Sunday, September 14, 2014

I. P. Pavlov: 165th birthday

A Russian patriot and anti-communist whom communists had to nurture

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, a pioneer of physiology, was born in Ryazan (200 km Southeast of Moscow) in September 1849. At, Karel Pacner published a fascinating chapter of his book about the geniuses of the 20th century.

Pavlov would live and work in extremely poor conditions and he was happy about that, anyway. He was a hard-working perfectionist who studied the functions of various organs (digestive system, nerves etc.) etc.

He brought the genuine, careful scientific method to the research of physiology. Most famously, he was able to develop conditioning reflexes in dogs. The dogs were trained to salivate after a particular observation that was trained to be correlated with the availability of food. He distinguished the conditioning reflexes from the involuntary, hardwired ones.

But the part of the article I found amazing was Pavlov's relationship to the USSR and the Bolsheviks.

He was a great Russian patriot but he was deeply annoyed by the Bolsheviks when they were taking power around 1917. He complained that they would place the brain and the hands at the bottom while the legs (angry proletarians) would acquire a dictatorship. In Spring 1918, he would say that he was ready to give the Bolshevik a year, at most two. (That's a quote from a movie that the Czech readers know very well.) However, the Bolsheviks didn't seem to be evaporating at all. So around 1919 or 1920, he started to work on his emigration from the USSR.

However, the Bolsheviks presented a surprisingly moderate, constructive approach when they decided that Pavlov was a top scientist and they just couldn't lose such a man. They worked hard to keep him – and they used carrots, not a stick. They would build a research center for him, and so on. He also informed them that he would still refuse the offer if they weren't going to build an Orthodox church over there.

You must agree it's funny. The Bolsheviks were canceling as many churches as they could. But Pavlov actually forced them to build a new church. Needless to say, it was the only new church that was ever built in the Soviet Union. ;-) Pavlov stayed in the Soviet Russia an died in Leningrad in 1936. Even though he was treated very nicely by the Bolsheviks and praised by Lenin personally, among others, he would always despise the communist regime. He has also studied their reflexes by a similar methodology that he would apply to dogs.

That clearly wasn't a problem for the communists in this case. In downtown Prague, there is a square and a nearby important stop of the Prague subway, "I. P. Pavlova", named after him. When I was an undergrad, I would use that station every other day because of nearby buildings of my Alma Mater (MFF UK) in Karlov. That's not just the students of mathematics and physics who find that stop useful. I. P. Pavlova is actually the busiest station of the Prague subway system (get in + get out: around 120,000 people a day).

Just to be sure: the subway stop boasted the anti-communist's name already during communism. In 1990, 12+ stations with tendentious names (including Gottwald, Lenin, Fučík, the Builders, the Youth, Druzhba, Cosmonauts, Mayor Vacek, Šverma, Dukla, Sokolovo, Defenders of Peace) had to be renamed but I. P. Pavlova kept its old name, of course.

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