Mikhail Lomonosov – the Pioneer of Russian Science

…To develop theory from observations, to change observations through theory is the best way to search the truth.
…The required mathematician must not only be feat in complex computation, but also becoming accustomed to mathematical structure be able to conclude inner natural truth from the inventions and arguments by an accurate and smite-free order.

M.V. Lomonosov

Nowadays such minds are unusual as the most part of them stay with experiment, hence they do not want to launch into a discussion, the others fall into so ridiculous rumor, that they are in contradiction to all the fundamentals of common natural science.
L. Euler about M.V. Lomonosov

Three hundreds years ago Russia gave to the world one of the greatest people, who belongs to the front row of the universal mankind genius – Mikhail Vasilievich Lomonosov.

His discoveries were in advance of the world science for centuries and their significance with time only grows. For us, his heirs, they are the greatest and the deepest enlightenments. The studies of Lomonosov determined profile of Russian science forever, and we appreciate the discoveries of the leading Russian scientists as the studies of his direct learners and successors.

A recognized and the most significant input of Lomonosov into natural science is molecular-kinetic theory of heat, developed during the prevalence of theory of specific fiery matter – calorie which donates heat. According to calorie theory mass of a body increases during its heating because calorie penetrates into body’s pores and stays there. Basing on certain examples of physical events Lomonosov demonstrated failure of calorie theory and hence showed that “unshaped wild guesses about given traveling, anarchically vagrant matter are removed”. In his theory instead of commonly used at that time word “element” Lomonosov used the word “atom”, and instead of “corpuscle”“molecule” (1748).

Lomonosov offered a kinetic model of ideal gas close to present one and basing on it explained relations between volume and air resilience (formerly it was supposed to explain air resilience, for instance, with some specific «elastic particles»). Lomonosov first produced solid-state Mercury and determined its elasticity and electric conductivity. Basing on these characteristics this substance was attributed to metals (1759).

Lomonosov’s theory drawn wide response in European science. For the first time from the beginning of its two thousands years long history atomistics got an intrinsic scientific proof. Lomonosov moved an ancient natural-scientific theory of atoms into the category of faithful science. We are also under an obligation to Lomonosov for deep and universal understanding of dynamics of microworld. In fact Lomonosov’s role in the development of atomistics is the same as Newton’s for development of mechanics of macroworld: he separated basic statements, formulated them sharply and basing on certain examples demonstrated their completeness and strength; these statements with insignificant improvements are completely involved in present-day science.

Discovered by Lomonosov principles of matter and momentum conservation are associated with his molecular-kinetic theory. Principle of momentum conservation became an initial postulate for the background of thermal movement of micro particles. This principle is directly connected with principle of energy conservation and Einstein’s equivalence of mass and energy.

Basing on molecular-kinetic theory Lomonosov developed the basis for physical chemistry. In winter 1752/53 for the first time he gave the students of the Academic University the course of lectures on physical chemistry in his Chemical Laboratory, the first educational and research laboratory in Russia.

Even regardless of the papers on humanitarian sciences and perfect poetry of Lomonosov the spread of his interests in the field of natural sciences boggles our imagination. Any natural event caused his research lust. Being an official Professor in Chemistry of St.-Petersburg Academy he also studied  physics (along with heat and mechanics — electricity and optics), astronomy, geology, geography, meteorology, navigation, metal industry. You name it.

Spread of scientific interests should seem to result in superficial glance at the subject. But it did not happen to Lomonosov. Under close examination unusual depth of his thoughts and his amazing foresight appear in all scientific and technical fields which he studied. In a short article it is possible only to list even not all his scientific papers, but in order to assure of their significant importance and depth it is enough to consider in details Lomonosov’s papers in atmospheric electricity and aurora which did not belong to his official field of specialization (chemistry and its applications).

Lomonosov studied electrical phenomena in cooperation with George Wilhelm Richmann, Professor in Physics. As a result of these studies they developed a specific experimental plant. It was named «thunder machine» and was based on generator of static electricity connected with an electroscope with graduated scale. One more electroscope with a scale was connected to the output iron core (prototype of a lightning rod). These experimental devices were fitted in home laboratories of Lomonosov and Richmann; surely, they understood all the danger of these experiments for their life (Richmann was killed by a lightning stroke during his experiments during a strong thunderstorm of July 26, 1753).

These experiments proved identity of laboratory and atmospheric types of electricity: «natural electric force in the air is of the same essence as friction and heat, separately and jointly». At that time atmospheric electricity was considered as the hand of God and taboo was enforced on its experimental studies. But Lomonosov developed strong scientific theory of atmospheric electricity which completely corresponds to the modern point of view. In his theory Lomonosov based on the principle of generation of electric charges by relative movement and friction of atmospheric particles: «heat and electrical power are produced by friction; heat requires strong friction to the movement of hard particles, electric power — delicate one to the motive of the ultra fine particles» (enlightenment about electron discovered almost two hundreds years later).

In history of the world science Franklin is often considered as a pioneer of the studies of atmospheric electricity. But Lomonosov started his investigations in this field earlier and got deeper and in many instances more correct conclusions. Many items which Franklin obtained only as wild guesses, Lomonosov proved with numerous observations of natural phenomena and mathematical calculations. As well as Lomonosov Franklin correctly supposed that electric charges which cause thunderstorm are the result of contra flow movement of upper cold and low warmer atmospheric layers, but Lomonosov in the field of understanding of this process got ahead further than Franklin: «I have also made calculations and proved that the upper air not only can, but must flow downwards, of which there is no whisper in Franklin’s research» (from  the letter of Lomonosov to Euler).

A chart of the origin of the vertical air flows in the atmosphere.
Illustration by M.V. Lomonosov, 1753.

In his theory Lomonosov correctly supposed that electric charges are situated not only on the surface of the thunderstorm cloud (as it was considered till the end of XIX century), but also fill the whole volume of the cloud: «propagating inside the cloud, infill it totally».

Targetability of separate regions of the Earth’s surface by lightnings Lomonosov explained by atmospheric conditions, first of all by temperature and humidity, and by conductivity of the terrestrial rocks: «those regions which before thunderstorm were sun-lighted and heated, are more safe than shadowed».

Independently of Franklin Lomonosov invented lightning rod: «electric force spreads from the clouds to the Earth’s surface and is taken by different bodies, especially by those with pointed ends». He also offered other means for protection against thunderstorms: «it is not useless to shake the air not only by bell-ringing but also by cannon fireworks during thunderstorms».

Basing on the observations and his theory of vertical displacements of the air masses Lomonosov also explained sudden freeze-up coming and other natural phenomena.

Lomonosov was the first who correctly understood general electric nature of lightning and aurora: «Excited electric force in a ball, from which air is pumped out, project sudden rays, which disappear in a clap, and at the same time new rays appear instead of the disappeared, so non-stop sparkling is seen. Although in the aurora flamings or rays happen in the whole space of light not so sudden, but their appearance is similar, because sparkling auroral columns spread in lines from the surface of electric atmosphere… almost perpendicular; just as in mentioned electric ball converging rays shine from concave surface to the center. Colour of both phenomena is pale. All types of aurora can’t be vapour or cloud, lightened with sparkling. Besides, sometimes during the aurora itself I’ve noticed wildfire’s shine… It turned out that aurora and wildfire sparkling differ not by nature, but by power and location.»

With amazing for his time accuracy Lomonosov measured altitude of one of such aurora which was observed in St.-Petersburg on October 16, 1753: «as it was possible to measure altitude I found 20, width of 136 degrees; therefore altitude of the upper part of arc is about 420 versts» (verst is a Russian unit of distance equal to 1.067 kilometres or 0.6629 mile), i.e. about 450 km. And he concluded that «Aurora is located higher than atmosphere… electric force… spreads up to the surface of the atmosphere… and aurora happens in free ether». According to the present point of view the lower limit of auroral region locates at the altitude of 95-100 km, and upper one — at the altitude of about 400-600 km (sometimes spreads up to 1000-1100 km).

Illustration by M.V. Lomonosov, 1753.

Lomonosov’s guesses concerning principal similarity of aurora and electric discharges and localization of aurora above the atmosphere were fully confirmed, but it took 200 years of hard work to prove them. In the days of Lomonosov there was no common idea about the nature of aurora: for instance, they were considered as a sky-projection of the fire from the Island volcano Hekla reflected from the ice of the northern seas; as burning of sulphur, nitre and other vapours in the upper layers of the atmosphere, etc.

Lomonosov had predicted a famous auroral oval which was also discovered 200 years ago: «the border of aurora must be equal to the circles parallel to equator… of the width of its location on the surface of the atmosphere, which is seen from the proportion of regular altitude of auroral arc to its width».

At the same time some considerations concerning aurora were published by Franklin. In this regard Lomonosov wrote to Euler: «Franklin’s opinion about aurora absolutely differs from mine. Indeed, he tries to involve electric matter which is necessary for generation of aurora from tropics to the poles; whereas I find a plenty of it in-situ; he does not state how it happens, but casually in a few words notes his guess, while I explain my theory in details».

Lomonosov also incriminated electric nature in comets’ tails: «outstretched braids in the comet’s tail completely conform to the columns and rays of aurora».

Lomonosov’s theory and guesses about very complicated, till now not studied out natural phenomena related to electricity many of which were proved only 100-200 years later, amaze even the most daring mind with its really great power and depth showed through some antiquity of language and partly played out glossary. And surely at that time science of electricity just was born, and no one of its basic principles was discovered. Lomonosov’s contemporaries considered electricity as certain «weightless fluid», specific, separate from the substance liquid flown into electrified body.

The results of longstanding (1744-1753) studies of Lomonosov in this field were summarized in a big report «A word about the air phenomena produced by electric force proposed by Mikhail Lomonosov» and presented at a special session of St.-Petersburg Academy on November 26, 1753. Lomonosov’s report took place in front of vast assembly and not only Academician, and was accompanied with experiments with «thunder machine». It was published in Academician issues, and was reviewed in foreign scientific literature. All citations in present article, except those in epigraph, are taken from this report.

But these papers were not accepted by the scientists (they were accepted only by Euler in absence), and death of Richmann was considered as divine retribution not only by Christian and would-be-scientific communities, but also by many members of St.-Petersburg Academy. Theory of atmospheric electric discharges developed by Lomonosov caused Euler’s respect, but antipathy of wide Academic community of St.-Petersburg. Financing of these studies was stopped, and the further research in fact was officially forbidden.

But although opportunity and access to the experimental studies in this field was closed for Lomonosov, he continued chew on the nature of electric phenomena. He first told about common origin of light and electricity and developed an original theory of light presenting it as oscillating process (partly he forestalled ideas of electromagnetism for over 100 years): «Electric force is an action caused by effortless friction in sensitive bodies and consisting of repulsive and attractive forces and of generation of light and fire».

Lomonosov projected and built over ten principally new optic devices: original fiery system, first night and underwater observation devices, etc. Improving structure of famous telescopes developed by Newton and Gregory and updating them with mirror refractor in order to increase optical efficiency, Lomonosov manufactured an experimental sample of a telescope of a new type (1762); 25 years later analogous idea was implemented in a telescope-refractor developed by Herschel.

Observing passing of Venus over the solar disc in his home laboratory Lomonosov found out light rim around Venus, and correctly interpreted it by light refraction, discovering in such a way atmosphere of Venus (1761). Lomonosov made no reckoning to this discovery, and further for a long time it was attributed to the later papers by Herschel and Schroter.

In order to conduct studies at different altitudes Lomonosov developed physical basis for vertical risers; much later similar idea was found in the archives of Leonardo da Vinci, but Lomonosov did not confine himself to theory, but presented a working model of such instrument, in intention close to present helicopter.

Glass factory in Ust’-Ruditsk built under supervision of Lomonosov was a basically innovative enterprise for that time — a prototype of present-day scientific-production complex, where the central place was featured to scientific laboratory and allowed to improve production process continuously. There Lomonosov developed his glass science — a bright example of natural combination of theory and experiment with output to the actual applications.

Lomonosov was neither atheist, nor low minded materialist; he was very far from simplified mechanisms of his epoch. For him nature was one whole and variety of natural phenomena was a manifestation of general fundamental principles: «nature is vain and wasteful in composition of various processes, but sparing and saving in reasons»; therefore — amazing logical unity of his studies in different scientific fields, seemed to be independent. So even his often mistakes historically unavoidable for every deep scientific breakthrough were extremely fruitful.

In his genius enlightenments Lomonosov was ahead scientific concepts of his time so greatly, that among his contemporaries only great Euler could know his studies worth, but even he was confused with originality and boldness of his ideas. For the contemporaries Lomonosov was better a great poet and inventor. This delusion was supported by his public position: Lomonosov was not a closed within scientific frames laboratory scientist («physicists are mistaken neglecting the results of every-day experience and conducting refined and complicated experiments»). He looked at nature not only as a scientist, but also as a poet and philosopher. Natural-scientific ideas thread many of his poetic creations, such as «Evening thoughts about Divine’s splendour during great aurora», and «Ode about the boot of glass» can be an epigraph to the total present-day materials science and nano-technologies. Such solidness of his nature with its variety and depth, determines unique and after peer-review and comparison with other great persons — exclusive in the world history phenomenon of Lomonosov.

A.S. Kovtyukh