We Were So Proud

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, February 1, 2005

It's hard not to have a warm spot in your heart for the Russians. I do not mean the tanks, KGB, and tiresome military parades in Red Square, but the ordinary people who suffered through the insanity of the Soviet days, the shock of Perestroika, and the collapse of the state support system. The Soviet government was heavily invested in theoretical physics when I was beginning my career, so I came to know and respect many of these people through my scientific work. I also came to like them. It could be cultural, or it could be just growing up in a communist country, but something has rendered these colleagues into unusually genuine people. I meet them routinely now, sometimes in Moscow but more often in some distant corner of the earth---Paris, Rio de Janeiro, New York or Seoul---where they were flung. We drink together and laugh about the usual problems of housing prices, car repairs, troubled marriages, and getting the kids through university, but there is always a special sad wisdom in their eyes that comes from memories deep inside that are decidedly not funny.

One of these colleagues is a powerful mathematician, now on the faculty of the University of Chicago. His work, which I first encountered in the early 1980s, is historically important in theoretical physics. I reference him regularly, as do other people, and I am sure this will continue long after both of us are memories. He is not just a one-dimensional technologist. He is, for example, very athletic and likes climbing mountains. I once went hiking with him in Corsica, discovering unhappily from the experience just how bad I was. He and his wife made a walking trip in the Himalayas north of Islamabad a few years before 9/11. They came back with magnificent descriptions of the adventure---complete with a lurid account of a huge ammunition bazaar they discovered on the road to the Khyber Pass. He is also a strong family man, and has raised a son you would like.

Not surprisingly, he has strong feelings for the land of his birth. In the days the communists still controlled things it was safe to travel (it isn't now), so his parents put him on a train by himself and sent him backpacking in the East. He had endless wonderful stories to tell of what he had seen there: great choirs of birch in the Urals, vast deserts you cross to reach the fir forests and glaciers of the Altai Mountains, the boat journey down the Ob to the arctic, the breathtaking blue of the Baikal, and the mysterious jungles beyond the Amur river where the tigers roam.

One day when we had been talking together about a tough physics problem for a long time and had tired, the subject turned to the darker matter of the difficulties our discipline was having. The Cold War had been good for physics, for obvious reasons, and its passing had forced us all to deal with retrenchment and retreating research budgets. I should remark here that the systems in question were solids and semiconductors, the stuff of computer technology, not nuclear weapons. Governments everywhere were becoming keen on life sciences and increasingly disinterested in the more primitive things related to engineering. Suddenly there was an unguarded moment. The mask came off, and he fell to talking openly about leaving his country as an economic refugee.

We were so proud, he said. We were young and gifted, the best in the world, and we knew it. Stalin himself had declared that we would be number one in theoretical physics. Those of us who made it internationally were rewarded with status, high salaries, freedom to travel and leisure to think. We were allowed to live in Moscow and to have access to exclusive stores and flats. We had it made. But it was not to be. When the economy restructured we were forced into poverty. No one came to our aid. I could not support my family on $100 per month, so I had to emigrate. I go back occasionally, but not that often because it hurts too much. The country I loved just threw me away.

He then regained his composure, and we returned to the present and resumed our technical discussion. Both of us are hopeless mathematics addicts, and we enjoy each other's company and confronting nature with beautiful creations of the mind. But I think about that conversation from time to time, for its lesson is important and poignant. No one defies the laws of economics. Not even Stalin.

[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]