The Corner

The Patch of Light in The Jungle

Commenting on the exchange yesterday between Derb and me on science in the USSR, this fascinating email. (I know I keep saying this, but it’s true: What readers we have!)

Mr. Robinson,

I graduated Summa Cum Laude from the Physics Dept of Moscow U in 1989 and

then came here (I now live in Charlotte) after the Wall came down (BTW that

was a great speech that you wrote!), so I have some knowledge of the matter.

The situation with science in the USSR was very uneven. Physics was

generally considered ideologically safe because, well, it is materialistic,

i.e. gives material explanation of the natural world and thus is hardly

incosistent with Dialectical Materialism. In the early years of the USSR

there were some ideological objections to relativity theory etc., but all

that soon got abandoned. I think there were several reasons: 1) physics

research was non-threatening ideologically (as long as physicists steered

clear of philosophical interpretations), 2) utility of physics for making

weapons was soon realized (especially after Hiroshima), 3) physics is a

difficult subject about which Stalin and most of his ideologues had no clue,

so it was really difficult for them to make any meaningful pronouncements,

while those who had the ability and actually invested a considerable effort

into learning it generally were not interested in making ideological hay out

of it or perhaps just did not want to make fools of themselves by making

claims that could soon be experimentally proven untrue.

So my education in physics was virtually free of ideology

(although for five years I had to take courses in such

wondeful subjects as Scientific Communism), lip service

to which was largely relegated to forewords in textbooks which would

typically just say that the textbook in question absolutely had to be

written because the latest party congress resolved to improve the training

of new professionals for the Soviet economy and science. Also, ever since

Stalin conducted a campaign against “servility before the West” in the late

1940’s, Russian priority in everything (including invention of steam

locomotive, radio and airplane!) was discovered and some things were

renamed – e.g. French rolls became Moscow rolls and some Russian names were

inserted into some physics and math terms (e.g. the Clausius-Clapeyron

equation became Mendeleev-Clapeyron equation). But that was about it.

Softer sciences did not fare nearly as well. I suspect that was Derb had in mind

was probably the infamous (and bloody) campaign against genetics headed by

charlatan Lysenko (who in the process made some outrageous claims very

similar to medieval notions that mice could spontaneously appear out of

nothing in a pile of dirty laundry). Also, cybernetics used to be call

“imperialism’s whore”. Of course, what existed of social sciences in the

Soviet Union amounted to little more than intellectual prostitution on

behalf of pimps in the Politburo (to continue with Soviet metaphors).

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