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Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp

Born in 1857, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky grew up in a remote province of Tsarist Russia with his 17 brothers and sisters. His father, Edward Ciołkowskia, was a Polish orthodox priest who had been deported deep into the heart of Russia as a result of his political activities.  Edward Russianized his name and married an educated Tartar woman: the two then proceeded to have many children (of whom Konstantin was fifth). When he was 9 years old Konstantin caught scarlet fever and barely survived.  Once he finally recovered, he was deaf or very nearly so.  Because of his hearing problem he was denied admittance to elementary school and he quickly fell behind his peers. His mother died when he was 13 and his family’s poverty prevented him from moving forward in the world.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp ( I'm sorry that I'm still thinking about stamps even in the midst of this remarkable tale)

This is a very grim and Russian story so far but here is where it becomes extraordinary. Isolated and alone, Konstantin made his way to Moscow.  He was teaching himself at the Chertkovskaya Library where a very strange and brilliant man named Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov was an employee. Fyodorov was a transhumanist philosopher and a futurist who believed that humankind’s path forward leads ultimately to technological transcendence and divinity. He felt that scientific progress would eventually lead to physical immortality and then ultimately to the resurrection of all people who have ever died (Fyodorov liked to think “outside of the box”).  With the tutelage and mentorship of Fyodorov, Tsiolkovsky taught himself math. He took an active interest in Fyodorov’s scientific philosophy and even began to wonder what could be done with all of the immense number of dead humans if and when they returned. The thought led Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to think about outer space and the subject came to dominate the rest of his life.

Inspired by Fyodorov’s wild ideas and by the science fiction of Jules Verne, Tsiolkovsky began to invent the science necessary to carry humans up gravity’s well and beyond this world.  The Encyclopedia of Science summarizes his work as follows:

Tsiolkovsky produced some of the earliest scientific literature on spaceflight, including the classic work Exploration of Space by Means of Reactive Apparatus (1896). In 1898 he derived the basic formula that determines how rockets perform – the rocket equation. This formula was first published in 1903, a few months before the Wright brothers’ historic manned flight. It appeared, together with many other of Tsilokovsky’s seminal ideas on spaceflight, in an article called “Investigating Space with Rocket Devices,” in the Russian journal Nauchnoye Obozreniye (Science Review). Unfortunately, the same issue also ran a political revolutionary piece that led to its confiscation by the Tsarist authorities. Since none of Tsiolkovsky’s subsequent writings were widely circulated at the time (he paid for their publication himself out of his meager teacher’s wage), it was many years before news of his work spread to the West.

No one understood Tsiolkovsky’s work at the time he wrote them.  Today the basic concepts behind space travel—such as multistage rockets, orbital velocity, and compressed liquid fuels–are widely understood [Ed. not according to the comments of any given article about space exploration on CNN] but at the dawn of the twentieth century they were wildly fantastic and incomprehensible to international scientists much less to Tsarist Russians. Tsiolkovsky did not stop at elementary proposals of space travel and the fundamental underpinnings of rocketry.  He also came up with sophisticated ideas such as using graphite rudders for rocket telemetry, cooling combustion nozzles with cryogenic propellants, and pumping fuel from storage tanks into the rocket’s combustion chamber.

Tsiolkovsky's Conception of a Spaceship

His neighbors regarded him as an eccentric outsider—a deaf schoolteacher mumbling gibberish—but Tsiolkovsky kept on coming up with brilliant ideas, some of which are still ahead of their time.  In 1895 he was inspired by the Eiffel Tower to propose the creation of a 35,790 kilometer tall tower surmounted by “a celestial castle” from which objects could be launched directly into space: it was the first conception of a space elevator.   By the twenties, as the scientific minds of the new Soviet Union began to realize how innovative Tsiolkovsky’s ideas were, he was contemplating sustainable space habitats and galactic colonization.

Today Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is considered the father of theoretical astronautics—or more simply the father of spaceflight.  Sputnik was launched on his one hundredth birthday.  Soviet propagandists built many statues and monuments to Tsiolkovsky but the greatest tribute to his legacy (apart of course from humankind’s space programs–which grew from his ideas) has been seen by only a few humans. Tsiolkovsky crater, the most prominent feature on the dark side of the moon is named in his honor.

The Dark Side of the Moon (Tsiolkovsky Crater dominates in the upper left quarter)

 

A satellite above Lake Baikal (image courtesy of Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA)

Lake Baikal in Siberia has a surface area of 12,248 sq miles (approximately equal to Belgium).  For a better comparison, Lake Superior has a surface area of 31,700 square miles. However that comparison is in no way apt.  Lake Baikal is prodigiously deep.  It lies on one of the world’s great rift valleys. To its west lies the Eurasian plate and to its east is the Amur plate.  The two plates are springing away from each other at 4 millimeters per year.  In the void between lies Lake Baikal, which is an astonishing 5,380 feet deep.  The 5,700 cubic miles of water contained by the lake compromises twenty percent of the world’s fresh water (not counting ice or water vapor).  It could easily hold all of the water from all of the Great Lakes.  Not only is the lake deep, it is ancient.  Lake Baikal is more than twenty-five million years old, and may be one of the world’s oldest lakes.

Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal contains thousands of species of plants and animals, most of which live no where else on earth.  There is a freshwater seal, the nerpa, which lives on golomyanka, a translucent abyssal fish famous for decomposing almost instantly to fat and bones when exposed to the sun.  There are omuls, lovely small salmonids, caught and smoked by humans around the lake, and there are huge Baikal sturgeons.  The lake is ringed by forested mountains which host brown bear, lynx, wolves, foxes, and wolverines (and maybe the occasional Siberian tiger). These predators live on mountain goats, reindeer, white tailed deer, elk, moose, musk deer, Siberian roe, and wild boar.  The small mammals and birds are too numerous to name.

Golomyanka--An abyssal fresh water fish

The lake’s true oddities are invertebrates which live in the depths. Far beneath the surface, forests of Lubomirskia sponges attain towering heights as they branch into strange shapes.  Benthic and pelagic infusoria are endemic, as are huge predatory swimming flatworms which are covered with suckers.  Shrimp and crustaceans abound.  It has been estimated that the biomass of crustaceans in the lake exceeds 1,800,000 tons. Turbellarian worms, snails and amphipods are also diverse.

An amphipod regards a diver from a sponge forest in Lake Baikal

The Lake is the alleged site of one of the world’s greatest haunted treasures.  Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, was a tsarist hero who won the golden saber for valor at the battle of Port Arthur.  After the Tsar and his family were executed by Bolsheviks, Kolchak assumed command of the imperial armies during the disastrous civil war.  A substantial detachment of his troops rescued the Empire’s gold reserves (an estimated 1600 tons of gold) and were carrying them across Siberia during the brutal winter of 1919/1920 when temperatures dropped below -60 °F.  Legend has it that both the gold and the troops found their way into Lake Baikal and have never emerged.

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