A world-renowned physicist looks back on decades of pioneering scientific work

Skoltech Professor Evgeny Nikolaev, pictured as a schoolkid (left) and now. Photos: Evgeny Nikolaev and Skoltech.

Photos of Skoltech Professor Evgeny Nikolaev as a schoolkid and now. Photos: Evgeny Nikolaev and Skoltech.

Skoltech Professor Evgeny Nikolaev is known internationally for his pioneering research into some of the universe’s greatest mysteries.  

As a young physicist, he was recruited by perhaps Russia’s foremost cosmologist and physicist to perform groundbreaking research on the hidden mass of the universe. This high-profile project garnered international respect for Nikolaev. Given that, one might be tempted to assume that this was the peak moment of Nikolaev’s career. 

But in reality, this was just one piece in the rich tapestry that comprises this world-renowned scholar’s manifold contribution to the physical sciences.

At 70 years of age, he is as active as ever, managing three world-class laboratories, publishing dozens of papers a year, teaching classes and collecting awards and accolades left and right.

Join us for a look back at the trials and triumphs that over the decades have cemented Nikolaev’s status as a world-renowned physicist.

Humble beginnings

Though Nikolaev recalls his childhood in a small town on the Volga river near Nizhniy Novgorod with a fond sense of nostalgia, he explains that it was shaped in many ways by the harsh realities of World War II and its aftermath.

Peaceful from the very start: Nikolaev, second from the left, pictured as a young boy with his neighborhood friends in the early 1950s. Unlike most of the others, he wasn't sporting a home-made toy gun. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Peaceful from the very start: Nikolaev, second from the left, pictured as a young boy with his neighborhood friends in the early 1950s. Unlike most of the others, he wasn’t sporting a home-made toy gun. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

“My father has a rather interesting life history,” Nikolaev said during a recent interview. “He was imprisoned by Germans the second day of the war, when he was just 19. He was fighting near the Russian border on the way from Brest to Kiev when he was caught, and he spent four years in German concentration camps. After he returned, he was sent to a Soviet prison camp. I was born in between these events.”

His father’s second imprisonment was ordered on the basis of a false accusation lodged by another man from his neighborhood. The younger Nikolaev explained that during those years, people were often suspicious of those who had survived the Nazi camps. Notably, a court ordered the elder Nikolaev’s release once the accusation was found to be baseless.

Nikolaev as a baby with his father, shortly before his father's second imprisonment. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Nikolaev as a baby with his father, shortly before his father’s second imprisonment. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Nearly seven decades on, Nikolaev can still vividly recall the stench of his father’s clothing once he finally returned home a free man about three years after his second imprisonment.

Upon returning, his father enrolled in high school at the age of 30 to re-complete his secondary education, as all records of his studies had been lost during the war. The elder Nikolaev ultimately received a university degree and became a successful construction manager, going on to run a construction company in 1980s with a workforce of 50,000.

While his father was temporarily out of the picture, Nikolaev spent the first several years of his childhood living with his mother, a housekeeper, and his maternal grandparents.

Nikolaev and his mother. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Nikolaev and his mother. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

From early on, he excelled in school, consistently ranking at the top of his class.

In high school, he competed in academic competitions with the son of the director of a local refinery. Impressed by his promise, the oilman encouraged Nikolaev to pursue an education at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), which at the time was considered to be the crème de la crème of Soviet science education.  

The rise of a physicist

Nikolaev spent nearly a decade at MIPT between 1965 and 1974, earning his Bachelor’s degree and PhD in molecular and chemical physics. In 1994, he went on to earn the title of Doctor of Science from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ (RAS) Institute of Energy Problems of Chemical Physics (IPCP). He became a corresponding member of RAS in 2016.

Nikolaev pictured around 1974, when he received his PhD. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Nikolaev pictured around 1974, when he received his PhD. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

While studying at MIPT, Nikolaev developed an enduring fascination with mass spectrometry – a method that can be used to measure the masses of particles and molecules, as well as to identify the contents and chemical structures of molecules. This technology has far reaching implications in fields ranging from biomedicine to space exploration.

Upon defending his PhD, he was invited in 1975 to participate in a Russian-American scientific exchange.

“In those times, if you were invited to the United States, it was like being invited to the Moon or Mars,” Nikolaev said, laughing.

The exchange program would have given him the unique opportunity to work in one of America’s leading mass spectrometry labs at Stanford University with some of the brightest minds in the field. But life got in the way: Nikolaev’s first child was born, giving his young family cause to want to stay put in the Russian capital.

Though he was deeply disappointed at the time, what came next gave him the opportunity to make a name for himself.

The hidden mass of the universe

By the time he approached Nikolaev about solving one of the myriad mysteries related to the hidden mass of the universe, Yakov Zeldovich was well known for having been a chief theoretician behind the Soviet atomic bomb project, and was also a revered cosmologist and physicist.

A stamp issued in honor of Yakov Zeldovich, who was perhaps perhaps Russia’s foremost cosmologist and physicist. Photo: public domain.

A stamp issued in honor of Yakov Zeldovich, who was perhaps Russia’s foremost cosmologist and physicist. Photo: public domain.

It is a broadly accepted by physicists the world over that most of the mass in the universe is either missing or hidden in some exotic, as yet undetectable form. But while we believe that this hidden or missing matter makes up the bulk of the universe, we can’t detect it using any known technology, and thus its existence has not yet been decisively proven. Lacking the ability to detect this matter, scientists refer to particles that may make up this matter as candidates.

The subatomic particle neutrino has long been considered to be a candidate for hidden matter, or potentially a key to unlocking some of the other hidden mass mysteries that have puzzled physicists for much of the past century.  Neutrinos are incredibly abundant, but due to their limited interactions with matter, are very difficult to detect.

In the early 1980s, Zeldovich approached Professor Viktor Talroze – who at that point was serving as Deputy Director of the IPCP, and was Nikolaev’s boss – with a unique proposition. He wanted to determine whether neutrino had a mass – that is, whether it contained any matter. Talroze told Zeldovich that Nikolaev was a rising star in the field of mass spectrometry, and that he would be able to help solve the problem.

Talrose, who sung Nikolaev's praises when appoached by Zeldovich about neutrinos. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Talroze, who sung Nikolaev’s praises when approached by Zeldovich about neutrinos. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

But key to understanding the role that they play is determining whether they have any mass. And in the decades since the discovery of neutrinos in the early 1930s by brilliant Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, opposing factions of physicists had butted heads over whether or not they had a mass of zero.

Based on then-recent Russian research, Zeldovich – who by that time had retired from the atomic bomb project – hypothesized that neutrinos had a mass, and asked Nikolaev to prove him right or wrong.

“Zeldovich was very excited about this issue because he knew that if we could determine that neutrino has a mass – but one that can’t be detected – this is evidence that it is in fact part of the hidden mass of the universe,” Nikolaev said.

Using their mass spectrometer to measure the mass difference between tritium and helium-3, Nikolaev and his team determined that neutrino had a mass of close to zero – close enough to zero to disprove Zeldovich’s hypothesis. Though neutrinos remain a mystery for countless reasons, Nikolaev’s findings garnered international attention and continue to be cited in research papers. 

Nikolaev hard at work on the neutrino project in 1984. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Nikolaev hard at work on the neutrino project in 1984. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Asked if Zeldovich had been disappointed by his team’s findings, Nikolaev explained: “In science with hypotheses, it’s not about disappointment; it’s about accepting the reality of the situation. You anticipate one thing, but nature proves you wrong. It’s on you to learn from the experience and come up with a better hypothesis next time based on your findings.”

The neutrino project launched Nikolaev into mass spectrometry stardom. To this day, he is considered to be a preeminent expert in the field, as illustrated by the fact that for his 65th birthday, the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry celebrated him with a special issue of the journal dedicated in his honor.

A physicist without borders

Over the decades, Nikolaev has been invited by universities around the world to help them build their own mass spectrometers or to deliver lectures and courses on the topic.

His mass spectrometry work has ranged from making sense of the hidden mass of the universe to finding ways to detect preeclampsia – a condition marked by high blood pressure in pregnant women – early enough to save lives.

Thus unsurprisingly, when given the opportunity to expand his operations beyond Earth’s atmosphere, Nikolaev jumped at the opportunity. In the late 1990s, he developed a method for determining the molecular chirality of amino acids on Titan – the largest of the planet Saturn’s moons.

A depiction of Titan with Saturn in the background. Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Titan with Saturn in the background, photographed with a wide-angle camera from the Cassini spacecraft as part of the Cassini-Huygens mission. Photo: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Chirality is another word for handedness; it exists when a structure has a mirror image that does not coincide with the original, in the same sense that one’s right hand is the mirror image of one’s left hand, but that the movement of one does not require the movement of both.

Life on Earth relies exclusively on left-handed amino acids; that is, no right-handed amino acids are involved in the construction of the proteins that comprise us.

Why this is the case remains an unsolved mystery – one that scientists are eager to understand as it could elucidate whether the ubiquity of left-handed amino acids gave rise to or resulted from the origin of life on Earth.

In the late 1990s, Nikolaev teamed up with scientists from Italy and the United States to expand our understanding of molecular chirality on earth by sending tools to Titan, whose atmosphere features an uncanny resemblance to that of Earth.

A comparison of the atmospheres of Earth and Titan. Image: Evgeny Nikolaev.

A comparison of the atmospheres of Earth and Titan. Image: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Two mass spectrometers were shipped some 1.4 billion kilometers from Earth aboard the Cassini-Huygens – an unmanned spacecraft sent to Saturn by space agencies from the United States (National Aeronautics and Space Administration; NASA), Europe (European Space Agency; ESA) and Italy (Italian Space Agency; ASI).

“Using a mass spectrometer, you can determine an amino acid’s chirality,” Nikolaev said of his role in the planned project. “I developed a method that was capable of analyzing the amino acids on Titan using an extremely small quantity of samples.”

Using their findings, Nikolaev and his team used a super computer to conduct quantum chemistry calculations to shed light on the nature of interactions between enantiomers – molecules of opposing chirality.

As with Nikolaev’s neutrino project, this research was embraced by the scientific community and broadly cited in research papers. Unfortunately, he was ultimately unable to implement these findings due to clearance restrictions.

No signs of slowing down

Over the course of Nikolaev’s illustrious career, he has published some 350 academic papers, obtained more than 50 patents and delivered more than 200 conference presentations.

Nikolaev (front, center) pictured with some of his students in the 1990s. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Nikolaev (front, center) pictured with some of his students in the 1990s. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

At 70, he could be forgiven for wanting to take it down a notch. He could easily retire to his country home outside Moscow, or at least reduce his course load or cede control of one of his mass spectrometry laboratories.

And he tries to spend all of his free time with his large family, which is split between Moscow and Los Angeles.

His wife, bioinformatics-entrepreneur daughter and piano-whiz granddaughter live in the Russian capital, while his son – a celebrated mathematician, professor at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and Director of UCLA’s Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics – lives with his wife and two sons in Southern California. Nikolaev’s Californian grandsons speak English and Russian fluently, and have made names for themselves by the tender ages of 12 and 15 as prodigies of chess and piano, respectively.

Nikolaev skiing with his granddaughter. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Nikolaev skiing with his granddaughter. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

But Nikolaev’s free time remains limited as he’s still moving full speed ahead with his career.

A prolific writer, he publishes an average of 30 papers each year. Just this month, he and his team released a study on how weightlessness affects astronauts at the molecular level.

He also recently won a highly prestigious Horizon 2020 grant to provide the EU academic and industrial communities with access to world-class ultra-high-resolution mass spectrometry centers and to foster a European community of mass spectrometry researchers and practitioners. This ultra-high-resolution technology was made possible by Nikolaev’s invention of a technology called ParaCell, the patent of which was purchased from him by German-American scientific technology firm Bruker Daltonics Inc. Horizon 2020 is the European Union’s largest ever grant program, boasting nearly EUR 80 billion in grant funding available between 2014 and 2020.

In addition to teaching a full course load at Skoltech, he is in the process of expanding the operations of his lab at the institute. Skoltech already has five mass spectrometers in operation, which Nikolaev noted are to be used for medical purposes. Two more of these apparatuses are expected to arrive this year.

Fortuitous life lessons

Asked how he emerged from humble beginnings to become a world-renowned physicist, Nikolaev recalls a bittersweet lesson he learned during his formative years.

“I was always different from the kids in my classes. I don’t know why,” he said. “When I was about 14, our math teacher presented us with a problem involving the number pi. Most of my classmates calculated the problem using the number three, whereas I included several of the following decimal points (i.e. 3.14159…). As a result, my answer was different than those of all my classmates.”

Because Nikolaev was the only one to come up with his answer, his teacher assumed it was incorrect and slashed his score.

“The thing is, she didn’t check what the issue was; instead she said it wasn’t possible that I was the only one in class who got it right, so I must be wrong. Finally, I went to her desk and showed her the mistake in everyone else’s work,” he explained.

This backfired.

“She was even more deeply disappointed with me once I proved to her that my answer was correct and she had made a mistake, so she refused to change my score,” he laughed. “She was simply unwilling to consider the fact that I may have been right even though my answer was in the minority.”

Though he still vividly remembers this rare unsatisfactory mark, Nikolaev points to the memory as key to having shaped his work ethic and teamwork style over the ensuing decades.

“I learned a valuable lesson that day: if you go about life 100% certain that you are always correct, you’ll have a lot of problems with your colleagues and peers. But if you’re willing to discuss problems openly, you and those around you can learn from each other. In any group I lead, I like to foster an atmosphere where discussion is not dangerous, and all theories and opinions are welcome,” he said.  

The very qualities that got him into trouble as a child – his ability to work intelligently and meticulously and his willingness to say an idea is untrue when it contradicts the evidence – have propelled his brilliant career.

Skoltech and the greater scientific community are all beneficiaries of this.

Evgeny pictured with his family and students at his country home near Moscow. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

Nikolaev pictured with his students at his country home near Moscow. Photo: Evgeny Nikolaev.

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