Pyotr Nikolaevich Lebedev (March 8, 1866 – March 1, 1912) is considered to be the first world-level Russian physicist. Lebedev is most noted for his contribution to experimental studies of waves. He was the first to measure the pressure of light on a solid body (1900) confirming the Maxwell theory. He was very committed to popularizing science and also to training the next generation of Russian scientists. His premature death may have cost him a Nobel Prize, for which he was nominated. A man of conviction, he resigned from his Chair at Moscow University when the Tsar Nicholas II attempted to impose restrictions of the University's freedom.
Lebedev was born in 1866 into a family of merchants. In 1884 he entered Moscow High Engineering College. Alhough the career of civil engineering for which the College prepared him did not attract Lebedev, his course gave him technical experience which would later prove valuable for his own experiments. In 1887 he went to study at the University of Strasburg, one of the best schools of physics at the time. In Strasburg his mentor was the head of the school, August Kundt (1839-1894) inventor of the method for determining the velocity of gases and solids. In 1888 Kundt transferred to the University of Berlin. Lebedev was not able to follow him because he did not have a certificate of formal education (the high school diploma of the time). Instead, he continued his research with V. Kohlrausch, physicist and scientist, known mostly for his work on the technical application of electricity. At Kohlrausch's suggestion Lebedev wrote a work on dielectric coefficient of vapors in 1891, which earned him a Ph.D.
The same year that he achieved his doctorate, Lebedev returned to Moscow and started working as laboratory assistant in the physical laboratory of Moscow University under the leadership of A.G. Stoletov. In a poorly equipped facility he carried out research on resonance effect caused by electromagnetic, hydrodynamic, and acoustic waves. For this research, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Science in 1999, and in 1900 he became a professor of Moscow University.
While working under Kundt and Kohlrausch, he had become interested in light waves and their effect on substance. In 1895, in Moscow, he built a unique device that produced short light waves with six mm and four mm of length. In 1899 he produced empirical evidence of the pressure of light on solid bodies, and in 1907 on gases, bringing vacuum thermopair into the common practice of the research of light. Though other scientists attempted similar experiments before him, Lebedev was the first to produce working thermopair that enabled him to make solid measurements.
His works on light pressure were internationally acknowledged as a proof of electromagnetic nature of the light, thus supporting the views of James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). The first scientific application of this phenomenon that came to Lebedev's mind was an explanation of a comets' behavior under the gravity of the Sun and solar wind. In the science fiction community, this brought forward an idea of solar sail spaceships, which is now longer altogether fictional as a concept.
Around about this time he also started research on the Earth's magnetism.
In 1911 Lebedev left Moscow University together with some other professors as a campaign against tsarist politics aimed at suppression the of university's autonomy. He continued his research in a private laboratory together with his students.
In 1912 he became a candidate for the Nobel Prize alongside Einstein. Contemporary sources note that Lebedev had a better chance because his research had solid empirical support. However, he died March 1, 1912, due to a poor heart condition.
Beside his immediate scientific accomplishments he is remembered in Russia for popularization of physical science in lectures and articles. He is also credited for raising the next generation of Russian physicists. In 1905 about 20 young scientists were working in his lab, which was a large number given the atmosphere of almost universal illiteracy in Russia at the time. He also established a tradition of a firm connection between pure science and technical application, which is sometimes referred as the "Lebedev school." His willingness to leave his chair at the University and to continue to conduct his research in a private capacity when threatened with state imposed constraints on academic freedom suggests that he did not lack moral courage. The Lebedev Physical Institute was named in his honor.
All links retrieved June 16, 2019.
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