Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov

Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov (Михаи́л Васи́льевич Ломоно́сов) (November 19 [O.S. November 8] 1711 – April 15 [O.S. April 4] 1765) was a Russian scientist, writer and polymath who made important contributions to literature, education, and science.

From peasant to scholar

Lomonosov was born in the village of Denisovka (the name of which was afterwards changed to Lomonosovo in honor of the poet), situated on an island not far from Kholmogory, in the Far North of Russia. His father, a fisherman, took the boy when he was ten years of age to assist him in his work, but his eagerness for knowledge was unbounded. The few books accessible to him he almost learned by heart and, seeing that there was no chance of pursuing education at home, he resolved to go by foot to Moscow.

An opportunity occurred when he was seventeen, and by the intervention of friends he obtained admission into the Slavic Greek Latin Academy. There his progress was very rapid, especially in Latin, and in 1734 he was sent from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. There again his proficiency, especially in physical science, was marked, and he was one of the young Russians chosen to complete their education in foreign countries.

Foreign education

He accordingly went to the University of Marburg in Hesse, Germany, then one of the most important European universities - at a time when universities in general were in some decay - because of the presence of the most eminent German Enlightenment philosopher of his time, Christian Wolff. Lomonosov studied with Wolff and became one of his personal students; both philosophically and as a science administrator (also a forte of Wolff), this connection would be most influential for the rest of his life.

During his Marburg time, he also began to write poetry, imitating German authors, among whom he is said to have especially admired Günther. His Ode on the Taking of Khotin from the Turks was composed in 1739, and attracted a great deal of attention at St. Petersburg. During his residence in Germany, Lomonosov married a native of that country, and found it difficult to maintain his increasing family on the scanty allowance granted to him by the St. Petersburg Academy which, moreover, was irregularly sent. His circumstances became desperate, and he resolved to leave the country and to return home to St. Petersburg. In 1743, his wife moved there, as well.

His achievements

On his arrival in Russia he rapidly rose to distinction, and was made professor of chemistry in the University of St. Petersburg, where he ultimately became rector. Eager to improve Russian education, Lomonosov joined his patron Ivan Shuvalov in founding the Moscow State University (later named after him) in 1755. In 1764 Lomonosov was appointed to the position of a secretary of state.

In 1756, he attempted to replicate Robert Boyle's celebrated experiment of 1673 and concluded that the phlogiston theory, commonly accepted at the time, is false. Anticipating the discoveries of Antoine Lavoisier, he wrote in his diary: "Today I made an experient in hermetic glass vessels in order to determine whether the mass of metals increases from the action of pure heat. The experiments — of which I append the record in 13 pages — demonstrated that the famous Robert Boyle was deluded, for without access of air from outside the mass of the burnt metal remains the same".

He regarded heat as a form of motion, suggested the wave theory of light, contributed to the formulation of the kinetic theory of gases, and stated the idea of conservation of matter in the following words: "All changes in nature are such that inasmuch is taken from one object insomuch is added to another. So, if the amount of matter decreases in one place, it increases elsewhere. This universal law of nature embraces laws of motion as well, for an object moving others by its own force in fact imparts to another object the force it loses" (first articulated in a letter to Leonhard Euler dated 5 July 1748, rephrased and published in Lomonosov's dissertation "Reflexion on the solidity and fluidity of bodies", 1760).

Lomonosov was the first person to record the freezing of mercury, and to hypothesize the existence of an atmosphere on Venus based on his observation of the transit of Venus of 1761 in a small observatory near his house in Petersburg. Believing that nature is subject to regular and continuous evolution, he demonstrated the organic origin of soil, peat, coal, petroleum, and amber. In 1745 he published a catalogue of over 3,000 minerals, and in 1760 he explained the formation of icebergs.

Lomonosov was proud to restore the ancient art of mosaics. In 1754 in his letter to Leonard Euler he wrote that his three-years long experimentations on the effects of chemistry of minerals on their color led to him became very involved into the mosaics art. In 1763 he sets up a glass factory that produced the first stained glass mosaics outside of Italy. There were forty mosaics attributed to Lomonosov, only twenty-four survived to the present time. Among the best is the portrait of Peter the Great and the Battle of Poltava, measuring 4,8 x 6,4 meters [1], [2],[3].

In 1755 he wrote a grammar that reformed the Russian literary language by combining Old Church Slavonic with the vernacular tongue. To further his literary theories, he wrote more than 20 solemn ceremonial odes, notably the Evening Meditation on the God's Grandeur. To his later poems he applied an idiosyncratic theory that words containing the front vowel sounds E, I, YU should be used when depicting tender subjects, and those with back vowel sounds O, U, Y - to describe things that may cause fear ("like anger, envy, pain, and sorrow"). This theory is a version of what is known as sound symbolism. Lomonosov published his own history of Russia in 1760. Most of his accomplishments, however, were unknown outside Russia until long after his death.

Upon his demise in St Petersburg in 1765, Lomonosov left no male heirs. Among female heirs, a granddaughter married the famous General Raevsky. In 1948, the underwater Lomonosov Ridge in the Arctic Ocean was named in his honour. A moon crater also bears his name.


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