Ambitions of young stargazer turn to a handful of dust Those who reach for the stars are brought back down to earth


I spent the month of August stargazing with a 12-year-old Russian boy called Kirill Matveyev. I was staying at his family's dacha in the countryside outside Moscow. During the day he would run around, trying to bring down the apples prematurely from the trees and pulling the wings off flies, like any other lad of his age. But when darkness fell, he would set up his telescope on the veranda and, with the seriousness of an elderly professor, deliver lectures on the galaxy.

The instrument, bought some years ago when such items were still cheap, was described as a "junior astronomer's telescope", but it was more than three feet long and powerful enough to show us Jupiter's satellites and the rings of Saturn. It was awe-inspiring to see the myriad stars of the Milky Way and the foggy spots which represent whole galaxies beyond our own. But it was just as moving, a little chilling even, to see the rare talent of this boy. And disturbing to think of his future.

Whatever the faults of the old Soviet Union, it would have found a place for someone with Kirill's abilities. In the new capitalist Russia, making money is all that counts. Abandoned by the state which once supported them, highly qualified Russians in both the arts and sciences struggle to make a living - if they have work at all. It is not unusual to come across physicists selling newspapers or historians exterminating cockroaches, while entrepreneurs with far less education make their fortunes. Teenagers see this and question the point of staying on at school and going on to university.

When I returned to Moscow from the dacha, I wrote a short article about Kirill for a local newspaper. Professor Boris Shustov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Astronomy, was thus alerted to the boy's existence and reacted with the greed of a Jesuit to the chance of capturing a soul at an impressionable age. "Astronomers are a very special breed," he told me. "Bring Kirill along to my office." We went along to the institute and there, over tea and chocolates, it seemed to me Professor Shustov did all in his power to put Kirill off a career in astronomy.

The moments of ecstasy, he said, would be few and far between. Mostly the work consisted of routine monitoring, often for the military. The institute, for example, devoted much time to tracking artificial satellites and the increasing amount of human-made rubbish in space. Funds were not available for gazing at distant stars.

The facilities were not what they used to be either, he said. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian astronomers had access to telescopes all over the vast empire. They would travel regularly to an observatory in Crimea, where weather was better than in cloudy northern Russia. But now that telescope belonged to independent Ukraine. All the Russians had left was an observatory at Zvenigorod outside Moscow.

As for the pay, sighed Professor Shustov, it was pitiful. He himself earned a mere 285,000 roubles (pounds 41) a month. And yet there were still people who chose astronomy out of pure love for it. He introduced us to his post-graduate protege, Dmitry Wiebe, who could have made a good living working with computers but who preferred to study not just the stars but the dust between the stars.

On hearing about this cosmic dust, Kirill was hooked. Professor Shustov, seeing that the boy was determined, invited him to visit the telescope at Zvenigorod. We went on the Saturday before the start of the school term. The weather forecast was bad and Kirill was terrified his adventure would be cancelled because of thunderstorms. But the night turned out to be wonderfully clear.

The observatory is in fields near a village of luxury dachas with which Stalin rewarded the nuclear scientists who gave him the atom bomb. Near by, mansions are being built for the relatives of today's politicians. The astronomers appealed against the construction, because they said the light from the houses would disturb their work, but they were ignored.

Inside the grounds of the observatory you feel as if you are on the set of a science-fiction film. Insect noises fill the night air and a 1950s limousine stands abandoned near the gate. The aliens are about to emerge.

Up in the tower of the telescope, Kirill was allowed to crank open the dome. When the astronomers saw he knew what he was doing, he was allowed to focus the giant lens. They looked at Vega and other stars in our galaxy, then began casting about the night sky for more distant galaxies. Perhaps nobody wants stargazers in this world, but they are in a world of their own.

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