Malcolm S Longair Moscow

Jupsat Pro Astronomy Software

Secrets of the Deep Sky

Get Instant Access

Malcolm Longair carried out his postgraduate studies at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory of the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, from 1963 to 1967. He spent the academic year 1968-1969 as Royal Society Exchange Fellow to Moscow. Subsequently, he was Astronomer Royal for Scotland and Director of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh from 1980 to 1991. He returned to Cambridge in 1991 as Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy and from 1997 to 2005 was Head of the Cavendish Laboratory.

I was fortunate enough to be in Moscow during the period September 1968 to July 1969 under the Royal Society - USSR Academy of Science Exchange Fellowship scheme when the Moscow Group led by Zel'dovich made many of their fundamental contributions to cosmology. For me, this was an incredible period of study when I came into daily contact with physicists and astronomers who had been brought up in a rather different scientific and political tradition from that of Western scientists. I have already given an account of how I came to spend this period as a postdoc working with Zel'dovich and his colleagues in my essay Encounters with Zel'dovich in the volume celebrating his life and work, Zel'dovich: Reminiscences (Sunyaev 2004). This essay concerned my interactions with him and his colleagues from 1968 onward.

In this present essay, my aims are quite different. The intention is to give some impression of the circumstances under which Zel'dovich and his colleagues carried out their ground-breaking research in astrophysics and cosmology. All my friends and colleagues in the USSR carried out their research in a rather constrained social, political, and scientific environment. The fact that they were so successful can be attributed to the leadership and dynamism of an outstanding group of senior scientists.

Astronomy and cosmology up to the death of Stalin

The history of the late 1960s cannot be appreciated without some understanding of the historical background to astronomical research in the early years of the Soviet Union and the post-War period up to the death of Stalin. Before the October Revolution of 1917, Russian astronomy had enjoyed a considerable international reputation. Founded in 1839, the Pulkovo Observatory at St. Petersburg grew into a world-class organization under the successive directorships of F. G. V. Struve and his son Otto Struve. The Moscow University Observatory, later to become the Shternberg Astronomical Institute, was founded in 1830 and was primarily intended for teaching. Distinguished work on variable stars was carried out by its director Vitold K. Tseraskii and his wife Lidiya P. Tseraskaya in the latter years of the 19th century. At the outbreak of World War I, the Russian empire, which included observatories at Kazan, Tashkent, and Kharkov, was undoubtedly a major force in world astronomy.

Matters deteriorated rapidly after the outbreak of World War I. Following the October Revolution of 1917 and the devastating Civil War which followed, living conditions became very harsh and contacts between the Observatories and with the West were broken off for several years. It was only in the early 1920s that communications were restored with the international community. Some astronomers were actively involved in the Civil War. For example, Pavel K. Shternberg, Director of the Moscow University Observatory, had been a long-standing member of the Bolshevik party and was involved in the artillery barrage which supported the Red Guard troops who stormed the Kremlin in 1917.

An example of the impact of this scientific isolation of the new formed Soviet State was that it was not until the early 1920s that Aleksandr A. Friedman had access to Einstein's papers of 1915 on general relativity. He and his colleagues then began an in-depth study of the implications of this work. This led to Friedman's (1922, 1924) famous papers which established what are now known as the standard Friedman world models of modern cosmology. Friedman was employed by the Main Geophysical Observatory at Leningrad where his principal responsibilities and researches were in meteorology and the atmospheric sciences. His death from typhoid in 1925 was a tragic loss.

Initially the astronomers were optimistic that the future of astronomy would be placed on a firmer funding basis as part of a planned socialist economy, rather than depending upon the generosity of private benefactors such as Lick and Carnegie, as was the case in the USA. Stalin's victory over his rivals in the 1930s resulted in the drive to replace bourgeois pre-revolutionary specialists by unqualified political appointments, and astronomy suffered badly. This was at least partly ideologically driven as part of the philosophy of dialectic materialism, which was enshrined as official Soviet policy for all aspects of Soviet life, including the sciences. As expressed by Bronshten and McCutcheon,6

Scientists were now expected to denounce all theoretical trends in modern science that were incompatible with Soviet ideology. Not to do so made one vulnerable to accusations of idealism and anti-Soviet sympathies.

Those who were perceived to continue carrying out research according to the traditions of the pre-revolutionary era were in considerable danger. Dissension broke out at the Pulkovo Observatory and this contributed to the purge of Leningrad astronomers during the period of Stalin's Great Purges of the late 1930s. Many astronomers were arrested. Boris P. Gerasimovich, Director of the Pulkovo Observatory, was executed in 1937 and Boris V. Numerov, the director of the Leningrad Astronomical Institute, had the same fate in 1941. Similar devastation occurred at the Tashkent Observatory. At the Pulkovo and Shternberg Observatories, A. D. Drozd and

6 I obtained much valuable information about this period from the October 1995 edition of

Journal for the History of Astronomy, Volume 26, which was devoted to Astronomy in the

Soviet Union, eds. Doel and McCutcheon (1995).

A. A. Kancheev were appointed Directors of the respective Observatories, neither of them having the stature or qualifications to run these observatories, but they were Communist Party members who were fully committed to the Soviet "cultural revolution."

Matters did not improve markedly immediately after World War II. Just as the Zhdanov Committee had condemned Shostakovich for "formalism" in his musical compositions, and genetics ceased to exist as a discipline following the Lysenko affair, other sciences including astronomy were subject to political intervention. In 1951, the Soviet authorities convened an all-Union Conference on Cosmogony with the specific objective of criticizing cosmological ideas which were not consistent with dialectic materialism. This conference was similar to earlier conferences on biology, chemistry, psychiatry, and neurology which undoubtedly held back progress in these disciplines. The 1951 conference was highly critical of many aspects of Western cosmology. For example, the singular beginning of the universe according to big bang cosmology was presented as religiously inspired. Some distinguished astronomers contributed to the attack on Western values. As stated by Doel and McCutcheon (1995),

Western astronomers, already aware of Lysenko's disruption of Soviet genetics, became anxious about the intellectual autonomy of Soviet astronomy, particularly as V.A. Ambartsumian, P.P. Parenago and B.A. Vorontsov-Velyaminov published polemical attacks criticising the capitalist ideology of Western astronomers and its injurious effects on theoretical astrophysics.

Although a similar conference was planned for physics, it escaped these political strictures for the very practical reason that Stalin needed to develop nuclear weapons to counter the threat of the West. The Manhattan project in the USA had its parallel in the USSR, where many of the very brightest physicists contributed to the efforts to develop the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Although the Soviet physicists had access to Western data thanks to the efforts of spies within the US-UK-Canadian collaboration, a huge amount of original science was carried out and the Soviet hydrogen bomb used a different principle from that developed in the USA.

The Soviet effort was led by Yulii B. Khariton, Igor V. Kurchatov, and Yakov B. Zel'dovich and they were supported by a galaxy of great Soviet physicists including Lev D. Landau, Andrei D. Sakharov and Vitali L. Ginzburg, and the great mathematician Israil M. Gelfand. These scientists worked under the greatest pressure to succeed in the development of nuclear weapons and they carried out physics of the very highest quality in pursuit of this goal. A beautiful example is the work on the derivation of the Kompaneets equation which was completed as early as 1949 through their joint efforts but which only appeared in the literature in 1956 under the name of Aleksandr S. Kompaneets (1956) who was given permission to publish this research. The contributions of Zel'dovich, Landau, Gelfand, and Dyakov are acknowledged in the published paper. The physics which came out of these studies was to have a profound impact upon Zel'dovich's future studies in cosmology.

The Soviet nuclear program was a great success but it led directly to the Cold War which was to dominate relations between the USSR and the West for many years to come. The leaders of the program were awarded the highest honors for this work. Zel'dovich was awarded the Order of Lenin, named three times Hero of Socialist Labour and four times awarded the State Stalin Prize. The enormous contributions by the theoretical and experimental physicists afforded them a rather special status within the Soviet system and physics did not suffer political intervention to anything like the extent of other disciplines.

Another problem concerned the persecution of particular communities within Soviet society. Campaigns were waged against "rootless cosmopolitans," meaning largely those of Jewish origin. This was a potential threat to a number of prominent members of the physics and astronomy community. The result of all these strictures was to isolate the Soviet astronomers from the rest of the international community. The meeting of the IAU planned to be held in Leningrad in 1951 was cancelled under pressure from Western astronomers.

Topics such as special and general relativity and cosmology were therefore potentially dangerous areas for study. Yet, the flame was kept alive by a few individuals. Among the most important contributions made through this period was Evgeny M. Lifshitz's profound and influential paper (Lifshitz 1946) on the development of small perturbations in the expanding universe. In so far as the authorities might have been able to understand this great paper, which involved perturbations of the spacetime metric in general relativity, Lifshitz's conclusion that the large-scale structure of the universe could not have come about through the growth of infinitesimal fluctuations in an expanding universe, because they grow as a power law rather than exponentially, must at least have seemed politically correct.

Another key figure was Abram L. Zelmanov, who worked on the mathematical theory of general relativity at the Shternberg Institute throughout his career. He was a shy and physically weak man but he had exceptional qualities as a knowledgable scientist and a good teacher. He was accused of having a "lack of publications," of not being "scientifically active," "disjoint from real life," and so on. He was dismissed from his position at the Institute but the accusations were milder than they might have been. He was loyal to the system and a member of the Communist Party and so was given back his post at the Shternberg Institute where he remained for the rest of his life. There, he provided a healthy scientific environment and made his expertise available to anyone interested in cosmology. Besides the distinction of his own work, he was the teacher of the next generation of physicists and mathematicians who would become specialists in general relativity. These were to include Igor D. Novikov and Leonid P. Grishchuk.

A third key figure was Vladimir A. Fok, who contributed to many different areas of physics, particularly to quantum mechanics and relativity. He was a remarkable survivor through the turbulent years of the 1930s to 1960s when he did his greatest work. From our present perspective, his most important contribution was his book Theory of Space, Time and Gravitation (Fok 1964), which was to begin the revival of research in these areas in the 1960s. Interestingly, the book contains not only a sound exposition of the special and general theories of relativity but also what Freeman Dyson describes as "... an eloquent and at times somewhat polemical plea for an unorthodox interpretation of Einstein's theory of gravitation."

Stalin died in 1953 and the subsequent Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras saw a relaxation of the constraints on astrophysical and cosmological research, but the restrictions on contacts with the West remained in place. Most important for our story is the fact that, although the relaxation came as a great relief to everyone, the political system bequeathed by Stalin and the means of enforcing the restrictions on Soviet life remained in place. In particular, the system set up by the Committee for State Security (KGB) during the Stalin era remained omnipresent in Soviet life and was governed by the same suspicion of individuals which had pervaded the Stalinist era. There is no question but that the USSR was a police-state in which the KGB had essentially unlimited power to make life difficult if one did not follow the written and unwritten rules.

It is also important that what I have described above was all relatively recent history when I arrived in Moscow in 1968. I knew essentially nothing of this history at the time. I had, however, been inspired by my meetings with Ginzburg in Cambridge and by the work in cosmology which I had heard described at international conferences. I was therefore very pleased that Ginzburg agreed to act as host when I obtained the Royal Society - USSR Academy of Sciences exchange fellowship to spend the academic year 1968 to 1969 in Moscow. As it turned out, I actually had much stronger scientific collaborations with Zel'dovich and his colleagues than with Ginzburg's colleagues. This proved to be an extraordinary learning and research experience. I also had, and continue to have, a deep love of Russian music and literature - I wanted to experience the culture at first hand. Fortunately, I had been very well briefed by the Royal Society about what the KGB might get up to in order to demonstrate the perfidy of the West and/or to obtain blackmail material to be used at some time in the future when one might be in a position to be seriously embarrassed by their revelations.

The Moscow Scene

The theme of this collection of essays is cosmology and the big bang and so I will concentrate upon the astrophysicists and cosmologists whose work was most influential in these areas. Let me emphasize the great privilege it was to be on friendly terms with many of those listed below, despite the fact that contact with a long-term visitor from the West carried the potential of making difficulties for them. I had nothing but goodwill and lasting friendships with many of them.

The principal players in the story and their institutes were as follows:7

• Lebedev Physical Institute, Moscow

Vitali L. Ginzburg, Sergei I. Syrovatskii, Leonid M. Ozernoi, Gennadi V. Chibisov, Tigran A. Shmaonov, Andrei D. Linde, and David A. Kirzhnits.

• Shternberg Astronomical Institute, Moscow University

Iosef S. Shklovsky*, Nikolai S. Kardashev*, Solomon B. Pikelner, Leonid P. Grishchuk, Vladimir G. Kurt****, and Abram L. Zelmanov.

• Institute of Applied Mathematics, Moscow

Yakov B. Zel'dovich, Rashid A. Sunyaev**, Andrei G. Doroshkevich, Igor D. Novikov**, and Alexei A. Starobinsky***.

• Kapitza Institute of Physical Problems, Moscow Evgeny M. Lifshitz.

• Landau Institute of Theoretical Physics, Chernogolovka Isaak M. Khalatnikov and Vladimir A. Belinsky.

• Ioffe Physical Institute, Leningrad

Lev E. Gurevich, Artur D. Chernin and Dmitri A. Varshalovich.

7 * Moved to the Space Research Institute (IKI) in 1972. ** Moved to the Space Research Institute in 1974. *** Starobinsky was a student at Moscow University, supervised by Zel'dovich. **** Kurt joined IKI in 1967 but was housed in the Shternberg Institute until the new IKI building was completed in the early 1970s.

• Pulkovo Branch of the Special Astronomical Observatory, Leningrad Yuri N. Pariiskii.

• Department of Applied Mathematics, Gorkii State University Samuil A. Kaplan.

It is apparent that the cosmological scene was dominated by the institutes based in Moscow. There were regular visitors from Leningrad and other astronomical centers throughout the USSR, in particular from the Observatories in the Crimea, the Special Astrophysical Observatory which ran the 6-m optical telescope at Zelenchukskaya, from the RATAN-600 radio telescope, from the Tartu Astronomical Institute in Estonia, from the Observatories in Armenia and Georgia, and so on. Undoubtedly, however, the cosmological scene was dominated by Moscow and, in particular, by Zel'dovich and his colleagues.

There are a number of important differences in the way science was carried out in these institutes as compared with the UK or the USA. First of all, these were all state-funded and state-controlled organizations. Although some of the scientists lectured at Moscow Physical-Technical Institute, these were primarily research institutes. Thus, the environment was not that of a University Department and University scientists made little contribution to cosmological studies.

A consequence of the institutes being state-controlled was that there was necessarily a strong KGB presence in all of them. Cooperation with the KGB was necessary for everyone to a greater or lesser extent and this had to be regarded as just a part of normal life. Identity cards were needed to enter these institutes. There was, however, a very different degree of formality associated with these institutes. During my stay in 1968-1969, I was involved with the first three in the above list.

• The Institute of Applied Mathematics was a completely closed Institute, which was involved in aspects of the nuclear program and other high security disciplines. Zel'dovich had his base in this Institute. My colleagues indicated to me that I should not be seen in the vicinity of this Institute and to this day I do not know where it is - I did not even want to ask for obvious reasons.

• The Lebedev Physical Institute was the principal Physics Institute in Moscow and Vitali L. Ginzburg was the host for my visit of 1968-1969. The Lebedev Institute was a very powerful physics institute indeed and had a remarkably strong liberal culture. After his exile and return to Moscow, Andrei Sakharov remained a member of the Lebedev Institute, which continued to offer him an intellectual base despite being on difficult terms with the authorities. • The Shternberg Astronomical Institute was the most open of all the institutes and this was the place to meet colleagues, particularly at the seminars run in alternate weeks by Zel'dovich and Shklovsky.

The scientific atmosphere in all these institutes was at the very highest level, particularly in the area of theoretical physics and astrophysics. The seminars at the Shternberg Institute were always memorable since all Moscow astrophysicists would make a point of attending these each week and the discussions were very lively indeed. What impressed me most was the depth of physical understanding which all the participants displayed. It is difficult to imagine a more lively intellectual atmosphere. All the pioneering work of the Moscow astronomers was discussed and thrashed out at these seminars. Of course, there were tensions - relations between Ginzburg and Shklovsky were not good, as is apparent from Ginzburg's (2001) reminiscences.

There were, however, strong impediments to the normal practice of research. Besides the constraints already discussed and the memories of the difficult years of the recent past, one of the biggest problems was access to Western journals. The institutes subscribed to all the major journals such as The Astrophysical Journal and Nature, but the originals could not be put on the library bookshelves. All advertisements had to be cut out of the journals, as well as all articles in journals such as Nature which might contain items not in accord with the political views of the authorities. These bowdlerized versions of the journals were then reprinted and arrived at the libraries. This entailed typically a six-month delay or longer before the journals became available to the Soviet scientists. In fact, one or two early copies did arrive in Moscow by quite unofficial routes thanks to the generosity of certain Western astronomers and these were pored over voraciously by all those who could get access to them.

Just as difficult were the problems of publication in the Western literature. All papers which were ready for submission to the scientific journals had to go through a rather long approval process before they could be sent off. For papers to be published in the Soviet journals, such as Astronomicheskikh Zhurnal, JETP, or Soviet Physics Doklady, reasonably prompt publication could be assured, but the system made it essentially impossible for papers to be sent to The Astrophysical Journal or Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Zel'dovich and some of the most senior and distinguished astronomers were able to overcome these problems, but the vast majority of research was significantly delayed in reaching the attention of Western astronomers. Rashid Sunyaev and I were able to publish three joint papers in Western journals while I was in Moscow, but this was because I was in a special position under the Royal Society-USSR exchange agreement. Translations of the major Soviet journals began to appear in the West in the late 1950s and these were of considerable help in disseminating the Soviet research, but these always appeared at least six months after their publication in the Soviet Union.

The other means of disseminating Soviet research to Western scientists was through international conferences. Foreign travel was, however, very restricted and those who were allowed to travel to major meetings had to be accompanied by representatives of the KGB. Zel'dovich and Sunyaev were not allowed to leave the Soviet bloc until the 1980s. In Zel'dovich's case, this was undoubtedly due to his involvement in the nuclear weapons program. Sadly, it meant that he was not able to take up the Honorary Doctorate awarded by Cambridge University because of his inability to come to Cambridge in person. In Rashid's case, it was almost certainly largely due to the very productive collaborations we had during my various visits to Moscow. As a result, Zel'dovich and Sunyaev were never able to present their work in person, or benefit from face-to-face discussions with Western scientists working in the same field, unless they could meet in the Soviet bloc.

As a result of these travel problems, those who were permitted to travel abroad had to present the new results on behalf of those who couldn't. I remember being very impressed indeed by the researches which Igor Novikov presented in January 1967 at the New York "Texas" Symposium. He had to summarize a vast amount of innovative work of outstanding quality. This work had not yet become available in the scientific literature and there were concerns among my Moscow colleagues about the means of establishing priority for the origin of new ideas when Western scientists could publish the same material very much more rapidly in Western journals. Although I personally believe this was not really a problem, the perception that it might be was always there because of the severe restrictions on publication and travel.

The way round these problems was to organize meetings within the Soviet bloc. Interestingly, although the Soviet Union withdrew from essentially all International Scientific Unions after World War II, it remained a member of the IAU throughout the period of the Cold War. As a result, Soviet astronomers were able to attend officially approved meetings of the IAU. It was, however, only the privileged few of the best astronomers who were able to travel abroad. Therefore, the organization of IAU meetings within the USSR was one of the most important ways of developing communications with the West. I was able to help with two of these. Zel'dovich entrusted me with organizing the scientific program of the 1973 IAU Meeting in Krakow, Poland entitled Confrontation between Cosmological Theories and Observational Data. For the first time many of the very greatest minds from the USSR and the West were able to meet under what would be considered normal international conditions anywhere else. The same may be said of the 1977 meeting on The Large Scale Structure of the Universe which Jaan Einasto and I organized in Tallinn in Estonia.

Surveillance by the KGB was simply a part of life. I was certainly aware of being the subject of surveillance but it did not impact my science program. Later, when I went back to the Space Research Institute to work with Rashid in the mid-1970s, all our discussions were monitored and an "interpreter" sometimes was present in case we exchanged written notes. Socially, one had to be careful, but I was still able to go regularly to the Bolshoi Teatr, to the jazz sessions at the Cafe Pechora, and to the Teatr Taganka where some of the most liberal plays were performed. Indeed, on one occasion a KGB officer was helpful in enabling me to hear the Russian Orthodox Easter services.

Finally, one important aspect of the Soviet system was the way one progressed up through the scientific hierarchy. Although the prices of all basic commodities for living were kept artificially low, any luxury goods were very difficult to come by. Appointment as a corresponding or full member of the USSR Academy of Sciences not only brought prestige, but also a very significant increase in salary and, just as important, privileges to use special shops selling goods that were normally impossible to buy and improved accommodation. As a result, promotion within the system carried with it a very significant improvement in lifestyle. As can be imagined, rivalries for promotion were intense.

Zel'dovich and his colleagues

This is the background against which Zel'dovich and his colleagues carried out their ground-breaking research in astrophysics and cosmology. Zel'dovich left the nuclear program in 1963, but even before then he developed a strong interest in astrophysics and cosmology. Within the Institute of Applied Mathematics, he put together a very powerful team of some of the very best young theoretical physicists to tackle problems which were to lead to the revival of interest in general relativity and cosmology. Igor Novikov was among the first to join him and, as Igor has recalled in his reminiscences, his job was to provide the necessary expertise in general relativity which was not then a strong weapon in Zel'dovich's armory. He was joined by Andrei Doroshkevich and later by Rashid Sunyaev, who was Zel'dovich's research student.

The science they carried out is dealt with elsewhere in this book and is now a matter of record. Zel'dovich had the enormous advantage of understanding the physics of ultra-high temperature plasmas in great detail and was a coauthor with Yuri P. Raizer of the definitive monograph on the subject (Zel'dovich and Raizer 1968). Paralleling the experience in the USA, the nuclear program made possible much better estimates of the nuclear cross sections needed to predict the primordial abundances of the light elements and, although the details were not published until very much later, they made excellent estimates of the primordial abundances and how they depended on physical conditions in the early universe.

Zel'dovich was a hard taskmaster and would expect the highest performance from his younger colleagues. They had to be on call at essentially any time of the day or night to come to his apartment in Vorobeyevsky Prospekt to discuss astrophysics and cosmology. He worked very fast and kept a very strong interest in all the works of his colleagues. The breadth and depth of his researches were quite staggering. He began to publish papers in astrophysics and cosmology only from the age of 50 onward, quite different from the profile of all other great astrophysicists. But this was possible because of his very deep involvement and commitment to physics and research throughout an extraordinarily eventful lifetime. It is not an exaggeration to say that Zel'dovich was the driving force behind the enormous development of astrophysical cosmology in the Soviet Union. Furthermore, it had to be done essentially in isolation from the rest of the international physics and astrophysics community.

Concluding remarks

These are not easy topics to write about because my Moscow colleagues were all living and working under constraints quite unfamiliar to Western scientists. While the period under discussion is now becoming better understood, it is not obvious to me that we will ever really get to the bottom of many important issues. Symptomatic of this was the hope and expectation during the 1990s that, once the state archives had become more publicly available after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a clearer picture of what had actually happened would become available. As soon as the first archives were opened, however, it became obvious that they could cause embarrassment to many individuals and the archives have been closed again. It is not at all obvious that the real story will come out until after many of those involved have passed away.

This concern applies equally to trying to disentangle how Zel'dovich and his colleagues were able to overcome all the impediments of the system and produce science of the very highest quality. For me, all the astrophysicists on my list of key players are heroic figures in that they overcame the somewhat unnatural constraints on normal scientific discourse and carried out wonderful and original science. I owe them more than can be adequately expressed in words for the scientific enlightenment they so generously offered me and for their lasting friendships.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Telescopes Mastery

Telescopes Mastery

Through this ebook, you are going to learn what you will need to know all about the telescopes that can provide a fun and rewarding hobby for you and your family!

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment