This Day In Jewish History

1916: A Russian Astronomer Who Survived Stalin Despite Himself Is Born

Despite doing things like writing a book called 'Five Billion Vodka Bottles to the Moon' Iosif Shklovsky survived to expand our understanding of the Crab Nebula and the universe.

Soviet astrophysicists I. S. Shklovsky (left) and Ya. B. Zel'dovich, August 1977.
A. T. Service/Wkimedia Commons

July 1, 1916, is the birthdate of Iosif Shklovsky, a Soviet-Russian astrophysicist who by rights, should have been crushed by the Soviet machine, yet who, in a long career, studied the physical nature of many astronomical phenomena, and collaborated (by mail) with Carl Sagan on a book about the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Considering that he lived nearly his entire life under communism, and that he rarely felt the need to stifle his own razor-sharp cynicism about nearly everybody and everything --  and that he was a Jew -- it’s amazing not only that Shklovsky kept working, but simply that he kept alive, even through the Stalin era.

Iosif Shklovsky was born in Glukhov, or Hlukhiv, a town in Ukraine, then part of czarist Russia. His father is said to have been a rabbi, but that didn’t save the family from being terribly poor, especially after the father's death. In 1930, they moved to Kazakhstan. There in Akmolinsk (today, Atana), Iosif finished high school in 1931, and then went off to serve a mandatory apprenticeship in Soviet industry, working on the construction of the Baikal-Amur railway, which was being laid across Siberia.

Iosif Shklovsky famously explained the strong radiation emanating from the Crab Nebula, which covers almost the entire spectrum: Shklovsky suggested that the light was synchrotron radiation, which is caused when rapidly moving electrons pass through a strong magnetic field.
Wikimedia Commons

In 1933, Shklovsky was admitted to the physics and math faculty at Far Eastern State University, in Vladivostok, and two years later he transferred to Moscow State University.

Astrophysics, or swamp labor

Upon graduation, in 1938, not having been accepted to graduate school in physics, he received a two-year labor assignment in the swamp forests of Siberia. By then, he was married with a child, and not too keen on the proposed job. Fortunately, it was then that he saw an advertisement placed by the Sternberg Astronomical Institute, in Moscow, which was seeking students for its new astrophysics department. Shklovsky applied, and was admitted.

Poor eyesight kept Shklovsky out of military service during World War II, and he was able to complete the rough equivalent of a doctoral degree in 1944, examining the behavior of electrons in cosmic phenomena.

As is clear from his memoir, “Five Billion Vodka Bottles to the Moon,” published posthumously in English in 1991, Shklovsky was a wit and an iconoclast who made no effort to curry favor with the political establishment, or anyone else. As a consequence, there were long periods when he was not permitted to travel abroad, though he received frequent invitations.

Shklovsky’s most important contributions were related to astronomical phenomena such as supernovas (bright remnants of exploded stars), pulsars and cosmic rays. He is most famous (among astronomers, at least) for proposing an explanation for the strong radiation, emanating from the Crab Nebula, highly unusual because it covers almost the entire spectrum: Shklovsky suggested that the light was synchrotron radiation, which is caused when rapidly moving electrons pass through a strong magnetic field.

“Leaving for Baikal-Amur Railroad constrcution”. A team of volunteers, members of the Young Communist League, at the Yaroslavsky Railway Terminal in Moscow prior to their departure to construction sites of the Baikal-Amur Railroad.
RIA Novosti archive, image #717507 / E. Kotliakov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Was he pulling our human legs?

In 1959, attempting to explain the wobbly orbit of the Mars moon Phobos, Shklovsky proposed that the body might actually be hollow, which, he suggested, could be due to its being artificial in origin, perhaps created by an early Martian civilization. Although it’s not clear if he was being playful in that suggestion, he did go on to write a book on the question of extraterrestrial life that became a bestseller in the Soviet Union.

When the book was being translated into English, Shklovsky invited American astronomer Carl Sagan, much of whose career was devoted to the same question, to contribute material to the American edition. That book, “Intelligent Life in the Universe,” published in 1966, is indeed a virtual dialogue between the two men on the subject.

Late in his career, Shklovsky also spoke in some detail about the possibilities of humanity creating an "artificial biosphere" in outer space, and populating it with billions of people, something he thought might be feasible within two and a half centuries.

In a review of "Five Billion Vodka Bottles" in the Los Angeles Times, Ed Regis quoted a colleague of Shklovsky's who once commented that "Fifty percent of Shklovsky's ideas are brilliant" – the problem is that "no one can tell which fifty percent they are."

Iosif Shklovsky died of a stroke at age 68, on March 3, 1985.