Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chukovskaya on scientists

One of the things that make Chukovskaya's memoir particularly interesting is its porousness, the way it incorporates many aspects of what constituted "culture" at the time (1930s), what a certain class of people--the Leningrad intelligentsia--were interested in, what concerned them. She had made it her life goal to record this culture, to give its possibility of transcendence, and she stuck with this project from one text to another, from Akhmatova diaries to her own poetry and fiction to her political essays in defense of Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky.

The passage below is particularly interesting because it shows the impact of the current breakthroughs in theoretical physics on the life of the society at large; she underlines that even people who were very far from understanding the meaning of the new discoveries in physics were nevertheless involved in public discussions of the implications and practical applications of these discoveries. Physicists, young physicists, were people to know, to socialize with. Hence, her own meeting with a physicist Matvej (Mitya) Bronshtein -- not accidental at all.

"The vague reports of Bronshtein’s rising celebrity had preceded our meeting. I met him for the first time in the spring of 1931. Everyone around me was talking about Matvei Petrovich then, and the kinds of things they said! I’d heard all kinds of tall tales about this rising star, Bronshtein! He was a scientist, a man of letters, a theoretical physicist, an expert in the history of science, a public speaker. He had had a special status in high school as a non-resident student, and every year had passed exams for two or three school years at once. Wunderkind! At the university, too, he had completed his coursework faster than usual. He had started publishing his papers in the Soviet and international journals possibly as early as seventeen years old. They said he studied languages: every month a new language. He had taught himself four languages, but if he wanted to—within a month he could pick up a fifth and a sixth. Fantastic memory. Now Matvei Petrovich was no longer a student, but worked at the Institute of Physics and Technology, was a full-time participant of their famous seminars. In addition to purely scientific work at the Institute known as the Ioffe Institute, he wrote popular articles in the journals of natural history. In a word, not a man—a phenomenon. “The seventh wonder of the world.”

People talked about the formation of the new school of theoretical physics… Alongside Bronshtein, the names of the young—Gamow, Landau, Ivanenko, Ambartsumyan— intermingled with the names of the older, distinguished scientists—Ioffe, Frenkel, Fock, Tamm. The people of letters were uninitiated in the formal sciences and had only vague understanding of who was exactly who and what was exactly what, and where the heart of the matter lay, but they did like to chitchat about science. According to their interpretations, it was not clear whether the young physicists learned from their elders or overthrew their findings, whether the two groups were at war with each other or bound by loving friendship. As it were, everyone expected the young to produce radical discoveries.

Nils Bohr, Rutherford, Dirac… The atomic nucleus, the age and evolution of stars, atom fission, positrons, neutrons, demons, the devil… And of course—Einstein.

At the time, I mingled only within the literary circle. A daughter of a versatile man of letters, myself an editor of a publishing house."

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