INS hearings, and after he returned to China. But once he went back to China, I don’t think he wanted ever to deal with the United States in an official capacity again. When Caltech’s former president Harold Brown visited China as secretary of defense in 1980, Tsien avoided seeing him. When I saw him the next year, I said, “Tsien, you made a big error. Harold Brown is a great admirer of yours and a brilliant guy.” And he said, “I know. It was a mistake on my part.” But that is how he felt about it.

Looking back, I think the most remarkable aspect of the five years he was detained is the resilience with which he returned to his teaching and research, making this period one of his most productive and innovative. He was instrumentally involved in the development of the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Center, Caltech’s academic focus of instruction and research in jet propulsion.

There’s always been a kind of single-mindedness about his work. He decides what is to be done and he organizes it and does it. He does not stop to think halfway through, is this really what I should be working on? And I believe he adopted the same attitude once he returned to China. He did not take time to indulge in speculation or fantasies about “what might have been.” He never indicated to me that he had. He was confronted with a new set of problems, and he devoted himself to working full time to solve them.

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