No. 4, 2011

Alexander Anatolyev


On the 300th anniversary of the birth of Academician Mikhail Lomonosov, a great Russian polymath, scientist and writer

The great russian polymath, scientist and writer Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765) has gone down in the history of science as a natural scientist known both for his wide range of interests and his deep insights into the mysteries of nature. His prolific studies in chemistry, physics, mathematics, astronomy, mineralogy, and mining were a remarkable chapter in 18th century science. Also great was his contribution in laying the foundations of the theory of the organic origins of oil.


Mikhail Lomonosov was born on November 19 (8), 1711, in the village of Mishaninskaya (formerly Denisovka), Kurostrovsky district, Dvinsk region, Arkhangelsk Province, into a family of White Sea coast dwellers. As a young man, the future academician would fish the rough waters of the White Sea with his father. The considerable physical dangers he encountered on his fishing voyages strengthened the young man physically and aroused in him an awareness of the need for science. Semyon Sabelnikov, the sexton of the nearby Dmitrovsk Church, taught Mikhail how to read and write. Mikhail soon became the owner of a number of valuable works: Meletius Smotritsky's Grammar, Leonty Magnitsky's Arithmetic, Semeon Politsky's A Verse Book of Psalms, and a book extolling the deeds of Emperor Peter the Great. A desire to "open the gates of learning" led to Lomonosov's decision to leave for Moscow. On December 7, 1730, he obtained an internal passport from the Kholmogory Voivodeship office and, traveling with a wagon train loaded with fish, set out for Moscow to enroll in its Slavic Greek Latin Academy.

Lomonosov would later recall his studies there as one of the most difficult periods of his life. In 1734, Mikhail was sent to the Kiev-Mogiliansk Academy to continue his studies, this time in philosophy. The following year, however, he was summoned to St. Petersburg and became a student at the University of the Academy of Sciences. Lomonosov's serious attitude to scientific studies, along with his love of and great capacity for hard work, set him apart from most of the student body.

It was entirely natural that the directors of the Academy of Sciences would send him, along with a number of other exceptional students, abroad to continue his education in 1736. Between 1736 and 1739, he studied at Marburg University under the direction of the famous German scholar Christian Wolff (1679-1744), and then at the Mining School in Freiberg under the guidance of Professor Johann Henckel (1679-1744). In July 1739, Wolff, an honorary member of the St. Petersburg Academy, submitted the following written report on his student: "A young man of prodigious intelligence, Mikhail Lomonosov has frequently attended my lectures on mathematics, philosophy, and particularly physics ever since he arrived to study in Marburg, and has displayed a great love of basic science. If he continues to work with such diligence in the future, I have no doubt that he will be of great use to his country upon his return there, as I would sincerely wish for him."

From his studies abroad, Lomonosov gained not only wide knowledge in the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and mining, but to a large degree formed his own unique world view, one based on natural science.

Lomonosov's St. Petersburg gambit

Mikhail Lomonosov returned to Russia on July 20 (8), 1741. While the directors of the Academy of Sciences were reviewing his report, he was placed under the tutelage of Academician Johann Amman (1707-1741) for further study of "natural history, particularly minerals or whatever is germane to that science." It is possible that at this point he was already familiar with Amman's conclusions, dated April 23, 1741, as to the "experimental oil of Samara's factories" discovered by the prolific prospector Yakov Shakhanin: "The oil sent me smells extraordinarily bad and is thick, black, and very impure. It will not combust even if one holds a burning taper over it or plunges such a taper into the oil. When a wick fashioned from cotton paper is placed in the oil, it burns quietly and the flame does not rise terribly high.... In my opinion, it is not good for anything else other than making carriage grease, torches, and pitch-impregnated ropes, along with fuses intended to burn not too brightly or quickly. In addition, it can be used in place of lamp oil in lamps if its finest and lightest particles are separated through distillation; it would then be almost the same as ordinary Persian oil."

Lomonosov's first major task in St. Petersburg was to compile a catalogue of the collections of rocks and minerals in the Odditorium's mineral cabinet. In the course of his work, he noted the presence of bituminous mineral finds in Siberia, in the form of the "Siberian rock oil found in great abundance along the River Yenisei." Local residents found "Siberian rock oil" along the shores of Lake Baikal. It trickled from the rocky banks of rivers, floated on the surface of the lake, and was blown ashore by the wind. This bituminous substance was oily to the touch and was either light yellow or black, but it was ignited only with difficulty. As it burned, it gave off a "thin, fragrant vapor." Local residents used "Siberian rock oil" as an analgesic salve, and to promote the healing of wounds. It was exported to Moscow and other cities of Russia.

Lomonosov's efforts in compiling the catalogue of rock and mineral collections demonstrated his wide-ranging interests and phenomenal capacity for hard work. The six-month-long project was judged successful and on January 19 (8), 1742, he was confirmed as an associate professor in the Department of Physics at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Mastering general laws

In 1744, Lomonosov presented his dissertation Thoughts on the Reasons for Heat and Cold to the Academy of Sciences, in which he laid the foundations for the mechanical theory of heat. On July 25, 1745, his title of Professor of Chemistry was confirmed by the Senate, meaning that he was now in fact a member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Lomonosov devoted considerable time to opening a special chemistry laboratory at the Academy of Sciences, without which it would have been impossible to conduct necessary scientific experiments: "Without the laboratory, I would have had to be satisfied with just reading books on chemistry and theory, and give up the practical aspect of my work altogether, as a result of which I would eventually have forgotten how to do it." His perseverance led to the long awaited result of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna issuing a royal decree on July 12 (1), 1746, ordering "the construction of a chemistry laboratory for the Academy of Sciences on the site designated for it on Vasilievsky Island in accordance with the drawing enclosed herewith..."

In October 1748, the laboratory was built according to Lomonosov's blueprints and specifications, and he began conducting wide-ranging experimental research in chemistry, the foundations of the theory of solutions, the calcination of metals, and the assaying of ores and other various mineral resources. Broadest of all was Lomonosov's program of physiochemical investigations of solutions, which included studying the concentrations of solutions at different temperatures; increases in volume upon dissolution; reductions in temperature upon dissolution; the freezing temperatures of solutions, their heat capacities, and their solubility in solutions of other salts; and so on. Lomonosov's contribution to developing the theory of friction with regard to viscosity as a measure of the internal friction of a liquid must also be mentioned. In studying the liquid state of matter, he developed a number of original methods for quantitative and qualitative analysis. His "instrument for determining the viscosity of liquid materials from a number of drops," created in 1752, was the first laboratory viscosimeter in the history of chemical science.

Working at the St. Petersburg Laboratory of Chemistry, Lomonosov made a number of landmark scientific discoveries, including the laws of the conservation of matter and the conservation of energy. Their substantiation was first given in a letter of Lomonosov's dated July 16, 1748, and addressed to the great mathematician Leonhard Euler. He stated in particular that "Not all of the changes encountered in nature occur such that, if when something is added to something else, it is taken from something else again. Thus, however much material is added to a body, the same amount is lost from another body." In 1756, he performed for the first time in history the classic experiment showing that plates of lead in a sealed vessel are oxidized upon heating, while the overall mass of the vessel remains the same. The law of the conservation of matter was thus confirmed by experiment. A similar experiment was performed by the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1796) only in 1770.

Lomonosov provided a better theoretical foundation for the above laws in his works On the Relation between a Quantity of Matter and Its Weight (1758) and Thoughts on the Solidity and Liquidity of Bodies (1760). Both of these works were published in Latin and quickly gained fame beyond Russia's borders.

Toward an organic theory of the origin of oil

In his work Basic Principles of Metallurgy, or Mining Science (1763), Lomonosov considered the questions of the formation in nature of different minerals and the properties of various metals, classified them, and described ways of obtaining them. He introduced to science the concept of a uniform geological process of deposition accompanying events at the Earth's core. He maintained that the formation of the Earth's crust was a long-term process influenced by the impact of both external and internal factors.

In preparing his manuscript for publication, Lomonosov included an additional chapter, "On the Layers of the Earth," devoted to the origin of combustible minerals: coal, peat, and oil. His main conclusion was that coal, peat, and oil are all products of structures of biogenic origin resulting from the prolonged natural refining of organic matter: "We can be certain from their lightness that these combustible underground materials originate from plant matter. For all minerals sink in water, but oil floats in it, even though it acquires a number of heavy minerals while it is in the ground."

On the origin of coal, he wrote: "Rock or black coal can be fairly called another combustible material for which there are a number of indications that it comes from plant matter, particularly from forests buried and subjected to pressure during great changes in the Earth's crust, and then transformed by the heat underground and enriched with dissolved subsoil minerals over long periods of time."

Lomonosov was able to determine that in migrating from oil-generating formations to collectors, oil always rises into its traps. The greatest reserves of it are therefore found at somewhat shallower depths than the zone at which the main phase of oil generation occurs. He was brilliant in determining yet another important factor of oil generation: the continual warming of organic matter in sedimentary deposits: "Oil is propelled by heat ... and penetrates into both dry and wet fissures." High subterranean temperatures produce "thick, black tars," while lower temperatures produce "light oil," the "least viscous material derived from peat and from already distilled oil, collected in such warm cavities, fractionated a second time." To verify his hypothesis, he performed a number of experiments "on distilling oily materials" in the chemistry laboratory, using a still of his own design. In his work, he offered the following appraisal of the obtained distillate: "It is the purest fraction or, one could say, the lightest of the mineral oils." In addition, Lomonosov advanced the hypothesis of a genetic link among combustible minerals, "which differ in purity but share the same origin." In modern science, these minerals are referred to as caustobioliths.

The famous Russian chemist Benedikt Kurilov (1867-1921) wrote: "The three most important items characterizing the genius of M.V. Lomonosov were his type of intuitive vision allowing him to foresee, as it were, the gradual growth of scientific knowledge; his ability to draw far-reaching conclusions; and finally, the uncommonly broad nature of his creative work." Lomosonov's conclusions as to the origins and properties of combustible minerals were of great importance to the subsequent development of Russian geological science.

Lomonosov's main works had gained wide fame in Europe by the beginning of the 1760s. On April 30, 1760, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences elected Lomonosov an honorary member. Four years later, he was awarded the title of Honorary Member of the University of Bologna's Institute's Academy of Sciences.

Today, Mikhail Lomonosov's rich scientific legacy continues to reflect his versatility and the depths to which he probed the mysteries of nature. The Lomonosov Gold Medal is now one of the Russian Academy of Sciences' most prestigious awards.

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Oil of Russia, No. 4, 2011
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