Milutin Milankovic 125 Years Anniversary

Milutin Milanković
125 years Anniversary Symposium
By Fedor Mesinger

Dear Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an extraordinary honor for me to say a few words on this occasion on behalf of the Organizing Committee; and a privilege to say some words also on behalf of myself.

Considering the other day what I was going to say, before writing down a single word, I decided the best thing to do was go out for a walk. I happen to be fortunate to have an apartment on the bank of Danube; off I went, strolling and looking towards the sunset, at the reach colors of the evening sky, reflecting off the peaceful waters of Danube. It occurred to me that I just happen to be looking toward Milanković’s picturesque native Dalj, also at the banks of Danube. And at the waters that came down to us from Vienna, just as Milanković did, 95 years ago. Touching, along the way, or going by, other significant posts of his life’s travel, Budapest and Osijek. And, also, I was looking toward the Sun.

There are so many facets to Milanković’s life and work; it is not easy to reflect on them all. We’ve already heard inspiring words from our President of the Academy Hajdin on Milanković’s short but nevertheless brilliant engineering career; and from our Chairman of the International Program Committee Professor Berger on Milanković’s far-reaching science achievements, the foundation he has laid for just about all of the highly significant climate and climate change work today. On these, we will hear much more about during the next two days; this is the main reason why the Academy has organized this distinguished gathering. But an important reason is also to reflect on the story of Milanković’s life, message I might say, in the sense perhaps suggested by my opening words. Here was a person that following the education in his native Dalj, the provincial center Osijek, and Austro-Hungarian Empire’s capital Vienna, at a very young age of only 30 had already the highest technical position in a leading engineering firm of the Empire, was making contributions to the know-how of the time, publishing and patenting his inventions, widely traveling throughout the Austro-Hungary and beyond, and enjoying the elegant and sophisticated life of the Empire’s capital. Yet he was overjoyed to receive and accept the invitation to come to his native people’s then small University of Belgrade, the very same building we are in today. And he has demonstrated that top-class science in a small and not very reach country was possible.

There were other highly successful Serbian scientists of 100 or so years ago who have achieved a world renown, and have made and are making their people proud, at least two names readily come to mind. Can we speak of “brain drain” at these times? But there is no doubt we can speak of brain drain today. Milanković differs in having come the other way, at a very early time. And as has most unfortunately occurred so much in particular in this part of the world, even very recently, he was hindered by wars. Three of them. Being by chance in a wrong moment, in 1914, at the wrong side of the border of the war-to-be, he ended up in prison, as a prisoner of war. But behind the heavy iron door, as he later recalled, he happened to glance at his briefcase. He has always carried with him some of the books and papers he was working on. This time, as he wrote, he took out the papers “on my cosmic problem”, his “faithful fountain pen” and began working. It was past midnight when he looked around, and needed some time to realize where he was. As he wrote “The little room seemed like the nightquarters on my trip through the universe”.

Milanković deliberately chose a problem on which he could work alone, without haste. Having done early after his joining the University a problem related to the theory of relativity, he has learned that someone else had already done what he had done. That kind of a race is not for me, he concluded. At the same time, he knew well that what he wanted to do was not just a little improvement on what someone else had done but perhaps not all that well. He was aware of his mathematical talents, and wanted to be “a Columbus of science”, and not a follower of another Columbus. He recalled in his writings his high school mathematics teacher, Vladimir Varićak, telling him “in the Kingdom of Science there are unpopulated and uncultivated lands beyond or between densely populated science settle-ments.” It is on such a so far unworked upon soil that a reach harvest can be obtained, Milanković felt, and this is what he was going to strive for. And the tool he was going to use to till that soil was mathematics.

Searching for such a piece of his science real estate to be, Milanković, as he wrote, drew for him a schematic consisting of three concentric circles. He put mathe-matics, along with a symbol of the Sun, in the center. Various exact and descriptive natural sciences he placed in the two circles. The Sun of mathematics was shining upon all of the exact sciences inside the nearest circular region. But it was barely entering the descriptive natural sciences of the one beyond. As he has put it “I decided to have a look into these borderline sciences and started with meteorology.” He asked a friend of his, Pavle Vujević, meteorology and climatology teacher at the University, and also Vienna educated, “if he had any papers with considerable use of mathematics? He gave me several of those.”

One of the papers Milanković got was dealing with what happens to solar radiation when entering the atmosphere. Mathematics of the paper was erroneous. Milanković looked into more of the literature. The problems were complex, and involved not only the change in seasons that occur today, but, to be valid beyond the present time, also the complicated secular changes of the geometry of the Earth’s orbit, and slow oscillations in the inclination of the Earth’s rotation axis relative to the orbit. Once done, the theory would be applicable also to other planets. Milanković had found the problem he was looking for, a problem of “cosmic” dimensions: he would develop a mathematical theory capable of describing the climates of Earth, Mars and Venus, today and in the past. The problem was in between the disciplines of spherical astronomy, celestial mechanics, and theoretical physics. People who have looked at the climate of the Earth at the time were content to look at the readings of thousands of thermo-meters set up at various meteorological stations. Astronomers have looked at the shapes of the orbits of planets now and in the past, but have not attempted to calculate the distribution of radiation over the wobbling and tilting planets. And the pioneers of the astronomical theory of ice ages on the Earth, Adhémar and Croll, had neither the sufficient mathematical training to encom-pass all of the parameters needed, nor the accurate data. So-called solar constant, the intensity of Sun’s radiation striking the Earth, was only in 1913 determined with adequate accuracy.

But although choosing a problem on which he could work alone, Milanković at the same time was a true early European, in his science and also outside science. During the war years, people of good will - including his Vienna mathematics teacher Professor Czuber - saw to it that he eventually arrive at a suitable work environment at the Hungarian Academy of Science. The results Milanković obtained were published in 1920, by Gauthier-Villars, a French publishing house. They soon attracted interest of a greatly respected German - Russian born - climatologist Wladimir Köppen. A simple postcard followed, a relic in Milanković’s archive, as he has put it. Intense collaboration resulted, with Köppen and also with Köppen’s son-in-law, the famous Alfred Wegener, discoverer of the movement of continents. Application of Milanković’s radiation curves to climates of the geological past and the ice age problem were vigorously addressed. A pivotal part in this collaboration was Köppen’s, in 1923, interpretation of dips in these curves as showing imprints of the four ice ages which then were believed to have happened, an idea Milanković writes about with great admiration. Publication of Köppen and Wegener’s book Climates of the Geological Past, in 1924, assured a wide circulation for the Milanković’s results. Correspondence and exchange of ideas with numerous other leading European geophysicists followed, including the use of Milanković’s radiation curves for a variety of studies. This continues today I have a feeling at an ever widening scope, not only in climate change studies, but also beyond, in geological dating, with Milanković cycles being one of the most important “clocks” used to decipher the Earth’s past millions of years back.

But there is one more aspect in which Milanković’s Sun shines at us today that I wish to add a few words on before closing. It is that of his popular science/ science history/ literature/ autobiographical writings. It is hard to decide which aspect of these four stands out more than the other. It had all started in 1925 on the occasion of his spending with his wife and son three months at a beautiful Austrian resort, on the mountain river Schwarza, a resort he regularly spent some time in year after year. Evenings, he’d slip away from a lively after dinner company and spend some time alone in the woods, in his imagination wandering among the stars and planets above. Including some of the planets he calculated the climates of. When three charming young ladies of his after dinner company stumbled upon him alone there and asked what he was doing, “Strolling upon the sky above,” he said. “Oh, dear Professor, take us along with you” one of them said. He did, to a great enjoyment of his listeners. This gave him the idea to write down his story in form of a letter to an anonymous young woman. Danube was also present: he was writing his letter while traveling on a white steamer “Saturnus” from Vienna, down the Danube, to his homeland. The success of the letter, read later to the same three ladies, was extraordinary. More letters followed, originally written in German but then translated and first published as a book in Serbian, under the title, literally, Through the Universe and Centuries. Or, Through Distant Worlds and Times: Letters from a Wayfarer in the Universe, in Imbrie and Imbrie’s (1979) translation of the title of the German edition.

The identity of the unknown friend, clearly very close to his heart, whom Milanković gently takes by the hand and guides through the wonderful Universe and centuries, remains somewhat of a mystery. According to Imbrie and Imbrie, who have visited Milanković’s son Vasko in collecting the material for their beautiful book, Milanković’s wife used to assert vigorously that she never existed at all.

Milanković has complimented the letters by fictional but also factual stories on chosen scientists of the past, published under the title Through the Kingdom of Science, unfortunately in Serbian only. They are lively and compelling reading, based on comprehensive studies of all the relevant facts as known at the Milanković’s time, but enriched with imagination, wit, and warmth. And a romantic content every so often, a poetic touch never being far from Milanković.

When he was seventy, Milanković started writing his memoirs, Memories, Experiences, and Perceptions, ending up with about 900 pages of most entertaining and informative text. It presents a charming picture of Milankovic's life, work, and thinking, details of his family heritage, unavoidably affected by not always kind historical events of the region, people he met and associated with, famous scientists included, and events he lived through. The poetic touch is there too, including that coming from romantic encounters of a personal kind. Parts of this text, as well as some excerpts from his letters to the young lady-friend, are available in English in a beautiful book published by the European Geophysical Society, prepared by Vasko Milanković, with a preface from André Berger. We will also hear some excerpts and comments from Academician Koljević, a little later. The emphasis of the present symposium, other than these introductory words and addresses of today, is science. It has been suggested that another gathering emphasizing the Milanković’s imprint on the culture of this region of Southeast Europe, and the history of science, would be appropriate. If this happens, which I dearly wish, I very much hope that by then more of Milanković’s writings now available in Serbian only will have become available in English. So that more of us are able to travel with him, and enjoy the warmth of the sunshine that his writings are full of, not only in geophysical, but in human terms as well.
Thank you for your attention.

Belgrade, 29 August 2004


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