The scientist and the humanist:
Two sides of Chang-Lin Tien

06 November 2002 |

A legacy of innovation
By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs

Chang-Lin Tien’s name will live on in the annals of heat transfer and thermal science, a branch of mechanical engineering he made his own. His scientific achievements contributed to the design of insulating tiles for the U.S. space shuttle, magnetic-levitation trains in Japan, emergency cooling systems for nuclear reactors, and better fire-retardant materials for high-rise buildings.

In 1957, while working on his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Princeton, Tien first became involved in heat transfer — attracted mainly because research support was plentiful in the field. At the time, innovators in the field, which was devoted primarily to research and development in burning and combustion, were advancing new ideas about such things as rocket exhaust and explosions.

In 1959, the 24-year-old engineer was snatched up by Berkeley’s mechanical engineering department. One of the first projects he undertook involved the design of exhaust nozzles for the huge Saturn rocket boosters that were being developed in the 1960s to catapult satellites into space. Tien also contributed to work on finding the best ways to build spacecraft so that the huge temperature differences between the sunny and shady sides of an orbiting satellite would not disrupt the craft’s internal, temperature-sensitive electronics.

Later in his career, in the late 1970s, Tien returned to the U.S. space effort to address the first crisis emerging in the developing space shuttle program: how to keep 36,000 insulating tiles glued to the shuttle during the extreme heat of re-entry. Manufacturing techniques to improve the tiles’ insulating properties were developed thanks in part to Tien’s suggestions.

As energy conservation moved to the forefront of U.S. politics in the ’70s, Tien continued to study insulation materials, focusing on their effectiveness in preventing heat loss in high-rise buildings. He moved into studies of “super-insulating” materials, which can prevent the flow of heat into supercold liquid helium or liquid oxygen (the latter much used in Saturn rocket engines), while also studying heat loss from super-hot emissions, such as rocket exhaust. In Japan, his work was incorporated into the design of magnetic-levitation trains, which rely on low-temperature superconductors to generate immense magnetic fields.

In 1982, three years after the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown, Tien was called upon to help design new emergency core-cooling systems for nuclear reactors. He became a consultant to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, assisting as well in a later study of the 1986 reactor meltdown at Chernobyl.

All the while, he was watching the emerging semiconductor industry with great interest, finding himself drawn to questions of heat transfer in miniaturized components, such as microcircuits. During the last years of his research career, Tien sought to understand how short bursts of heat from a laser dissipate, in millionths and billionths of a second. That research allowed those who followed to characterize the thermal behavior of sensors, laser sources, and superconductors.

A passion for diversity
By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs

For Chancellor Tien, diversity was not a “menace” to excellence, as some have suggested, but a means to its achievement. “Where there are diverse students, staff, and faculty,” he once wrote, “everybody stands to gain.”

His stalwart defense of this principle was nurtured by his own experiences as a minority in America.

Born in China, he emigrated to the United States in 1956 to attend the University of Louisville. There he had his first taste of U.S.-style racism, at the hands of a professor who claimed Tien’s name was “too difficult to remember” and so took to calling him “Chinaman.”

Tien would also recall in later years his sense of appalled confusion on a segregated bus, when the driver indicated that he should sit in the front of the bus with the white riders, while blacks were relegated to the back.

These memories lingered, fueling a commitment to tolerance and diversity, and to efforts — such as affirmative-action-based college admissions — that helped ensure opportunity for Californians of all backgrounds.

In 1995, the UC Board of Regents was to vote on whether to end affirmative action programs in both hiring and admissions systemwide. The UC-wide Academic Senate opposed such a repeal, as did all the UC chancellors, most of them “officially but very quietly,” recalls Bob Laird, former undergraduate admissions director at Berkeley. But Tien joined with UCLA Chancellor Charles Young in penning a courageous defense of affirmative action for the Los Angeles Times.

When the regents gathered in July of that year to decide the issue, Tien interrupted then-governor Pete Wilson to defend Berkeley’s admissions practices under affirmative action.

“I believe he was so hurt and so disappointed … that he just had to do something,” recalls Laird, adding that the interruption enraged Wilson.

The regents’ vote that day to end affirmative action at UC left Tien, by his own description, “stunned.”

Reminding himself, and others, that the Chinese character for crisis means both “danger” and “opportunity,” he ultimately responded by announcing the Berkeley Pledge, an ambitious campus initiative to help prepare K-12 public school students to meet UC’s eligibility standards for admission. (Tien personally contributed $10,000 to the Pledge at the outset of the campaign.) Soon afterward, the campus unveiled a plan to develop partnerships with K-12 schools in four Bay Area school districts. Such efforts continue today under the umbrella of School/University Partnerships, and have served as a model for federal programs.

“He embraced a smorgasbord of opportunities for our youngsters,” recalls Fredna Howell, principal of Burton High School in San Francisco. As a result, she says, “there was absolutely a groundswell of esteem” for UC among her students — a sense “that they could get there, graduate, could contribute to the larger community,” when before they had not felt welcome.

In the wake of the Regents’ vote (which they repealed in May 2001), Tien continued to advocate for affirmative action. He also felt strongly about immigration, calling it “the wellspring of our nation’s strength and vitality.” With effort, he wrote in 1994, we can “turn our national motto of e pluribus unum, or ‘one out of many,’ into more than a pretty expression in a dead language.”


Remembering Chang-Lin Tien


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