Rashid Syunyaev: ''I do not believe in a cosmic catastrophe in the near future…''

Exclusive interview with famous Soviet-Russian astrophysicist, part 1: about the preservation of Tatar identity and native language, the end of the world and about Roald Sagdeev

Rashid Syunyaev: ''I do not believe in a cosmic catastrophe in the near future…'' Photo: Maksim Platonov

At the 6th World Congress of the Tatars, perhaps the most eminent delegate was Rashid Sunyaev, a Russian astrophysicist, known all over the world, winner of dozens of international awards. At the plenary session of the congress, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov awarded the scientist another award — the Order of Friendship. During the visit to Kazan, the Professor avoided the press but made an exception for Realnoe Vremya and met with our correspondent. And this is no coincidence. As the interlocutor recognized, he is a reader of our newspaper. In the first part of the interview with Rashid Sunyaev, he told about Roald Sagdeev, shared his opinion about the likelihood of the end of the world and many other interesting things.

''Your national identity will always be with you''

Professor Syunyaev, I congratulate you on another award and thank you for the interesting presentation at World Congress of the Tatars. In your speech you have raised the important question of preservation of the Tatar language. One may ask why since you were born in Tashkent, grew up in a Kazakh village, then you moved to Moscow, now live and work in Germany...

No, I am living in Moscow. If you open Wikipedia in any language, it says that I am a Soviet and Russian scientist. I am a Russian scientist, who was invited to work in Germany. Now I have three jobs. In Moscow, it is the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Second one — the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, where I'm still a director despite my age. Besides, for the past seven years I have been a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton – it is a popular institute where Albert Einstein worked the last 22 years of his life, where the director was Robert Oppenheimer, a research advisor to the Manhattan project to create the atomic bomb, and there worked at least a couple dozen of famous mathematicians, physicists, philosophers, historians and economists of approximately the same scale. I spend with pleasure two months a year at the Institute, where I can meet and talk to specialists in almost any field of science and where I have no administrative duties.

If you open Wikipedia in any language, it says that I am a Soviet and Russian scientist. I am a Russian scientist, who was invited to work in Germany

Given all this, how have managed to preserve your Tatar identity?

Your national identity will always be with you. If you visit any elite American university from the top ten, thirty or even hundred, you will see an interesting feature. At elite universities, you will see people from all countries of the world. They teach, do science, learn. And many of them are willing to tell who they are, they think about their country, want to help their country, dream to pass their native language to their children. It's natural. Part of them remains in US forever, but many of them, having earned a scientific authority, return to their countries for professor positions.

Some people express pessimistic thoughts: the Tatar language is dying. Is there any chance to survive?

A different matter bothers me: it alarms me that not the language will die out but the people will become extinct. Look at the census of the Russian Empire in 1897, Soviet ones in 1926 and 1939, etc., there was also a Stalinist classified one, but now one can see the results it showed. In 1939, the Tatars, Uzbeks and Kazakhs were about of similar amount: they were the peoples of almost same population (the Uzbeks were by 12% more than the Tatars, the Kazakhs were by 39% less than the Tatars). However, the Tatars had a significantly more educated stratum. The Tatars were, in fact, bilingual, many spoke Russian. I would say that they were trilingual as they also could speak Uzbek and Kazakh. If you look at the new figures, now there are 25-26 million Uzbeks, the Kazakhs are about 14 million, but the Tatars are much less — 5,5 million people, according to the best estimates. I have many friends from the Uzbek elite — scientists, doctors, journalists, artists… Many of them have grandmother or mother — a Tatar. Even at the Congress of the Tatars there were people who said, ''My mother is a Tatar'', including former prima ballerina of the Kyrgyz ballet who now teaches at the Conservatory of Ankara.

A different matter bothers me: it alarms me that not the language will die out but the people will become extinct. Look at the census of the Russian Empire in 1897, Soviet ones in 1926 and 1939, etc., there was also a Stalinist classified one, but now one can see the results it showed…

''We, people, can do something that God forbid''

Professor Syunyaev, as a person who studies processes in space, could you tell us when the world will end?

It should not bother us much. I do not believe in a close in time (in tens or hundreds years) cosmic catastrophe that will destroy life on Earth. The likelihood of such fatal events is too small. Unfortunately, we, people, can do ourselves something that God forbid. We have so many opportunities to start a big nuclear war, after which humanity may not survive. We can poison everything around, it is possible to create artificial biological weapons — for example, a virus that will destroy all mankind.

A guest of the congress, Turkologist and historian Yulay Shamiloglu studies why the Golden Horde was weakened so quickly (it lasted about 250 years, just three and a half times longer than the Soviet Union). He believes that the plague was one of the main reasons. The Golden Horde had established good communication throughout the giant country. Messengers went from Saray to Khanbaliq (then known as the future Beijing) to deliver urgent letters. Along the way they changed horses, and the next person went with a document from the khan. With the same speed the plague was spreading throughout the vast state. It was terrible. If people lived in the woods, they had a chance to survive. Between the villages there were no such quick connection. The excellent courier communication of the Golden Horde, which it was a country of cities, apparently, played with it a cruel joke. We know there was no cure for plague. And then the epidemic came to Europe through Crimea. In Europe, there was an enormous number of victims, too.

I do not believe in a close in time (in tens or hundreds years) cosmic catastrophe that will destroy life on Earth. The likelihood of such fatal events is too small. Unfortunately, we, people, can do ourselves something that God forbid

It is not so simple. There was a fierce war with Tamerlane, internecine strife. I am very glad that now in Moscow, Kazan, St. Petersburg, Astrakhan, Saratov, Volgograd there are many serious scientists engaged in the history of the Golden Horde, which was almost closed in the Soviet times. This was a huge country where people spoke our language, of course, there were many dialects, but the language was one. It's amazing when you meet Kumyks, Karachays or Balkars, they speak almost Tatar. The Bashkirs speak a close dialect, the Kazakhs, Kirghizs, Karakalpaks — they also do. When you come to the Uighurs in Xinjiang in China, you understand Uighur. I was invited to the region for a meeting on Astrophysics of the Chinese Academy and the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. I talked to the Uighurs, and they understood me. No one laughed, they rejoiced… I think that Tatarstan leadership is aware that today in the world about 200 million people speak Turkic languages, including Turkey and Iranian Azerbaijan. This is comparable in number with the Russian-speaking world… And it's a big future market, a large number of people speaking similar languages. The Tatars can easily become useful in trade and business relations with these countries. It is necessary to save the language, we should be bilingual, trilingual. My children know better German and English than I do. But Russian, I guess, I still know not worse. It's not so difficult to speak three languages, people learn very quickly when life forces.

''It is very important that our people have such sons''

You have noted in your speech that in the trips around the world you have met many Tatars, outstanding scientists. Who are they? Besides Rashid Syunyaev, I don't know anyone...

No, you are not right. Among Tatars there are many very good and internationally recognized scientists. But, I'm sorry, I will answer a little different question.

For young people, it is very important to have an example to follow. When I was a fourth year student, I interned in the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics in Moscow. At that time, the Institute had its own nuclear reactor and a good enough for its time proton accelerator. Once I read an announcement that Roald Sagdeev was to give a lecture at an institute's seminar and he was to tell about his theoretical work. I've heard rumours that Roald moved from Moscow to Novosibirsk and, despite his youth (31 years old!) was running for a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Students of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, where I studied, knew that Roald managed to pass all the exams to Lev Davidovich Landau, and Landau wanted to take him into graduate school. Every time I come with a report to the famous California Institute of Technology, I go to the department of mathematics, physics and astronomy, where in one of the corridors under glass there is a copy of the list of scientists who passed all the theoretical minimum to Landau personally. This list was made by Landau himself. Roald Zinnurovich is the last one on the list, the number 26. The names of most scientists on this list are known to physicists-theorists all over the world… I went to the seminar, skipping the lectures for our course, which never did before.

I must say that it was a great report. To listen to him there came director of the Institute, academician Alikhanov, head of the theoretieal department of the Institute, then a member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR Pomeranchuk, Professor Akhiezer and Berestetsky, whose book on quantum electrodynamics for many years was for me a reference book, most active and famous scientists of the Institute.

''This report by Roald Sagdeev I will remember for my entire life: he could become a big, bright, very successful scientist, who wrote a remarkable and recognized by all scientific work.'' Photo: kpfu.ru

Roald spoke about issues that were not even mentioned in our textbooks. It was obvious how deeply he felt the physics of phenomena, about which he was telling, how easily he could explain the equations describing this process, how easily he answered to any question.

This report by Roald Sagdeev I will remember for my entire life: he could become a big, prominent, very successful scientist, who wrote a remarkable and recognized by all scientific work. He could do it, that means I also have a chance, if I can find my calling and will work hard.

I want to say that subsequently, almost eight years after the seminar, which I mentioned above, I acquainted with Roald Zinnurovich personally, close enough, many times for a long time we talked, he was an opponent at my PhD, invited my Teacher, three times Hero of Socialist Labour Yakov Borisovich Zeldovich and me to transfer from the Institute of Applied Mathematics of the USSR Academy of Sciences to the Space Research Institute when he became its director.

I'm sad that Roald at some point decided to go into politics and virtually stopped working on plasma physics, where he had enormous authority. But his work remained to live, and his school remains to live. People have the right to choose their own path in life. It is very important that our people have such sons.

To be continued

By Timur Rakhmatullin. Photo: Maksim Platonov