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Iosif Shklovsky and his jokes

30 years ago the outstanding astrophysicist passed away

He began working at the age of 14 as a foreman on a railway line, and became a scientist with an international reputation, who had a huge influence on physics in the 20th century, the creator of the school of all-wave evolutionary astrophysics and the modern theory of sun crown… Iosif Shklovsky was elected a member of the London royal astronomical society, the American academy of arts and sciences, the National academy of sciences of the USA, an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and an honorary doctor of the Paris observatory…

The brilliant scientist was born on 1 July 1916 in the Ukrainian town of Glukhovo in a traditional Jewish family. He went to the synagogue with his mother, and celebrated Jewish holidays. Until the end of his days he remembered how the holidays smelt. Then came seven years of school, and the divide in mentality between the Jewish home and the Soviet school. In 1930, the Shklovskys moved to Kazkahstan. After he finished seven years at school, Iosif worked on building the Baikal-Amur railroad, and in 1933 enrolled in the physics and mathematics faculty of Vladivostok University. Two years later he transferred to the physics faculty of Moscow State University. In 1938 he joined the graduate program at the astrophysics department at the State astronomical institute of P.K. Sternberg at the Moscow State University. And then came the war, Shklovsky was not taken to fight because of his bad eyesight (-10), and he was sent to Ashgabad in evacuation. Later he returned to Moscow and had years of working with stars and formulas.

Iosif Samuilovich was the soul of the astronomical society and an incredible story-teller. He wrote down some of his stories. Although he did this, as he admitted himself, out of a feeling of spite, which were caused by his neighbors at the holiday home who had recorded their impressions of scientists. “God, that’s so far from literature and the truth!” Iosif Samuilovich said in indignation in the foreword to his stories.

Shklovsky’s stories were held in his family archive, and after his death his friends published them. “His stories resembled Babel and O’Henry. They were just as precise, witty and laconic,” Shklovsky’s contemporaries noted. His friend and colleague Valentina Berdichevskaya recalled that Shklovsky was always surrounded by friends and pupils… “but his witty words, which could wound like an epigram by Pushkin, also made him many enemies.” Professor Zeldovich noted that “…the very personality of Shklovsky polarized people. Along with faithful friends, pupils and followers, he had enemies.”

Well then, we can be grateful to the scientist’s friends, and even his enemies, for inspiring Iosif Samuilovich to write stories. Today we will recall the incredible adventures of a Soviet Jew in Paris. How you can spend two weeks in this wonderful city without an invitation, without knowing the language and without any money.

“Paris is worth a dinner”

Iosif Shklovsky recalled the period from 1966 to 1968 as the happiest in his life. Firstly, on the day of his 50th birthday, he was elected to the Academy of Sciences on the fifth attempt. Secondly, he was once more permitted to travel abroad – “to communicate with people of my own kind.” And thirdly, he had his first heart attack and was taken to the Academy of Sciences hospital. “In hospital with my first heart attack, I felt goo and – I’m not afraid to say it – happy! I was weak and helpless, and good people loved me, and I felt this keenly,” the physicist wrote. Isn’t this like the characters in Sholom Aleichem? Although the main event in this period was the trip to Paris. The Soviet physicist got to the capital of France thanks to his adventure spirit and incredible luck – he hadn’t been allowed out of the country for 18 years. And it all started when Shklovsky was asked to review several papers at a conference which UNESCO organized in Paris.

He was sent the documents in French, which he did not know. But he did know that he really wanted to go to Paris. He rang the office of the Soviet committee of UNESCO, and told he official that he had received the materials for the conference, but the topic of space was not represented in them at all. (A nightmare!) And here he offered to deliver a paper at the conference in Paris personally. After puzzling the officials, Shklovsky went to his dacha. And as part of preparations for the conference he asked a neighbor to translate two phrases into French: “don’t complicate things” and don’t simplify things”. “Il ne faut pas complicer” and “Il ne faut pas simplifier” the surprised girl replied. In hospital, a friend of Shklovsky had told him the story of an official who thanks to these magic phrases was renowned as a philosopher and had made a career. Shklovsky decided that if necessary, they would help him get by in Paris. Although he still hadn’t got an invitation.

Unexpectedly, three days after the conference began, Shklovsky had a trip to Paris arranged, but he wasn’t given any money – they didn’t get around to it. Our hero wasn’t worried. But one thing did worry him – the format of the event. Shklovsky expected to be lost in the crowd of scientists with his ignorance of French, but in the small hall at a round table only seven people were sitting. Shklovsky took his chair – the eight. And in the chairman’s seat was an enormous Nigerian, and with horror Shklovsky heard his own name – he was clearly being invited to make a speech. Iosif “turned the switch” to the Japanese man: “This year marks 100 years since the time of the Meiji revolution,” he said. “In this light it would be very interesting if our Japanese colleague discussed the issue of the relationship between traditional Japanese culture and the swift technological development that his country has experienced during this time.”

While the Japanese man was talking, Shklovsky said to the American next to him that the man from West Germany sitting opposite looked a bit strange. “Of course he does,” the American whispered. “He’s a Jew. By the way, so am I.” Later they found out that the Belgian scientist was too. “I felt quite at ease, like in the good old times before the war in Kiev of Lokhvitsa,” Shklovsky wrote. And he also asked the Japanese man if he was a Jew: “Doctor Eisaku-san, I’m very surprised by your name, Leo, for as far as I know, the Japanese do not have the “l” sound in their language. Could you perhaps be a Japanese Jew?

On the last day of the conference, the scientists discuss the need to organize library collectors in Tanzania. And suddenly they all pounced “on the majestically silent representative of a great superpower: what does the superpower think about these collectors? The situation was like something out of a comedy,” Shklovsky recalled. “I had to play my Ace. Pulling a gloomy face (which is something I am good at), the representative of great superpower hissed: “Il ne faut pas simplifer!” All hell broke lose! They babbled in three languages, interrupting each other. I sat in a gloomy and majestic pose. This energy lasted until the break, during which they looked at me with respectful admiration.”

The conference ended. Shklovsky was given money – for the one and a half days of his participation, and he had to stay in Paris for another 12 days. He could spend 7 francs a day. A trip on the metro cost 1 franc, and the cheapest meal cost 11 francs. All his Parisian friends were on holiday and so he could not eat at their homes.

The scientist, who had had a heart attack half a year ago, decided: for 2.5 francs he would buy apples from farmers at the nearby market, another 2.5 francs would go to a sausage in a bun from the wonderful old lady who sold them outside the hotel. Two francs would go towards a trip to a district of Paris.

Once our hero decided to be unfaithful to the old woman and bought a hamburger at the bottom of Montmartre hill. But the salesperson deceived him and didn’t give him change from five francs – 2.5. In despair, Shklovsky bought a ticket to the cheap club “Permanent Striptease” for another 2.5 francs. He quickly walked down the steep staircase right up to the stage, sat in the first row and stared at the sweaty back of a voluptuous blond woman. There was pleasure, just observation of the hard work of the sweaty stripper. He was asked if he wanted a drink. Iosif refused. He was asked more insistently, and he refused again. He was asked again. “Beer,” the scientist asked. “We’re out of beer,” he was told in the best Soviet tradition, and was asked to leave. Shklovsky was triumphant: “That hamburger seller robbed me of 2.5 francs, and I cheated the owner of that brothel out of at least 10, quite easily! For a long time I stayed in this carefree mood, and I walked almost without touching the pavement. On the days that remained I only bought my portion of sausages from my dear old lady.”

Shklovsky wrote dozens of stories. Surprisingly enough, almost each one of them has elements of Jewish mysticism – he wrote these stories in the 1980s, at the height of socialism. Shklovsky’s memoirs have miracles with rabbi Levi, a story of a real Soviet rabbi, his friend Iosif, Mates Mendeleivch Agrest, and a golem. There are also elements of socialist realism, recollections of the doctors’ plot and the battle with rootless cosmopolitans.

I read it in the paper – what the hell?
What does it mean? Who’s going to jail this time?
Dear Comrade Vovsi! I’m so glad for you.
It turns out you were not the one to blame.
You shouldn’t have been locked up in a cell.
You didn’t want to undermine our system.
Dear Comrade Kogan, doctor of renown!
You’re upset, and you’re moved, but do not cry.
Professor, you’ve become a nervous wreck
All because of Timashuk, the bitch…

Shklovsky recalls the song. And he writes that “the song was a herald of the thaw. It foretold the era of bards and minstrels – the 60s were approaching. Alas, everything passes, and this era is also a thing of the past…


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