Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765)

Scientist in politically turbulent times

Robert Crease, Vladimir Shiltsev

1 Introduction

Russian polymath Mikhail Vasilievich Lomonosov (1711-1765) is rightfully called the “Father of Russian science” for many reasons, including his tireless promotion of Enlightenment ideas, his outstanding contributions to the natural sciences, and his establishment of Moscow University. But Lomonosov (fig.1) was also remarkable for his ability to conduct science in a climate in which it was not yet culturally recognized as significant, and then to promote it in politically turbulent times. He was born before Peter the Great established the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, the first important Russian scientific institution, and during his nearly 54 years, Lomonosov lived and worked through eight tsars/ emperors, surviving the political turmoil that accompanied each transition.

2 From Pomorie to St. Petersburg

Lomonosov was born in 1711 on Kurostrov Island, near the town of Kholmogory in the far north of Russia along the White Sea. The area is known as “Pomorie,” or “area near the sea,” and its inhabitants were mainly fishermen who worked in the rough and freezing waters not far below the Arctic Circle, often sending their fish to Moscow by caravan. His father Vasily, though a peasant, was a prosperous fisherman in a remote region that was relatively free of state supervision and interference. Vasily taught his son the numerous practical skills that any Pomor inhabitant had to learn, from boatbuilding and repair to rope-making, sailmaking, meteorology, and natural history. Vasily assumed that his son would take over the fishing business, which he had worked for years to establish, but the youth had a voracious intellectual appetite. By the time he was 19 Lomonosov was frustrated by the lack of books on non-religious topics that he could find, and also having personal troubles with his father and his new stepmother. At the end of December 1730, he borrowed a few rubles and joined a trade convoy bearing fish bound for Moscow. He made the approximately 1170 km journey through snowy and frosty roads, partly on foot partly on sleigh, in somewhere between 22 and 37 days, or about 53-32 km per day. This episode is now so legendary in Russia that, today, one souvenir obtainable in the region of his hometown is a miniature replica of the boots that the youth wore on the journey (fig. 2).

When Lomonosov arrived in Moscow sometime in the first half of January, 1731, he was a poor peasant with few educational options. He got himself admitted to the prestigious Slavic-Greek-Latin academy – technically off-limits to peasants – by the fib that he was the son of a nobleman. Barely scraping by on a stipend of 3 kopeks a day, Lomonosov in just 4 years finished an arduous series of courses in languages – Latin, Greek, and Church Slavonic – as well as geography, history, philosophy and the Catechism. On the throes of graduating, he nearly got expelled and punished when his fib was uncovered, but partly thanks to his stellar reputation managed to escape expulsion and punishment.

Lomonosov then had two fantastically fortunate breaks in a row. In the first, he was sent for further studies to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (“the Academy” – see fig. 3). The Academy had been founded by a decree of Peter the Great (1672-1725) in 1724 as Russia’s first scientific academy, partly on the advice of Leibniz. It was dominated by scientists imported from abroad, especially Germany and Switzerland, including Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782) and Leonhard Euler (1707-1783). The Academy was modeled in part on the Royal Society of London in England and the Royal Academy of Sciences in France; unlike those countries, however, Russia had no gymnasia and universities able to produce faculty for a scientific academy, and the Academy established its own gymnasium and university aiming to groom homespun talent. But these educational institutions themselves were woefully short of students, and in 1735 the Slavic-Greek-Latin academy was asked to send 20 students outstanding enough in sciences to attend the university of the St. Petersburg Academy. They could only find 12. Lomonosov was among them.

But Lomonosov was only at the St. Petersburg Academy a few months when he had his second fantastically lucky break, and was ordered to Germany to continue his studies. This opportunity was triggered by a series of expeditions, initiated by Peter the Great, to explore the geography and natural resources of Siberia. The leaders of one of the expeditions asked the Academy to supply chemists knowledgeable about the mining industry. The Academy had none, but decided to send three of its best students to Germany to train with scientists there, with the idea that the students might participate in future expeditions. Lomonosov, who knew little German but was fluent in Latin and clearly good with languages, was one.

Lomonosov and his two companions studied at the University of Marburg for three years: mathematics, chemistry, mining, natural history, physics, mechanics, hydraulics, and humanities. Their mentor was Christian Wolff (1679-1754), an eminent encyclopedic scientist and philosopher and a key follower of Leibniz. A synthesizer rather than an innovator, Wolff promoted a brand of corpuscular philosophy, a key departure from scholastic philosophy and step towards modern chemistry. Scholastic philosophy, looking back to Aristotle, conceived matter as composed of four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Corpuscular philosophy conceived of matter as combinations of minute particles called corpuscles which interacted mechanically. The three Russian students, however, soon acquired not only corpuscular philosophy but also the bad social habits of their German peers and began to engage in boozing, brawling, and overspending their plush stipends. At one point, his role in a brawl got Lomonosov sentenced to the university detention cell for punishment, but Wolff stepped in to pay the fine needed to free him; Wolff also had to cover a number of debts that Lomonosov and the other Russian students had incurred. In the summer of 1739, the three students left Marburg to study practical mining with the eminent metallurgical chemist Johann Friedrich Henckel (1678-1744) in Freiberg, Saxony. There, too, the Russian students fought and overspent, but unlike in Marburg also fought with their sponsor. After one particularly sharp disagreement with Henckel, Lomonosov left Heckel’s lab without permission. In the aftermath, Lomonosov decided to leave home early, before his two companions. Though he had severely tested both Wolff’s and Henckel’s tolerance, in the end both grudgingly declared Lomonosov a top student.

While in Marburg, Lomonosov married Elizabeth Zilch, the daughter of his landlady, who gave birth to a child while Lomonosov was away in Freiberg. Lomonosov returned to St. Petersburg in 1741, but found it a changed place. The Academy had recently lost almost all of its original foreign talent, including Euler and Bernoulli, due to poor governance and budget inconsistencies. The Academy’s Secretary, who effectively ran the Academy’s Chancellery and made all the day-to-day decisions, was Johann Schumacher, a linguist and theologian who had studied at the University of Strasburg and become the former librarian of Peter the Great. A non-scientist but with connections to the Imperial Court, Schumacher proved a micromanager whose intrusions repeatedly angered the academicians. Schumacher’s activities played a role in the departure of several of the Academy’s early academicians, including Euler and Bernoulli, and Schumacher would remain a thorn in Lomonosov’s side. The conflict began as soon as Lomonosov returned. Before he and the other two students had departed for Germany Schumacher had promised each of them immediately on their return a position as extraordinary professors of chemistry, in between an adjunct and an (ordinary) professor/academician. Extraordinary professors, who typically received 400 rubles a year (as opposed to 360 for adjuncts and 660 for professors) and worked under one of the academicians, would be natural choices to fill vacancies when an academician retired or departed, or when a new opening was created. But perhaps because of the annoyances that the students had caused Schumacher, he did not deliver on this promise, and Lomonosov became an extraordinary professor only in 1742.

Lomonosov fought fiercely to promote the Academy, trying to get it back to the vision of Peter the Great. He increased the number of scientific publications in Russian (in addition to those in Latin and German), and insisted that the academicians deliver regular lectures in Russian. The result increased the number of Russian academicians at the Academy, as well as interns and students in its gymnasium and university. Lomonosov also worked hard to promote scientific education in Russia. In 1746, he gave the first public lecture on physics in Russian language. He also edited the St. Petersburg Vedomosti for a while, the newspaper published by the Academy, which contained articles about natural history and popular science, and sought to suppress pseudoscience.

Though Lomonosov got off to a stellar start at the Academy and made outstanding progress in research, he had a volatile temper and sharp tongue, could drink to excess, and was never one to suffer fools gladly. These qualities had landed him in trouble as a student while in Marburg and Freiberg, and got him into trouble in St. Petersburg as well. The most serious episode occurred in 1742-43, when several academicians revolted against Schumacher, charging him with mismanaging the Academy, discriminating against Russians, and embezzling state funds. Though the revolt’s ringleader was Andrei Nartov, an engineer and former close aide to Peter I, Lomonosov was highly active – and at one point, when it looked like the revolt would succeed, Lomonosov became intoxicated, began to act like he was in charge of the Academy, rudely insulted several of its staff, and nearly sparked a fistfight with one of the German academicians. While an investigative committee appointed by the Senate ultimately cleared Schumacher of most charges, several victims of Lomonosov’s abuse at the Academy managed to have him investigated by the committee for insubordination and misbehavior. Lomonosov – who was guilty on both counts – was arrested on June 3, 1743, and threatened with corporeal punishment and dismissal from the Academy. When he fell ill on August 8, Nartov intervened and managed to get him released under house arrest pending the final decision of the Senate’s investigative committee.

In January 1744, Nartov managed to use his connections in the Senate to get Lomonosov released. But Lomonosov’s salary was cut in half and he was forced to publicly apologize R. Crease, V. Shiltsev: Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765) to the insulted academicians. Recovering from the scandal, he soon – in 1745, at the age of 34 – became the first native-born Russian Academician. A decade later, from 1757 (after Schumacher’s retirement) until his death in 1765, he served as a member of Academy’s Chancellery, in charge of all its scientific and educational activities and departments. Lomonosov was elected an honorary member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences (1760), the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts (1763), and a member of the Bologna Academy of Sciences (1764; see below).

Lomonosov died on April 4, 1765 following a month-long illness exacerbated by pneumonia. The illness, as well as the chronic swelling of his legs and joints, from which he suffered for more than two decades, may have been due at least in part to unsafe vapors produced during his experiments in the chemical laboratory he founded. Furthermore, the St. Petersburg climate was harsh and unhealthy – winters were severe, more severe than anywhere in Europe, while in summers the surrounding swamps and low-lying land exposed the population to epidemics. Partly as a result, many foreign academicians died way before Lomonosov’s 54 years of age, despite belonging to wealthy strata of the Russian capital society. Lomonosov’s funeral was supported by the Empress Catherine the Great (fig. 4) and drew large numbers of the court and high society, as well as crowds of common people. His grave at the St. Petersburg’s Alexander Nevsky Lavra (monastery) was furnished with white Italian marble monument sponsored by the statesman and imperial chancellor Count Mikhail Vorontsov (1714-1767), one of Lomonosov’s close friends and patrons.

3 Major scientific activities

Lomonosov was a polymath, interested in many things from the natural sciences to poetry. His interests were both practical and theoretical, and he built and invented many kinds of instruments, from electrical measuring equipment to telescopes. His pursuits are a bundle of threads that weave together tightly in not easily separable ways, which make exposition of them difficult. The range of his research can be gleaned from the table of contents of his Complete Works: vols. 1-4 consist of works on physics, chemistry, astronomy; vol. 5 includes mineralogy, metallurgy and geology; vol. 6 Russian history, economics and geography; vols. 7-8 philology, poetry, and prose; vols. 9-11 correspondence, letters and translations. The depth of his insights is even more remarkable. In natural sciences alone, Lomonosov performed by himself more than 4000 chemical tests in Russia’s first national laboratory and championed explanations of all physical and chemical phenomena on the basis of corpuscular mechanics in a continuous ether; he coined the term “physical chemistry” in 1752 and thought of absolute cold as a condition where the corpuscles ceased their linear and rotational motions. In each field, moreover, his interests were both experimental and theoretical and, respecting no disciplinary boundaries pushed into related areas.

Chemistry. Lomonosov’s interests in chemistry extended from materials science to instruments and education. Starting in January 1742, he submitted numerous proposals for the Academy to build a chemical laboratory, which would be the first in Russia. But the Academy’s finances did not allow the required large expense, and eventually he requested funds from the State. In 1748, Empress Elizabeth (who had ascended to the throne in 1741) approved the funds, leading to the opening of the first Russian chemical laboratory. It opened in 1748 in St. Petersburg, close to Lomonosov’s house and some 20 minutes from the Academy’s central building. While the building no longer exists, its foundations have been discovered and preserved. There, between 1748 and 1757 Lomonosov carried out highly productive research in experimental chemistry, working on the characteristics of saltpeter, on the nature of chemical affinity, on the production and properties of colored glass and mosaics, on the freezing of liquids, and on phenomena of chemical compounds (or “mixed bodies,” in the language of the time) – the mechanics and laws of the connections between corpuscles. He developed highly accurate weighing methods, applied volumetric methods of quantitative analysis to the determination of the expansion coefficients of gases – he determined the coefficient for air to be 1/300 per 1 degree, very close to the modern value – studied the solubility of salts at different temperatures, and examined the effect of electric current on salt solutions. In the course of this work, Lomonosov invented, improved, or built many instruments, including a viscometer (to measure the viscosity of fluids), a device for filtering solutions under vacuum, a hardness tester, a gas barometer, a pyrometer, a boiler for studying substances at low and high pressures, and accurately calibrated thermometers. His first serious piece of chemical research, on the origin and nature of saltpeter (1749), presented the results of laboratory experiments together with theoretical speculation on the nature of chemical compounds and of chemical affinity. These latter speculations were based on Lomonosov’s kinetic interpretation of heat (fig. 5). Lomonosov’s greatest experimental and theoretical work in chemistry came in 1756 when, seventeen years prior to analogous results by Lavoisier, he experimentally demonstrated the law of conservation of matter in chemical reactions to a high degree of accuracy by showing that lead plates in a sealed vessel without access to air do not change their weight after heating and calcination. Based on this work and on other remarks, Soviet scholars somewhat hyperbolically often credited Lomonosov with the discovery of the general conservation laws of both matter and motion, citing for instance his remark (repeated in a paper of 1760) in a letter to Euler in 1748 that “…all the changes that occur in the species occur in such a way that if something is added to something, it is taken away from something else. So, how much matter is added to any body, as much is lost in the other”. Lomonosov used his chemical laboratory, too, as a classroom and facility for the Academy’s university students, and sought to improve chemistry education. In a paper on the usefulness of chemistry read to the Academy in 1751, for instance, he addressed the problems of training chemists, noting that the discipline “requires a highly skilled practical worker and a profound mathematician in the same person”.

Mosaics and porcelain. One of Lomonosov’s most notable activities, stemming from his research on colored glasses in his chemical laboratory, was fabricating and designing mosaics. In 1753 he also won a 4000 ruble grant to start a mosaic factory some 80 km from St. Petersburg. Later in 1761 he received an 80000 ruble commission (roughly $12 million today) to create 17 large mosaics celebrating the deeds of Peter the Great. Only one was finished before Lomonosov died, a magnificent one memorializing Peter’s victory over Swedes in the Battle of Poltava in 1709 – see fig. 6 – now displayed in the Russian Academy of Sciences (the name, since 1991, of the St. Petersburg Academy). When Lomonosov’s former European companion Dmitry Vinogradov finally returned from Germany in 1745, Vinogradov was asked to set up a porcelain factory to compete with German porcelain from Meissen, to be state-supported and profitable for the court. In attempt to help his friend to find the best composition for the earthenware, Lomonosov ran extensive investigations into materials. A few years after Vinogradov’s death Lomonosov briefly (for one month in 1762) became the factory’s director in 1762. That factory, which was renamed in Lomonosov in 1925-2005 (and today is called Imperial Porcelain Factory), is still Russia’s principal producer of porcelain.

Electricity. Lomonosov’s electrical interests, too, crossed into several fields, including physics, meteorology, and aerodynamics. In the 1740’s electricity was a new phenomenon with no clear analogues, and appeared related in some way to many other phenomena including light, lightning, and the Northern Lights. Lomonosov and his Academy colleague Georg Richmann each built electrical laboratories in their homes to study the phenomena, and Lomonosov also built one at the estate of his mosaic factory. Both scientists were inventive at developing practical electrometers for quantitative research on atmospheric electricity. The electrometers then available, for instance, were fine for measuring continuous sources of electricity. But if you wanted to study lightning, for instance, you had only a short impulse of force. Lomonosov therefore built a maximum electricity power indicator, a ratchet-like device where teeth prevented the metallic plate moved by electricity from retracting, so that it measured the maximum force. In 1744-56, using such instruments, Lomonosov and Richmann carried out the first quantitative experimental studies of electricity. These studies were sometimes dangerous, and in 1753, during the middle of an electrical storm in which they were each (separately) trying to take measurements Richmann was killed by ball lightning at his home laboratory, and Lomonosov himself barely survived at his. In 1756, Lomonosov wrote “Theory of electricity according to the mathematical method,” which tried to understand electricity through the corpuscular conception of bodies; electricity, he thought, is not a fluid but the result of motions of particles. Lomonosov’s electrical studies intersected with his interests in weather. It was common belief at that time, for instance, that polar light is caused by a similar kind of electricity as lightning. But polar light looks more stable and appears in the north, where nothing is hot, so what could the source of heating be? Lomonosov developed an idea of updrafts and downdrafts among three atmospheric layers to try to explain the phenomena – see fig. 7. Lightning, he thought, was produced by friction of vapors when streams of cold air descending from the upper atmosphere meet the upward streams of warm humid air from hotter surface of the ground, with the whole process shaped by the local geography. The result was an original theory of atmospheric electricity that went beyond Franklin’s and incorporated an explanation of the Northern Lights. These meteorological interests led Lomonosov to create the first model helicopter. He suspected that the temperatures in the upper atmosphere were significantly lower than those closer to the earth’s surface, hail being one key piece of evidence. In 1754, looking for a way to send meteorological instruments and electrometers aloft, he designed and built the first working helicopter model. It used two propellers rotating in opposite directions for torque compensation, and was powered by a clock spring. While Leonardo da Vinci famously left a sketch of an airscrew, Lomonosov actually constructed a proof of principle that managed to demonstrate significant measurable lift (fig. 8). Lomonosov’s meteorological interests, finally, intersected with his astronomical interests, for he tried to use the model he had developed for atmospheric lightning to explain comet tails. Lomonosov’s work on electricity was carried further by Franz Aepinus (1724-1802), a professor of astronomy at the Berlin Academy of Sciences who arrived at the St. Petersburg Academy in 1757, succeeding Richmann, whose death had left the professorship of physics vacant. In 1759, Aepinus published “An Attempt at a Theory of Electricity and Magnetism”, which applied Newton’s notions of action at a distance to electricity. Like Newton, Aepinus counseled simply stating the forces involved and not worrying about the exact mechanisms. The result superseded the electrical studies of Euler, Franklin, and Lomonosov because it ignored mechanical explanations and accepted action at a distance, installing Newton’s approach firmly at the Academy.

Astronomy. Starting in the early 1740’s, Lomonosov learned astronomy from Joseph-Nicolas Delisle (1688-1768), an outstanding French astronomer who had been recruited to create the astronomy program at the Academy, with whom Lomonosov began his earliest observational research on comets. He and other Academy astronomers also tried to understand the nature of and effects in the atmospheres of planets in ways that might lead to their detection. During the transit of Venus on May 26, 1761 Lomonosov discovered the atmosphere of Venus by observing a bright aureole around the planet at the ingress and egress, and gave a detailed optical explanation of the effect by refraction – see fig. 9. He published the most detailed scientific report attributing the aureole to the presence of an atmosphere around the planet, and supplied just enough detail about his apparatus and methods that an international team of astronomical history scholars, including one of the authors (Shiltsev) decided to attempt to replicate his observations with historically appropriate refractors during the 2012 transit in five locations in the US, Canada and Russia. The observers used antique 18th century Dollond achromatic telescopes and weakly smoked solar filters similar to those Lomonosov used, and the aureole was successfully observed. The observers concluded that "Lomonosov seems to have been the only one to discover the Venusian atmosphere not by accident but by designing an experimental protocol that made it possible". In 1762, thirty years before William Herschel, Lomonosov invented and built a practical telescope of a new type whose primary mirror was tilted by 4 degrees so that the user could view the formed image directly in a side eyepiece. Later that same year Lomonosov invented a siderostat mechanism which allowed tracking of the stars by tilting a flat mirror in front rather than by moving the entire 40 foot telescope.

Physics. Lomonosov also made a diverse array of contributions to physics. Boyle’s Law (1662) had related the pressure and volume of a gas, and Daniel Bernoulli (1738) noted the need to introduce, at high pressures, a correction related to the intrinsic volume of the gas particles. Lomonosov’s corpuscular approach led him also to predict a deviation from Boyle’s law: because the particles themselves occupy a certain volume of space, he argued, the air pressure would not remain inversely proportional to the gas volume at high pressures. Lomonosov’s conclusions presaged molecular kinetic theory, which would not be fully developed until the 19th century. During the severe winter of 1759, Lomonosov and his colleague Joseph Adam Braun used a mixture of snow and nitric acid to chill a thermometer to -38 °C and obtain – for the first time on record – solid mercury. Upon hammering the frozen metal ball, they found it to be elastic and hard “like lead” (fig. 10). Shrouded in mystique at the time, mercury was shown to be not all that dissimilar to the more common metals, and the work was widely discussed in Europe. But Lomonosov’s commitment to corpuscular mechanics also wound up leading him astray. One of the fundamental principles of modern physics is the proportionality of mass and weight: a body’s weight is proportional to the strength of the gravitational force it is experiencing. This had been discovered by Galileo and experimentally demonstrated as well by Newton. Lomonosov’s adherence to the doctrine, inherited from Wolff, that bodies can only interact through contact, led him to deny this, even long after his associates had accepted it, and Lomonosov spent five years carrying out pendulum experiments in a futile attempt to overthrow it. The rejection of gravitation and the proportionality of mass and weight is “Lomonosov’s most important error”, the Russian physicist and Nobel laureate Pyotr Kapitza once wrote, adding that “Nothing is so instructive as the error of a genius.”

Geology. Lomonosov’s geological studies were also ahead of his time. As Nature Geoscience editorialized a few years ago, “Lomonosov is the author of one of the most important treatises of geology that those of us who were educated in the West have probably never heard of. On the Strata of the Earth was published in 1763 and many of the ideas put forth in the book predate – by a quarter century – similar theories from James Hutton and others considered today, in the West, to be the founders of modern geology. Instead of being heralded alongside his European counterparts, Lomonosov’s contribution to the geosciences has been buried, partially due to the fact that On the Strata of the Earth, like Lomonosov’s other texts, was published in Russian”.

History, Grammar, and Education. Lomonosov also made important contributions to Russian history and grammar. Of his historical contributions, published in Volume 6 of his Complete Works, the best known one, commonly used as a textbook, was A Chronological Abridgment of the Russian History, published in Russian in 1760 and translated into English in 1767. Lomonosov’s most notable grammar, and a major textbook for nearly a century, was Russian Grammar, written in 1755 and published in 1757. Lomonosov was also a leader in the reorganization and advancement of scientific education, and founded Russia’s first University, Moscow State University in 1755, now known as Lomonosov Moscow State University (fig. 11).

4 Lomonosov and Italy

Lomonosov was an outstanding linguist and theorist of languages. Regarded as the best Latinist in Russia, he knew some 30 other languages and occasionally used them in his research, though most often wrote, spoke in and translated from: Latin, German, French, English, Greek and Italian. He knew Italian well enough not only to include some poetic translations as examples in his “Rhetoric” textbook (1748), but also to provide the manuscript review of a “Russian-Latin- French-Italian dictionary” written by an Italian translator in 1747 in which Lomonosov criticized not only the author’s command of Russian but also of proper Italian, the author (a certain Giorgio Dandolo) having written in his native Venetian dialect. Lomonosov considered compiling his own version of such a dictionary, but was unable to carry out the project before his death.

Despite his command of other languages, Lomonosov retained a particular fondness for Russian. “Charles the Fifth, the Roman emperor,” he liked to remark, “used to say that Spanish is the most appropriate to speak with God, French with friends, German with enemy, Italian with women. But if he had been skilled in the Russian language, he would certainly have added that Russian is right to speak with all of them, for he would find in it the splendor of the Spanish, the liveliness of the French, the strength of the German, the tenderness of the Italian, moreover, the richness and powerful images laconism of Greek and Latin”.

In the early 1760s, Lomonosov was burdened by administrative responsibilities in the Academy, in its gymnasium, university, and geography department. He was also hobbled by pains in his legs and limbs, in what today would probably be diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, which sometimes left this phenomenally energetic person unable to do business for weeks. His enemies, most notably Schumacher – and, after 1757, Schumacher’s son-in-law Johann Taubert – tried to exploit Lomonosov’s illness to discredit him and remove him from administrative leadership. To defend himself and demonstrate his reputation, Lomonosov shrewdly cultivated allies and patrons, especially State Chancellor Count Vorontsov. In 1764, for instance, knowing that Vorontsov was planning a trip to Italy and had contacts in the eminent Bologna Academy of Sciences, Lomonosov asked to be proposed as a foreign member. He provided Vorontsov with supporting material – recommendations and testimonials to the value of his work to be delivered in Bologna – and sent several of his major works directly to the Academy (fig. 12). Vorontsov presented this material to the Academy, and on April 13, 1764, Lomonosov was duly elected a member. Vorontsov also introduced Lomonosov to Italian mosaics, and the scientist was particularly impressed by the portrait of Empress Elizabeth done in 1750 by Alessandro Cocchi (which now hangs in the Hermitage). Vorontsov later arranged publication of Lomonosov’s note on the subject in a Florentine newspaper. After Lomonosov’s death, Vorontsov commissioned the Italian artist Francesco Medico to sculpt a stele made of Carrera marble, with Latin and Russian epitaphs and an allegorical relief, for Lomonosov’s tomb; the sculpture was installed two years after Lomonosov’s death in 1767 (fig. 13). Recently, Lomonosov Moscow State University and Link Campus University in Rome established the “Lomonosov Centre for Science and Education” with the aim to promote cooperation on research projects, training schools, conferences, seminars, the implementation of educational exchange programs between the two universities and an exchange of resources such as researchers, students and administrative staff (http://eurasiatx.com/linkcampus-moscow-state-university-create-neweducation-center/). The Center is opened in 2017 in the Casale San Pio V, the new headquarters of Link Campus University.

5 Conclusion: Scientist in turbulent times

Lomonosov’s seminal role in founding Russian science was partly due to his research, partly to his ferocious determination, partly to several fortunate turns of events, and partly to the energy with which he promoted the Academy’s work and Russian science in general – indeed, so much so that he has occasionally been accused of self-promotion and claims about him subjected to scholarly myth-busting. One way in which he drew the court’s attention to himself and to the Academy was through his ability to write odes. Writing odes for important occasions harmonized well with court society customs of the absolute monarchy then existing in Russia, and was not perceived by contemporaries as flattery or servility. Ode-writing was also remunerative; for an ode he wrote marking the 5th anniversary of the accession of Elizabeth to the throne in 1746 Lomonosov received 2000 rubles, which was almost three times his salary at the Academy. Ode-writing was also fruitful in attracting the attention of Russia’s rulers to the Academy and to Russian Science. In 1750, when he met the Empress Elizabeth personally and consulted with her about the state of Russian science, he wrote another ode, after which he received a promotion in the Russian rank system. Mosaics were another way in which Lomonosov drew attention to himself and the Academy. In 1754, for instance, he created a mosaic of Peter the Great which was presented to the Russian Empire State Senate (now in the Hermitage). Shortly before his death, in 1764 the Empress Catherine the Great visited the ailing scientist at his laboratory in St. Petersburg, where she viewed his mosaic art and “…observed physics instruments that he had invented as well as several experiments in physics and chemistry”. But Lomonosov also worked to improve the conditions of scientists in Russia, including proposals to give academicians regular ranks and respected positions in the social hierarchy.

Today, Lomonosov is hailed as the “father of Russian science” in Russia. For the past three centuries his name has been the most recurrent of any scientist in the Russian lexicon. Besides Lomonosov Moscow State University, the scientist’s namesakes include also a city, an Arctic ridge, lunar and Martian craters, numerous streets and squares, and a mineral. Lomonosov’s Tercentennial in 2011 was celebrated state-wide by a decree of the Russian President. Since 1959, the Lomonosov Gold Medal (fig. 14) has been awarded yearly for outstanding achievements in the natural sciences and the humanities, first by the USSR Academy of Sciences and later the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). Since 1967, two medals have been awarded annually: one to a Russian and one to a foreign scientist. It is the Academy’s highest accolade. Italian professor Giulio Natta was awarded Lomonosov’s Gold Medal for outstanding achievements in the chemistry of polymers in 1969.

Why, then, isn’t Lomonosov better known in the West? Several kinds of factors are at work. One is that Russia was just emerging from being a scientific backwater during Lomonosov’s lifetime. Though exchanges of reports, results, and other news between the Academy and European centers – particularly Berlin, where Euler was between 1741 and 1766 – were increasing, St. Petersburg was not a major player in the vital “Republic of Letters” that covered most of Europe, whose nodes were in regular communication. Another is that polymaths are difficult to appreciate – and among Lomonosov’s contemporaries, his works in grammar, mosaic art, and especially poetry were easier to understand than his scientific accomplishments – and even outshone the latter. Lomonosov, too, died young – at the age of 53 – while other more famous scientists such as Newton, Bernoulli, Franklin, and Herschel lived to 70, 80 or more. Finally, in a few areas – most notably in his adherence to corpuscular mechanism – Lomonosov clung to views that would shortly fell out of scientific mainstream of the day. His European counterparts at the time were increasingly turning to Newtonian-inspired reasoning that relied on caloric, electric, and other “imponderable fluids,” Euler being an exception. Only 19th century physics, buttressed by the mechanical theory of heat and wave optics, provided the requisite background to appreciate many of Lomonosov’s discoveries and ideas. As the American physical chemist Wilder Bancroft wrote, in a review of Lomonosov’s works on physical chemistry collected and translated into German, and published in 1910, “The clearness of his views on heat, on the conservation of mass, and on physical chemistry in general, is quite extraordinary because these things were not due to be discovered by the rest of the world.”

Bancroft continued, “As everybody knows, Lomonosov has had absolutely no influence on the actual development of chemical science. While part of this may be due to his having lived in Russia, that will not account for everything because Lomonosov studied in Germany and kept up a correspondence with Euler. The moral really is that it does not pay to be too clever. If a man goes in the same direction as the multitude and keeps only a little ahead of them, he is sure to be hailed as a leader and sometimes he really is one. If he gets too far ahead, he does not count at all. This was Lomonosov’s fate”.

Still, Lomonosov is of continuing relevance today, as a scientist who managed to carry out forefront research while at the same time cultivating the support of patrons, rulers, and cultural leaders throughout decades of political turmoil.


Authors would like to thank Martina Caroli, Luisa Cifarelli, Svetlana Romaschenko and Luca Nanetti for their invaluable help in search and identification of M. Lomonosov’s works and letters in the Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna and in the archives of the Accademia delle Scienze and assistance in provision of scans and images which we used in this article.