It was the 1960s. A group of gifted-and-talented high school science students, mostly boys, spent summers at the Huyck Preserve, in Rensselaerville, N.Y. They lived in the Mill House, which is now the Preserve office and Visitor Center. This Mill House Gang was part of the Natural Sciences Institute (NSI), a multi-center summer program founded by cloud-seeding inventor Vincent Schaefer. Schaefer was a self-educated scientist who worked at General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y., and was the founding director of the Atmospheric Science Research Center at SUNY-Albany. Schaefer designed NSI to introduce students to the excitement of doing independent, graduate-level field research.
At NSI’s Rensselaerville Division, the students attended lectures every morning at Conkling Hall. The lectures were hosted by the Institute on Man and Science and featured prominent scientists, educators, economists, and other leaders. In the afternoons the students conducted their research projects. They were smart, but a little wild. Their antics—like flipping a van over on Pond Hill Road—did little to convince village residents that NSI was developing future scientists. So Schaefer brought in Jim Small to save the program. Jim had grown up in small towns and understood how important it was to be well-behaved. And he was a leader in the student government at SUNY-Albany where he was a senior majoring in geography. Vince figured that Jim’s small town experience as well as his ability to lead students made him the perfect person to rebuild the NSI program.
At the Huyck Preserve’s annual membership meeting on June 17, 2006, Jim Small (left in photo) described his 1968 experiences with the Mill House Gang.
I was the small-town guy who was recruited to restrain the adolescent enthusiasm of budding scientists. During the daytime, they were running. They had all of the classroom stimulation that they could possibly handle in the humanities and in the sciences. In the afternoon, they did their laboratory and field research. But they needed to blow off steam, too. So at night, we’d sometimes run commando raids. We’d split up the students and I’d join the smaller team. We’d start at opposite ends of the Preserve—one group down at the Mill House and the other one up here by Lincoln Pond. We’d meet in the woods armed with water balloons and bags of flour.
The students played hard and they worked hard. In 1968, we had seven students who presented a total of nine papers. One student studied the effects of weather on the electroconductivity of the Rensselaerville Mill Pond. We chained ourselves together with ropes and we went up from the bottom of the gorge all the way to the base of the Rensselaerville Falls. We took a series of measurements of the temperature in and above the gorge. The water temperature was 10 degrees higher in the gorge just from the friction of going through those rocks. Nice things for teenage boys to discover on their own.
Another study was on mammal distribution related to the stages of plant succession. At that time the Preserve still included farm fields and included everything from tilled land through mature forest.
One guy studied the geology of the McCormick Outcrop, which is near the Shell Inn. It’s Hamilton shales. What he did was very special. At just 17 years old, he developed a method to determine the chemistry of the Devonian seawater from which the shales precipitated. He was really, really fried when he did the literature search at the end of the summer and found out that one of the leaders of paleontology had used the same method in 1923.
Another project was the study of the aerosols over the Huyck Preserve. We turned U.S. Navy World War II surplus weather balloons into life rafts and inflated them with hydrogen. There was a transponder at the top and a copper wire, which served as a radio aerial. It also conducted lightning. In one storm there was a fierce lightning strike where the Visitor Center parking lot is now. It took out our last hydrogen balloon. It was most amazing . . . and explosive.
Other students were doing surveys of the microorganisms in Lincoln Pond and taking core samples in Lake Myosotis to examine the sediments.
Two boys tracked the currents in Lake Myosotis. Every night the boys had to wait until after dark. They went up to the old boathouse, got into the Preserve’s rowboat, and rowed up to the marsh. There they placed a tiny wooden raft in the water. It had an underwater battery pack and a mast with a light on top. Then they would row back to shore—right where the Jessie Huyck nature cottage is now—and put a Rollei 4×4 camera on a 50-foot tower. The camera’s shutter was open all night so by morning the exposed film would show a tracing of the light as it moved along the subsurface current from the marsh all the way to the dam. The boys had to retrieve the camera before daybreak.
At 5:30 one morning the boys were returning from the Lake and riding down the steep Pond Hill Road on one bike (normally they each rode their own bikes, but that morning one was broken). The bike crashed through a picket fence at the bottom of the hill. One boy lay unconscious as the other managed to crawl back to the Mill House for help. They were taken to the hospital, stayed three days for observation, and then returned to the Mill House as if nothing had happened.
All seven students went on to have successful careers. One became an environmental lawyer and a member of the public service commission in one of the midwestern states. One of the boys who crashed through the fence is a businessman who’s done so well that he recently made a major gift to Purdue University’s Wellness Center in West Lafayette, Indiana. Another boy became a legal communications expert for the Homeland Security Administration. Before that he worked for the Federal Court System and found a new way to streamline communications of court information.
The one who is perhaps the most famous is the boy who was knocked unconscious in the bike accident—David Weininger (second from left in photo). He never finished high school or college, but went directly into a graduate program and earned his Ph.D. in water chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He invented Simplified Molecular Input Line Entry Specification (SMILES), a universal language for chemical compounds; co-founded a company that does rapid analysis of massive chemical databases; and has developed specialized computer software for chemists. In still another venture, he and an emergency medicine physician friend have set up a mobile emergency room (ER) that goes out to the Native American population in the New Mexico desert. The mobile ER is housed in a six-wheel all-terrain vehicle that they bought from the Australian armed forces.
All those boys were, and still are, geniuses.