Home Social Physics in the former Yugoslavia: From socialist dreams to capitalist realities

Physics in the former Yugoslavia: From socialist dreams to capitalist realities


The homeland of Nikola Tesla and Jožef Stefan saw a rise in physics funding after World War II. Now, after the destruction wrought by the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, physics in Yugoslavia’s successor states is recovering, albeit unevenly.

Houston, we have a problem! A fictional Slovenian documentary by that name shook the Western Balkans three years ago by positing that Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito had sold his country’s secret space program to the US for $3 billion in aid money a few years before the Apollo Moon landings. A secret underground hangar, faked deaths of scientists working on the Yugoslav program to cover their actual transfer to the US, and a visit to Washington, DC, where Tito narrowly escaped an assassination attempt months before President John F. Kennedy was killed made for some tense viewing. Could any of it be true?
Yugoslavia did have an active rocket program. Some of its citizens worked for NASA. Slovenian astronautics pioneer Herman Potočnik Noordung had published ideas in 1928 that were ahead of his time. And Tito once reportedly asked Mike Vucelić, a Yugoslav NASA engineer who worked on the Apollo program, to bring space travel “back home.” The media and scientists have since debunked most of Houston, We Have a Problem!, but what stood out is that it needed debunking in the first place.
The movie’s reception testifies to the murkiness and lack of consensus regarding the region’s own recent events and to the legendary status that Tito and his regime still hold in many Yugoslavs’ minds. After all, it was under socialism that Yugoslavia rose during the Cold War from poverty and insignificance to become a potent political, diplomatic, and military force. The period also saw the rise in the status of science, which Tito considered a tool for realizing his dream of worldwide socialism.
A major part of the push for science was the establishment of several elite physics institutes with the goal, at least partly, of developing a nuclear weapon. Tito’s socialist dream collapsed in the early 1990s with the fall of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the bloody wars that tore Yugoslavia apart.
One consequence of the wars was the dissolution of collaborations among physicists from Yugoslavia’s six republics—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH for short), Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. They have yet to fully recover. International collaboration also suffered, and the region entered a dark period of isolation as the wars dragged on and the economy slumped. Some republics got off lightly. Slovenia’s struggle for independence lasted 10 days. Others, notably Serbia, entered a prolonged period of military conflict and economic sanctions. Brain drain surged.
The six republics continue to share similarities that stem from their common, socialist-era history. But differences are emerging in how physics is faring. Slovenia and Croatia belong to the European Union (EU) and enjoy the benefits of membership. Montenegro and North Macedonia await full integration into the West. Brain drain barely affected Slovenia, but it has devastated research in BiH, where scientists’ salaries are half those in Slovenia. In Serbia, past brain drain is having a positive effect as Serbian physicists who left are now returning, and collaborations with Serbian physicists abroad burgeon.
EU funding based on merit has helped the region’s best physicists improve further, but lack of domestic merit-based grants means that with a handful of exceptions overall research is underfunded and mediocre. R&D investment as percentage of GDP is generally still well below what it was in Yugoslavia. Once-strong links with industry are gone.
Much remains to be done to make the region attractive to researchers and relevant globally. But despite the challenges, the region has several strong institutes and many groups doing excellent work in physics, including a few recipients of large grants from the EU’s European Research Council (ERC). Pockets of excellence were a feature of science in the former Yugoslavia. In its successor nations, they are likely to continue.
For much of its history, the region that became Yugoslavia has been near, next to, or part of large, advanced civilizations, among them the Roman Empire, the Venetian Republic, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. A long and proud tradition of scholarship was the result.
The tradition goes back to at least the 12th century, when philosopher and astronomer Herman the Dalmatian (Dalmatia is the southern part of modern Croatia) translated Ptolemy’s Planisphaerium from the only language it had survived in—Arabic—to Latin and helped to transmit the work to the rest of medieval Europe. Ruđer Bošković (1711–87) introduced the idea of a force that is repulsive at short distances but attractive at long ones. Croatia’s largest research institute bears his name. Stefan–Boltzmann’s law is named in part after Jožef Stefan (1835–93), who conducted experiments on the radiation of dark bodies. Andrija Mohorovičić (1857–1936) discovered the Mohorovičić discontinuity, the physical boundary between Earth’s crust and the upper mantle. Milutin Milanković (1879–1958) discovered Milankovitch cycles, changes in climate driven by changes in Earth’s orbit around the Sun.
Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) is the most famous scientist from the region. His innovations with alternating current paved the way for modern electricity. He remains celebrated in Croatia and Serbia, where museums and airports bear his name. An ethnic Serb, he was born in what is now Croatia. He is held as an exemplar of ethnic tolerance, having said that he was proud of his Serbian ethnicity and his Croatian homeland.
Mihajlo Idvorski Pupin (1858–1935) was one of the developers of the loading coil, a device that boosts the range of telegraph transmission. He became rich when AT&T bought the US rights to his patent. His book, From Immigrant to Inventor, was awarded the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for biography.
Although the region gave the world these eminent physicists, all of them worked abroad. Physics began to blossom in Yugoslavia itself only after World War II. Before then, when Yugoslavia was a constitutional monarchy, it was typically taught in university philosophy departments in big cities, such as Belgrade, Ljubljana, and Zagreb.
The Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was proclaimed on 29 November 1945. Two aspects of the regime’s vision helped fuel the postwar development of physics. One was the establishment of nuclear programs for military and civilian purposes. The other aspect was a belief that science and technology are important for industrialization, for the improvement of the well-being of the working class, and for the general prosperity of the newly born confederation.
Tito’s Communist partisans liberated Yugoslavia from its German occupiers without an invasion by Western or Soviet forces. His regime was not beholden to either postwar superpower. Though avowedly Communist, Tito broke with Joseph Stalin in 1948. With Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he led the “third way” diplomacy of the Non-Aligned Movement. Tito knew that physics could help the country develop economically and militarily and remain independent. He also took a personal interest in promoting science and technology. In 1962, for example, he attended the launch of the cyclotron built at the Ruđer Bošković Institute (IRB) in Zagreb. At the time, the device was the fourth most powerful particle accelerator in Europe.
From today’s perspective, the resources that were being invested in the development of physics were astonishing. Serbian physicist and journalist Slobodan Bubnjević of the Institute of Physics Belgrade recounts the period: “New institutes were being set up, and even the educational system was being changed to respond to the need to create new physicists. These physicists were being sent overseas in large numbers for further education to both the USSR and the US.” Physics became one of the country’s most developed sciences.
Despite being one of the poorest countries in postwar Europe, Yugoslavia twice attempted to develop a nuclear weapon. The first attempt occurred in 1947. Tito spent $35 million between 1948 and 1953 to build and equip three nuclear institutes: the Boris Kidrič Institute in Vinča near Belgrade, the Jožef Stefan Institute (IJS) in Ljubljana, and the IRB. The Vinča institute was headed by Pavle Savić, whose work on the action of neutrons on heavy elements done at the Radium Institute in Paris in the 1930s helped pave the way for the discovery of nuclear fission. Anton Peterlin, who trained at Humboldt University in Berlin, led the IJS. Ivan Supek led the IRB until 1958, when his open, forthright pacifism triggered his dismissal.
The country’s first nuclear research program included the development of manufacturing capabilities. The Boris Kidrič Institute housed a department for recycling nuclear waste and a 6.5 MW reactor. In 1958 six young scientists were irradiated because of sloppy procedure. One died; the five others were saved by bone marrow transplants in Paris. The accident may have been one of the reasons Tito abruptly ended the program in the early 1960s. Another factor may have been his leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement, which declared its opposition to nuclear weapons in 1961.
In 1974 Tito revived Yugoslavia’s nuclear program. A nuclear test carried out by India, another prominent member of the Non-Aligned Movement, was a likely impetus. One part of the new nuclear program, led by the Military Technical Institute in Belgrade, pursued a plutonium implosion bomb like the one dropped on Nagasaki. The other part, led by Energoinvest and based in Sarajevo, pursued civilian uses. As a company that produced power lines, transformers, and other energy infrastructure, Energoinvest was an excellent cover for a clandestine nuclear program. At its peak, the company employed 44 000 people and was Yugoslavia’s largest exporter.
The second nuclear program was suspended mysteriously in 1987, possibly because of an economic crisis, which had begun four years earlier. Besides strong research and industrial capacities, the program left Yugoslavia with 50 kg of enriched uranium—enough for two atomic bombs. Stored at Vinča, the material was eventually removed in 2002 by Russia and the US under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency.


BiH, with its 3.8 million inhabitants, suffered the longest and bloodiest destruction during the Yugoslav Wars. The US-brokered Dayton Agreement of 1995 divided the republic into two entities, the largely Serb-populated Republika Srpska and the largely Bosniak- and Croat-populated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The two entities are further divided into 10 autonomous cantons. No well-functioning state-level science institutions exist in BiH, as each entity and each canton sets its own science policies. Universities in BiH are now administered locally. Before Dayton there were four—in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Tuzla, and Mostar. Now there are 8 state and 35 private ones.
Nenad Tanović, a physicist at the University of Sarajevo, notes that physics in BiH was never as strong as in Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia. Even the country’s premier physics center, University of Sarajevo’s department of physics, has struggled because, says Tanović, “there were no capital investments in instruments such as reactors, accelerators, or other types of equipment.” Despite the dearth of funding, the university has established a metal-physics laboratory. Physicists educated there work today as professors and researchers in the UK, the US, and other countries.
On average, BiH invests less than 0.1% of GDP in R&D; some of the cantons invest nothing. Physicists are mostly employed in educational institutions. At universities, their monthly salaries range between €800 and €1200. Brain drain is persistent and severe.
Cooperation between academic physicists and the private sector is practically nonexistent. Zrak, a precision optics company based in Sarajevo, made gunsights and binoculars for the Yugoslav People’s Army. The company remains in business, but it has cut back its R&D and, with it, the need to employ physicists. In Zenica, BiH’s steel town, physicists used to work in the metallurgy industry.
Because BiH lacks a national strategy to develop its physics programs, cooperation with foreign institutions barely exists. “For almost two decades,” Tanović says, “CERN has been organizing a yearly seminar for young physicists from the region at the Natural Science Faculty in Sarajevo, but the state has not supported it.”
Fewer than 15 physics majors graduate in BiH a year. They end up teaching, they work for state organizations such as the Federal Hydrometeorological Institute in Sarajevo, or they go abroad.
Full article read HERE
Author: Mićo Tatalović is a science journalist from Rijeka, Croatia. He is based in London. Nenad Jarić Dauenhauer is a science journalist from Zagreb, Croatia.
Source: physicstoday.scitation.org


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