Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lomonosov’s legacy

Today marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov, a remarkable Russian remembered for advances in science and achievements in poetry. He must have kept a diary because one extract is quoted widely across the internet, but I can find no source for this extract, nor any further information about his diaries.

Lomonosov was born on 19 November 1711 in the village of Denisovka (now called Lomonosovo) in the far north of Russia. Aged around 10, his father, a fisherman and shipowner, started taking him on trading missions. However, he was far more interested in books than in the sea, and, in his late teens, eventually found his way to Moscow (Encyclopædia Britannica says he went by foot, Boris Menshutkin, author of Lomonosov, Chemist Courtier, Physicist Poet, says he joined a caravan).

Once in Moscow, Lomonosov inveigled his way into the Slavonic-Greek-Latin Academy where he excelled as a student. By 1936, he had been awarded a scholarship to Saint Petersburg state university, and then he won a grant for study at the University of Marburg, in Germany.

Having married in Marburg, but unable to make a good living, Lomonosov returned to Russia in 1741. He was appointed to the physics department at the Russian Academy of Science; however, after insulting colleagues, he was held under house arrest for many months. With apologies behind him, the Academy named him professor of chemistry in 1745, and thereafter he soon established its first chemistry laboratory. A decade later he was instrumental in founding the Moscow State University.

Famously, in 1756, he tried to replicate an experiment undertaken by the English scientist Robert Boyle which had helped support the popular phlogiston theory (which postulated the existence of a fire-like element released during combustion), but concluded that the theory was false. Thus he anticipated the discoveries, 20 years later, of Antoine Lavoisier, one of the discoverers of oxygen and hydrogen, and the first to give a true explanation of combustion.

In support of Lomonosov’s claim to have anticipated Lavoisier, an extract from his diary is widely quoted, on Wikipedia and many other websites: ‘Today I made an experiment in hermetic glass vessels in order to determine whether the mass of metals increases from the action of pure heat. The experiments - of which I append the record in 13 pages - demonstrated that the famous Robert Boyle was deluded, for without access of air from outside the mass of the burnt metal remains the same.’ But nowhere on the internet can I find the source of this extract, nor any other information about Lomonosov’s diaries.

Among Lomonosov’s other scientific achievements are counted an improved design for a reflecting telescope, the first hypothesis on the existence of an atmosphere on Venus, the first recorded freezing of mercury, an explanation on the formation of icebergs, and an early understanding of, what would later turn out to be, the theory of continental drift. On the artistic side, he set up a glass factory to produce the first Russian mosaics, created a grammar that reformed the Russian literary language, and wrote poetry. He died in 1765, still only in his mid-40s. Further biographical information can be found at Russian Poetry Net, Russipedia, The Voice of Russia, and

1 comment:

in4astro said...

for a successful search, you need to know a little Russian.
For example, here's a link to the 11 volumes of the complete works of M.V.Lomososov -
Igor Nesterenko.