I. S. Shklovskii

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Interviewed by
Spencer Weart
Interview date
International Astronomical Union meeting, Montreal, Canada
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Interview of I. S. Shklovskii by Spencer Weart on 1979 August 20,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/30112

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Notes on Shklovskii's origins, education in Moscow, World War II experience, approach to astronomy and teaching, and changes in his lifetime.


(retyped from handwritten notes made sitting on bench in corridor at IAU meeting, Montreal)

Like other boys in USSR, Shk. finished middle school at 15, worked in Siberia in connection with RR building. Father was engineer on new Transiberian, then went (1934) to physical-mathematical university; read about neutron etc. in newspapers, which made a very strong impression. Wanted to be a nuclear physicist. Parents had no special education, only practical side — very few had scientific training. Mother cannot write. Decision was independent of parents’ opinion.

Staff at Vladivostok was very feeble; after 2 years, went with parents to Moscow, transferred to university there — didn’t have to take new exam. Then, unlike present situation, the government had very strong need for specialized people, more places than people ready for them. Of course living conditions were not easy. Transition was hard — level of education and general culture of students in Moscow was much higher. He was a “grey mouse,” a naive youth, compared with strong group of Acad. Ginzberg etc. Thus decided to change careers — temporary solution of going into astronomy, where wouldn’t be overshadowed. Made choice of astronomy by chance; could have gone into physical chemistry. Worked independently since his youth — coming from East was like an American coming from far West.

Decided to do postgraduate work in astronomy; just then came World War II But by chance of feeble eyesight, was rejected from military service.

[Q: Why Moscow?] In U.S. general picture is decentralization, traditionally; in Soviet Union, tendency is to centralize — just as in France, Paris. Importance of Moscow increased after the Revolution; Academy of Sciences moved to Moscow, with very strong concentration of scientific power in the capital. Trend for the best to be in Moscow was not only in science. Youths were eager to go there.

In World War II, Moscow University emigrated. “I spent a very strange time in Middle Asia.” No food, poor living conditions — within the university — Americans can’t understand the situation in “the real war” — 50% of young men, many more of Shk's exact age, died. In that situation, had a good background of Moscow University etc. — much opportunity, many possibilities in 1945, so debated choice of profession.

In childhood, had a strong interest in drawing; as student, thought of going into art — like old friend Friedmann. Maybe this is reflected in scientific work — sees things, objects, equations. Intuition is also necessary, imagination… and independence.

Chose astronomy originally because had feared had few possibilities, relatively. Knew had strong possibility of advance in astronomy; few contacts with West but had heard of explanation of solar [coronal?] lines, which made a great impression — a new field of modern astronomy. “I’m a very lucky man because I began my career at the same time as this jump” in the general field. Distant relation of classical astronomy to modern: people in professional astronomy were laughing at a seminar when said temperature of corona was a million degrees. When introduced the term “plasma” people laughed — thought of it as a biological term.

Taught many courses of astronomy to new generation, in postwar era — courses “penetrated by modern” viewpoints. Traditional people taught astrometry, time, etc., there were some objections to this.

Today, much more than in 1950s, astronomy is very popular, the number of places is small and can choose best people. Caused by cultural revolution, general rise in numbers of educated people. “I prefer democratic relation with students,” others prefer German style, it depends on the individual. Today a bright boy in astronomy can’t have the same luck as Shk had — no empty fields; many people, specialization required.

Doesn’t like “detailization” — prefers to make zeroth approximation in an empty area like SS433. Today science is an industrial job — role of scientist is very different from in Kepler’s time, or even when Shk. was starting.