Obituary: Professor Alexander Lutsko

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The Independent Online
Alexander Lutsko, nuclear physicist: born Osipovichi, Belorussia 23 January 1941; Professor of Nuclear Physics, Belarus State University 1987-90; Rector, International Sakharov College of Radioecology, Minsk 1990-97; married Valeria Mamontova (one daughter); died Sierra Nevada, Spain 4 September 1997.

As Founder and Rector of the International Sakharov Institute of Radioecology in Minsk, Alexander Lutsko showed great compassion to that generation of Belarusan children suffering from cancerous illnesses brought about by nuclear radiation following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The Sakharov Institute focuses upon research into ionising radiation and the education of specialists in radiation medicine. This is a field which explores the means of protection from radiation and the development of academic courses in biomedical sciences linked to nuclear physics.

Lutsko was the personification of the "scientist as artist". He had a vision of a new international system of education across the whole former Soviet Union, a system which would develop the individual's personality; the monolithic Soviet university education was a legacy of Marxism he particularly despised. He was proud to be included with Belarusan visual and performing artists at the 1995 Edinburgh Festival. The walls of the Sakharov Institute are today fortified with the works of Belarusan artists. "To be an artist," said Kazimir Malevich, "is to be a scientist."

Elena Bonner, Andrei Sakharov's widow, has provided inspiration and support to the institute from the day it opened its doors in November 1992. Its unlikely site is what was a suburban secondary school in an unnoteworthy street, Dolgobrodskaya, next to the enormous complex of the Minsk Tractor Factory billowing chimney smoke. The institute came into being on the wave of the new political ideas and initiatives sweeping Belarus when it gained independence from the Soviet Union in December 1991.

Lutsko was born in 1941, in a small town 100 kilometres south of Minsk. From 1978 to 1987 he worked at the Institute of Biochemistry at the Academy of Sciences of the Far East in Vladivostok. He was a leader in the Soviet Union's scientific explorations, voyaging through the Sea of Japan, Pacific and Indian Oceans. The dissemination of his reports - he identified nuclear activity as a result of the disposal of Russian submarines - caused surprise and unease to Mikhail Gorbachev's administration in its early years.

From 1987 to 1990, as Professor of Nuclear Physics at Belarus State University, Lutsko headed the university's Isotope Laboratory. The creation of the Sakharov Institute owed much to his friendship with his university colleague Stanislav Shushkevich. Together they masterminded the removal of all nuclear weapons from Belarus territory.

The new nation state of Belarus is strategically positioned at the heart of the new post-Berlin-Wall Europe, bordering on Russia, Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine and equal in size to Scotland, but with a population twice that of Scotland. The two friends worked miracles within a short space of time; Shushkevich was seen as the ideal political leader in his role as Speaker at the Belarus parliament. In the political upheavals and unrest of the last three years he is now a vigorous member of the Opposition.

I was introduced to Alexander Lutsko through the work of my Kingston University colleague Alan Flowers, who was attracted to my work as Professor of European Cultural Studies and my preparedness to link the faculties of the arts and the sciences. Lutsko participated in a special summer school in 1995, "Bridging the Gap between Science and Art, and between Eastern and Western Europe", in the form of an expedition through 25 gardenscapes in England and Scotland leading to exhibitions and symposia in Edinburgh and St Andrews. He loved the British landscape. I shall never forget him in reflective mood in the garden of Combermere Abbey in Cheshire, or at St Leonard's School in St Andrews en route to the Edinburgh Festival.

Lutsko was fascinated by the direct line between creative genius and insanity, and it was at St Leonard's, at a Demarco European Art Foundation symposium, that he presented his thesis The Theory of Abnormality, in which he suggested ways of narrowing the gap between the logical and intuitive ways of investigating the nature of reality. One of his fellow speakers there was Vytautis Landsbergis, the first democratically elected President of the independent state of Lithuania.

Kingston University has given much support to the Sakharov Institute, particularly in the last three years, and a programme of academic studies has developed to the mutual benefit of both students and teachers. Through this alliance the British Foreign Office "Know-How" Fund has given more to the Sakharov Institute than any other Belarusan academic institute.

All those who went to Alexander Lutsko's apartment in Pushkinskaya will remember his extraordinary hospitality in his large drawing-room, its every inch covered in photographs, artefacts, sea shells and sculpture, recording his love of travel and visual art. He regarded everyone he met as a potential friend.

Lutsko died of sudden heart failure near the summit of a mountain in the Sierra Nevada range at a height over 9,000 feet.