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Physicist Oleksandr Smakula and his contributions to science
The Ukrainian scientist Oleksandr Smakula (1900–1983) was one of the luminaries in the realm of physics of the twentieth century, but unfortunately — and similarly to the way it happened with some of the other prominent Ukrainian scientists, his name and his contributions to science remain largely unknown in Ukraine. Vasyl Lypovetsky, a lecturer at the Ternopil State Technical University, Prof. Vasyl Shenderovsky, director of the Institute of Physics of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and Prof. Petro Yasniy, president of the Ternopil State Technical University throw some light in their jointly written essay on the life and work of Oleksandr Smakula.
The number of people who work in various fields of science and technology and contribute to their development is in hundreds of thousands, if not in millions, but only a few become known to the general public, mostly thanks to being awarded Nobel and other prizes. The story of many Ukrainian scientists is much more dramatic — because of the tempestuous history of Ukraine, particularly in the twentieth century, their work and contribution remained largely unknown in Ukraine. Among such scientists we should mention Ivan Pulluyi, Ivan Horbachevsky, Stepan Tymoshenko, Yury Kondratyuk, Borys Hrabovsky, and Oleksandr Smakula. In fact, the list is much longer, but in this essay we shall focus on Oleksandr Smakula.
Oleksandr Smakula made a worthy contribution to the solid-state physics, electronics, optoelectronics, molecular biology and thin-film physics, quantum principles, optics, meteorology, and technologies of making new materials for electronic and optical devices.
His discoveries and achievements are many: Smakula’s formula; Smakula’s non-reflective sphere; refined optics; anti-radar coating; Smakula’s precision method for determining Avogadro’s number; an improved method of growing monocrystals; prismatic punching for examining plastic deformations of crystals; Smakula’s inversion mechanism to examine phototransformations in molecules and crystals of stilbene; Smakula’s materials for infrared devices, to name but the most important things.
Oleksandr Smakula was born in the village of Dobryvody in the Land of Ternopilshchyna on September 9 1900. The area where the village is situated is known as Podilski Tovtry, or Holohory, or Medobory.
The village of Dobryvody is mentioned in documents that date from the second half of the fifteenth century; originally, it was called Dobra Voda (Good Water) because of three springs with water that had medicinal properties.
Oleksandr’s mother, Mariya, gave birth to her second son in a forest when she was returning from a visit to a nearby village. There were four children in Oleksandr’s family, he was the second oldest. Oleksandr was an inquisitive child who liked to tell stories which were popular among other children of the village.
After completing studies at the local school, he continued his education at a school in the town of Zbarazh. He was particularly fond of the Ukrainian writings of Shevchenko, Franko, Starytsky and Karpenko-Kary. The First World War and Civil War that followed disrupted his education, and in 1918 he, motivated by patriotic feelings and love of freedom, joined the Ukrainian Halychyna Army and fought for Ukraine’s independence. Ukraine failed to retain her independence, and in 1920, Oleksandr returned home to recuperate from typhus, and then resumed his studies, but this time it was a school in Ternopil, the town which was situated 20 kilometers away from his native village. The only way to get to his school was to walk all the distance on foot, but it did not prevent Oleksandr from completing his secondary education with academic distinction. The only subject he did not quite excel in was “Singing.” It is known that at the graduation examination in literature, he chose to write about “Relations of Ukraine with Western Europe.”
Oleksandr showed a great aptitude for sciences and his teacher, Myron Zarytsky, who happened to be a well-known mathematician, advised Oleksandr to go to Germany and try his luck at the University of Georg-August in Guttingen (western Ukraine at that time was not yet under the soviet domination and travel to western Europe was still possible). This university was famous for its research in physics; such prominent scientists as Werner Geisenberg, Max Born and Robert Paul worked there. Smakula did get accepted by the university and he studied under Prof. Robert Paul. In 1927, he earned a doctorate with a thesis on absorption spectra of haloid and other phosphoruses activated by silver and copper. Smakula attended seminars of those scientists who were working out quantum mechanics. It helped his research into the mechanisms of the effect of electromagnetic radiation upon solids. Smakula explained the mechanism of radiation coloration of metals and developed a mathematical formula known as Smakula’s formula.
In 1928 Smakula returned to Ukraine and taught at the University of Odesa, but in 1929, finding that the interfering interest the soviet secret service took in him and in his work was too much for him, he returned to Germany. He landed a research job at the Institute of Physics at Guttingen University. Later, he moved to Heidelberg University where he headed an optical laboratory of the Medical Institute. His work there proved to be very fruitful. One of the physical phenomena he researched and explained is now known as Smakula’s inversion.
In 1934, he was made director of the research laboratory of the Karl Zeiss Company in Jena. His discoveries were later used in making night-vision devices. In 1935, he patented methods of improving the quality of optics and such methods are now widely used in refining optical devices.
Not much is known about Oleksandr Smakula’s life and work in Germany during the Second World War. At the end of the war, he found himself within the US occupation zone, and he, as well as a number of other German scientists and engineers, was taken to the USA where he worked at a military laboratory in Virginia, developing technology for making infrared devices.
In 1951, Oleksandr Smakula was invited to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he headed a laboratory of physics of crystals. He did research into solid-state electronics, electro-optic materials, ferromagnetic and piezoelectric materials, rare-earth elements and lasers based on them, thin films, non-linear, semi-conductor crystals, organic and superconducting structures. MIT was the scientific center where at that time such great scientists as Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, Claude Shannon, John Slater and Noah Chomsky worked. It was an inspiring atmosphere of daring scientific research in which Smakula found himself in. His discoveries in the field of crystals were particularly significant. His comprehensive monograph that dealt with monocrystals was published in Berlin in 1962 and remains relevant today.
Oleksandr Smakula was elected member of many scientific societies and academies (among them — Shevchenko Scientific Society and Society of Ukrainian Engineers in America) and recipient of many prizes and awards, but neither his contributions to science nor even his name as a leading scientist were actually known in Ukraine. Even specialized publications in Ukraine, such as Fizyky (Who’s Who in Physics today) did not contain references to him. But specialized publications and reference books on physics in the west carry a lot of references to Smakula.
In commemoration of the 100th anniversary since his birth, 2000 was proclaimed by UNESCO to be the year of Oleksandr Smakula. His discoveries led to breakthroughs in various fields of physics and technology — in nanotechnology, sensor devices, adaptronica, photonica, biomaterials and neuroinformatics, to mention but some.
People who knew him or met him at scientific conferences recollect that he retained and cherished his memories of Ukraine. In a letter to his brother Andriy who lived in his native village of Dobryvody, Smakula wrote, “I’ve been living in foreign lands for more than forty years now, but I will never forget my native land. When I feel sad, I reread Shevchenko’s Kobzar and it helps relieve my melancholy.” In his house in Boston, he had a room entirely devoted to things Ukrainian — embroidered shirts, souvenirs, memorabilia and books about Ukraine, its culture and history. Smakula took part in the life of the Ukrainian community in Boston.
Oleksandr Smakula did get to visit his native village in Ukraine. It happened in September 1964 when he was invited by the then Academy of Science of the Soviet Union and personally by its head Academician M. Keldysh, to attend an international conference devoted to crystallography. The conference was to be held in Armenia, but Smakula was allowed to make a stop in Ukraine on his way there. It was a very emotional visit.
O. Smakula died in May 1983 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. His children and their families live in various cities of the USA.
On the occasion of Smakula’s 80th birthday,
Oleksandr Smakula’s friends and colleagues from
the Society of Ukrainian Engineers of America
gathered in his house in Massachusetts, USA.
Oleksandr Smakula and his wife Erica. Late 1960s.
In the laboratory of physics of crystals, of which
Oleksandr Smakula was the founder, at
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Early 1960s.
A special envelope, dedicated to Oleksandr Smakula
and released in Ukraine in 2000 in commemoration
of one hundred’s anniversary of Oleksandr
At a sitting of the Society of Ukrainian Engineers
At the unveiling of the monument to Oleksandr
Smakula in the village of Dobrovody; the monument
was erected in commemoration of one hundred’s
anniversary of Oleksandr Smakula’s birth.