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Prominent Russians: Mikhail Lomonosov

November 8, 1711 - April 4, 1765

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Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov was the first Russian scientist-naturalist of universal importance. He was a poet who laid the foundation of modern Russian literary language, an artist, an historian and an advocate of development of domestic education, science and economy. In 1748 he founded the first Russian chemical laboratory at the Academy of Sciences. On his initiative the Moscow University was founded in 1755.

Universal scientist

The scientific discoveries of Lomonosov enriched many branches of knowledge. Among his amazing heritage are the following discoveries and ideas:

• He regarded heat as a form of motion;

• He suggested the wave theory of light;

• He contributed to the formulation of the kinetic theory of gases;

• He stated the idea of conservation of matter in the following words: “All changes in nature are such that inasmuch is taken from one object insomuch is added to another.

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So, if the amount of matter decreases in one place, it increases elsewhere. This universal law of nature embraces the laws of motion as well -an object moving others by its own force in fact imparts to another object the force it loses”;

• In 1748, Lomonosov created a mechanical explanation of gravitation;

• Lomonosov was the first person to record the freezing of Mercury;

• He was also the first to hypothesize the existence of an atmosphere on Venus based on his observation of the transit of Venus of 1761;

• Believing that nature is subject to regular and continuous evolution, he demonstrated the organic origin of soil, peat, coal, petroleum and amber. In 1745, he published a catalogue of over 3,000 minerals;

• In 1760, he explained the formation of icebergs;

• As a geographer, Lomonosov got close to the theory of continental drift, theoretically predicted the existence of Antarctica and invented sea tools which made writing and calculating directions and distances easier;

• Lomonosov was proud to restore the ancient art of mosaics;

• He wrote more than 20 solemn ceremonial odes, notably the “Evening Meditation on God’s Grandeur”;

• In 1755, he reformed the Russian literary language by combining Old Church Slavonic with the vernacular; ´

• He applied an idiosyncratic theory to his later poems – tender subjects needed words containing the front vowel sounds E, I, YU, whereas things that may cause fear (like “anger,” “envy,” “pain” and “sorrow”) needed words with back vowel sounds O, U, Y - an early version of what is now called sound symbolism.

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To be more precise, Lomonosov developed the atomic-molecular conception of substance structure. During the domination of the teplorod theory he asserted that heat is caused by movement of corpuscles. Lomonosov formulated the principle of matter and movement conservation. He excluded phlogiston from chemical agents and laid the basis of physical chemistry. Lomonosov examined atmospheric electricity and gravity. He put forward the color doctrine. He created a number of optical devices. During a transit of Venus across the Sun on 26 May 1761 Lomonosov discovered that Venus possessed an atmosphere. He described the structure of Earth, explained the origin of treasures of the soil and minerals, and published a manual on metallurgy. He emphasized the importance of the North Sea route in research and development of Siberia. A supporter of deism, he materialistically examined natural phenomena.

Lomonosov was the author of works on Russian history. He was the greatest Russian poet-enlightener of the 18th century, one of the founders of syllabic-tonic versification. Lomonosov was the founder of philosophical and Russian odes of high civil character. The author of poems, epistles, tragedies, satires, fundamental philological works and scientific grammar of Russian, he also revived the art of mosaic and production of smalt, creating mosaic pictures in cooperation with his pupils. He became a member of the Academy of Arts in 1763.

Early years

Lomonosov was born in the village of Mishaninsk not far from Kholinogory, near the White Sea. This region along the northern coast of Russia was separated from the rest of the country by vast forests and swamps, nearly impassible in summer, but easily crossed when frozen in winter. The inhabitants of this isolated region had never been exposed to the Tatar conquest nor to the institution of serfdom, which had affected much of the rest of Russia. They were, however, in close contact with foreign trade and traders; their ports of Archangel and Kholmogory were the main gateways through which foreign goods from Western Europe reached Russia. As a result, most of the natives of this region, though classed as peasants, were far more independent and progressive than their counterparts in more southerly areas.

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Lomonosov was taught reading and writing early and was an avid reader. In 1724 he received the books “Grammar” by Smotritsky, “Arithmetics” by Magnitsky and “Rhyme Psalm-book” by Semeon Polotsky, which he subsequently called the gates of his erudition. He was the son of a fisherman. Although the boy accompanied his father on fishing excursions and trading expeditions, he was not happy at home. His mother had died when he was still very young, and his father had married twice afterward, his second wife having also died early. The stepmother considered Lomonosov lazy because of his constant reading, and he reported later that he “was obliged to read and study, when possible, in lonely and desolate places and to endure cold and hunger.” Therefore when he was nineteen, he resolved to go to Moscow to seek further education.

Entering the world of science

Lomonosov had tried to enter Kholmogorsk School but being a fisherman’s son, he had been rejected. In Moscow he chose to conceal his poor background in order to gain entrance. After a three-month journey on foot, in 1730 Lomonosov entered the Slavic-Greek-Latin Academy, where in 1735 he studied the penultimate course of “philosophy.” In 1734 he listened to lectures at the Kievo-Mogilyanskaya Academy and studied the Ukrainian language and culture. Mastering the Latin and Greek languages he was exposed to the riches of antique and European culture. After returning from Kiev he was sent with other students to St. Petersburg as a student of the university at the Academy of Sciences.

After graduating from the Academy, Lomonosov was sent to study mining in Saxony. He studied mineralogy and chemistry in Germany, first at Marburg University and then at the Freiburg Academy. There he gained extensive knowledge in the fields of physics and chemistry, and studied German, French, Italian and English, which enabled him to get acquainted with the literature of the time. Abroad Lomonosov worked in the field of Russian poetry and created the harmonious theory of the Russian syllabic-tonic verse, which was presented by him in “Letter on rules of Russian versification” and which is still in use today. He understood that there wasn't a uniform Russian literary language or a uniform Russian culture. He decided to do everything possible to lay the foundations of new Russian culture, science, literature and literary language. In 1742, after returning to Russia, Lomonosov was appointed junior scientific assistant to the Academy of Sciences in physics and in 1745 became the first Russian elected to a professorial post. He was appointed to a physics position at the St. Petersburg Academy of Science. The Academy was highly respected in Europe. It was staffed at this time mainly by foreign scientists, for example Lehmann.

Lomonosov had a particular interest in mineralogy dating back to his German education. He noticed natural groupings or occurrences of certain ore minerals and noted that certain minerals typically indicated the presence of other minerals. This phenomenon is now called Paragenesis - the common genesis of related minerals. His paper on “Discourses on the hardness and liquidity of bodies” describes geometric arrangements of packing spheres (atoms) in the crystal lattice. He noted the constancy of crystal interfacial angles. Lomonosov also applied chemical analysis to determine the genesis of various rocks and proved the organic origin of soil, peat, coal, petroleum and amber.

On 6 June 1740 he married Elizabeth Zilch, the daughter of a former city councilor of Marburg. The marriage was kept secret for several years, perhaps because he feared that the authorities would not approve of the foreign marriage. At last he was able to get in touch with the Academy in St. Petersburg and received an official recall to the capital. He reached it on 8 June 1741. It was not until 1744 that he felt able to send for his wife, who rejoined him in the summer of that year.

Achievements in literature

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In spite of his difficulties in Germany, he had been able to complete several dissertations on scientific subjects and to begin to compose the odes that later brought him fame as a poet. The high regard for his abilities attested by his favorable reports from Wolff, Duising and even Henkel, made a deep impression at the Academy, and soon after his return he was made adjunct in the Class of Physical Science. His salary was 360 rubles a year, an ample sum at the time, but unfortunately the Academy had no funds to pay it, and so he was given the privilege of buying books at the Academy bookshop for a nominal sum and then selling them for whatever he could get. After breaking with one of his masters, the chemist Johann Henckel, and many other mishaps, Lomonosov returned in July 1741 to St. Petersburg.

The Academy, which was directed by foreigners and incompetent nobles, gave the young scholar no precise assignment, and the injustice insulted him. His violent temper and great strength sometimes led him to go beyond the rules of propriety, and in May 1743 he was placed under arrest. Two odes sent to Empress Elizabeth won him his liberation in January 1744, as well as a certain poetic prestige at the Academy.

Working in the Academy of Science

Affairs at the Academy at this time were in a very confused state. Schumacher had been running the Academy in a very despotic fashion and had favored the German members at every turn; Russia was then governed by Biron, the incompetent favorite of Empress Anne, but when she died the throne was taken by Elizabeth II, daughter of Peter the Great, and Biron fell from power. The enemies of Schumacher (and he had many) were then able to attack him openly and finally bring about his arrest.

Lomonosov sympathized with Schumacher's opponents, since as a patriotic Russian he felt that the German party had gained too much power in the Academy. He believed that Schumacher himself was responsible for many of the difficulties that had occurred. His own position was not too strong, for he himself was engaged in quarrels with various employees of the Academy, sometimes resulting in physical violence. As a result he was placed under house arrest and was freed only after a public apology.

Schumacher was soon cleared of the charges against him and resumed his former position of authority. After this, however, there was constant discord between the two men, and their struggles for advantage greatly interfered with Lomonosov's later scientific activities. His “Russian Grammar,” which defined features of Russian literary language, was the first real Russian grammar; “Eloquence compendium” is a course of general theory of literature. The treatise “About benefits of church books in Russian language” is the first experience in Russian stylistics.

Poetry occupied an important place in the life of Lomonosov: “Conversation with Anakreon” and “The Hymn to Beard.” He also wrote the plays “Tamira and Selim” and “Demofont” and numerous odes.

The Moscow University and lifelong devotion to science

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Concerned about the distribution of education in Russia, Lomonosov insisted on the creation of a Russian University of European style accessible to all social groups of the population. His efforts were crowned with success in 1755. On his project there was founded the university in Moscow. Nowadays this University (Moscow State University) is one of the most prestigious universities in Russia and carries Lomonosov’s name. Lomonosov did much for the development of Russian science, which gave rise to Russian scientists and professors who in turn could teach at the university.

The last years of Lomonosov's life were not happy ones. He was plagued with debts from the factory at Ust Ruditsky and by almost constant ill health. His quarrels with his colleagues became ever bitterer. During his final illness he gave way to pessimism, saying: “I see that I must die and I look on death peacefully and indifferently. I regret only that I was unable to bring to completion everything I undertook for the benefit of my country, for the increase of learning and for the greater glory of the Academy, and now, at the end of my life, I realize that all my good intentions will vanish with me.” Despite the honors that came to him, he continued to lead a simple and industrious life, surrounded by his family and a few friends. His prestige was considerable in Russia, and his scientific works and his role in the Academy were known abroad. Lomonosov was well regarded by contemporary European scientists. He was made an honorary member of the Swedish Academy of Science in 1760 and became an honorary member of the Bologna Academy of Science in 1764. Lomonosov is memorialized in many place names –for example, an Arctic submarine ridge, an Atlantic current and more.

Last years and legacy

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In the spring of 1765 Lomonosov caught a cold, fell ill with pneumonia and died. He was buried at Lazarevskoye Cemetery in the Aleksandro-Nevskaya Lavra (Monastery) in St. Petersburg.

Empress Catherine II the Great had the patriotic scholar buried with great ceremony, but she confiscated all the notes in which were outlined the great humanitarian ideas he had developed. Publications of his works were censored as material that constituted a menace to the system of serfdom, particularly that concerned with materialist and humanist ideas. Efforts were made to view him as a court poet and an upholder of monarchy and religion rather than as an enemy of superstition and a champion of popular education.

In 1948 Oranienbaum, a town in the outskirts of St. Petersburg, was renamed Lomonosov. The Chernyshev Bridge, Chernyshev Square and Chernyshev Lane also took his name. Lomonosovskaya metro station and some industrial companies (including Lomonosov Porcelain Plant) were named after Lomonosov. In 1949 the Lomonosov Museum was opened in the building of Kunstkammer, where the scientist had worked from 1741. A bust of Lomonosov was installed on Lomonosov Square in 1892 (sculptor P.P. Zabello, architect Lytkin) and in 1986 a statue of the great scientist was erected at Universitetskaya Embankment (sculptor Petrov and architect Sveshnikov).

Written by Tatyana Klevantseva, RT

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