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Scholars and scientists

Leonhard Euler (1707 - 1783).

Leonhard Euler (1707 - 1783). This picture was used as the basis for the Swiss 10 franc bank note current from 1976 to 1995 and for the commemorative stamp issued for the tercentenary of Euler's birth.© Emanuel Handmann / Basel Art Museum

Among the first Swiss to arrive in the imperial city were scholars invited to take up positions at the Academy of Science. The Academy was the brainchild of Peter the Great, although he died shortly before it opened in 1725. It was very much a prestige project; Russia had no established education system, so had produced no high-calibre scholars of its own. Indeed, there were no Russians in the Academy for its first 20 years; in the 18th century as a whole, 111 Academicians were foreigners. Germany was by far the favourite recruiting ground, but nine of the foreign members were Swiss - an impressive number when compared with the French (4) or British (1).

The Bernoullis and Eulers

Two remarkable Swiss dynasties stand out from the early days, the Bernoullis and Eulers, both from Basel. Niklaus and Daniel Bernoulli arrived in 1725. Niklaus, a specialist in mechanics, died of a gastric ulcer in 1726, but Daniel (1700-82) remained until 1733, taking advantage of the Academy's excellent facilities to study the dynamics of liquids. His work underlies modern understanding of hydrodynamics and hydraulics, which are used in disciplines ranging from geology to astronomy. In 1733 he returned home to take up a chair at the university in Basel, but it is clear from his letters that he greatly missed the challenging intellectual environment of Petersburg and the equipment that had been available there to continue his experiments.

Chief among the scholars in Petersburg with whom he discussed his ideas was Leonhard Euler, (1707 - 83) one of the most brilliant mathematicians of all time. Euler had been a pupil of the Bernoullis' father, Johann, and it was thanks to the brothers that he too was invited to join the Academy. He was a man of all-round genius and enthusiasm, originally taken on to teach physiology. He applied his mathematical knowledge to such varied subjects as music theory, shipbuilding and navigation, weights and measures, and astronomy. He also drew up an important map of Russia. Unlike many foreigners, he learnt not only to speak Russian, but also to write it.

Such was his eminence as a scholar that in 1741 he was lured away from Petersburg by Frederick the Great of Prussia to join the Berlin Academy, but Catherine the Great of Russia persuaded him to return in 1766. He remained in Petersburg until his death, continuing his research despite losing his sight.

His mathematical discoveries contributed to two very different branches of today's leisure activities. On the one hand he developed the so-called "Latin Square", the basis of today's sudoku puzzle. On the other, his pioneering interest in the mathematics of three-dimensional objects led, much later, to the discovery of how a football, consisting of flat pieces of leather, can be made spherical.

The eminent German mathematician Frobenius summed him up by saying: "Euler lacked only one thing to make him a perfect genius: he failed to be incomprehensible."

Euler's son Johann Albrecht (1734 - 1800) followed his father back to Petersburg, where he was appointed Professor of Physics, and became Secretary of the Academy in 1769. Many years of bad management seriously affected the work of the Academy, but the appointment of Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Dashkova (1744 - 1810) as director in 1783 revived the establishment. Johann Albrecht was soon on warm terms with the learned and energetic Dashkova: she used to invite him to her house late at night and regale him with oysters and caviar, while he presented her with Leckerli, a kind of gingerbread speciality which he got imported from Basel.

The Eulers and Bernoullis became related by marriage when Johan Albrecht's 16-year old daughter, Charlotte, married Jakob, Daniel Bernoulli's nephew, who had taken up at post at the Academy in 1786. But the marriage was short-lived: only two months after the ceremony Bernoulli drowned when swimming with friends in the river Neva, probably because he had gone into the water too soon after eating.

The Fuss dynasty

The Fuss family of Basel, which also married into the Eulers, similarly produced several outstanding mathematicians. The first to come, in 1773, was Niklaus (1755 - 1826), recommended by Daniel Bernoulli to his friend Leonhard Euler, who needed an assistant because of his blindness. Fuss rose to become Professor of Mathematics in 1783, and Secretary of the Academy in 1800. He became interested in educational reform, and wrote mathematics textbooks which were used by generations of Russian students. Niklaus married Euler's granddaughter Albertine, and their sons, Paul Heinrich (1798 - 1855) and Nikolaus (1810 - 1867) were also prominent mathematicians in Petersburg. A third son, Georg (1806 - 54) was an astronomer, and Georg's son Viktor (1839 - 1915) followed in his father's footsteps, among other activities working at the Pulkovo observatory in Petersburg.

Hermann Hess

Hermann Hess (1802 - 1850) was born in Switzerland, but grew up in Russia where he trained as a doctor. His real passion was for chemistry, and when posted to Siberia as an army doctor he used the chance to carry out chemical and mineralogical research there. The papers he wrote on his findings earned him a reputation in Petersburg and an invitation to take up a post at the Academy of Science. He set up a laboratory at the Academy where he carried out numerous experiments, becoming particularly interested in the relationship between heat and chemical reactions. Hess's Law on energy change in chemical reactions is one of the foundations of thermochemistry.

He was also a gifted teacher. He taught in the School of Mining, training a new generation of specialists who went on to develop the Russian mining and metallurgical industries. He also saw himself with a mission to make chemistry accessible to the public. He revolutionised chemistry teaching, using experiments rather than lectures to explain his lessons. He wrote a groundbreaking chemistry text book, and ensured that the new editions kept up to date with the latest discoveries. Among enthusiastic users of his book was Mendeleyev, probably Russia's greatest chemist, who drew up the periodic table of elements.

With help from Russian colleagues Hess also standardised Russian chemical terminology. In addition, he was involved in various projects for the common good, such as a project for supply Petersburg with water, and the provision of gas lighting for the city.