The Scientist in the u.s.s.r

An American of Russian origin and one of this country’s acknowledged authorities on Soviet science, JOHN TURKEVICHis professor of chemistry at Princeton University. His knowledge of Russian has enabled him to keep abreast of the latest Soviet scientific developments and to correspond with Russian scientists.

MODERN science is the result of contributions from many countries. The nuclear age was ushered into the twentieth century by the work of Germans: Planck, Heisenberg, and Hahn; of Frenchmen: Becquerel, Curie, Joliot; of Englishmen: Rutherford, Aston, Cockroft; of a Swiss: Einstein; of a Dane: Bohr; and of Americans: Compton, Lawrence, Urey, and Rabi. The periodic table of chemical elements, though it was drawn up in the nineteenth century by the Russian Mendeleev, was, in the same way, a necessary link in the chain of discoveries and theories that gave birth to nuclear physics.

The basic facts of science and the theories invented to explain them are universal and are largely impervious to national transformations. Their passage over political frontiers and through ideological curtains may alter the printed word, but it does not alter the real content of scientific treatises and textbooks, the organization of scientific facts and theories, and the logical thinking that scientific argument entails. Scientists have long sought to communicate their work in private letters and journals; they have attended international meetings and studied in foreign lands. International coöperation in science has guaranteed not only a minimum of unnecessary duplication but has assured an invaluable cross-fertilization of ideas and helpful criticism.

During much of the last four decades, and particularly under the tyranny of Stalin, the Soviet Union set out to violate almost all of these principles of universal science. Locked up in the shell of its national existence, Russian science was weakened by its isolation from the constructive coöperation and helpful criticism of the West. Extraordinary, chauvinistic claims were advanced on behalf of scientific discoveries supposedly made in Russia; there was a general denunciation of all “undue regard for the achievements of Western science”; the export of Russian scientific journals was curtailed; Soviet scientists rarely appeared at international congresses; and few foreign scientists were admitted to Soviet laboratories. A new type of science arose, a “Marxist science.” In this form of science, conformity with the dialectical materialism of Marx was established as the new and essential criterion of truth.

The struggle between the advocates of this new Marxist science and the supporters of international science culminated in the famous genetics controversy of 1948. In this heated polemic as to whether effects induced by environment are capable of hereditary transmission, scientific experiments were discarded, scientific reasoning was abandoned, and the case was arbitrarily decided by an ex cathedra pronouncement of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The result was the death of genetics as a science in the Soviet Union and the disappearance of a number of prominent Russian scholars from active scientific work.

The repercussions of this decision were quickly felt in other branches of Soviet science. In the field of chemistry a number of Russian scientists were taken to task for espousing the “ideological resonance theory of the structure of organic molecules.” The field of physics was invaded by an artificial controversy centering around the definition of force, the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and the principle of indeterminacy. The result was a distortion of scientific truths and a convulsive re-examination of scientific theories. Numerous public discussions were held, and many scholars were publicly rebuked for what to us in the West appeared as trivial deviations from a weakly delineated party line.

During this period of repression, scientific work was nevertheless carried on in almost all important fields except genetics. The Soviet scientist, particularly if he was working in an area closely associated with projects involving national defense or the country’s well-being, suffered relatively little from the ideological turmoil of the time. His profession was respected. His economic situation was far superior to that of his fellow citizens, and as a result Russian youth continued to be drawn to the fields of science and technology. The scientists who really suffered were those who enjoyed close associations with the West, and it is they who have benefited most from the significant change in climate since Stalin’s death.

Today a superficial calm has settled over the previously harassed scene of Soviet science. The isolation of Russian scholars from foreign colleagues has been partially lifted. The truculent attitude of the Party leadership toward Soviet scientists has disappeared. No violent polemics at present shake the structure of Soviet science. Some of the banished scholars have reappeared, and their reputations seem to have been rehabilitated. Although there has been no official repudiation of Lysenko’s Marxist genetics, the Kremlin no longer appeals to the principles of Marxism for the development of science. Science is now discussed and promoted not as an expression of Communist ideology but as an independent activity of the mind, endowed with its own principles, traditions, techniques, and universality.

WE TOO often forget that Soviet science inherited a proud tradition from Czarist Russia. Two hundred and fifty years ago, Peter the Great was already fully conscious of the growing importance of science and technology. It was this great Westernizer who drew up the plans for the Imperial Academy of Sciences, which was established in 1725 by his wife and successor, Catherine I. To staff it in its formative years foreign scientists were imported, among whom were some of world-wide reputation, such as the mathematician Leonard Euler, who gradually developed a nucleus of Russian scientists in St. Petersburg. A striking product of this development was Michael Lomonosov, a many-sided eighteenth-century genius who founded the University of Moscow and contributed to many branches of learning.

In the nineteenth century, Russian science was far enough advanced to produce several outstanding scientists: Lobachevski, with his formulation of a new non-Euclidean geometry; Mendeleev, with his periodic table of elements; Pavlov, with his theory of conditioned reflexes. In addition there was a host of competent, though less wellknown, scholars. Thus in 1917, when the Soviets seized power, they inherited a well-established, though somewhat staid, Imperial Academy of Sciences; four world-renowned universities at Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Kazan, and a small group of highly competent experts in every branch of science and technology. This heritage from Czarist Russia served as the platform for the astounding scientific and technological development that has since occurred in the Soviet Union.

Soviet science today, like most of the activities in the Soviet state, is highly organized and under direct government control. Research is carried out under the auspices of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences at the Academy institutes, under the Ministry of Higher Education at the universities, and under various specific government ministries at plant laboratories. At the apex of pure research activity stands the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, the revitalized and enlarged successor to the Imperial Academy. The Academy of Sciences is a self-perpetuating body of learned men who, by Soviet law, are responsible for the progress of scientific and scholarly work in present-day Russia. The Academy is divided not only into scientific departments — physics and mathematics, chemistry, geology, biology, and engineering — but also into departments of history and philosophy, economics and law, literature and linguistics.

Election to the Academy is by secret ballot and in most cases is a direct reward for recognized scholarly accomplishments. Great prestige is attached to membership, and this prestige finds its material expression in a lifetime monthly grant of 2500 rubles for corresponding members and 5000 rubles for academicians. (For our purposes seven rubles can be considered equivalent to one dollar.) This grant is awarded in addition to whatever income the member may receive from his research or teaching posts. Membership in the Academy also carries with it special privileges, such as superior housing, both in Moscow and in the country. The value of these rewards is enhanced by the fact that the average income tax in the Soviet Union amounts to less than 5 per cent.

The governing body of the Academy is a presidium composed of the president (at present Alexander Nikolaevich Nesmeyanov), the secretary general (Alexander Topchiev), seven secretaries from the respective departments, four presidents of academies of the associated republics, and eleven other academicians. The presidium advises government agencies, formulates a general scientific program, passes on research proposals, allocates funds and personnel for the various institutes under it, and evaluates the results obtained. In directing and coördinating the intellectual efforts of the Academy, the presidium is guided by two principles. The first is the search for key research problems, whose solution promises to open up broad avenues for future scientific development. The second is the studied application of scientific discoveries to the growth and modernization of the Soviet Union.

This latter aim is fulfilled in a number of ways. Crash programs are established on major objectives such as atomic energy, aeronautical science, calculating machines. General targets and psychological rallying points are set for each year, and these may take such forms as “The science of building dams and hydroelectric stations,” “Science as an aid to agriculture,” “Science to aid reforestation,” and so on. In recent years these broad, diffuse objectives have been replaced by more specific targets such as the development ol rapid digital calculators, the solution of problems in theoretical physics, industrial automation, electronic and semi-conducting devices, catalysis, protein chemistry, high temperature alloys, and power production. The successful launching of several earth satellites is a dramatic tribute to the presidium’s ability to coördinate the requirements of national security (in the field of rocketry) with an imaginative program of pure scientific research.

Graduate work in the Soviet Union leads to two degrees — that of kandidat and doctor of science. It can be carried on either at universities or at the 126 institutes of the Academy. The kandidat degree would appear to be of a slightly lower standard than the American Ph.D. degree, but definitely more advanced than our M.S.

Fundamental research is carried out in the Academy institutes. Their laboratories are well equipped with fine scientific equipment, much of it of Soviet manufacture. The Academy employs a total of 35,000 persons. Of its 13,676 scientists, 145 are academicians, 319 are corresponding members, 1216 have a doctor of science degree, and 5187 that of kandidat. In 1956 there were 2863 Communist Party members on the rolls of the Academy. Of the 24 members of the presidium, 15 are party members.

Research is also carried out at the laboratories of the universities and engineering schools under the Ministry of Higher Education. However, the scientific accomplishments of the universities — with the exception of those of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Kazan — are of minor importance compared to the work of the Academy institutes. This is in marked contrast to the situation in the United States and in Western Europe, where most of the basic research is carried out at the university laboratories.

Applied research is carried out in the many laboratories associated with various government ministries. Research connected with problems specific to the different Union republics, such as Ukraine, Armenia, and so on, is performed in the laboratories and institutes of the academies of the Union republics. A coördinating committee of the U.S.S.R. Academy and an interlocking directorate permits close coöperation between the supreme U.S.S.R. Academy and the regional ones. In recent years the academies of satellite countries have exchanged delegations with that of the Soviet Union, and Moscow has sought to bind the scientific activities of the satellite countries firmly to the Soviet orbit by setting up a nuclear science Center near Moscow for the satellite countries.

IN RUSSIA, as elsewhere, mathematics still dominates the scientific scene. Many branches of both pure and applied science are frustrated in their development, because present-day mathematical techniques do not afford an accurate solution to some key problem; for mathematical formulas alone can provide a scientific description of complex physical phenomena and a consistent analysis of their implications. The general theory of relativity had to be formulated in terms of tensor analysis. Modern quantum mechanics required the solution of equations previously buried in abstruse mathematical treatises, and it necessitated the widespread use of geometrical concepts hitherto regarded as highly sophisticated. The field of mathematics is one in which Russia has traditionally been strong. One of Einstein’s first mathematics instructors — at the Zurich Polytechnic — was Hermann Minkowski, by birth a Russian. Algebra, geometry, and the theory of probability have received a steady contribution of new approaches and formulations from a galaxy of brilliant mathematicians, led by Vladimir Vinogradov, a foreign member of the Royal Society in London. In the field of mathematical physics the Soviet Union can likewise boast of the achievements of Lev D. Landau, the brilliant theoretician of the atomic nucleus, and of many other first-class scientists like Nikolai Bogolyubov, Vladimir Fok, and Igor Tamm.

In recent years the Soviet Academy has paid great attention to the development of electronic calculating machines. Three years ago its presidium announced the establishment of a Computer Center and the operation of two giant computers. The Computer Center is designed to foster the theoretical and practical development of calculating machines, to supervise their construction, and systematically to survey all those areas in science and technology where such machines may save thousands of man-years in the solving of “key problems.” Today the Soviet Academy claims that its two giant computers, the BESM and M-2, are the most rapid in Europe, and that the BESM has been successfully used to translate English into Russian.

The same signs of progress are evident in the field of Soviet astronomy. Two of Russia’s most important observatories which were completely destroyed during World War II — one at Pulkovo near Leningrad, the other in the Crimea — have been rebuilt within the last three years, and a Soviet astronomer named Maskutov is presently working on the construction of the largest telescope in the world.

The same pattern can be found in physics, which has three very active branches: the study of the nucleus, of solids, and of low temperatures. Soviet scientists have been active in all three fields. Their achievements in the military application of nuclear physics are the subject of government pronouncements and of international preoccupation. But Soviet progress has been no less notable in the peaceful uses of atomic energy. The Russians put their first atomic power station (for 5000 kilowatts) into operation near Moscow in the summer of 1954, and at the Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in 1955 they revealed and freely discussed the details of its construction.

At present Great Britain has an atomic energy power station at Calder Hall (with a capacity of 28,000 kilowatts), the French have one of 5000 kilowatt capacity, and we have none. Next year we expect to generate 112,500 kilowatts of atomic power when Shippingport and other atomic plants come into operation. But in the meantime a whole series of atomic power plants is being constructed in the Soviet Union which, according to the latest Russian claims, will provide an estimated 2.5 million kilowatts by 1960. At that time the United States plans to have about one million kilowatts of atomic power available. The Soviet Union is also busy building an atomic icebreaker and a whaler, and Russian scientists have been actively trying to harness thermonuclear reactions for peacetime power use.

ANOTHER interesting race is going on between the United States and the Soviet Union in the construction of larger and larger nuclear accelerators. During the last one hundred and fifty years science has sought to concentrate higher and higher quantities of energy to decompose matter into its most elementary particles. Before World War II the Soviet Academy had built the largest cyclotron in Europe. At about the same time McMillan in California and Weksler in Moscow proposed a design for an accelerator which would avoid the complications introduced by the variability of the mass of the accelerated projectile (as previously indicated by Einstein).

Shortly after World War II several accelerators of this design, called synchrotrons and attaining 400 million volts, were built in the United States. It was not until 1955 that the Soviet Academy of Sciences could issue scientific reports describing results obtained from the development of a 600 million volt proton synchrotron in Moscow. Though this accelerator is to this day larger than any of the same type in the United States, we had already constructed and put into operation accelerators of other types — a 3.6 billion volt cosmotron at the Brookhaven National Laboratory and a 6 billion volt bevatron at the California Radiation Laboratory.

At the Geneva Atomic Conference of 1955 the Russians announced that they expected to complete a 10 billion volt accelerator within a year or two, and in May of 1956 they showed this high voltage machine to American scientists. This accelerator, the most powerful in the world, is turning out results which are known only to Russian scientists. We are presently meeting this challenge by constructing a 25 billion volt accelerator at Brookhaven, but the Russians have already countered by revealing their intention of constructing a 50 billion volt machine. Some appreciation of the magnitude of this international race in particle acceleration can be drawn from the fact that the magnet of the Russian 10 billion volt machine weighs 36,000 tons!

In the field of physical chemistry, a notable recognition of recent Soviet achievements was the award of the 1956 Nobel Prize to Nikolai Semenov. It was Semenov who in the twenties formulated the first complete and consistent theory of explosions and combustion. This theory was later extended and applied to the design of nuclear reactors and weapons. Undoubtedly the theoretical and experimental work of Semenov’s Institute of Physical Chemistry contributed to the development of fuels for the Soviet missile and satellite program.

Some mention should be made of one other field where the Russians are accomplishing prodigious feats—that of scientific publication. It is through scientific journals that scientists keep abreast of recent developments in their own country and abroad. Information thus obtained may be used to modify research programs to avoid wasteful duplication or may serve to stimulate fertile new research.

The Soviet Academy of Sciences has an enormous publishing program: in 1954 it produced 296,000 printed pages and in 1955, 416,000. The Academy publishes over fifty weekly, monthly, and bimonthly journals, which report original scientific work carried on all over the Soviet Union,

To keep abreast of scientific discoveries in the West, three media are used: review journals, translations of foreign treatises, and an abstract journal. The four review journals which cover the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology contain well-written articles providing detailed surveys of subjects of current scientific interest. In addition to this, the Information Bureau of the Academy has begun the publication of information bulletins in a further attempt to keep Soviet scientists informed of developments in critical fields. For the past three decades it has been the policy of the Academy to translate and publish all important American, English, French, and German scientific treatises. These are used to supplement the excellent Russian scientific books in the field of the physical sciences. The latter are well compiled, are published in large numbers, and sell for a low price.

Abstract journals are likewise indispensable for efficient scientific work, for these periodicals condense scientific articles into short pithy items, arrange them into sections under subject headings, and index them according to subject, author, and formula.

Publishing an abstract journal is a very expensive enterprise which is carried out in the fields of chemistry and biology by the United States and in the field of physics by England. In 1953 the Soviet Academy of Sciences embarked on the publication of an abstract journal, Referate, which will cover all fields of science. In one year, 1955, the number of pages in the abstract amounted to some 36,600.

BEFORE World War II only a few countries, the United States, Britain, and Germany, could muster sufficient strength to be active on all the frontiers of science. But twelve years after the end of the war, the Soviet Union has joined the ranks of the major scientific powers. Today we see a nation, endowed by nature with a vast expanse and vast resources, determinedly building its future on science and technology. For this purpose it inherited from Czarist Russia a solid tradition. Under the Soviet regime it has built up a powerful organization and extensive laboratories. The state has provided generous funds for science and education, and it has given both its scientists and educators thorough professional training, financial well-being, and social prestige.

Creative invention, however, requires a proper social, political, and cultural climate, in which freedom to think and to question, to share one’s doubts and hopes with others, and to make mistakes are all necessary privileges. Continuity of creative endeavor is also favored by an inspiring teacher who transmits his personal enthusiasm for creative work to future scholars. How else can one explain the appearance of magnificent, creative minds in countries lacking a highly developed scientific organization —such as Italy, which produced Fermi, Segre, Amaldi, and Rosetti; or Hungary, with its von Neumann, Teller, Wigner, Szilard, and Tolanyi? How else can one explain the absence of creative work in the Soviet Union under Stalin? Yet as one scans the Russian scene today, one sees ambitious plans, tremendous organization, and a steadily expanding plant. Present-day Russia is trying hard to excel in all fields of science and to recoup the losses it suffered through the damaging idiosyncrasies of the Stalin regime.

If, however, Russian science is to “surpass the scientific accomplishments of the West,” as its leaders keep predicting it will, Soviet society must be able to produce a relatively new type — the truly creative scientist. The creative scientist who arises from society in an unpredictable fashion and leaps beyond the recognized barriers of his time is of a naturally rebellious temperament which often makes him persona non grata in a totalitarian regime. A political system must allow at least a minimum of intellectual freedom and elbowroom to tolerate and nurture him.

Under the ideological tyranny of Stalin this type of individual was stifled. Under Khrushchev’s milder rule he may arise to lead Soviet science to new heights. The emergence of such creative leadership is likely to affect all the other higher strata of intellectual life in the Soviet Union: its politics, economics, and its artistic and ideological culture. But it would be a grave mistake to jump to the hopeful conclusion that the emancipation of Russian science will of itself suffice to relax the pressures of Soviet imperialism. The achievements of Soviet science are here to stay, and, for good or ill, they present a challenge which must lead us to re-examine the place we have accorded science and scientists in our own free enterprise society.