Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky, a long-suffering Soviet dissident who was expelled from the USSR in 1972, died at 55 on this date in 1996. Brodsky, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate in 1991, was a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad and worked in hospitals, in a ship’s boiler room, and on geological expeditions while becoming a self-educated essayist, poet, and translator (of Polish and English). Although his writing was largely apolitical, he was denounced in 1963 as a social parasite and was twice imprisoned in mental asylums before being sentenced to five years at hard labor in Siberia. Protests by prominent Soviet and foreign writers and artists, including Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Dmitri Shostakovich, got his sentence shortened and made Brodsky a symbol of artistic resistance against totalitarianism. Forced into exile, he became a beloved teacher of writing and literature at several universities in the U.S. His best-known poetry collections are A Part of Speech (1977) and To Urania (1988), and his essay collection, Less Than One (1986), won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
“By failing to read or listen to poets, society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation, those of the politician, the salesman or the charlatan.” —Joseph Brodsky
Leonid Kantorovich, the only Soviet economist to win the Nobel Prize (in 1975), was born in St. Petersburg on this date in 1912. In 1939, while working for the Soviet government, he was given the task of optimizing production in the plywood industry and developed the mathematical technique of linear programming, which he would apply during the post-Stalin years to central problems of Soviet economics such as planning, pricing, rent valuations, the allocation of resources, and the decentralization of decisions. During World War II, Kantorovich was in charge of safety on the “Road of Life,” the ice road that crossed Lake Ladoga and provided the only access to the besieged city of Leningrad. He calculated the optimal safe distance between cars on ice, depending on its thickness of ice and the temperature of the air, and twice walked across the lake alongside the cars to guide them safely across, a feat for which he was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War. In the 1970s he became prominent in developing the application of computers to the economy.
“In the middle of the 1950s, the interest in the improvement of economic control in the USSR increased significantly, and conditions for studies in the use of mathematical methods and computers for general problems of economics and planning became more favorable.” –Leonid Kantarovich
Otto Loewi, a German pharmacologist who discovered the role played by chemicals in the synaptic transmission of nerve impulses in the body, died at 88 on this date in 1961. Loewi shared the 1936 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for this discovery, but two years later fell victim to Nazi persecution and had to “voluntarily” surrender his possessions, including his Nobel medal and award, to be permitted to leave Austria, where he held a chair at the University of Graz (he was the last Jew hired there between 1903 and the end of World War II). Loewi spent the rest of his life in the U.S., teaching at New York University. Loewi had envisioned his experiment on nerve transmission in a dream, from which he awoke to scribble notes. The next morning he was unable to read the notes, but the next night he dreamed the same dream, and upon awakening went to his lab to perform it (involving the bathing of frogs’ hearts in chemical solutions). Loewi also helped identify the critical role of amino acids in the generation of proteins.
“Practicing neurologists should remember Otto Loewi when they attend to the chemistry of their patients’ synapses. The story of his Nobel dream is worth telling to our patients. His persecution by the Nazis tells us that the laboratory is not a shelter from the political world around us. His reduction of a complex question to a simple experiment tells that scientific insight favors the creative impulses of a prepared mind.” —Dr. George K. York III
Dr. Murray Gell-Mann, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics, led a group of 72 Nobel laureate scientists and 24 scientific organizations who filed a legal brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on this date in 1986 that challenged the constitutionality of a Louisiana law requiring schools that teach evolution to also teach “creation-science.” A press release characterized the brief as coming from “the largest group of Nobel laureates ever to support a single statement on any subject” — namely, a warning that the Louisiana law “threatened scientific education by disparaging proven scientific facts to promote fundamentalist Christian beliefs.” The Supreme Court struck down the law in June, 1987. Gell-Mann, born in 1929, pioneered research into elementary subatomic particles and their interactions.
“Teaching religious ideas mislabeled as science is detrimental to science education. It misleads our youth about the nature of scientific inquiry . . . and strips our citizens of the power to distinguish between the phenomena of nature and the supernatural articles of faith.” — from the legal brief