Pyotr Nikolaevich Lebedev. February 24 (March 8), 1866 – March 1 (14), 1912. Russian experimental physicist who was the first to confirm Maxwell’s conclusion about the presence of light pressure. Founder of the first scientific physical school in Russia.
Life and Work:
1. The famous physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, described Pyotr Nikolaevich Lebedev’s achievements briefly and aphoristically: “Perhaps you know that all my life I was fighting against Maxwell, not acknowledging his light pressure but your Lebedev forced me to surrender to the evidence of his experiments.”
2. Encyclopedias state the same much more dryly: in 1899, Pyotr Nikolaevich Lebedev, with the help of masterly, although performed with modest means, experiments, confirmed Maxwell’s theoretical prediction about the pressure of light on solid bodies, and in 1907 – on gases as well. This research was an important milestone in studying electromagnetic phenomena.
3. “The man who weighed the light,” as Pyotr Lebedev was called in a documentary dedicated to him, was a Muscovite by birth and a merchant’s son: his father worked at the famous Botkins’ tea trading company and also a business of his own.
4. Pyotr Lebedev learned to read and write at home. His father considered German neatness a solid basis for success, and the boy was sent to the Peter and Paul Men’s School that taught almost all subjects in German. Later, German came in very handy to Lebedev.
5. Pyotr Lebedev showed such a strong interest in physics that by the end of his studies, he was invited to the physics room of the school to help the teacher prepare devices for classroom demonstrations.
6. As a graduate of a non-classical school, Lebedev could not enter the university. Now it is Bauman University that takes pride in the famous student: the future scientist, who was passionate about physics from a young age, chose the Imperial Moscow Technical School.
7. Pyotr Lebedev did not finish the course there. The engineer’s career did not attract the future scientist, and his father paid for his studies abroad. At the University of Strasbourg, he studied under the famous physicist August Kundt so successfully that he was awarded a doctorate for his work under Kundt’s supervision.
8. For many years, Pyotr Lebedev combined scientific work with teaching. Eventually, Moscow University, which he could not enter earlier without knowledge of Greek and Latin, offered him the Chair of Physics.
9. Moscow University Professor Pyotr Lebedev was famous not only for his physical experiments, but also for establishing a scientific school. One of his most renown students was, for example, Sergey Vavilov.
10. However, there was a break in his brilliant career: in 1911, Lebedev, along with other professors of progressive views – Vernadsky, Timiryazev, Chaplygin, and many others – left Moscow University in protest against the reactionary actions of Minister of Education Kasso. Wonderful scientists did not want to act as policemen at the university. Historians of science believe that the dismissal of major scientists entailed a decline of physics teaching at Moscow University.
11. After being dismissed from the university, Lebedev and other liberal-minded physicists founded the Moscow Physical Society. After Pyotr Nikolaevich’s death, it was named after him.
12. Lebedev created a new physics lab at Shanyavsky Municipal University, but he had no time to continue his research: his failing heart could not survive the troubles associated with the dismissal.
13. Also, Lebedev showed extraordinary wit. One Pyotr Nikolaevich’s joke frightened his mother once. The future professor’s mother received a strange letter from him: “I have a newborn: she screams, rebels, does not recognize any authority. Professor Kundt was the godfather, he came to a somewhat nervous state when I presented him the newborn...” And only at the end of the letter did Pyotr Nikolaevich explain to the frightened mother that the newborn was some idea related to electricity.
14. “It’s crammed with knowledge much more than I am, but I am a physicist, not it,” Pyotr Lebedev said about a bookcase.
15. “I wholeheartedly share the grief of the loss of the irreplaceable Pyotr Nikolaevich Lebedev. When will Russia learn to protect its outstanding sons – the true Fatherland’s support?” – the great scientist Ivan Pavlov lamented. Another remarkable scientist, Kliment Timiryazev, hoped that the country would live to see the time when “people with a mind and a heart” would finally have the opportunity to live in Russia, and not just be born there to die with a broken heart.”
16. Now the famous FIAN – Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciencesis bears Pyotr Nikolaevich Lebedev’s name.