The raven who saw the dwarfs. Essay on the biography and scientific activity of Alexander Vysotsky

Within the project “Creators” sup­port­ed by Richard Lounsbery Foundation T-invari­ant togeth­er with RASA (Russian-American Science Association) con­tin­ues to pub­lish a series of bio­graph­i­cal essays about peo­ple from Russian Empire, who made a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to world sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. The essay is ded­i­cat­ed to astronomer Alexander Vysotsky. He was born in Moscow, but most of his life he had worked at the obser­va­to­ry of the University of Virginia. There he com­piled the first cat­a­logue of red dwarfs and exper­i­men­tal­ly con­firmed the rota­tion of our Galaxy.

Heavy accent

Professor Alexander Vysotsky spoke English with a strong accent until the end of his long life. However, among American astronomers, this was not such a rare occur­rence. Nikolai Bobrovnikov, Georgy Gamov, Otto Struve — astronomers and astro­physi­cists, immi­grants from the Russian Empire — worked in var­i­ous American uni­ver­si­ties. Many of them could speak French and German from child­hood, but not English. He had to study at a mature age. Vysotsky’s wife was an American. The son became a famous American math­e­mati­cian. But Vysotsky was also accept­ed into the “Raven Society” — a closed club of sci­en­tists at the University of Virginia. True, pri­or to this, Vysotsky had worked at the uni­ver­si­ty obser­va­to­ry for 30 years. Vysotsky left the uni­ver­si­ty 65 years ago, but his strong accent still remains: the University of Virginia annu­al­ly awards a schol­ar­ship in his name to the bright­est astron­o­my students.

Astronomer Lieutenant Alexander Vysotsky

Alexander Nikolaevich Vysotsky was born in Moscow on May 23, 1888. We do not know any­thing about his par­ents and fam­i­ly. It is pos­si­ble that he belonged to one of the five branch­es of the Vysotsky nobil­i­ty. After grad­u­at­ing from the gym­na­si­um, he entered the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of Moscow University. There he was among the mem­bers of the Moscow Circle of Astronomy Lovers. At that time, astron­o­my was a pres­ti­gious hob­by among intel­lec­tu­als. Even the artists-broth­ers Apollinaris and Viktor Vasnetsov, who were also mem­bers of this cir­cle, became inter­est­ed in it.

The mem­bers of the cir­cle had at their dis­pos­al sev­er­al good tele­scopes at once (refrac­tors with a diam­e­ter of 3 to 6 inch­es), donat­ed by indi­vid­u­als. In December 1909, the cir­cle mem­bers were the first in Moscow to pho­to­graph Halley’s comet. Participants report­ed on their obser­va­tions at cir­cle meet­ings and even pub­lished the results in sci­en­tif­ic journals.

Vysotsky imme­di­ate­ly estab­lished him­self as an enthu­si­as­tic young sci­en­tist and edu­ca­tor: he made pre­sen­ta­tions on astron­o­my (on the struc­ture of the uni­verse), lec­tured in the Knowledge of the Sky cir­cle for work­ers. Actively par­tic­i­pat­ed in the cal­cu­la­tions of tables for the “Russian Astronomical Calendar” and the year­book of the Russian Astronomical Society. Together with Professor Konstantin Baev, he com­piled an Atlas of Astronomical Pictures, pub­lished in 1915.

In 1913, Vysotsky was enrolled in the Nikolaev Main Astronomical Observatory (now Pulkovo), where he worked under the guid­ance of the famous astrometrist Sergei Kostinsky. The young sci­en­tist imme­di­ate­ly pre­sent­ed to the direc­tor of the obser­va­to­ry, aca­d­e­mi­cian Oskar Backlund, a ten-year plan for observ­ing the move­ments of 700 bina­ry stars. But Vysotsky only had a chance to work at the obser­va­to­ry for two years. The First World War began, and in the fall of 1915 he was draft­ed into the army.

Having a good com­mand of sev­er­al lan­guages (includ­ing French and German), Vysotsky became an intel­li­gence sig­nal­man. He was engaged in the inter­cep­tion and decod­ing of ene­my radio mes­sages. He suc­cess­ful­ly coped and received the rank of lieu­tenant. The radio sta­tion where he worked was only 10 km from the Pulkovo Observatory. This allowed him to keep in touch with col­leagues. Hope to return to astro­nom­i­cal work after the war, he remained.

But after the Bolsheviks came to pow­er, Vysotsky joined Denikin’s army, and togeth­er with its rem­nants emi­grat­ed to Constantinople.

From Constantinople to Virginia

From Constantinople, Vysotsky moved to Tunisia, where for some time he taught nat­ur­al sci­ences to oth­er refugees from the Russian Empire. However, luck smiled on him fur­ther. An arti­cle pub­lished in a German astro­nom­i­cal jour­nal helped him secure a posi­tion at the University of Virginia in the US. However, con­nec­tions also played an impor­tant role.

“Vysotsky got here thanks to Struve, — recalled his long­time col­league and co-author Piet van de Kamp. — Vysotsky, like many immi­grants from Russia, fought the com­mu­nists and was left with noth­ing. White lost, as we all know. These White Russians were tak­en care of for some time, giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to get an edu­ca­tion, and Vysotsky led the trans­la­tion law­suit with Struve. And Struve is with Mitchell. Mitchell need­ed anoth­er man for the obser­va­to­ry. Mitchell asked Vysotsky to come, and he came”.

Well-known in sci­en­tif­ic cir­cles, Otto Struve him­self man­aged to go through hard­ships and under­stood the dif­fi­cul­ties of his col­leagues. Struve’s name was well known — he belonged to an illus­tri­ous fam­i­ly of astronomers. His great-grand­fa­ther Vasily Struve was one of the founders of stel­lar astron­o­my. He stood at the ori­gins of the very Pulkovo Observatory, which was actu­al­ly built for him and accord­ing to his project. (Both grand­fa­ther, and father, and uncle Otto Struve were also famous astronomers. We plan to devote a sep­a­rate essay to Otto Struve).

Otto Struve, like Vysotsky, fought in the White Army, and lat­er end­ed up in Constantinople with­out work and clear prospects. But he main­tained both busi­ness and close friend­ships with many for­mer com­pa­tri­ots who found them­selves in exile in the United States and with American astronomers. Thanks to his per­son­al peti­tions, many young emi­grants got jobs. Vysotsky also belonged to them. He began work­ing at the University of Virginia in 1923.

The sci­en­tist was dou­bly lucky: at the University of Virginia at the McCormick Observatory at that time was the largest tele­scope in the United States and the sec­ond largest tele­scope in the world. Beginning in 1914, the direc­tor of the obser­va­to­ry, Samuel Mitchell, led a pro­gram to mea­sure the dis­tances to near­by stars. Vysotsky and his wife Emma Williams-Vysotskaya also made a huge con­tri­bu­tion to it. Emma was also an astronomer. She got her PhD from Harvard. They mar­ried in 1929. Emma became a true friend and co-author of Vysotsky for more than forty years.

Vysotsky’s cot­tage on the ter­ri­to­ry of the University of Virginia, next to the McCormick Observatory. The University of Virginia bought the build­ing in the 1960s. A paint­ing by Edward Thomas.

Red dwarfs and the rotation of the Galaxy

Alexander and Emma Vysotsky, togeth­er with col­leagues, com­piled a cat­a­log of red dwarfs close to the Sun — dim and cold stars. A 10-inch refrac­tor donat­ed to the uni­ver­si­ty by the Carnegie Institution of Washington was well suit­ed for this analy­sis. An objec­tive prism was installed on it, which made it pos­si­ble to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly record the spec­tra of all stars on one pho­tos. The spec­tra allowed Vysotsky and his col­leagues to clas­si­fy stars accord­ing to sur­face tem­per­a­ture and grav­i­ty. They were able to iden­ti­fy tens of thou­sands of red dwarfs. This direc­to­ry has not lost its sig­nif­i­cance so far.

In 1926-1927, the Swedish astronomer Bertil Lindblad and the Dutch astronomer Jan Hendrik Oort sug­gest­ed that our entire galaxy rotates. But their study was only con­firmed by obser­va­tions of the move­ment of the bright­est stars (most­ly blue giants). And this is not enough.

Vysotsky and van de Kamp noticed in the 1930s that the pho­to­graph­ic motion of stars depends on their spec­tral type. The pho­to­graph­ic prop­er motion of stars is deter­mined by their dis­place­ment rel­a­tive to a group of ref­er­ence stars in pho­tographs tak­en at dif­fer­ent times. But the method gave many sys­tem­at­ic errors, which arose due to the dif­fer­ence in the bright­ness and col­or of the stars, their posi­tion on the plate. These con­di­tions are dif­fi­cult to cal­i­brate because they are affect­ed by chang­ing observ­ing con­di­tions (includ­ing atmos­pher­ic transparency).

Science News Letter page, May 18, 1935, sum­ma­riz­ing the paper by Vysotsky and van de Kamp on the rota­tion of the Galaxy.

Vysotsky and van de Kamp esti­mat­ed the group veloc­i­ty dis­per­sion of red dwarfs. This made it pos­si­ble to cal­i­brate the pho­to­graph­ic move­ment. As a result, astronomers have con­firmed the rota­tion of our Galaxy, but not on indi­vid­ual bright stars, but on tens of thou­sands of red dwarfs. Astronomers have almost exact­ly cal­cu­lat­ed the dura­tion of the galac­tic year, that is, the time it takes for the Sun to com­plete one rev­o­lu­tion around the cen­ter of the Galaxy, about 200 mil­lion years.

Vysotsky with a tele­scope .

“Like a crow…”

Vysotsky worked at the McCormick Observatory for 35 years before retir­ing in 1958. He did not lose touch with his home­land and from time to time sent arti­cles for the Russian Astronomical Calendar, pub­lished by the Nizhny Novgorod Circle of Physics and Astronomy Lovers. In this edi­tion in Three of his arti­cles were pub­lished between 1927 and 1934. He car­ried on exten­sive cor­re­spon­dence with his Soviet col­leagues and fol­lowed their work. Since the ear­ly 1950s, Vysotsky, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Harvard College Observatory, has been abstract­ing arti­cles from Soviet astro­nom­i­cal jour­nals. He also wrote abstracts for Russian papers pre­sent­ed at American and inter­na­tion­al conferences.

Vysotsky was respect­ed at the uni­ver­si­ty not only for his sci­en­tif­ic mer­its. He played the vio­lin in the obser­va­to­ry’s orches­tra. The orches­tra was led by Piet van de Kamp, and Vysotsky was the first vio­lin in it.

In 1953, he was elect­ed a mem­ber of the Raven Society, named after one of the uni­ver­si­ty’s most famous alum­ni, Edgar Allan Poe. “Like an omniv­o­rous crow that roams in search of food, the mem­bers of soci­ety must engage in a relent­less search for knowl­edge”, wrote Professor of English Literature Charles Kent.

After Vysotsky left, his place was emp­ty for a long time. Many of the pro­grams he start­ed had no one to con­tin­ue, and they were cur­tailed. Alexander Vysotsky died on December 31, 1973 at the age of 85. Shortly there­after, the University of Virginia estab­lished the Vysotsky Scholarship, which is award­ed to out­stand­ing stu­dents for work in the field of astronomy.

About a son

The fate of the Vysotsky’s son, Viktor, was also inter­est­ing. As a math­e­mati­cian and com­put­er sci­en­tist, he was one of the first cre­ators of com­put­er virus­es. In 1961, while work­ing at Bell Telephone Labs, Viktor Vysotsky invent­ed a game with the elo­quent name “Darwin”. Programs writ­ten in assem­bler (they were called “organ­isms”) dur­ing the game had to dis­place the “organ­isms” loaded by anoth­er pro­gram­mer. The win­ner was the one whose “organ­isms” were able to harm oth­ers and dis­able them.

Later, the prin­ci­ples of oper­a­tion and the source code of this game served as an inspi­ra­tion for sev­er­al cre­ators of the first com­put­er virus­es. As, how­ev­er, and anti-virus pro­grams. Many ideas of the UNIX oper­at­ing sys­tem are asso­ci­at­ed with the work of Viktor Vysotsky.

Vysotsky fam­i­ly tree
Biography of Alexander Vysotsky on the web­site of the University of Virginia (archived copy)
The Raven Society web­site (The Raven Society)
Oral History Project. Niels Bohr Library. Conversation with Piet van de Kamp
The rota­tion of the Milky Way is shown for dim stars. Science News Letter, May 13, 1935

Illustrious Immigrants. The Intellectual Migration from Europe, 1930-41. Laura Fermi. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1968.
Balyshev M. Otto Ludwigovich Struve, 1897-1963. M., 2008.
Russian Abroad. Golden book of emi­gra­tion. First third of the 20th cen­tu­ry. M., 1997.
Encyclopedic bio­graph­i­cal dic­tio­nary. M., 1997.

History of com­put­er virus­es. About Viktor Vysotsky.

Author of the essay Anton SOLDATOV


Project “Creators”. T-invari­ant in col­lab­o­ra­tion with RASA (Russian-American Science Association) sup­port­ed by Richard Lounsbury Foundation

Man of the earth. Essay on the biog­ra­phy and sci­en­tif­ic activ­i­ty of Zelman Vaksman

Georgij Kistyakovsky, the unknown father of the American bomb


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