War, progress and the indomitable human spirit

The scientific contributions of Ukraine to a turbulent, progressive 20th century.

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Image Credit: Atomic physicist George Kistiakowsky. Public domain.

Si vis pacem, para bellum
If you want peace, prepare for war
    - Latin proverb by Vegetius

It was a melancholic evening when I shelved the topics I was going to write about for this piece. Since the last edition of Nouse was printed, the world has assuredly changed in frightening ways. Life in Europe is no longer so Bohemian, our concerns not merely interesting for their political intrigue, and our place in the world no longer feeling so secure. This feeling of uncertainty washed over the British Isles in 2016 when our enlightened electorate rejected the prosperity and stability of the European Union. It was felt again in the early months of 2020 as the pandemic graduated from a curiosity of distant lands to a beast that upended our lives for most of the following two years. And for all our consternation, these concerns were but a fraction of that waiting for us on the other end of a barrel in 2022, as the cold winds of an unthinkable conflict began to blow in from the East.

Some topics feel both impossible to write about and impossible to ignore. I have scarcely the journalistic skill to adequately address the modern horror that is the lived experience of 44 million Ukrainians at this very moment, and yet it feels equally delinquent not to acknowledge that experience in some small way. To that end, the miracle of science was what led us out of our most recent collective crisis, but it provides no route out of this one. Not directly, at least. This contrast sets a scene for a historical journey through the brilliance of Ukrainian science, the difficulties faced in continuing that progress, and a commentary on the uncomfortable relationship between science and war.

When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.
    - J. Robert Oppenheimer

Ukraine is a nation with a rich history, even during the 70 years under the culturally-erosive Soviet Union. With stereotypically Slavic modesty, the titans of Ukrainian science have flown largely under the radar, only occasionally receiving the recognition their contributions warrant. I wish to address that injustice. Consider the following uniquely Ukrainian contributors:

  • Mikhail Ostrogradsky, a mathematician who wrote the first general proof of the divergence theorem; a critically important relation describing the movement of fluids named after far more acclaimed German physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss.
  • Vladimir Betz, an anatomist who discovered the largest subtype of neurons in the central nervous system.
  • Ilya Mechnikov, winner of the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering work in immunology (specifically the discovery of phagocytosis and the macrophages many of us learn about in A-level biology).
  • Ivan Puluj, a physicist who developed the use of X-rays for medical imaging.
  • Georgy Voronoy, creator of the Voronoi diagram, a method of dividing up a space into distinct regions closer to one point than to any other. This has applications in meteorology, cell biology, computation, engineering and visual art.
  • Ivan Schmalhausen, an evolutionary biologist who united Darwin’s theory of evolution with Mendel’s theories on heredity into the model known as modern evolutionary synthesis.
  • Sergei Korolev, chief designer of the Soviet space program rockets, and regarded by many as the father of practical astronautics. His designs sent Yuri Gagarin into space as the first human being to do so.
  • Lubomyr Romankiw, a materials scientist and one of the inventors of the hard disk drive that soon made its way into every computer in the world.
  • George Gamow, a true polymath with contributions in big bang theory, atomic structure, star formation and nuclear synthesis that proved critical to the development of Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin’s model of the DNA double-helix.

This is merely a fraction of the total Ukrainian contribution to world science. And the pace was increasing: in 2015, the government reformed the management of national innovation, placing the responsibility solely with the Ministry of Education and Science. This streamlined oversight of large-scale projects, strengthened cooperation between scientific communities and the private sector and increased funding for applied research in key areas of focus. The new legal framework was expected to advance Ukraine’s progress toward the world stage as a technological powerhouse, and it’s no coincidence these reforms were motivated immediately following the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Even before the outbreak of hostilities, the implementation of this legislation was proving difficult. Now, thanks to the actions of the Putin administration, research ties with Russia have been severed. Laboratories and universities have been closed amid a mass exodus of students. Professors have even taken up arms as part of the civilian militia resisting the Russian invasion. The notion of returning to research must seem like a distant dream, something intangible and even insensitive to consider in the face of the devastation of your country by foreign forces. Or perhaps it’s not even thought about at all.

Returning to research after a hiatus is a non-linear process. Every day of lost progress costs more in a generational loss of expertise, ambition and that feeling of security critical to our productivity. Who could the educators lost to Russian missiles have taught? What could their students have discovered? How much further forward would a nation be in 10, 20, 50 years, if not for the grisly ambitions of a malicious dictator?

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
    - Bhagavad Gita

There was one particularly interesting Ukrainian scientist I neglected to mention amongst the others. George Kistiakowsky was born in Kyiv in 1900. He escaped after the outbreak of the Russian revolution in 1920 by joining the anti-communist White Army. He made his way to Germany to study physical chemistry, eventually travelling to the United States for academic positions at Princeton and Harvard. By 1938, he was an American citizen and an expert on chemical kinetics, which qualified him for the research position of a lifetime. After catching the attention of legendary physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller and Hans Bethe, he was invited to work on the Manhattan project. Kistiakowsky led a research group to develop explosive lenses – materials with a very specific geometry used to focus explosions, just as optical lenses do for light rays. It was with this design of spherical explosive charges that the atomic bomb was born, the weapon that was to end the second world war.

Oppenheimer himself was a fascinating character. Known as much for his maverick nature as he was his mastery of all aspects of atomic weaponry, he was and is a lightning rod for controversy. Despite his clandestine work on the Manhattan Project, he was the subject of frequent scrutiny during the American Red Scare for his communist associations, which included both his wife and the woman with whom he had frequent affairs. There is also an unconfirmed rumour that after a disagreement with his tutor at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he left an apple laced with noxious chemicals on his tutor’s desk.

Despite his turbulent nature, Oppenheimer was repeatedly granted security clearance on the basis of his criticality to the project goals. And on the overcast day of July 16th, 1945, the Trinity Test successfully demonstrated the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon, and the world was forever changed. It was after witnessing the 25 kiloton explosion that the quote above from Indian scripture the Bhagavad Gita was recalled by Oppenheimer, who was finally and inescapably faced with the magnitude of his creation. In the immediate aftermath, the Trinity team was jubilant, Oppenheimer reportedly clasping his hands like a prize-winning boxer and lamenting the fact they’d completed their superweapon too late to deploy it against Nazi Germany. While his team rationalised the bombing of Hiroshima as a necessary step in forcing a Japanese surrender, the subsequent attack on Nagasaki was seen as excessive. Within one month of the Trinity test, Oppenheimer was hand-delivering a letter to the US Secretary of War expressing his revulsion to the use of this Frankenstein-esque creation and calling for nuclear weapons to be banned.

Oppenheimer’s own internal strife is a microcosm of an ethical debate that still rages today. By unleashing the most destructive superweapon in human history, world superpowers and the nations in their spheres of influence have enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace. It was understood that forcing the heavily-ideological Empire of Japan into a surrender would require a show of such overwhelming force akin to an almost religious experience. After all, Japanese military doctrine demanded suicide before submission to the enemy. Through this lens, it can be argued that playing the trump card paradoxically saved lives by ending the war early. The exact calculus of human life is difficult and distasteful. Could this same result have been achieved with a demonstration away from heavily populated areas?

You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.
    - Albert Einstein

The relatively stable world order this sequence of events created now feels increasingly fragile. Missiles carrying that thermonuclear fire we’ve mercifully witnessed only once cast a long, looming shadow from the east. We sit on the precipice of the era of modern history, post the events of the 20th century that we assumed would saturate our textbooks for the foreseeable future. It’s time to write our own history texts, and world leaders have a decision to make. Do they heed the lessons of Vegetius or of Albert Einstein? Einstein himself was a supporter of the American nuclear program after the Germans began developing a weapon themselves. Despite his reservations, he recognised that the only thing more dangerous than nuclear arms was an imbalance of power. He was denied a security clearance to work on the Manhattan project due to his pacifist tendencies.

Historically, technology has provided more efficient methods for conquest. It was the nations most frequently embroiled in conflict and strife that progressed the furthest and the fastest, even in areas beyond warfare, as military research can often have civilian applications. Please don’t read this as a cynical justification of war as a fuel to drive progress, as the cost is plainly far higher than the benefits. Rather, I highlight this relationship as a celebration of the human capacity to find a light at the end of the darkness, to build out of rubble and to improve the world around them.

For most of our lives, it has felt like technology had finally broken some mythical power threshold, above which its capability for death made peace the only option. If despots couldn’t be bought or bargained with, they could be forced into accepting harmony in terms they could understand. Of course, the notion of a post-WW2 era of peace is misleading; a western- and Anglosphere-focused position that fails to acknowledge the impact of proxy wars around the globe. Direct conflict between superpowers was replaced with government–funded blood spilled on foreign soil, in distant lands, away from any impact on constituents. Now a war on which we’ve been deferring payments since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been laid at our doorstep, and we have no choice but to pay the piper. Right now, it is the people under the colours of Ukraine gazing into the abyss. But at some point the guns will fall silent, and that chilly easterly wind will be heard gently brushing through golden wheat fields below a blue sky. The question for the rest of us, is how far across the world that silence extends.

When men are engaged in war and conquest, the tools of science become as dangerous as a razor in the hands of a child of three. We must not condemn man because his inventiveness and patient conquest of the forces of nature are being exploited for false and destructive purposes. Rather, we should remember that the fate of mankind hinges entirely upon man’s moral development.
    - Albert Einstein

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