Share this article with friends
By Engel KARPEYEV, director of the M. V. Lomonosov Museum, Russian Academy of Sciences
It happened on June 8, 1741. A tall man of sturdy build and expressive features approached the building of the Kunstkammer (Museum of Curiosities) in St. Petersburg. Just back from Germany, he was going to the office of the Academy of Sciences to report to Counsellor I. Schumacher. Schumacher received him kindly and had him enrolled in a class of university students. Thereupon the counsellor directed the young man to Academician I. Amman to help catalog the stones and fossils in the Kunstkammer's mineralogical collection. That's how Mikhail Lomonosov began his service to Russian science and culture.
Mikhail Vassilyevich Lomonosov, then twenty-nine, devoted the rest of his life, that is nearly a quarter of a century, to this service. An erudite, he had an inquisitive mind and multifarious talents. An avid thirst for knowledge was his salient characteristic. A humble peasant from Russian Far North, Lomonosov went to school rather late, at 19, when he entered the Slav-Greek-Latin Academy in Moscow, then the only school of higher learning in Russia founded way back in 1687 for schooling the clergy. Early in 1736 he was among the best students sent by the Senate to the Academy's university in St. Petersburg for further education which he continued abroad as well. Late in 1736 Lomonosov was taking a course at Marburg University (Hessen, Germany) famous for instruction in the natural sciences. Three years after, Lomonosov went to Freiberg, the ore-mining center in Saxony, for further learning.
Back home, Lomonosov first took up physics and chemistry, and for his accomplishments in these fields merited the academic degree of Junior Scientific Assistant (1742); in July 1745 Mikhail Lomonosov and the poet Vassily Trediakovsky became the first Russian academicians, that is, full members of the Academy of Sciences. Emperor Peter the Great, the founder of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, had a dream: that the sciences, once born in Greece, would come to Russia someday, and the Academy of Sciences would be of Russian stock. Now his dream was coming true.
Lomonosov showed a stroke of genius back in his Marburg days when he familiarized himself with contemporary physics (not Aristotelian physics, mind you!) and got to know its theories on the structure of matter. From that time on our savant was tempted by the possibility of explaining nearly all natural phenomena by the atomic hypothesis and on the basis of methods propounded by the French scientist Rene Descartes early in the 17th century. While staying abroad, Lomonosov had to send his research papers ("dissertations") to St. Petersburg. Their subjects show that the young scientist thought of developing an atomic-molecular theory of his own, and he devoted quite a bit of time to this work. Even though mathematics was not his forte, he wrote those dissertations and other treatises on physics by the mathematical method. Lomonosov would make do only with the four basic operations of arithmetic and did not use algebraic expressions-rather, he opted for narrative descriptions of his deductions. His mathematical method worked as follows: first a theorem, corollaries and axioms; next came proofs deduced by logic and from experiments of other scientists, and last, the Q.E.D. (quoderat demonstrandum, i.e. "which was to be proved") formula.
His Cartesian philosophy* was manifest chiefly in his dedication to the mechanistic paradigm. Accordingly, Lomonosov
* The philosophy of Rene Decartes (1596 - 1650), which gained currency in the 17th and 18th centuries. It divided the world into two principles independent of each other- "thinking" and "extended" substances. Hence the dualism of this philosophy.- Ed.
held that all interactions in nature were effected only through the direct mechanic impact of some material bodies upon others. No remote action, no long-range interaction! He was adamant on this point. Lomonosov and Descartes thought the main and only form of motion to be movement in space; true, Lomonosov added also the oscillatory and rotary motion of minute particles of matter (he called them insensitive, i.e. insensible, physical particles).
Both held that space was voidless (no vacuum), that is it was filled completely, while the motive force was of the same magnitude. Descartes measured it by what he called a "live force" (1/2 mV 2 ); Lomonosov, however, adhered to the Newtonian momentum (mV). Descartes believed the chief characteristics of the material world was in its spatial extension; and, according to Lomonosov, "the body is an extension possessing the force of inertia". Descartes predicated his physical constructions on a single axiom underlying all of "natural philosophy" (Lomonosov had several axioms). This Cartesian axiom- cogito, ergo sum ("I think, hence I am") - became a pat formula for sundry corollaries and mechanic models of physical phenomena, especially when formal logic did not work. In such cases the French savant advanced ad hoc hypotheses. Lomonosov, though sticking to the same principle, followed in the footsteps of the 17th-century English physicist Robert
Boyle and attempted to develop mechanic models of chemical phenomena in what he described as physical chemistry.
Elected to the Academy of Sciences, Lomonosov devoted his first works to creating his "own system of entire physics". He kept working on this project even when under house arrest in 1743 - 1744. Leaving aside the astronomical research project suggested by the French astronomer and geographer Joseph De Lisle before his coming to Russia in 1726, we see that Lomonosov was the first scientist in Russia to complete a similar project.
Lomonosov also came up with an original theory of the world's physical picture based on the idea of "building bricks of the universe", which he conceived as evanescent material particles, or indivisible atoms, of spherical shape. In his opinion, the surface of these tiny spheres had a system of orderly bulges and hollows (our savant needed that ad hoc hypothesis for explaining the propagation of the three basic colors-yellow, blue and red-in the air). These minute bodies (particles) were constantly rotating, he held, with the velocity of each turn (apparently, angular velocity) being a unit of body heating. Besides, they were in translational and oscillatory motion, and had three veining dimensions (diameters).
These particles (Lomonosov the chemist also called them elements) were aggregated into corpuscles and, depending on their number and density of "packing", formed crystals in a variety of forms. Lomonosov thus tried to explain a lot of things by the mechanic impact of mobile particles (in translational, oscillatory and rotary motion), such as changes in a body's aggregate state; kinetic laws of gases; propagation of light in space; origination of different colors as well as some of the electrical and natural phenomena, down to biological ones.
Lomonosov developed a method of his own for cognizing nature. Hypothesis, he maintained, was the only way to truth. Any natural science history should take account of these two immutable laws: "The Law of Accord of All Causes" and "The Universal Natural Law" of conservation of matter and motion. Our scientist abided by these very principles in writing his works. Some of them were left unfinished, for he was puzzled by the problem of mutual attraction of particles, something that disagreed with his paradigm.
In his letter to Academician Leonard Eulerof June 8, 1748, Lomonosov sought to prove that the concept of remote action (long-range interaction) did not comply with the law of conservation of mass and motion. He articulated his stand as follows: If Body A in a state of quiescence attracts Body B, it imparts Body B a motion it has not. To stress the truth of his inference, Lomonosov wrote his famous statement: All natural phenomena are such that if something is added somewhere, it will be as much diminished elsewhere. "This universal natural law holds for the rules of motion too," he concluded.
A premier poet, Lomonosov was closely involved with belles-lettres and linguistics as well. Elements of Western culture invaded Russian turf rather late, as of the latter half of the 17th century, through Poland and from the south. "New teachers" appeared in Moscow, such as Ye. Slavinetsky Ye. Chudovsky, S. Polotsky and others. These men stood at the source of syllabic poetry in Russia, of foreshortening (perspective) in pictorial arts and polyphony in music. A new type of man entered the stage-one who was the master of his own destiny, and did not depend on God in his creative work. That is, he thought he could do without God, the be-all and the end-all of life. Simeon Polotsky was perhaps the most remarkable of the bunch. A versifier, he proceeded against ignoramuses in his limerics and even tried to popularize scientific learning. Polotsky drew the image of an ideal monarch in his writings. The keynote of his book Psaltery of Sweet Sounds (1676), which he presented to Czar Fyodor, is the Russian state, its might and glory. That's what Peter the Great devoted his life to. Lomonosov revered the great Russian reformist who wrought dramatic changes in this country's life.
Lomonosov, while keeping up the Russian Orthodox tradition, borrowed a good deal from S. Polotsky the enlightener and his credo, and from Peter the Great the reformer with his rationalism and orientation to Western, Protestant, values. He glorified Peter I in his odes as an ideal monarch. Lomonosov wrote odes for the most part, that is in the traditional classicist genre. His spiritual odes were the sublime hymn of God, without peer in the universe, according to the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
Like Polotsky, our great savant dedicated all of his life to enlightenment: in fact, all his books-from the Wolfian Experimental Physics* (1746) to the Ancient Russian History**-were actually textbooks. His Rhetoric and Russian Grammar sowed the seeds of enlightenment too. Mikhailo Lomonosov made wide use of the "tale" genre-suffice if we mention The Tale on the Usefulness of Chemistry (1751), The Tale on Aerial Phenomena Originatingfrom the Electrical Force (1753), and The Tale on the Origin of Light, Presenting a New Theory on Colors (1756). Lomonosov read out these works at public sessions of the Academy of Sciences, their texts were preprinted and circulated in an immense print for those times-in as many as 1,200 copies.
Lomonosov did a lot for improving the performance of the academic gymnasium (grammar school) and university. He outlined the plan for setting up a university in Moscow (now M. V. Lomonosov Moscow State University). Thanks to the passionate involvement of Count I. Shuvalov, much in favor with Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna, this plan was materialized in 1755.
Mikhail Lomonosov was Russia's great savant and enlightener. He furthered a new, rationalist line in the advancement of culture and natural sciences, and in this way masterminded the changeover from the medieval culture to the culture of the new age.
* A translation of L. Tiimming's book containing a brief outline of Christian Wolfs work; it became the first Russian manual of physics that saw several editions in the 18th century.- Auth.
** See: A. Samarin, "Lost Lifetime Publication of Lomonosov", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2000.- Ed.
Permanent link to this publication:
LRussia LWorld Y G