Science history: Otto Yulyevich Schmidt, hero of Russia


He was a man of many talents, and many awards. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


Otto Schmidt on a Russian stamp released in 1966.

Post of the Soviet Union / Public domain

If Otto Yulyevich Schmidt hadn’t lived, some creative storyteller would have had to make him up.

Various sources describe him as a scientist, mathematician, astronomer, geophysicist, statesman and academic. The list scarcely does him justice.

He received the Order of Lenin, three times; the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, twice; and the Order of the Red Star. In 1937 he was named a Hero of the Soviet Union.

In 1948, Russian astronomer Pelageya Fedorovna Shajn discovered and named a minor planet - 2108 Otto Schmidt – in his honour

Schmidt, whose name is often written as Shmidt, was born on 30 September 1891 in Mogilev, part of the Russian Empire now in modern Belarus. By all accounts a gifted and hard-working student, he graduated from Kiev University in 1913, specialising in physics and mathematics.

While studying for his master’s degree, in 1916 he published a paper “The abstract theory of groups”, which a review on the online Russian science journal NeHudLit says was “a relatively new branch of mathematics”.

“The theory of groups itself, which had already been applied in almost all branches of mathematics (particularly in algebra), became from that time onward an indispensable tool in topology and even in theoretical physics (quantum mechanics). It became of prime importance in many mathematical disciplines.”

According to an article published by the School of Mathematics and Statistics at Scotland’s University of St Andrews, Schmidt was an enthusiastic participant in the 1917 revolutions that saw the rise of the Soviet Union.

He first headed up the People's Commissariat for Food and later moved to the People's Commissariat for Education, where he was responsible for restructuring the educational system. Somehow, he found time write a paper, “Mathematical laws of currency issue”, looking into the question of the money supply, an important problem for the Soviet government at the time.

In 1921 Schmidt was appointed director of the State Publishing House and saw to it that the publishing of scientific journals and research papers resumed. In 1924 he was appointed editor-in-chief of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia.

In 1923 he became a professor of mathematics at Moscow State University.

Now here’s where the story really begins. As the St Andrews article explains, in 1928 he was put in charge of an icebreaker on an expedition to Franz Josef Land, an archipelago of 191 islands in the north-eastern Barents Sea, an area annexed by the Soviet Union in 1926.

The expedition established the Polar Geophysical Observatory in Franz Josef Land and returned safely.

Two years later he headed a second expedition to the region, this time, going beyond Franz Josef Land towards the Severnaya Zemlya, a 37,000-square-kilometre archipelago in the Russian high Arctic.

In 1932 Schmidt was put in charge of developing a sea route along the north coast linking European Russia with Siberia. What followed were several expeditions involving ships trapped in ice, tales of heroism and survival, and daring rescues, all of which led to him being hailed as a national hero.

Finished with Arctic exploration, in 1944 Schmidt proposed his hypotheses of the origin of the solar system, which he expounded on in a 1949 book, A Theory of Earth’s Origin: Four Lectures.

He proposed that the sun passed through a cloud of dust and gas, which was captured by its gravitational attraction. The cloud was rotating, and it contracted under gravity becoming denser. Dust particles coalesced to form cold solid bodies whose gravitational attraction caused further material to be swept up forming larger bodies.

The warming of the Earth, he suggested, was caused by radioactive decay of elements in its core, which, as a consequence, released large amounts of gas and water vapour which condensed to form the oceans.

He also continued to develop his work in group theory, working with several mathematicians to further develop his ideas.

Despite suffering from tuberculosis, in 1951 he founded the Geophysical Department at Moscow State University and was appointed its head.

He died on 7 September 1956 in Zvenigorod, near Moscow.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://fampeople.com/cat-otto-schmidt
  2. https://wikivisually.com/wiki/Pelageya_Shajn
  3. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-540-29925-7_2109
  4. http://www.nehudlit.ru/books/detail5683.html
  5. http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/history/Biographies/Schmidt_Otto.html
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