From Soviet Union To Turkey: Being a Physicist


Interview and translation by Sevgi Karadağ

Thank you for accepting our interview. At first, can you introduce yourself briefly to our readers?

I was born in 1956, in Baku and entered the Department of Physics in 1973. After completing my B.S. (Bachelor of Science) degree, I got my Ph. D. (Philosphy of Science) in 1985 at the Institute of Physical Technical Sciences (IOFFE) in Leningrad. My contact with the Soviet Union continued after I completed my PhD. Then in the early 90s something broke down, everyone began to swing somewhere. Istanbul Technical University (ITU) invited me in 1992. Before that, I was working at Bayreuth University in Germany. So I've been here with my family since then.

So, can we hear about your field of work? What subjects do you study in physics?

In my scientific research, I focused mainly on solid-state physics. I completed my Ph.D. under the supervision of world-renowned Prof. Smolenski at the Ferroelectricity and Magnetisma Laboratory, one of the famous laboratories of the IOFFE Institute. I dealt with very interesting systems there. Due to their physical properties, ferroelectric materials are widely used in many fields of application such as defense industry, piezoelectric sensors and etc. Therefore, such substances have always been at the focus of researchers. When I came to ITU, my first goal was to start and develop material technology here. How this happened, or rather it couldn't happen, is another story. However as you can see here, we were able to build a well-equipped laboratory. We are able to conduct matter research with the wide frequency range electromagnetic waves with the systems seen here. Using the systems you see here, we are able to conduct matter research with electromagnetic waves in the wide frequency range. In the laboratory there are instruments such as dielectric spectrometer, nano-control system, and infrared spectrometer with Fourier transform. These are the systems that allow you to research in the frequency range from the lowest values to the gigahertz. So these are actually instruments that complement each other. I think it is quite difficult to find another laboratory like this. Because, this lab also allows us to conduct experiments in the wide temperature range.

Can you tell us about your history of education?

I studied in the Soviet Union. The school was a normal secondary (middle)-school. In our times, we used to go to university at the age of 17 after finishing the 10th grade. I am extremely pleased with the training I received in the Soviet Union. Especially when I compare the textbooks I saw in my time with those in today, I see a big difference. The basis of our history lessons was very strong. We were taking history lessons starting from the fifth grade to the last grade. There were courses such as the “Ancient History B.C. (Before Christ)”, the history of the middle centuries, the history of capitalism, the history of socialism after the revolution, the history of revolutions. I was very pleased, because I have seen that this training has enabled us to understand many things.

Of course, the physics and mathematics education we received was another advantage. For example, we had a geography lesson for three years. First, we took maps and physical geography lessons. Then, when we were 9th grade, geography was now another geography. We saw the geography of economy. Therefore, after graduating from 10th grade, we used to feel very reliable in terms of knowledge and understanding. This was closely linked to our teachers. It was a good chance for us to be in touch with good educators. There is a certain time barrier for young people to understand what they need and what they don't. Only after having a certain knowledge, the young people can then analyze whether she or he is on the right path or the wrong path. Because without the accumulation of knowledge, the ability to analyze is also limited, or not possible at all. This situation is very common in today's young people. When they reach a certain age, they cannot decide for themselves what they want to be and who they want to be. Then, they start to get ideas from others, mostly from their teachers. It's not a bad way, but one has to train himself to make a decision.

Another interesting thing that I encountered at those times comes to my mind. The library of the institute was huge; we would have the opportunity to see magazines and books from very old cities. When we saw these things, we started to think about how human mind and logic progressed. You also encounter with something else: how seriously an organization working in the defense industry approaches experimental physics, and how it approaches matter technology. This atmosphere was training people.

Photograph:Ferid Salehli in ITU Dielectric Spectroscopy Laboratory.

As a scientist from the last generation who grew up in the Soviet ecole, how would you evaluate your own learning process compared to the learning process of today's researchers?

For example, if we talk about the physics education, I can say that I am not satisfied with the system in Turkey. Because, as far as I've observed, it is perceived here by both faculty members and students as the basics of physics involve only mechanical and electrical courses. However, the basics of physics do not only include them. Looking at the progress of the human mind and logic in history, the foundations of physics should be as follows; mechanic, heat and thermodynamics, electricity, optics, atomic physics, nuclear physics. Atomic physics and nuclear physics actually form modern physics together with quantum optics. However, with the improvement of science, they have now taken their place in the basics of physics.

Unfortunately, physics education at ITU and other universities in Turkey are not described in this manner. The courses that I have listed as the basics of physics are given either in other courses or as elective courses. However, in my opinion, there is something that should be placed on the student's mind; it is necessary to give the fundamentals of physics for 6 semesters to the students and to progress in theoretical physics courses in parallel with it. Otherwise everything becomes chaotic. I think, if there were such an order in education in Turkey, graduated students could be placed in their mind this advancing logic with a beautiful way. They say we are taking the American education system as an example. But there is one thing we need to know, it is not always the right option to take their system as an example since that country is very advanced in education.

In my opinion, education is an organism. Each organism establishes its own structure, and progresses on its own. Therefore, the system in the United States does not always mean it will be comply with Turkey. There may be factors that complement that system in U.S., but those do not exist here. That's my opinion. I can't say anything about the education system of other countries. Finally, there is something I want to underline again: unfortunately, the secondary (middle) education in Turkey is far behind. It is inadequate.

Via this interview, we would like to hear about the Soviet physics ecole from the inside. What are your thoughts about their scientific understanding, research habits, and motivation?

This is a big subject, I don't know how much I can squeeze. Science is universal. I am not in favor of separating science into parts as Soviets' and others'. Progress in the Soviet Union was mostly based on the schools and universities that exist in Russia. When we look at the history, we see that the Academy of Sciences was founded in the middle of the 18th century. Based on these foundations, both science and education have established their own structure in the Soviet Union. Of course, something broke down in the revolution, something changed, some people escaped, and some people lost their lives. It was not a comfortable period in whole region. Nevertheless, they were quickly recovered by the needs of human life and the country. Everything started to go well for both research institutes and universities.

The Soviet Union had a very important difference: besides the universities, there were also research institutes. It is impossible to know the number of these. There were many research institutes in the different fields of physics and chemistry, and each institute had different laboratories. Generally each institute had its own unique aspect. So, science was not just an institution that existed in universities. Research institutes were more prominent units than universities. Because, in universities, the instructors had to devote some of their time to education. In research institutes, they could devote their all time to research. Consequently, research institutes had made great contributions to the advancement of science in the Soviet Union. Their leaps forward in industry and advancements in materials science and space technologies were thanks to these institutes. The launch of rockets into space, in addition to many things, was highly dependent on the material science, and they were very advanced in this aspect. Many institutes had worked together to send an object into space, and physicists, engineers, materialists, all of them had done their work separately. The rise of that rocket is still the world's gain. Humankind has seen that you can tear your foot out of here.

Additionally, we should also not ignore the progress of mathematics. We often say that the gravitational acceleration is 9.8 m/s2. But when sending a vehicle into space was concerned, there was a need to clearly calculate the gravitational acceleration with many digits after the comma. In order to be able to measure the 10-11 digits after the comma of the constant g, very large laboratories were established deep into the underground. Also, there were a lot of different studies like this.

How did the environment in which you grew up affect your science approach and research motivation?

This is a serious and good question. Firstly, it made me not believe everything I saw. I always suspected from every result, every curve that I got, and I always kept asking myself “Is this result correct?”This is a little bit longer way, but it is the right direction. Ultimately, every physicist has to make an effort to get the correct result.

It is not my character to hurry up and publish the results immediately. The questions that arose in the minds of people during the research were definitely guiding the research. Because, you constantly ask yourself “Why did I get such a graph, what does this curve mean?”. Of course, in order to answer these questions, you also inevitably look at the other problems associated with your problem. For example, IOFFE ecole in which I grew up often held seminars. It was an approach I admired very much. Moreover, no one was avoid to give a seminar. For us, these seminars was a lesson in which a friend told us about his work, so we were listening and developing. The discussions were very severe. People used to say harsh words to each other; however, they all knew that this was not criticism about one's personality but criticism of his work. So the seminars were very educational in that respect.

How would you describe the impact of socialism on science? What kind of experiences have you experienced and what have you observed? How would you describe the effect of dissolution of USSR?

As I said, my personal opinion is how much science has to do with socialism is a big question mark. Because I say again, science is universal. You can go to conferences abroad. Though yes, it wasn't very common in Soviets times, but ultimately we were publishing what we did. When we published, the whole world was reading. Of course, the Soviets themselves had strong magazines. The U.S. bought those magazines, translated them into English, and published them. It was an important thing, and in this way, the West had access to ready-made data on very important issues. Especially, as far as I know, these translations were widely used in semiconductor physics.

Socialism had something important to me, the education systems were excellent. Education in schools and universities was excellent. Students who completed their education at a good level were also preferred by the West.

But there are some lessons that have an ideological meaning, such as history and philosophy lessons. When we were in secondary school, we were learning to answer the questions, such as “Why was the transition from slave era to feudalism, why did feudalism need to be transformed into capitalism, what are the reasons behind this, what are the economic relations?". Unfortunately, I can't see this in the education system here.

You are in the scientific community for a long time, and conducting studies. Especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is thought that the publication pressure was much more concentrated in the academy and now there is a focus on publishing rather than discovery. What do you think about it?

Unfortunately, yes. I am a witness of this, and unfortunately, it is actually like this all over the world, and in Turkey. I think we still have to understand this, “why?” In any case, everyone is rushing to publish an article immediately; the number of articles is competing. We can observe that science has become a little commercial. The number of magazines increased, publishing articles became easier. But controlling it depends on the researcher. Because in my opinion, if you declare a result, you have to stand behind it after the article is published. The researcher must feel that responsibility.

Personally, staff appointments should not only depend on the number of publications, but should be based on scientific results. A person may publish more or less, but it is even more important who has studies that can say, “I have done this for the first time in the world literature.”. An important point for me. Because in order to define its own place, each country evaluates its contributions to various fields of science, calculates what they finances and outputs obtained. These outputs should not always be articles for me. It should be considered what would be the application of this output, the ground should be established for the implementation, and conditions should be created. And, of course, for these results to be implemented, the country must have those conditions. I think this is one of the important assignments of a state.

Can we get your assessment of the scientific community and research conditions in Turkey?

It is not an easy topic. All of them (all academicians) work, some of them even work with great devotion. This is normal. However, the criteria for evaluating this question are mostly based on what I have just explained in the previous question. All right, they all work in universities. For example, there is also MAM (Marmara Research Center) of TUBITAK (The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey), and they are definitely working on something. Unfortunately, I don't know much about what they're working on.

Universities can, of course, produce scientific results. In my opinion, a student should see how an instructor's working in a laboratory. Unfortunately, in our schools and universities, either the student does not see the instructor working in the laboratory or the instructor does not work. I think that the contact between the student and the instructor is very important. The student has to be curious. With the curiosity of the student, the science that is progressing in the universities is also becoming alive. I think there should be other scientific institutions except the universities.

In this respect, of course, the branching and spreading of science in Soviet Union was developed in a way never compared to Turkey. Nowadays, some transformations have taken place, some deterioration has occurred. The current Russia has turned its face to the west. I think they're changing things a little bit. As far as I see, these are not very positive changes. But the logic and approach at that time remain in place.

Finally, we wonder about your family, their class positions, their occupations and their lives. Were there members of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) in the family? Were you a member yourself? Moreover, how was the private life for the scientists in Soviet Union?

There was no member of communist party in my family. Interesting, but there was no member. My father was also a scientist. He was interested in soil science. He was not bad. He left behind a few books. Here we have to underline that, because perhaps each person can write a book easily in Turkey, it was not easy to write books in the Soviet Union. My father was a member of the Academy of Sciences; however, he was not a party member. Before the revolution, our family was in a good financial situation, so we weren't a family that was totally committed to communism. But I would say that in many things, in education system they were perfect.

My father was also the director of the Institute of Soil Science and Agrochemistry. My mother was a dentist. However, I am the third child in the family, so after I was born, she quit the job to take care of children. She had to quit.

There were lodging in the leading institutes, such as the Kurchatov Institute. But it was not something that was common throughout the country. The government gave us a house. The houses were small, not large. They consisted of 1 room + 1 living room or 2 rooms + 1 living room. However, the sports facilities were very developed. Almost every neighborhood had a library. The number of swimming pools and sports facilities were quite high. There were also annual leaves. We used to go on a family vacation during our father's annual leave.

This was our last question. Would you like to add something else?

I want to add that our young people need to read books. They definitely need to know the world literature, classics, and history. A person who knows the world literature and history can find the right way in his mind in any environment. Please, try to stay in touch with the world classics.

Thank you very much for this delightful interview...

I thank you for your interest and effort...