Mikhail Feigelman: “I’m looking for tall poppy who are interested in science, not just an academic career”.

The University of Ljubljana has opened a new grad­u­ate pro­gram with the sup­port of Google Quantum, which will accept stu­dents includ­ing: includ­ing from Russia. Physicist Mikhail Feigelman explains why the American cor­po­ra­tion need­ed a new project in Slovenia and what is spe­cial about this pro­gram. In an inter­view withT-invari­anthe describes dan­ger­ous trends in mod­ern sci­ence and talks about how to cre­ate an “island of aca­d­e­m­ic intelligence.” 

Mikhail Feigelman – the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist, Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, spe­cial­ist in the field of quan­tum physics of con­densed mat­ter and the the­o­ry of super­con­duc­tiv­i­ty, pro­fes­sor at MIPT, hon­orary mem­ber of the American Physical Society (2008). From 2003 to 2018 - Deputy Director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics named after L. D. Landau RAS, from 2003 to 2023 - Head of the MIPT basic depart­ment “Problems of Theoretical Physics” at the Institute of Physics named after. L.D.Landau RAS. Since 2023 - research fel­low at Nanocenter at the Institute of Physics in Slovenia and coor­di­na­tor of the grad­u­ate pro­gram at the University of Ljubljana.

Quantum physics in Ljubljana

T-invari­ant:How did the new project come about in Slovenia? 

Mikhail Feigelman: We came up with the project togeth­er with my old friend and co-author Lev Ioffe, who has been work­ing in America for a long time and is involved, in par­tic­u­lar, in quan­tum physics cal­cu­la­tions. We were look­ing for a small European coun­try where we could gath­er young peo­ple, both those who fled Russia and, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, any oth­ers who would be inter­est­ed in study­ing physics, and not just “build­ing an aca­d­e­m­ic career.” The last one has made me sick for a long time. And then the choice is not very large. 

Firstly, this should be a place where, on the one hand, there is already good quan­tum physics of con­densed mat­ter, on the oth­er hand, there is no exces­sive aplomb like “we don’t need any­one exter­nal” ” And, on the third hand, we were look­ing for a place where we would not be con­strained by the reluc­tance to deal with immi­grants from Russia, no mat­ter who they were. And if you look at the inter­sec­tion of all these con­di­tions, it is not wide. Therefore, Lev turned to one of the Slovenian pro­fes­sors who col­lab­o­rates withGoogle Quantum, and it quick­ly became clear that Slovenian physi­cists were quite inter­est­ed in such a project. They liked the idea that they would have a small num­ber of spe­cial­ists from our field who would recruit young peo­ple and devel­op this direc­tion. Initially, we want­ed to imme­di­ate­ly launch a new master’s pro­gram in quan­tum physics, but the University of Ljubljana advised us not to rush: “It takes a long time to open a master’s pro­gram, let’s start with a grad­u­ate pro­gram, and then we will move on from there.”

T-i:Your pro­gram is intend­ed for both the­o­rists and exper­i­menters. Is there a base for them in Ljubljana? 

MF: It’s still small. But we have pro­vid­ed how to solve this prob­lem. Our PhD pro­gram includes the pos­si­bil­i­ty that a PhD stu­dent choos­es a super­vi­sor not nec­es­sar­i­ly in Ljubljana, but, for exam­ple, in Grenoble, Karlsruhe or Delft. He stud­ies part of the time in Ljubljana, and part of the time he works where he has agreed on sci­en­tif­ic super­vi­sion. The pecu­liar­i­ty of the exper­i­men­tal part of the pro­gram is that there are still few lead­ers in this par­tic­u­lar direc­tion (although they cer­tain­ly exist), but we have found a way to raise these people. 

T-i:Quite a com­plex orga­ni­za­tion­al structure? 

MF:Yes, which is why it should be imple­ment­ed, for exam­ple, in France or Germany seems com­plete­ly unre­al­is­tic. And in Slovenia, the sci­en­tif­ic bureau­cra­cy is not self-suf­fi­cient, it is main­ly sub­or­di­nat­ed to com­mon sense. For exam­ple, we were able to agree that a grad­u­ate of a bachelor’s degree from MIPT or the physics depart­ment of HSE can apply to this pro­gram, because the vol­ume of this bachelor’s degree almost cov­ers the 5-year European master’s program.

We have already accept­ed five peo­ple in 2023, four of whom are Russians. At the same time, we felt inter­est in our ini­tia­tive not only from uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors. There are two insti­tu­tions here that are locat­ed across the street from one anoth­er: the uni­ver­si­ty’s Faculty of Physics and the Josef Stefan Institute of Physics, which belongs to the Slovenian Academy of Sciences. The dis­tance between them is about a hun­dred meters, which facil­i­tates coop­er­a­tion. In the bow­els of the Institute of Physics there is a Nanocenter. This is a real nan­otech­nol­o­gy cen­ter that works at the request of work­ers. If some­one needs to make “nano-prod­ucts” e” and encoun­tered prob­lems with stages that require com­plex equip­ment - pay, and qual­i­fied peo­ple using the Nanocenter equip­ment will per­form these stages. This is an extreme­ly effi­cient insti­tu­tion, part­ly because it is led by Dragan Mihailovic Dragan Mihailovic - a per­son very qual­i­fied in both physics and man­age­ment. And part­ly because the sta­tus of the Nanocenter is a non-gov­ern­men­tal non-prof­it sci­en­tif­ic orga­ni­za­tion, which makes life much eas­i­er in all respects.

Our pro­gram is based on this col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Faculty of Physics, University of Slovenia in Ljubljana. Google view

T-i:Why does Google Quantum need a “can­dle fac­to­ry” in Ljubljana? 

MF:There are many aca­d­e­m­ic groups that, to one degree or anoth­er, solve prob­lems that are inter­est­ing for Google Quantum. The fact is that cre­at­ing a quan­tum com­put­er is a project of enor­mous com­plex­i­ty. There are many teams in dif­fer­ent coun­tries work­ing on it, they col­lab­o­rate with var­i­ous major “play­ers” in this area (Google, IBM, some oth­ers). There are prob­lems relat­ed to this area of physics that are of inter­est to cor­po­ra­tions, but not enough to include them in their own cur­rent work plans. Then a coop­er­a­tion agree­ment is con­clud­ed with an aca­d­e­m­ic group that is inter­est­ed in such a task for some rea­son. For exam­ple, this kind of col­lab­o­ra­tion between Google Quantum and an exper­i­men­tal group at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology has been going on for a num­ber of years. There are oth­er sim­i­lar exam­ples. In addi­tion, cor­po­ra­tions also need smartpeo­ple to work for them. Therefore, they con­tin­u­ous­ly select young peo­ple. The idea that there would be anoth­er, albeit small, place where grad­u­ate stu­dents would be accept­ed based on a real exam at the entrance, and not on a resume and rec­om­men­da­tions - every­one liked this idea. 

T-i:Does this mean that stu­dents are admit­ted to this pro­gram dif­fer­ent­ly from oth­er grad­u­ate stu­dents at the University of Ljubljana?

MF:Exactly. They are accept­ed based on two para­me­ters. The first is an exam for the­o­reti­cians or exper­i­menters. But in both cas­es, peo­ple must solve a cer­tain num­ber of prob­lems and explain what they actu­al­ly solved. The exam takes place remote­ly, for­tu­nate­ly telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions allow this to be done at any time, in a con­ve­nient way.

The sec­ond is the gen­er­al require­ment of the University of Ljubljana (not how it’s typ­i­cal­ly done in the West): a grad­u­ate stu­dent is final­ly accept­ed when he has agreed with one of the super­vi­sors that this super­vi­sor will accept him . It’s not like we’ll enroll you, and then you’ll spend a year fig­ur­ing out who your super­vi­sor is — noth­ing like that. In case there are some sci­en­tif­ic super­vi­sors who do not have offi­cial sta­tus at the University of Ljubljana, a con­fig­u­ra­tion is pro­vid­ed that there is a sci­en­tif­ic super­vi­sor, and there is his co-super­vi­sor from the uni­ver­si­ty who agrees to ful­fill this role, and they work togeth­er with the student.

Josef Stefan Institute of Physics. Nebojša Tejić, STA

T-i:And the mon­ey? After all, if a grad­u­ate stu­dent has a co-super­vi­sor in Karlsruhe or Grenoble, he needs to peri­od­i­cal­ly trav­el around Europe. Do your grad­u­ate stu­dents have increased stipends?

MF:The schol­ar­ship is approx­i­mate­ly the same as the usu­al Slovenian one. You can find extra mon­ey for trav­el, it’s not a big prob­lem. The non-triv­i­al­i­ty of the deci­sion lies in the fact that the Slovenian Education Agency allo­cat­ed a whole chunk of mon­ey for a schol­ar­ship for for­eign grad­u­ate stu­dentsof this pro­gram. Again, this dif­fers some­what from nor­mal prac­tice. There is no such con­di­tion that a pro­fes­sor can take on a grad­u­ate stu­dent only with his own grant. In Slovenia, a super­vi­sor can hire a Slovenian grad­u­ate stu­dent with mon­ey from the Ministry. However, in the case of our pro­gram, we man­aged to ensure that the Ministry of Science allo­cat­ed mon­ey for nine for­eign grad­u­ate stu­dents per year.

T-i:Then what does Google pay for?

MF:For the teach­ers for these grad­u­ate stu­dents. In par­tic­u­lar, I and two of my col­leagues are paid from the mon­ey trans­ferred to Nanocenter from Google. Accordingly, we work on sci­en­tif­ic prob­lems that are inter­est­ing to Googe Quantum - it’s sim­i­lar to a reg­u­lar sci­en­tif­ic grant. For now this con­cerns the­o­ret­i­cal research, but we hope that this coop­er­a­tion will be expand­ed to the exper­i­men­tal area.

T-i: PhD stu­dents will be asso­ci­at­ed with Google after defend­ing their PhD?

MF: They don’t have to, but they have the oppor­tu­ni­ty. There is a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to go in this direc­tion even before defend­ing your dis­ser­ta­tion. There is a well-devel­oped sys­tem of intern­ships for stu­dents. When a per­son is hired for an intern­ship for two sum­mer months, they give him a task, he com­pletes it, and he gets paid for it. And peo­ple look at each oth­er: who can do what, who can be use­ful. This is not very for­mal­ized. The main deci­sion is made based on how, in fact, some sci­en­tif­ic inter­ac­tion devel­ops or does not develop.

T-i: Do you have a plan to increase the num­ber of PhD students?

MF: You don’t need a lot of these peo­ple. Moreover, I must say, I am glad that in all con­ver­sa­tions with local col­leagues it sounds like: we don’t need a large num­ber, we need smart people.

T-i: What do you mean by “sen­si­ble”?

MF: These are peo­ple who know how and want to solve com­plex prob­lems. Who first think about what inter­ests them, and then think about how they will make a career out of it. In mod­ern times, these are white crows. 

T-i: Still, no mat­ter how much a grad­u­ate stu­dent today is burn­ing with new tasks, after PhD he enters the glob­al aca­d­e­m­ic mar­ket, who plays by cer­tain rules. Do you think that these rules part­ly con­tra­dict the very essence of sci­ence? What exactly? 

MF: Yes, this is a big prob­lem: it doesn’t even par­tial­ly con­tra­dict, but in the main thing. In short, these rules require aban­don­ing inter­est­ing (some­times few) top­ics of work and sail­ing in some mas­sive direc­tions, spend­ing efforts main­ly on com­pe­ti­tion with those swim­ming near­by, which is quite dis­gust­ing and ineffective.

T-i: So, your grad­u­ate stu­dents can say: “Mikhail Viktorovich, you taught us solve not fash­ion­able, but impor­tant and com­plex prob­lems, and we solved them. But if we con­tin­ue to do this, we will become out­siders, losers. We won’t be able to get big grants. And this means that we will not have mon­ey for the next com­plex and impor­tant tasks. We will find our­selves on the aca­d­e­m­ic mar­gins.” The like­li­hood that they will run into this is quite high?

MF: Yes, and this is one of the fre­quent sub­jects of con­ver­sa­tions with var­i­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tives of this young gen­er­a­tion. It’s true. And I answer them quite hon­est­ly that the sit­u­a­tion is real­ly bad, and that one can only hope that a sparse but con­nect­ed net­work of such peo­ple and places where their abil­i­ties will be appre­ci­at­ed remains. There are peo­ple, and there are not so few of them, who man­age to stay in this ridicu­lous “mar­ket” for the sake of sci­en­tif­ic results in the old sense of the word, and they are inter­est­ed in cre­ative, strong young employ­ees no less than in grants. On aver­age in the aca­d­e­m­ic envi­ron­ment, the con­cen­tra­tion of such peo­ple is small. But the arith­metic mean does not nec­es­sar­i­ly deter­mine fate. In gen­er­al, we are accus­tomed to achiev­ing a lot of things not at the aver­age lev­el, but using rare fluc­tu­a­tions. I don’t see any oth­er way. 

T-i: If you tell them this at the entrance, do you risk scar­ing off young people? 

MF: Of course. But this is the real­i­ty. And I know a lot of smart guys who sim­ply left physics for finan­cial math­e­mat­ics: they exist there quite suc­cess­ful­ly. This is also a choice.

T-i: Do you have the feel­ing that in Russia stu­dents in recent years have become more prag­mat­ic from the point of view of career growth? 

MF: Yes.

T-i:What year did this start?

MF: It start­ed grad­u­al­ly. About 10-15 years ago it was already quite notice­able. Until a well-known moment, I could still tell stu­dents: “Think about America for your­self. I won’t tell you any­thing par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing. But in Chernogolovka they will always hire you if you work well.” 

T-i:In your opin­ion, is the sub­sti­tu­tion of goals in the sci­en­tif­ic world, when a career becomes more impor­tant than the sci­ence itself, a glob­al prob­lem? And at what point does this hap­pen - at the master’s lev­el or when a per­son gets to Ph.D.?

MF: The fact that this is a glob­al phe­nom­e­non is absolute­ly cer­tain, although this does not mean that it man­i­fests itself in all uni­ver­si­ties with the same force. But it real­ly man­i­fests itself every­where, includ­ing in Russia, and in rather ugly forms and at all lev­els. I know a lot of peo­ple in Moscow with whom twen­ty-five years ago I had a com­mon under­stand­ing of sci­ence, and I con­sid­ered them high­ly qual­i­fied physi­cists. Now, as I under­stand it, they still have their qual­i­fi­ca­tions, but their views on life have changed. 

T-i:Do you dif­fer in your assess­ment of the war in Ukraine? 

MF: Not only in con­nec­tion with the war. These peo­ple changed even before the war began. Because this bad sys­tem of turn­ing sci­ence into a “career” puts pres­sure on every­one, and few are able to resist it. Especially under the cur­rent gov­ern­ment in the Russian Federation.

T-i:When did this happen? 

MF: I think that in the whole world this is the result of more than half a cen­tu­ry of evo­lu­tion of a very demo­c­ra­t­ic and pro­gres­sive grant sys­tem, which was intro­duced in order to cit­i­zens ade­quate­ly assessed who was worth what in sci­ence. Some smart peo­ple sensed what this meant at the very begin­ning. For exam­ple,Leo Silard already in 1948 I under­stood what this would lead to. He described it in artis­tic form here.

Leo Szilard explains the process of nuclear fis­sion. Argonne National LaboratoryArchive

It led, not imme­di­ate­ly, but over fifty years, to sad con­se­quences. Another, no less impor­tant rea­son is that the results of sci­en­tif­ic activ­i­ty can be assessed on the mer­its very slow­ly, if they are not relat­ed to any spe­cif­ic appli­ca­tions. Therefore, the cri­te­ria for eval­u­at­ing cur­rent pro­fes­sion­al work are dis­tort­ed. In this sense, the sit­u­a­tion with those who work, at least par­tial­ly, on some large and com­plex project is bet­ter, which, in fact, is illus­trat­ed by the his­to­ry of Google Quantum’s coop­er­a­tion with aca­d­e­m­ic groups.

T-i:Here you come, say, to a uni­ver­si­ty or research cen­ter. How will you under­stand that this place is dead? Or don’t you even need to come there?

MF: You can read arti­cles (in my field, of course, I’m not famil­iar with all physics). If I read them more or less care­ful­ly, I will under­stand. But one of the signs of the dis­ease is that a huge pro­por­tion of peo­ple sud­den­ly begin to engage in one fash­ion­able top­ic. It may even be a wor­thy top­ic. But as soon as it becomes fash­ion­able, hun­dreds and thou­sands of peo­ple flock there and write most of the arti­cles and grants on this very top­ic. This has noth­ing to do with doing sci­ence any­more. These col­lec­tive move­ments of the mass­es cre­ate a ter­ri­ble effect: they replace sci­en­tif­ic inter­est with career and finan­cial inter­est. Instead of sci­ence, some kind of per­vert­ed ver­sion of busi­ness aris­es. It’s not that it’s bad that this is a busi­ness, but that it’s just per­vert­ed. Moreover, I empha­size that these top­ics them­selves, lead­ing to a surge in fash­ion, may be rea­son­able (this is not always the case, but often so) - but what is unrea­son­able is that “every­one who is rush­ing to deal with them can stand on its feet.” 

T-i:But about fifty years ago, when the grant sys­tem was being formed, there were top­ics that were con­sid­ered not fash­ion­able, but very impor­tant. And since this is an impor­tant top­ic, now we will all tack­le it togeth­er and solve it. And it worked. Why does it look dif­fer­ent now? 

MF:Perhaps because the num­ber of sci­en­tists among the peo­ple has increased ten­fold. That is why such col­lec­tive phe­nom­e­na began to arise. These are no longer indi­vid­ual spe­cial­ists who know every­one, but some kind of hydro­dy­nam­ic flows among a pop­u­la­tion of scientists.

T-i: Do you think that, in gen­er­al, human­i­ty does not need so many sci­en­tists? And so they demon­strate their impor­tance and usefulness? 

MF:I sus­pect so. In addi­tion, there is the prob­lem of clar­i­fy­ing use­ful­ness in basic sci­ence. The objec­tive cri­te­ri­on was usefulThere is no val­ue in some­one’s job if that job is to bake pies and sell them imme­di­ate­ly: the mar­ket will sell out. Boots can also be made and sold. Again, we get a quick answer: who makes good boots, and who is “so-so.” In the case of fun­da­men­tal sci­ence, this does not work. It is impos­si­ble to find out direct­ly through the mar­ket what will be use­ful and what will not, because this requires much more time than it takes to make man­age­ment deci­sions. Therefore, man­age­ment deci­sions have been made for quite a long time in all coun­tries by peo­ple who, in fact, do not under­stand any­thing at all about sci­ence. Because of this, they invent all sorts of quan­ti­ta­tive cri­te­ria, who pub­lish­es how much of what, how they are referred to, and all that stuff.

T-i:However, fif­teen years ago it was you, togeth­er with Boris Stern, the ini­tia­tor of the project “ Who is who in Russian sci­ence”, devel­oped “Corps of Experts”where quite clear­ly used quan­ti­ta­tive indi­ca­tors to assess the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of sci­en­tists. Although you are not officials. 

MF:That’s right, we used quan­ti­ta­tive indi­ca­tors at the input, but we nev­er used them auto­mat­i­cal­ly. We used them for pri­ma­ry selec­tion. And then, with the hands and heads of dif­fer­ent peo­ple, an assess­ment was made of what had turned out. We said from the very begin­ning that it is point­less to auto­mat­i­cal­ly use all this num­bers. If this hap­pens for a year or two, it’s not so bad. If this hap­pens for sev­er­al decades, the result is very bad. Then the mean­ing of doing sci­ence direct­ly becomes com­plete­ly sec­ondary, in prin­ci­ple, even unim­por­tant for the func­tion­ing of the “eval­u­a­tion sys­tem.” Because the eval­u­a­tion sys­tem can great­ly dis­tort the very essence that it is intend­ed to evaluate.

T-i: It turns out that, on the one hand, offi­cials have a need to eval­u­ate activ­i­ties sci­en­tists, but by def­i­n­i­tion they can­not be good at sci­ence: it is none of their busi­ness. On the oth­er hand, sci­en­tists have a need to feed them­selves. And in these two needs, on both sides, a cer­tain sys­tem of mutu­al off­sets is born. Some say: “We want clear num­bers from you.” And oth­ers answer: “So we will cus­tomize for you what you want from us.” And in this dia­logue, the most impor­tant thing eludes - the sci­en­tif­ic search, the sci­en­tif­ic task and the very under­stand­ing of where the whole sci­en­tif­ic train is going next. And here the ques­tion aris­es: why have sci­en­tists still not come up with an assess­ment sys­tem that would some­how retain the essence of sci­ence and sat­is­fy the needs of offi­cials? After all, they are not that com­pli­cat­ed. Is it not pos­si­ble for offi­cials and admin­is­tra­tors to offer some kind of “cheat sheet” that would not devour the sci­en­tists them­selves? So that there is no need to gen­er­ate an indus­try of “junk” mag­a­zines and oth­er things?

MF:The plan of sal­va­tion is unknown to me. Previously, when I was at my usu­al place of res­i­dence, I spent a lot of time invent­ing all sorts of use­ful mea­sures in this direc­tion. But these inven­tions of that time have now lost all mean­ing. And in my cur­rent posi­tion as a fugi­tive Russian Jew, it would be ridicu­lous to dis­cuss these top­ics at all, because there is absolute­ly no one to lis­ten to such reasoning.

T-i:There is no one to lis­ten to the plan to save the essence of science?..

MF:I under­stand the plan of sal­va­tion only in some very local sense. I see that there is some kind of sta­tis­ti­cal­ly insignif­i­cant, but not zero net­work of peo­ple who under­stand what they actu­al­ly do and why they exist. And there is only one way out - to sup­port this net­work and teach stu­dents. This is not a rev­o­lu­tion­ary path..

T-i:Even ancient, antique.

MF:Ancient. But I don’t see any oth­er way for sci­ence to survive. 

Childhood disease of leftism

T-i:What do you think about such a phe­nom­e­non as Academic Left? Nowadays, in many uni­ver­si­ties, belong­ing to an aca­d­e­m­ic com­mu­ni­ty implies shar­ing cer­tain ide­o­log­i­cal views. Today, their set is in a cer­tain sense for­mu­lat­ed as the DEI curse - Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. But he comes from the 1960s. 

MF: I under­stand what you are say­ing. But I have a strange sit­u­a­tion: I almost nev­er meet such char­ac­ters. I guess I have dis­gust for this writ­ten all over me…

T-i:But the phe­nom­e­non is pow­er­ful, it’s hard not to notice, even more - impos­si­ble pass. 

— Olya, here I’ll tell you an old sto­ry. I had a very good friend- French physi­cist Miguel Hosio. In 1968 he was 25 years old. He was a young engi­neer, com­ing from a rather poor fam­i­ly in the south of France, who man­aged to get an edu­ca­tion and work his way into the mid­dle class. He worked all his life, as they say, with all his might and always. I once asked him how he felt about the events of May 1968 in Paris. Moreover, he him­self had social­ist views to a cer­tain extent. So Miguel told me: “I per­ceived it as a revolt of the chil­dren of the bour­geoisie for the right to do noth­ing.” And as we now under­stand, this rebel­lion was suc­cess­ful, it won. 

T-i: Oh, if today “chil­dren” just want­ed to do noth­ing, it wouldn’t be so bad - they would just need to be sup­port­ed. The prob­lem is that the “chil­dren” have grown up and dic­tate the rules, do not allow oth­ers to work…

MF: They don’t allow it, because their views have evolved. This was in 1968, and since then the con­cept has evolved. And it has devel­oped to the point where it is now unclear who will real­ly do the work. And even to the point that at Princeton University, a por­trait of Richard Feynman is being removed from the wall - for “polit­i­cal­ly incor­rect behav­ior” in the dis­tant past. And some­where else they demand that Newton’s laws not be named after him, “for the pur­pose of decol­o­niza­tion policy.” 

T-i: Not long ago a scan­dal broke out: the orga­niz­er of the Latvian devel­op­er con­fer­ences DevTernity and JDKon Eduard Sizovs invit­ed fake devel­op­ers and even cre­at­ed fake accounts for them on social net­works and got them sub­scribers. The rea­son is clear: there are for­mal gen­der require­ments for the com­po­si­tion of par­tic­i­pants, speak­ers and ple­nary speak­ers. And if at the lev­el of par­tic­i­pants and speak­ers it is some­how pos­si­ble to cope, then at the lev­el of ple­nary speak­ers it is always a prob­lem with women. It is known that astro­physi­cists and bioin­for­mati­cians have sim­i­lar prob­lems. There are strong women sci­en­tists, but there are not as many of them as is required to “plug” gen­der quo­tas at all con­fer­ences, and they can­not phys­i­cal­ly have time to come every­where. How is it going in your area? 

MF: I have repeat­ed­ly orga­nized small (60-80 peo­ple) con­fer­ences in Chernogolovka. There, of course, there were no “quo­tas”. I also par­tic­i­pat­ed sev­er­al times in orga­niz­ing sim­i­lar con­fer­ences in Europe (Holland, France). There was this motive, but it was pos­si­ble to deal with it quite eas­i­ly. The orga­niz­ers specif­i­cal­ly remem­bered whether there was any oth­er rea­son­able lady who could beinvit­ed, but the unrea­son­able ones were not invit­ed. The “quo­ta” was not com­plete­ly filled, but it worked out.

T-i:Do you have an under­stand­ing of how a humane desire to pro­tect the oppressed, the out­cast, to give him equal rights and oppor­tu­ni­ties with the major­i­ty, has led to the fact that now the adher­ents of this human­ism are defend­ing mur­der­ers and rapists from Hamas? How did a vul­ner­a­ble per­son with a trans­gen­der tran­si­tion end up sep­a­rat­ed by a com­ma and a sadist yelling into the phone “Mom, con­grat­u­late me, I just killed two Jews!”? In a recent let­ter, bil­lion­aire Bill Ackman, a Harvard grad­u­ate, is one of those who refused giv­ing mon­ey to his home uni­ver­si­ty because of its erro­neous per­son­nel poli­cies, called the out­break of anti-Semitism at the uni­ver­si­ty only the tip of the ice­berg, “canary in the mine”.

MF: Akman is doing absolute­ly the right thing, in my opin­ion. And very effec­tive in his actions. “Hit with the dol­lar” is the clear­est mes­sage in this sit­u­a­tion. However, I can­not trace the gen­e­sis of the phe­nom­e­non you asked me about. I can only say that a month ago some­thing hap­pened at the University of California at Santa Barbara. There, the stu­dent sen­ate (a very real stu­dent body) vot­ed with a major­i­ty of about ¾ in favor of an offi­cial res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing Hamas. This caused aston­ish­ment in the aca­d­e­m­ic estab­lish­ment. And this affront was caused by my grand­son, Efrem Shalunov, a com­put­er sci­ence stu­dent in Santa Barbara. This young man has been involved in a fair amount of social activ­i­ty since ado­les­cence. For him, this activ­i­ty is accom­pa­nied by real com­mon sense. From the very begin­ning, his col­leagues dis­suad­ed him from pro­mot­ing this res­o­lu­tion, and he him­self under­stood that the mat­ter was risky, but he decid­ed that he was ready to take the risk. I invest­ed heav­i­ly in this busi­ness and won. Created, so to speak, a prece­dent. These are the guys I hope for. 

Russian science: sanctions now, reforms later

T-i: The Landau Institute, where you worked for decades, came under US sanc­tions. Do you know the reasons?

MF: No. 

T-i:Do the sci­en­tif­ic activ­i­ties of the insti­tute have any­thing to do with increas­ing Russia’s defense capability? 

MF: No, and nev­er had. As soon as it became known that the Landau Institute was includ­ed in the sanc­tions list, I sug­gest­ed that the direc­torate of the insti­tute try to chal­lenge this by hir­ing American lawyers, but they did not. However, they can be under­stood: for those who work in the Russian Federation, these sanc­tions mean noth­ing in prac­tice. They hit stu­dents and employ­ees who left because of the war: they are sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly not giv­en visas to the United States, even those who have Ukrainian cit­i­zen­ship. In oth­er words: peo­ple who left Russia because of the war and whom their American sci­en­tif­ic col­leagues want to see are not allowed there by the bureau­cra­cy of the State Department or the American intel­li­gence ser­vices (I don’t under­stand these details). Fortunately, in Europe I have not yet seen man­i­fes­ta­tions of the same nonsense.

Institute of Theoretical Physics named after. L.D. Landau RAS. Trinity Option

T-i:Have many left your institute?

MF: Not very much, as far as I know. Most of the peo­ple who left were young peo­ple who had recent­ly com­plet­ed their degrees, grad­u­ate stu­dents, and under­grad­u­ates. And of the adults, maybe a cou­ple more people.

T-i:You have an affil­i­a­tion with the ITF named after. Landau left?

MF: Conditional. I’m on unpaid leave.

T-i:When you pub­lish, you indi­cate the affil­i­a­tion of the ITF. Landau?

MF:I bet. At the same time, the edi­tors of Physical Review and some oth­er jour­nals reg­u­lar­ly send me arti­cles for review. 

T-i:What do you think about the future of Russian sci­ence? Now in the aca­d­e­m­ic com­mu­ni­ty with Russian roots, two oppos­ing trends are notice­able. Some believe that a quick regime change in Russia is inevitable because the sit­u­a­tion is too unsta­ble. Therefore, at the con­ven­tion­al hour X, Russia should not be left with­out ideas, with­out reform­ers, with­out sce­nar­ios for over­com­ing the cri­sis, as it was in the ear­ly 90s. Thus, we need to work on Plan B right now, includ­ing on the reform of Russian sci­ence. And there is the exact oppo­site approach: changes will begin so soon that we will not live to see them. And if we live, we will no longer be actors, but rather elder­ly wit­ness­es. So there is no point in invest­ing in emp­ty things. Who are you with? 

MF: I had thoughts about what I would have to do when such an oppor­tu­ni­ty arose four or five years ago. I tried to dis­cuss them, took some even small actions, but some­how I did not find a notice­able num­ber of inter­est­ed peo­ple. And now I don’t think any­thing about it, because I under­stand that I won’t live to see it. But what seems quite obvi­ous to me is that the result of the inevitable changes will be such a lev­el of bed­lam that for a notice­able num­ber of years in Russia no one will care about science. 

T-i:Will there be a 1990s effect again?

MF: It is like­ly that it will be much worse. Well, besides, in addi­tion to the crim­i­nal trash that now rules the coun­try, there are a large num­ber of cit­i­zens who have sim­ply adapt­ed to exis­tence in this aggres­sive envi­ron­ment. And this device is not in vain. I can’t imag­ine how they will want to lis­ten to advice devel­oped by their for­mer broth­ers who wrote pro­grams for over­com­ing the cri­sis some­where in Berlin or Paris. Even if these pro­grams are very good. Moreover, when it comes to sci­ence, we need to rewind much fur­ther, to pre-war prob­lems. Who will do this? Circumstances, struc­tures, rela­tion­ships have devel­oped. Who can change them? Although a few years ago I start­ed a con­ver­sa­tion with col­leagues: “Listen, there was a Polish expe­ri­ence: Solidarity in 1980 did not arise out of nowhere.” Therefore, the very idea of ​​prepar­ing for changes in advance is close and under­stand­able to me. But in rela­tion to my own pro­fes­sion­al activ­i­ties, I don’t see any prospects now. The most use­ful thing I can do iso gath­er as many smart young peo­ple as I can and give them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to real­ly work pro­fes­sion­al­ly, wher­ev­er they are. I want to give them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do sci­ence, and not the accom­pa­ny­ing qua­si-busi­ness. And if one of them, after this imag­i­nary moment X, sud­den­ly decides to restore some­thing in Russia, great. But for this there needs to be some­one to restore it. I’m unlike­ly to do this myself, because I’m already old. But in any geo­graph­i­cal loca­tion I will try to pre­serve the rem­nants of what I myself was taught. A num­ber of my for­mer stu­dents also showed inter­est in our ini­tia­tive and are ready to par­tic­i­pate in it. This is no longer enough. 

T-i:Now there is a wave of “spy” and oth­er repres­sive tri­als against sci­en­tists. People out­side Russia con­stant­ly ask me: “Why is Putin shoot­ing him­self in the foot, because in a coun­try at war, sci­en­tists are need­ed.” Do you have a ver­sion of the answer? 

MF: It’s ridicu­lous to look for log­ic in the actions of this sys­tem. Logic implies that there is some kind of cen­ter that needs to achieve some goals… There are none. 

T-i:Well, in such cas­es, peo­ple rely on the Soviet expe­ri­ence, where sci­en­tists were quite a prag­mat­ic atti­tude. And many peo­ple think that since the smell of the USSR is in the air, this atti­tude towards sci­ence should return. 

MF: What we are see­ing in Russia is not a return to the Soviet sys­tem. This is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sys­tem. Moreover, it is much worse than the late USSR that we saw in our youth.

T-i:What do you see as the difference?

MF: In the absence of any ide­ol­o­gy oth­er than the reten­tion of pow­er by the top. This is a thor­ough­ly cor­rupt, essen­tial­ly crim­i­nal sys­tem that has no idea oth­er than “you die today, and I die tomor­row.” All that “patri­ot­ic” non­sense that they pro­claim is just a sit­u­a­tion­al inven­tion to mobi­lize the pop­u­la­tion, noth­ing more.

T-i:The Soviets had every­thing seri­ous­ly, but these…?

MF: A night­mar­ish, dead­ly par­o­dy. Why are they impris­oned? Because it’s plant­i­ng. Because some depart­ment of the rel­e­vant depart­ment has learned to make its own busi­ness out of this and improve its performance. 

T-i:Is it being plant­ed to increase the FSB’s “H-index”?

MF: Exactly. The same thing, only worse in terms of results. Individual ele­ments of a large and com­plex sys­tem opti­mize their per­son­al results, regard­less of the rela­tion­ship in which this is with the imag­i­nary prop­er­ties of the sys­tem as a whole.

I had a con­ver­sa­tion in the spring of 2022 with intel­li­gent col­leagues twen­ty years younger than me, and they remarked: “When you were young, you worked in Soviet con­di­tions and, it seemed, it even worked out well. This is how we will have to work now.” I tried to explain that they would face some­thing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. These will not be Soviet con­di­tions at all, and in these new con­di­tions they have no chance at all in the long term. Because the Soviet aca­d­e­m­ic sys­tem was large­ly based on the fact that peo­ple, unless they were shot, live quite a long time. Both these peo­ple, edu­cat­ed at the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and their direct stu­dents were seri­ous sci­en­tists. They were the basis of the Soviet aca­d­e­m­ic sys­tem. But she could­n’t hold on for­ev­er - she even­tu­al­ly ran out. What I dealt with in my youth were the remains of the arch­i­pel­ago. And the author­i­ty of these seri­ous sci­en­tists was considerable. 

T-i:Do you mean author­i­ty in the eyes of the authorities?

MF: Authority in the sense that they could decide what to do and what not to do. Who to hire and who not to hire. And these deci­sions were made accord­ing to sci­en­tif­ic cri­te­ria; at least at the Landau Institute for sure, and in some oth­er places too. But grad­u­al­ly these peo­ple fad­ed away sim­ply as life went on. And in each next gen­er­a­tion the sys­tem took its toll. Now there is sim­ply no one who: a) has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to say a word; and b) had some­thing to say. There are none left. In addi­tion, there is sim­ply no one to say: the gov­ern­ment is insane. So, even if there is some kind of restora­tion of sci­ence in Russia, it is impos­si­ble to pre­dict how and due to what it will hap­pen. Someone will have to start all over again.

Text: Olga Orlova


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