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Anatol Zhabotinsky (1938-2008) In Memoriam

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Anatol Zhabotinsky (1938-2008)

In Memoriam
Anatol Zhabotinsky, a co-discoverer of the famous Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) reaction, died in Waltham, Massachusetts on September 16, 2008. He had struggled with an extremely malignant form of cancer for several months. He was a research professor at Chemistry Department at Brandeis University.

Zhabotinsky was born to a typical Russian-Jewish entelligentsia family: his father Mark was a well-known professor of physical chemistry and a head of Department at Moscow Steel Institute and his mother, Anna Livanova, was a prominent writer on science and scientists and, among other books, published the first comprehensive biography of Lev Landau. When asked whether he related to famous Zionist Vladimir (Zeev) Jabotinsky, Anatol always answered positively although I do not remember the degree of kinship he indicated.

Anatol’s student years coincided with the “thaw” in the Soviet Union immediately followed the death of the Tyrant. He was lucky to be accepted to the School of Physics of Moscow State University (MSU), not a trivial feat for a Jewish boy. But it was the “thaw” and even in such a stronghold of anti-Semitism as the MSU School of Physics, the situation was changing, though temporarily. Great Soviet physicists, before and after this period prevented from teaching in MSU, were allowed to teach. A new Department of Biophysics was created within the School of Physics headed by a fantastic educator and researcher, Professor Lev Blumenfeld. Anatol graduated from the Biophysics Department in 1961. He and his classmates later often remembered Landau’s classes. When my sister and me hosted Anatol for dinner in our place in Brookline in May of 2007, which happened to be my last meeting with him, he embarked on a long tirade about how bad a teacher Landau had been and how trivial and empty his lectures were. I did not listen to Landau lectures myself but I had several encounters with him, which left deep and extremely positive impression on me and I tried to calm Anatol down, but in vain: it only made him more adamant. It was quintessential Zhabotinsky: very warm and friendly to his colleagues and friends, he always challenged any authority. Worshipping anybody was totally out of his character.

Back in 1961, his PhD advisor, Professor Simon Shnol, suggested that he would try to study oscillations of color in a special mixture of chemicals discovered in 1951 by the obscure Russian chemist (and retired general) Boris Belousov. The reaction and even its very existence had remained a mystery for a decade. Belousov, who during 1950s made unsuccessful attempts to publish his findings in chemical journals, eventually published (in 1958) an abstract in totally obscure Proceedings. On Shnol’s telephone request, he passed him a sheet of paper carrying the composition of the reaction mixture. Regrettably, neither Shnol nor Zhabotinsky ever met Belousov in person although they lived in the same city and Belousov died in Moscow as late as in 1970. Zhabotinsky reproduced the reaction and this was the onset of the unbelievable quest, which led to the advent in earnest of a new field of non-liner dynamics.

I first met Anatol when he approached my father, David Frank-Kamenetskii, who pioneered the field of chemical oscillations in the Soviet Union and who included a chapter on the subject in the first edition of his famous book “Diffusion and heat transfer in chemical kinetics” published in 1947. The second edition published in 1967 already included the BZ reaction. The whole field was initiated by Italian mathematicians Alfred Lotka and Vito Volterra in 1920s but it is undeniable that the discovery of the BZ reaction was a major milestone in the advent of the non-linear dynamics field as we know it. The existence of oscillatory chemical reactions seems obvious from the theoretician’s viewpoint (as was actually argued in my father’s book). Indeed, kinetic equations describing chemical reactions are fundamentally non-linear and analogous to Lotka-Volterra equations describing the prey-predator problem, for which the oscillating solution is intuitively very much plausible. So it is hard to understand why for so many chemists the very possibility of chemical oscillations in homogeneous solution sounded as heresy. But we should remember that chemistry was (and still is, in significant extend) more art than science and the fact was that no oscillations were normally observed in chemistry. Everybody who saw the BZ reaction for the first time was stunned as if witnessed a magician performance.

The next step Zhabotinsky did after studying in detail the Belousov reaction and creating a comprehensive theoretical model describing it, was the demonstration that chemical oscillations exist not only in time but also in space. He started obtaining amazing patterns, which since then decorated covers of many journals, monographs and textbooks. Anatol always considered the BZ reaction as just a very convenient model system to understand pattern formation in biology.

After the Iron Curtain fell, Zhabotinsky accepted an invitation of Professor Irving Epstein to spend a year in his laboratory at Brandeis University near Boston and this stay happened to last till the end of Anatol’s life. I met him in Brandeis on many occasions. He felt pretty comfortable there and I think he was very happy in Brandeis although I still do not understand why they kept him on a research position rather than promoting him to full professorship. May be Anatol’s complete devotion to science and his total indifference to any kind of formal distinctions played a role.

Anatol Zhabotinsky will be remembered and very much missed by numerous colleagues, friends and students around the world.

Maxim Frank-Kamenetskii

Department of Biomedical Engineering

Boston University


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