Saturday, 19 November 2016

Mikhail Lomonosov: The 'Russian Da Vinci'

Mikhail Lomonosov was born in 1711 in the Arkhangelsk Region in the far north of Russia (615 miles north of Moscow). His father was a wealthy peasant fisherman who, like his ancestors, was involved in maritime commerce. Lomonosov remembered his father as a kind man but "brought up in extreme ignorance," which no one would say about Lomonosov himself. He enjoyed studying even as a child, and mastered several scientific textbooks while still living in his village.

Gradually, village life became unbearable for the youth, He quarreled with his stepmother, and rebelled against his father's desire for him to marry. In 1730, he ran off to Moscow with a string of fish carts and entered the Slavic Greek Latin Academy. Peasant children were not admitted to the academy, so Lomonosov introduced himself as a "nobleman's son."

The academy's administration easily believed that the young man was an aristocrat, since he knew how to read and write and had a solid understanding of mathematics. Officially, Lomonosov received his noble title in 1745, along with the rank of Chemistry Professor.

Lomonosov's education spanned decades. He studied in Moscow, Kiev, St. Petersburg, and in the German towns of Marburg and Freiberg, mastering dozens of subjects, from philosophy to metallurgy. In all his later activity, the scientist maintained this diversity of disciplines, simultaneously pursuing many fields of research. He considered chemistry his main vocation, though.

Lomonosov is known as a polymath and is often compared to Leonardo da Vinci, so broad was his sphere of interests and activities. He perfected glass-making technology; developed physics and chemistry theories; worked in the fields of astronomy and geography; wrote grammar textbooks, historical works and odes; translated poetry; and created mosaics.

The scientist also founded Moscow University (1755), which today bears his name and is considered one of the best universities in Russia.

In 1901, 136 years after Lomonosov's death, geology professor Vasily Dokuchaev, encountering one of the scientist's papers, said in amazement, "A long time ago, Lomonosov described in his research the theory I defended in my PhD dissertation, and he described it in a broader manner."

There are other examples of how Lomonosov was ahead of his time. In 1761, he discovered that the planet Venus had an atmosphere, which he observed through a telescope. In 1754, after reviewing documents at the Academy of Sciences, he developed a working model of a proto-helicopter, a flying apparatus that could take off vertically with two propellers. And his corpuscular-kinetic theory of heat in many ways anticipated ideas of atoms that appeared one hundred years later, just like his theory on rotating spherical particles.

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