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The forgotten pioneers

The USSR once wanted to win the Cold War on an intellectual level with science. What happened since then?

26. February 2020
Magazine > Feature > The forgotten pioneers

Forty years ago, the hopes of the Soviet Union rested on their shoulders. Today the physicists and cyberneticists of Georgia are relics of a war that was fought with intellectual weapons. And yet they still keep working – hoping for a better pension and that the next generation of scientists will rescue their ideas for the future.

The sky over Tbilisi is as dirty as its streets and courtyards. The weathervane on the balustrade is turning impatiently, and far below it lies the city, looking like a post-Soviet snow globe behind blue-grey veils of rain. We descend the stairs, stepping carefully around broken sheets of glass and rusty corners. At the bottom we stand in front of a heavy hatchway that leads into the interior of the tower. Teimuraz Bliadze heaves all his strength on the iron wheel that locks the hatch. Cold air that smells of brine and rust rushes out into our faces. As I lean forward to look into the depths, his left hand reaches out and grabs my arm. “What is it?” I ask. “That’s the cloud,” he says and smiles. “But it’s switched off, we have to save electricity.”

Back in the 1970s, you might have blamed Teimuraz for the bad weather. In those days, along with a hundred other physicists, he researched hail here in the institute. Weather manipulation seemed a promising field and was generously funded by Moscow. The physicists had the latest measuring instruments, fired rockets into thunderstorms and had aeroplanes that could seed clouds. But hail stubbornly defied all scientific field work, destroying the finely calibrated instruments and making research flights impossible. On top of that, it was a rare weather phenomenon in Georgia – yet all the more dangerous for the Soviet Union’s breadbasket. For that reason, the research was moved into a controlled room within the laboratory, and a tower was built in which to make hail.

Big ideas were in great demand in the post-war Soviet Union. Even though the Kremlin presented the victory over Germany as a triumph, the “Great Patriotic War” – with its 20 million Soviet dead – had shown the country’s vulnerability and put it into a difficult geo-political situation. The USA’s head start was especially apparent from its superior war technology: jet propulsion, rockets, radar, and of course atomic weapons. By taking political control of countries like Bulgaria, Hungary and East Germany, the Soviets had created a belt that might protect them from conventional attacks but offered no defence against nuclear bombs. The next war, as the Kremlin knew all too well, would be decided by the better ideas. Just recently, it had been the soldiers of the Red Army who had carried the Soviet ethos into the world; now in the 1950s it was up to the scientists to follow them. And today those pioneers are old women and men whose faith in the importance of their work survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. They keep working, hoping for a better pension and that the next generation of scientists will save their ideas for the future.

The inside of the weather machine has the look of a stranded nuclear submarine: snail-shaped ventilation pipes connect the weather chamber to the outside world. There are measuring instruments with milky glass, rusty levers, open fuse panels, and among all these a noticeboard with yellowing black-and-white photos pinned to it. Most of them show hail. The days when money was poured into expensive pure research are long gone. Today the institute only carries out minor measurements for others. The pioneers of weather research still use instruments marked with Cyrillic letters. Asked why the last three governments might have lost interest in hail, the pioneers offer only an evasive answer: “Maybe there are other fields that are more important.” We leave the interior of the tower through a door and enter the communal office. The researchers, who greet us with a friendly smile, are pioneers like Teimuraz, people who wanted to tame the weather. Old hands are stretched out to us in greeting, chairs are pushed in front of a dirty board. One of the old men launches unprompted into a lecture on the manipulation of hail. His English is fragmentary, consisting really only of technical terms strung together: “Thermal – under Archimedes force – temperature rise – condensation level. Vapour transfer into water particles.” With clipped movements, he draws hailstones using a storm of vectors and numbers.

“That’s the cloud,” he says and smiles. “But it’s switched off, we have to save electricity.”

– Teimuraz Bliadze, Institute of Geophysics

Looking at the Bolsheviks’ scientific agenda today, you could easily get the impression that no idea was too big for a country the size of the Soviet Union. Ideas like building a giant, nuclear-powered pump station on the Bering Strait to control the currents of the Pacific and improve the weather in the northern hemisphere. In a mad rush of feasibility and futurism, even projects like diverting Siberian rivers into the Aral Sea seemed possible. The fact that this would have required building a reservoir the size of New Zealand did not slow down the Bolsheviks’ ambition. This zeal for scientific research was also making a sizeable impression on the other side of the world. President Eisenhower’s strategists warned him of a new form of warfare by weather manipulation, and even 1950s New Yorkers worried about floods caused by melted polar ice caps.

“If we’d had this conversation 40 years ago, we’d all have ended up in jail,” says Rafael Tkhuvaleli, his hands protectively stroking a leather-bound book. Small black-and-white pictures of geometrical bodies are stuck to the typed pages, and large negatives fall out of the volume as he leafs through it. “These are holograms of projectiles, they could be missiles, for example,” says Rafael. In the 1970s, he worked together with other scientists on a programme for quickly identifying objects in motion. “From Moscow I received very detailed partial commissions, but I never discovered the greater context for which my work was necessary. That was part of the system, of course,” says Rafael. Behind him stands a row of heavy metal shelves, in which stacks of books, rolls of paper, slip boxes and piles of densely inscribed graph paper form an irregular pattern. The other half of the room is dominated by electronic components – a chaos of cables, reels, switches and soldering irons interspersed with open circuit boards and switching circuits. The control centre of Georgian cybernetics smells faintly of my childhood train set.

The evening sun throws the latticed shadow of a giant construction framework through the window. At the moment, the only way to the Cybernetics Institute is through a labyrinth of corrugated iron fences which leads to a grey building cowering at the back of a major construction site. Of its eight storeys, only the lowest are being used. A few years ago, the government did make the upper floors available for the internally displaced refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but now the block is empty again, and the few discarded fridges and camp beds seem a little out of place. We follow Rafael through darkened corridors. Every now and then we knock on a door and get invited to tea by friendly old men. The institute has a recruitment problem; the youngest cyberneticists here are in their early 50s. At some point we end up in a small office. The room has been almost completely cleared. There are torn-out pages and index cards lying around between clipboards, cables and an abandoned gas mask, all of which are covered with a sepia-coloured blanket of construction dust. “I worked here for more than 30 years until we moved downstairs,” says Rafael.

In the 1960s, Rafael was one of five young physicists to receive a scholarship in Moscow. When he was subsequently offered a job back in his home country, he was quick to leave the capital – at the time, the Cybernetics Institute was one of the leading institutes in the Soviet Union. Over a thousand scientists were researching questions here about which most of their contemporaries did not have even the remotest idea. And yet those in power showed a lot of interest, for they saw military potential in cybernetics. The top secret commissions that Rafael and his colleagues were set to work on may have come from Moscow, but they could just as easily have been found in Stanislaw Lem’s notebook: a system that reads brainwave patterns in order to determine whether a tank driver is about to fall asleep; a map of the Siberian hinterland that can predict the location of diamonds based on a comparison of satellite imagery and regional folk tales. “Moscow liked our work. We were renowned scientists across the whole of the USSR,” said Rafael, and a glimmer appears in his eye.

© Fabian Weiss
Institute of Cybernetics, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo © Fabian Weiss

Cybernetics was the hottest topic in the Cold War between the superpowers. The study of complex “control systems” that could be observed and steered developed into a school of thought whose post-modern charm hardly any other discipline could resist. Biologists began to study the interactions between cells and their environment, psychologists propounded the idea of the human spirit as an information machine, and computer scientists began to develop decentralized networks. In America, cybernetics concentrated itself around the eccentric mathematician Norbert Wiener and so found itself in the gravitational field of the legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Next door to the cyberneticists, another ambitious project was being founded whose leader was an enthusiastic participant in Wiener’s colloquiums: along with his research department and furnished with money from the defence ministry, the computer scientist Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider was working on a research network that could connect the supercomputers of all the different American universities. It was to be a decentralized system in which data found its own way to the nearest node, a system perfectly suited for the distribution of academic knowledge, but just as useful as a military network, because in the event of a first strike from the Soviet Union such a decentralized network would still be capable of responding. While Rafael was working in the closed system of his institute in Tbilisi on subtasks that came from Moscow via the secret mail system, his transatlantic colleagues were working on the same questions in their interdisciplinary think tanks, but under a different political ideology. History was to fall on the American side: ten years after the Soviets had fired the first satellites into space, the West had recovered well from its Sputnik shock. But it wasn’t Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who wrote history in 1969, it was the students of America’s cybernetics pioneers, who put the ARPANET online and so inaugurated the internet age.

“In the West, our research results would only be valid if they got tested with the sophisticated procedures of a clinical trial. But if you have a sick patient, there’s no time for expensive experiments.”

– Inga Giorgadze, Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages

The pattern of shadows on Rafael’s desk is slowly subsumed by the glare from neon tubes. “It’s really very sad that Georgian cybernetics rests on the shoulders of a few old men,” he says. For many years now, the 79-year-old has been getting by with small research projects. His salary was raised a little last year – before then, it had been difficult to pay the rent on the flat he shared with his brother. The fall of the Iron Curtain drastically changed the situation for Georgian science. In the Soviet Union, two-thirds of research was financed by the military, but this most important source of income for applied research dried up as the defence budget shrank in the 1990s. At the same time, the Soviet pioneers were suddenly trapped in a worldwide competition whose rules had been written by the West. The fact that the majority of the Soviet research results have never been translated into English has damaged international understanding – as has the fact that new and different empirical procedures to verify findings have become standard in the West. But a larger chasm has opened between different ideologies: on both sides, scientific research had put itself at the service of the state. Now in the clash of new scientific systems, the Soviet pioneers were suddenly faced with the question of how the knowledge accumulated by the last two generations of scientists could continue under a different political system.

© Fabian Weiss
Inga Giorgadze, Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages, Tbilisi. Photo: © Fabian Weiss

“In the West, our research results would only be valid if they got tested with the sophisticated procedures of a clinical trial,” says Inga Giorgadze. “But if you have a sick patient, there’s no time for expensive experiments.” Until recently, the professor ran the laboratory at the Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages in Tbilisi. She took over the job from her father, one of the pioneers of microbiology in the 1920s. Bacteriophages are highly specialized viruses that feed exclusively on bacteria. That means they can, in principle, heal any bacterial illness – from a simple gastrointestinal infection all the way up to anthrax. As a child, Inga ranged the institute’s huge grounds, and rode the horses whose urine the doctors used to create serums to treat tetanus. When she cut her knee, or drank water from a dirty puddle, her father would summon her to his office and give her a glass of cloudy phage juice to drink. The story of how she successfully led the institute into privatization in the 1990s and now works together with people who could be her grandchildren is closely linked to the history of science in Georgia. Her most precious capital is the more than 1,200 phage strains that have been stored in the institute’s cellars for over a century like a well-cooled treasure.

TBILISI – ARCHIVE OF TRANSITION

The capital of Georgia practically presents a new face every day. Ambitious building projects and large foreign investments are constantly changing the cityscape of Tbilisi. This relentless development is the subject of much debate among the city’s residents: What should be preserved and what may be subjected to change? What is available for sale and what is common property? What do we want to remember and what are our sources of inspiration?

Urban planners, architects, and activists recount what the changes mean to them and to life in this city. The diverse and impressively illustrated contributions give an immediate view of the multiple changes. This story by Sebastian Pranz and Fabian Weiss was created as part of the book project Tbilisi – Archive of Transition.

It was Georgian bacteriologist Giorgi Eliava who brought phage research to Georgia from France in the 1920s. Stalin was so taken with it that he funded an entire institute for this nascent branch of science. The next 20 years became a golden age of research in France and the USA as well as Georgia – but it was only in the USSR that phages became a real medicine for the masses.

When World War II broke out, and wound infections became rampant in the field hospitals, the West switched to a new treatment that had just become market ready: penicillin. But since manufacturing antibiotics was expensive, and certain vital patents were only registered in the West, the Soviet Union continued to treat bacterial infections mainly with phages – and with considerable success. And so as the war raged, Georgia became the centre for bacteriophage research – a time capsule in which Eliava’s phages survived both the war and the chaos of independence decades later.

like pictures of the youngest grandchildren. This new progeny is the pride of all the researchers – and they already have beautiful examples in their collection. If a standard medicine offers no cure, Giorgadze’s team of researchers develops a specialised phage strain, and the refrigerated archive in the cellars grows. In fact, this hundred-year head start could well come in useful soon, since interest in phage treatment has recently revived – not least because of the growing fear of multi-resistant pathogens.

When antibiotics don’t help, phages could work real miracles without creating new resistances. “We had a patient from Germany here last week,” the professor says. “He had a bad wound infection on his stomach. Back in Heidelberg they were about to remove some muscle tissue, but I told him: if you do what I say you’ll be well again soon.” The demand in the German market is growing, even if phage treatment is still not allowed there. “When we sent him home after two weeks, our German colleagues almost lost their faith,” she says, her face creased with smiles.

“How much longer are you going to work?” I ask Inga as I’m leaving. She takes off her glasses and gives me an attentive look. “We’ll see. If God gives me a little more time … you know, if you don’t commit yourself body and soul to your work, you won’t get very far.” Rafael too will keep going to his office every morning, through that labyrinth of building sites that is as complex as a cybernetic circuit diagram. He still has a lot of ideas: more than fit into one scientist’s life. He’s just presented the government with a concept for an information centre to collect the country’s seismographic data. “The future of artificial intelligence is in the early recognition of natural disasters,” he says. But he was unable to get the funding because he couldn’t meet the criteria that required young scientists to be involved in the research. Meanwhile the institute will soon be renovated – there are to be new offices and an information centre, and Rafael is sure that some young people will come soon after. And then cybernetics will unleash its magical powers once more.

Inside the weather machine, Teimuraz talks of the cumulus clouds and their complex beauty, while outside the rain drums against the windows. The institute for cloud research is now reduced to working on small subtasks and carrying out atmospheric measurements for other institute’s experiments. “Science is an expensive pleasure,” says Teimuraz. “Of course we’d like to have more opportunities, but we’re happy with what we’ve got.” He has worked here for 30 years, and his greatest achievement is the erection of the weather chamber that is now falling apart. “Sometimes I get the feeling that we created something here that we still haven’t fully understood,” he says.

Original in German. Published in June 2018 in  Tbilisi – Archive of Transition.
Translation into English by Ben Knight.

This text is protected by copyright: © Braun Publishing AG / Niggli Verlag / Sebastian Pranz. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages, Tbilisi. Photo: © Fabian Weiss