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Essay 50.  The Mysterious Island

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Essay 50.  The Mysterious Island

This Essay is about the longest single adventure of my life.

In October 1942, during WW2, I, my mother, and my father’s family lived as refugees in the Ural Mountains on the border between Europe and Asia. My father was fighting the Germans near Stalingrad. My cousin Galya presented me with an awkwardly thick for a child illustrated book The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. I was six and she was twice  older. I had only recently learned to read, guided by pictures in an ABC book and occasional cues from my grandmother.

After the flight from the advancing Germans, the scattered by the war branches of my father's big family had gradually gathered together in the city of Chelyabinsk. Five women and myself lived in a single room, using suitcases and chairs to extend the sleeping space, which had to be assembled each night and taken apart in the morning. More relatives were packed in a couple of other rooms of the apartment which I never managed to explore to the end.

I opened the book.


Which meant:

“Are we rising?”

“No! On the contrary! We are descending!”

“Worse than that, Mister Cyrus! We are falling!”

“For heaven's sake, throw out the ballast!”

 “There. The last sack is overboard!”

“Does the balloon rise?”


“I hear the clacking of waves!”

“The sea is under the basket!”

“It cannot be five hundred feet from us!”

Then a powerful voice rent the air and these words resounded:

“Overboard with everything heavy!... Everything! We are in God's hands"


Such were the words which erupted in the sky above the vast watery desert of the Pacific about four o'clock in the evening of the 23rd of March 1865.

The book became a window on a world that had existed long before I was born, was much larger than our city, of which I saw very little, and our room, which I knew too well. Life  was very different and full of mystery somewhere. America was the first foreign country I learned about from a book written by a French writer in Russia invaded by the Germans. With a hindsight, it prophesied some distant events of my life.

In a year or two we returned to Kharkov, my native city in the Ukraine, recently cleared from the Germans, half-ruined by bombardments, but with our neighborhood intact.

Since that first encounter I opened the book countless number of times, for many years reading it from the first page to the end or at random, skipping some boring descriptions, each time discovering something new, understanding more, and watching the big book shrink in my growing hands, the illustrations losing sharpness, and the pages falling out. The book stayed with me throughout my school and college years until I left for Siberia to start a new independent and married life as an assistant professor of chemistry at a technical university.

I know how the book died. Once, when I came to Kharkov, I saw pages of the book nailed to the wall in the toilet: the rolled paper for the same purpose was available in Moscow but never in the big city 400 miles south of it. Most of Russia did not know what it was.

Recently, while thinking over a new Essay—this time about terrorism—it occurred to me that my current hunt for simplicity in complexity, as well as my entire chemist's view of the world and possibly even my entire life, go back to The Mysterious Island . My life was put on a firm, however tortuous, track the very moment I was able to read the first lines of my first book after the ABC:


In February 2007 I decided to succumb to the pull of the past. I found a great Israeli web site
Zvi Har’El’s Jules Verne Collection, which returned me to my early childhood. 


“Are we rising?”

“No! On the contrary! We are descending!”

“Worse than that, Mister Cyrus! We are falling!”


Comparing the ingrained in my memory Russian beginning with the French original and the English translations, I made a late discovery.  “For heaven's sake, throw out the ballast!”  was curtailed in Russian to  “Throw out the ballast!” and “We are in God's hands!”  disappeared from   “Overboard with everything heavy!... Everything! We are in God's hands!”  


The original French Pour Dieu and et à la grâce  de Dieu  were jettisoned by the Soviet censors of Jules Verne in 1930s to let the souls of Russian children fly unencumbered by the ballast of religion.

As anything in human matters, the art, craft, and politics of translation evolve, too. See APPENDIX 1.


This minor case of Russian literary terrorism was a good moment to return to my Essay 49 on Islamic terrorism, but the Mysterious Island resumed its magnetic hold on me.

Like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Mysterious Island is a book of transformations. From the natural soil, plants, animals, and minerals of a desert island, the little colony of people and pets made pottery, iron, steel, soap, glycerin, nitric and sulfuric acids, explosive nitroglycerine, hydraulic elevator, clothing, bread, maple sugar, draw-bridge, cart, glass, gun powder, boat, electric telegraph, and the battery to run it. The transformations were initiated and directed—catalyzed, as I would say now—by the mind of Cyrus Smith, an American engineer and “a scientist of the first rank.”  No wonder, some of his companions regarded him next after God himself and felt safe in his hands. After the island had been destroyed by a volcanic eruption, the small group was able to replicate their colony elsewhere for as long as Cyrus Smith was in possession of his encyclopedic knowledge.

The chemical processes seemed most mysterious and for a long time incomprehensible to me. I could easily understand the assembly and rearrangement of solid parts, as in making bridge, cart, and boat. It was all like moving furniture twice a day to make and unmake beds. The chemical and electrical changes, however, were driven by invisible forces. Still, electricity was based on movement and later in my school years I could make an electrical motor on my own. But chemistry lacked any visible displacement in space. This is why chemistry as the art and science of magic transformations imprinted me for the rest of my life. It had taken quite some time before I was able to understand the secret machinery of chemical reactions.

In 1950’s chemistry was going through a radical transformation, largely unnoticed by general public. The chemical theory was developing right before my eyes. As everything coming from the West, in Russia it arrived 10 to 20 years late. As a postgraduate at Moscow Mendeleyev Chemical University I was lucky to witness the process. I enjoyed the gradual understanding of how chemistry pulled its rabbits out of the hat. Chemistry used a mental microscope for tiny intervals of time and that could be used for anything beyond molecules.


After chemistry had taken its modern shape, the chemical paradigm solidified. This can be compared with the transformation of a person from child  to young adult,  which, of course, happens only once in lifetime.


Looking back, I begin to think that I owe to The Mysterious Island a few traits of my character which, like all good things in life, can be unsafe in big quantities: the pursuit of independence ( the back side is loneliness) and the thirst for ultimate reasons (the back side is difficulty to adapt to reality).  I was also terribly impatient, although it was not the fault of chemistry. 

I got an idea that there was only one science of everything and the scientist was somebody who knows everything. I have a more realistic idea of science today, but I believe that everything itself is an object of  understanding, if not of science. Chemistry, one of the most insulated, self-sufficient, dark to outsiders, specialized, and unpopular areas of knowledge, with a bad reputation for our health and environment, holds a map of all which is mysterious in human matters and not just illnesses, drugs, and pollution. When we speak about chemistry in love and politics, we mean mystery without explanation. Bad chemistry simply means that the machinery does not work. No rabbits. Good chemistry works miracles.

After the war my father worked as manager at a small industrial co-op that made rubber boots and toy balls. Once he brought home an introductory level book on chemical technology of plastics. It was the time when there were but a few of them. Celluloid, Galalith, and Bakelite were omnipresent. Galalith (i.e., milkstone), made of casein (protein component of milk) cured by formaldehyde was the first chemical product within my understanding. See nostalgic APPENDIX 2. The description of Bakelite, however,  was accompanied by chemical formulas which I did not know what to make of.

Imprinted by The Mysterious Island in my early childhood, inspired by Cyrus Smith, I developed avid interests in many things, but at the age of 13, after I had seen a display of spectacular chemical reactions performed for my school class at a local university, my amazement was as firmly cured into an infatuation with chemistry as the cottage cheese into Galalith. My attraction to chemistry could be compared only with an affair with a femme fatale, for which I had been well under age, however.

I did not lose my interest in everything else, except history, to which I remained indifferent until mature age. I was especially attracted to anything that could be done with human hands. There was enough popular science and do-it-yourself literature in Russia to satisfy my interests.

Most of experimental science of that time had human dimensions. Experiment was within the limits of manual dexterity and observable with either the naked eye or optical instruments.  Only psychiatry, which I studied rather deeply, could be compared with chemistry as far as its mysterious obscurity  was concerned.  It was as far removed from manual intervention, however, as distant galaxies.

My high school and college interests included mathematical logic, cybernetics, physics, biology, physiology, medicine, psychology, psychiatry, polar expeditions, engineering, robots (or, rather, automata, known since the Middle Ages), utopian philosophy, folk tales of all nations, languages, literature, and music. With such wide and wild spread I could hardly reach through the surface, but I could fly over it.


We cannot see magnetic field, but can visualize it with iron filings. Unlike the tangible natural sciences, engineering, and human scale psychiatry, chemistry dealt with atoms and molecules believed to be forever invisible. Chemical reactions could run without any visible sign of a process—or with explosive intensity. To have control over such esoteric and alien properties of matter seemed to require diabolic power and supreme ingenuity. 


The connection between a few trivial manipulations like mixing, stirring, or heating and the radical and complete transformation of properties seemed the most mysterious thing in all science.  All physical and physiological processes, birth, life, and death, planetary and stellar events could be described in their continuity, as a sequence of stages best of all exemplified by a strip of movie frames. There was a gap between frames (actions) and  their consequences in chemistry, quite unnaturally in the natural world. It is not only natural but required in detective stories—another distant parallel with movies.  The parallel has been noticed,  see Essay 48, Motives and Opportunities.


I started to build my own home laboratory. In those times chemical glassware and even chemicals could be freely and cheaply bought in two school supply stores.  Soon our two-room apartment was filled up with stinky chemical fumes (my parents had immense patience with me) and  I  transferred  my lab to our fourth floor balcony. I began to read chemical textbooks long before we had chemical class at school. I did rather complicated things, mostly in the faster and more eye- and nose-catching inorganic chemistry. And of course I was still reading The Mysterious Island, although on rare occasions. Since that time I have had uncountable opportunities to witness a revulsion to chemistry as science that most normal educated people in this world possess.

I have always loved circus, to which my father used to take me each time the new show came to the city. My favorite act was illusion. The spectacular chemical reactions could be compared only with the tricks of magicians.


Of course, chemical reactions, as I learned later, also could run slowly and smoothly, but any individual molecular act was a breach of continuity. It was like the instant transformation of the circus girl into the lion or, at least, like cutting her in half. Only because there were zillions of molecules in the test tube, the collective properties of the swarm had their continuous run. 


It is the breach of continuity that attracts me now to history, which has been my dominant interest for over a decade. How does history pull off its tricks?  Can we invent a new trick?  Why does the chemistry of history fail? Can we nudge history or rein it in? Is there anything new under the sun? What is the new anyway? Unlike a molecular breakup, we can see a revolution or a war in all details, but still have no idea of why it happened. A hundred historians can have hundred opinions about the reasons for WW1 and never come to a consensus. 


After 1956 and the shocking discovery of the monstrous lies and cruelty of my native country, the "only truly free and just society in the world," as we were taught, I got interested in social and political matters, but my interest had nothing to feed on: the sources were either locked up in the libraries or heavily censored. 

For quite a time my only clear window on the Russian past and its bearing on the Communist present was the Complete Collected Works of Alexander Herzen in 30 volumes, never designed for a wide public, with wonderful editorial notes full of references to other Russian pre-1917 books still available in libraries only by special permission. Herzen's My Past and Thoughts (Byloe i dumy) could compete with The Mysterious Island  by the number of my returns to its pages.

Today the name of Herzen can be heard in America and Europe thanks to the play The Coast of Utopia by Tom Stoppard.  The nine hour long play (Herzen appears in its third part, Salvage), as I understand,  gives the Western audience an opportunity to feel by their bottoms the centuries of oppressive waiting for the better future by Russian intellectuals. Some of the brave theatre-lovers were as farsighted as to wear a special anti-bacterial underwear. (The New Yorker, March 12, 2007).

The long-awaited final curtain fall had come for the Russians around 1991. Soon it became clear that nothing would be final in Russian history. But I was already out of Russia.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, my constantly growing aversion to the Soviet system turned into hate and a premonition of my clash with the system.

That premonition clearly imprinted some of my Russian poetry. 

More important, emotions aside, thinking about the fate of societies and the reasons for the transition of Russia to Communism, the stability of the Soviet system, its collapse, and its possible fate, I began to see history in its chemical projection: as a sequence of alternating stable and transient states, with each new state looking as a kind of molecule consisting of standard atomic blocks bonded in a particular way. Already on my way out of Russia, I managed to publish two frivolous essays in a progressive Russian magazine Chemistry and Life  about temperature and transition state of social transformation.

The term system meant for me something different of what it meant for a physicist, as I had an opportunity to notice during my endless discussions with a new refusenik friend, theoretical physicist Eugene Chudnovsky.  Two of us were brought together on the desert island of refusal when we applied for exit visas in 1979. Both unemployed, we had all time in the world to think and talk.

At this point I wish to reflect on the phenomenon of refusal.  Thinking about Tom Stoppard's play, which I had not read (I read reviews), I realized that the Russian intellectuals were the first to experience a kind of chronic refusalas an obstacle not to emigrate, but to join Europe as a nation.  Moreover, I see now refusal as a historic pattern. More about it in APPENDIX  3.


For a typical physicist, as I see it, system means something that has measurable properties as a whole and within its various areas.


Chemistry is a realm of individual objects that differ not by properties expressed in numbers, but by their structures. It is a realm of individuality and when I imagine myself a physicist, I cannot find anything individual in the universe but the universe itself—not so for an astronomer, of course. Nothing expresses the difference between physical and chemical views of the world better that physical and chemical equations. Chemical space is not metrical but topological.


Dynamic systems change while static ones do not. The evolving complex systemssociety, culture, economy, ecosystemchange on two time scales. Small local events happen every day and even every second, many of them reversible. Large scale global events are irreversible, rare, prolonged, slow, and usually going through a sequence of periods of long stability and short spikes of instability. Individual human life is a fascinating example, studied along and across not by scientists but by writers. Human history is another one such object. Both are inherently contentious.


Such systems, which physics has been trying for over sixty years to describe in mathematical formand in vainall have something in common: they exist by consuming energy capable of performing work and dissipating energy in the form less capable of performing work. Moreover, all such systems need matter made of atoms of the Periodic System in specific structured forms.


The evolving complex systems also eject the matter in much less concentrated and less specific form of dirty water, garbage, rust, debris, and filth. Pure matter can be recovered from filth, but only at the expense of more energy.


At the global price of dissipation and dispersion, the systems of individuals, societies, living species, product species, cultures, institutions, enterprises, technologies, science, language, art, theatergrow, evolve, decline, and die.


The processes in exystems, as I now prefer to call them (X-system was my first choice, still as good, but not enough googlegenic) are observable and very often, although not always, measurable. Our understanding of such processes regardless of what they arelife or technology or cultureis exactly my main interest. 


No wonder I feel lonely on my own desert island, but  I am not exactly alone there and not even the first. 


When I discovered it in 1980, the island had already been named,  frequented, and made habitable by Ulf Grenander, the author of Pattern Theory, which I see as the universal chemistry of everything. But I have already told about that many times on many occasions (in Memoirs of 1984, and The New and the Different, for example). What I has not told is that Ulf Grenander played the same role in my life as Captain  Nemo in the life of the colonists on the mysterious Lincoln Island, in Russia but even more so in my American life. 


The quest for a unified picture of the world has never stopped since the times of Aristotle and his Greek predecessors. There is a big literature on the subject.


I believe (but not insist)  that I am the first to notice that the scientific picture of the world ignores an essential component: novelty.  What is new? What is different? How can we scientifically study exystems if by definition they  are supposed to amaze us with the magic of incomprehensible novelty? The answer is, of course, that science evolves with each such discovery. But evolution of complex systems and human history in particular is nothing but a sequence of singular and never experimentally reproducible surprises, otherwise one hundred historians could not have more than two or three opinions, mostly one. We could not be bogged down in Iraq with a Theory of Iraq War. What kind of science can confess of inherent inability to explain post factum, let alone predict anything of importance?  


My  main personal discovery was to notice in Pattern Theory a kind of mathematics that expands the limits of understanding of exystems because it is open to novelty. Of course, Ulf Grenander was the first to think about patterns of history in general, as well as specific, terms. His first  suggestion was, characteristically, to explore the war between Russia and Sweden in the eighteenth century.


The rest can be found in complexity and simplicity .  I do not expect future pattern exystemologists to calculate anything, get grants from the Department of Defense, and make money and/or tenure out of all that. I do not even know what to expect.  Exystemology, which today is neither anything existing, nor anything systematic, is all about the unexpected. It is about how things happen, but not what will happen tomorrow, on which stock to bet, and for which candidate to vote. It is an adventure, like the escape of the five Americans from the besieged Confederate Richmond on the 20th of March 1865. With Cyrus Smith you don't know what lies ahead, but you feel more secure.


It has been my longest personal adventure.


The two remaining stories I would like to tell are about what theory means in Pattern Theory's approach to history—of course, not a patented way to explain or predict history—and how the fictional story written by Jules Verne 130 years ago represents and reflects properties of exystems—but one can just read his book, very much different from his other books.  Probably, some other time.


APPENDIX 1.  Translation: a shade cast by history onto a book page


Many years later I was able to compare I am a Mathematician by Norbert Wiener with its Russian “abridged” translation. Anything but flattery regarding Soviet Russia was thrown out, sometimes whole pages.


Nevertheless, I found two occurrences of God in the Russian text of The Mysterious Island . Those were standard everyday expressions. God occurs 30 times in the later English translation by Sidney Kravitz. In the original French text, Dieu occurs 34 times. Dieu and le ciel are used intermittently in the French original. In the earliest English translation I found 27 God and 15 Heaven.  But no Heaven in the Russian one.


This is the beginning of the English translation by W. H. G. Kingston (1875):


"Are we rising again?"

"No. On the contrary."

 "Are we descending?"

 "Worse than that, captain! we are falling!"

 "For Heaven's sake heave out the ballast!"

 "There! the last sack is empty!"

 "Does the balloon rise?"


 "I hear a noise like the dashing of waves. The sea is below the car! It cannot be more than 500 feet from us!"

 "Overboard with every weight! . . . everything!"

Such were the loud and startling words which resounded through the air, above the vast watery desert of the Pacific, about four o'clock in the evening of the 23rd of March, 1865.


Source: Jules Verne Virtual Library


This tells something about the freedom and necessity in the frivolous art of translation.

APPENDIX 2:   Galalith

Galalith is well remembered in America and Europe. The Art Deco pieces of jewelry made of milk can be bought in Paris and Berlin for couple hundred dollars. See also this and this.

galalit " This impressive German necklace is made of chromes metal orange galalith parts and large black galalith center elements which are screwed onto the chrome pieces. The condition is excellent. $230.
Why it’s hot: This antique shop specializes in Art deco furniture, china, lamps and other home objects, but also in Bakelite and Galalit jeweler, from the 20th century. They sell: Antiques as well as Bakelite jewelry (material developed in 1907-09) galalit which has a Retro appeal and has made the objects collectables in recent years

                                Source: http://iwanttogotoparis.blogspot.com/2006_11_01_archive.html


The phenomenon of Russian refusal is quickly fading from public memory. Some memoirs of its victims could be found at the site Remember and Save.  Google points to other sites and books.

Refusal was a sudden mass denial of exit visas, without any warning, to thousands of Soviet Jews who had applied for them after years of practically free, although never officially approved,  Jewish emigration. The refusal lasted from 1979 to 1987.  See also the end of Part 3 of Essay 49.

How to explain the pattern of refusal? Two analogies come to mind.

One is the situation described in the story The Highway of the South (La autopista del sur) by Julio Cortázar (one of my favorite authors).  The Sunday evening traffic on the Southern highway to Paris slows down and stops. Nobody knows any reason for that. The people stuck on the highway start a new way of life in waiting, day after day, and, probably, week after week. The new life goes on with all its usual collisions and people adapt to it. They manage to get food, water, and sleep. They make love. They die. One day, the movement resumes as unexpectedly as it stopped. 

The other is the current (2007) situation with illegal aliens in America.  For decades the government used to close its eyes on the invasion of illegal aliens. Amnesty was the only response. Suddenly, in March, 2007, without any warning or change in legislation, in Fall River, MA, the raids against illegal aliens, mostly women, were unleashed. The children back from school could not find their mothers. Some scenes on TV looked staged for a Holocaust movie.

The Soviet refusal of 1979-1987 can be understood as the inversion of the Fall River refusal: in Russia thousands of people turned overnight not into illegal aliens but into illegal citizens. The exodus of Jews from Russia was suddenly noticed. They got frozen with one leg already over the border.  Stopped in their tracks, most refuseniks, i.e., the applicants denied visas, who had already sold their furniture, quit jobs, and start packing the suitcases, lost de facto their however limited civil rights. As soon as you understand this, you can flip the picture and understand the problem of illegal aliens. They were first allowed, pretended to be invisible, and then suddenly noticed. This mental manipulation can help understand what pattern actually means in human matters.

NOTE. The very concept of pattern has its roots in a peculiar abstract area of mathematics called group theory (or theory of groups of transformations)  which deals with the chunk of reality spanning from quantum mechanics to Irish jokes and ways to wear underwear, whether antibacterial or not.

All that we, illegal citizens of Russia wanted was to be deported.

The majority, most of them well educated, had to wait for eight years on the Soviet highway to Communism and find some source of income. They adapted. Dozens of refusenik activists, who insisted on their never officially canceled right to leave Russia,  appealed to the West, were arrested and sent to exile or labor camps.

For a story of my own American refusal of a different kind, see Personal Note in Essay 44, Remembering Russia.

I do not sympathize with anything illegal, including immigration. But on one of these frozen March nights, by strange coincidence, I  was listening to the Open Source (Public Radio)  program on Hanna Arendt, my other belated intellectual femme fatale. She castigated bigness

America is big, Soviet Russia was big. Big is bad because it makes you small. Lincoln Island was small. The colonists were big.

The bigness is both blessing and curse. A born pessimist, I am—very atypically—see it as a blessing, as far as America is concerned. But I begin to have my doubts and fears. America, the blessed big brave cool melting pot, itself is now a big, but not the biggest, chunk in the hot global melting pot of a quite different chemistry.

NOTE (2016). The Mysterious Island  begins with an imaginary episode of the American Civil War.  It is yet another opportunity for me to return to my fixation on the Cold Civil War in America. It is a point in American history from which a possible future looks like either blessing or curse, depending on whether you close your left or right eye, but what corresponds to which—it evades me.  If America loses bigness, even with both my eyes closed, I see that there is no way democracy can survive in the world. But throughout entire human history, bigness always ended with a split.

Exystemologists of the world, unite!

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