Working with the 'other world:' the noble work of Nikolay Semyonov

A look at the advances in chain reaction chemistry that emerged from the Soviet Union

By Marriym Hasany

The Cold War, a long period of worldwide unrest, caused by the political and ideological divide between the Soviet Union and the United States of America, has had in impact on global politics that can be seen to this day. A significant part of the battle to be the singular superpower involved the monopoly over scientific advancements, which is perfectly exemplified by the “Space Race,” won by the US through the historic Apollo 11 mission, allowing Neil Armstrong to become the first man on the Moon. Whilst this was indeed a “giant leap for mankind,” the ‘other superpower’ was not entirely slacking when it came to scientific achievements.

During the reign of the Communist party, five Nobel Prizes were given to physical scientists, and two more were awarded later to Russian physicists, for their work done during the Cold War in the Soviet Union. The first ever recipient of the Nobel Prize in the Soviet Union was Nikolay Semyonov, for his work on chemical kinetics and mechanistic analysis of chain reactions, in 1956. A chain reaction, as the name suggests, is comprised of a series of reactions that take place consecutively to potentially create an explosion due to the release of very large amounts of energy.

Measurements of the energy and gases released over the duration of the continuous reaction can be used to infer a lot of theoretical information. In his laboratory in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Semyonov studied explosions and built on existing theoretical frameworks to further understand properties of the reactants, mechanisms of reactions, and to predict reaction behaviours under different conditions. He developed a theory on degenerate chain branching; a peculiar type of chain reaction that progresses much more slowly than those previously studied. Understanding these reactions is deeply important, especially when it comes to knowing the limits of industrial processes and implementing practices that maximise the safety of workers.

“We have come to the conclusion that only the joint activity of men of learning in various countries can create conditions under which science can achieve successful further development.” – Nikolay Semyonov

Semyonov’s research paints an interesting picture that is contrary to that of a rather isolated Soviet Union. While there was a distinct divide between the West and the USSR, scientists like Semyonov were collaborating internationally in carrying out the reactions, collecting data and investigating effects. Consequently, the Nobel Prize was jointly awarded to both Semyonov and the English physical chemist, Sir Cyril Hinshelwood of Oxford. Furthermore, Semyonov’s theory on degenerate branching relied on the work done by: Ronald G. W. Norrish, a chemist working in Cambridge, who also became a Nobel laureate in 1967; Professor H. W. Melville, a physical chemist from our very own University of Birmingham; Princeton’s Robert N. Pease; University of Pittsburgh’s Guenther von Elbe, and many others.

It was very easy to think of people as ‘other,’ especially when they were from a completely different culture, and hailed from a country in which the communist ideology was not only completely different to Western ideology, but was also deeply ingrained into the social system. The Soviet Union, at the time, seemed like the epitome of ‘other’ and, while the Cold War did not help in this matter, scientific collaboration refused to draw borders between nations and generously gave credit where credit was due. Semyonov created and studied explosions to make the world safer for humankind, and worked with people that he (politically) should have been working against. Semyonov’s work is full of wonderful ironies.

From Issue 17

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