Street Life: Samotechny Lane - Lousy pay, but you do mix with the stars
Tuesday 22 June 1999
Ever since he was a small boy and received a telescope for his birthday, he has been crazy about astronomy. He knows that astronomers, like other professionals who have lost their communist-era subsidies, earn a pittance in the new capitalist Russia. But compared with his passion, money is an abstract concept, as abstract as the distant galaxies are to most of us.
Four summers ago, I spent my weekends at Lutsino, a village of wooden mansions that Stalin presented to selected scientists. Their heirs are now reduced to renting the dachas out to foreigners and rich New Russians. Among the pine trees is the dome of the Academy of Sciences Observatory. I took Kiril for a visit then and he has been badgering me to take him back ever since.
So last week, after he passed his maths exam - equally important for astronomy and accountancy, his parents pointed out - we returned to the observatory. I myself had wanted to see this evocative place again. It was just as I remembered it, like a scene from a 1960s science fiction film.
The summer night was alive with insect noises. The wreck of a car stood by the gate. Were those frogs croaking or were they aliens? Up in the tower, the mad scientist opened the dome to the starry sky and aimed his galactic machine.
It was Dr Nail Bakhitgarayev, focusing his photo-telescope. We had not chosen the best time to come, he said. August was the high point of the astronomer's year while June was disappointing because the northern sky never really got dark. But never mind, we could look at the moon.
"It's a new moon," said Kiril. "Personally, I think you get the clearest picture when it is in this phase." And no sooner had Dr Bakhitgarayev shown him the knobs and crank handles than the precocious lad was manoeuvring the giant telescope as if it was his own.
"I was a student when the Americans landed on the moon," said Dr Bakhitgarayev with a nostalgic sigh. "We had a moon programme too but the Americans beat us. There was only the slightest reference to their success in the Soviet press. I read all I could lay my hands on. I thought it was a miracle." Kiril swung the telescope to focus on Mars, glowing red just above tree level. Seeing he was competent, Dr Bakhitgarayev left him to it and chatted to me.
He said he had written his dissertation on the so-called "variable" stars that change in brightness. Some of them are really two stars and periodically one eclipses the other. Others are stars that pulsate while a third category are erupting or new stars. It is a very arcane field.
The Soviet state, however, put more value on applied than pure science - the dachas up the road were given to the makers of the nuclear bomb - and Dr Bakhitgarayev had to turn to bread and butter work. At the observatory, he tracks satellites and keeps an eye on the growing amount of debris in orbit around the Earth as a result of Russian and American space programmes. For this less than romantic civilian and military work, he said he got paid "sometimes".
"I can see Vega now," Kiril interrupted. "See, it's very bright and bluish." Dr. Bakhitgarayev explained that the colours of stars depended on their temperatures. The hottest were white or blue-white while the cold ones were red.
I looked through the lens. To the naked eye, a star is a diamond. Magnified 100 times, Vega just looked like a big diamond. It was light years away and my ant-sized mind could not begin to grasp it.
To me, the beauty of stargazing is that it heightens your sense of wonder at the Earth. I went outside. The garden was a jungle of overgrown lupins. Children were chasing one another among the shadows.
"Those are the kids from the Young Astronomers' Club," said Dr Bakhitgarayev. "It's funny, when market reforms started, everybody lost interest in science. But now the youngsters are coming back." The Soviet Union produced too many tank drivers and ballerinas. Perhaps capitalist Russia now has all the accountants it needs and the time of the scientists is coming round again. Whatever, observing the universe teaches you one thing: Man deludes himself if he thinks that any condition is permanent.
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