Reference Work Entry

Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers

pp 1242-1244


Kozyrev, Nikolai Alexandrovich

  • William SheehanAffiliated withLowell Observatory Email author 
  • , Thomas A. DobbinsAffiliated withFort Meyers

BornSaint Petersburg, Russia, 2 September 1908

Diednear Leningrad (Saint Petersburg, Russia), 27 February 1983

Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kozyrev is best remembered for his claim that he recorded photographically the spectra of emission from gas on the Moon no fewer than four times. This has been widely accepted as evidence that the Moon is not (quite) geologically dead.

Kozyrev graduated from the University of Leningrad in 1928 and, in 1931, was appointed to the staff at Pulkov Astronomical Observatory. He also worked at various times at the observatories in Kharkov, Ukraine, and in the Crimea. Kozyrev was part of the large group of Pulkovo Observatory astronomers (most famously Boris Gerasimovich ) who were arrested in 1936 and imprisoned or executed. Kozyrev appears briefly in the memoir The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, because the author was deeply impressed by his efforts to continue to carry out work in astrophysics under extraordinarily hostile circumstances. Released in January 1947, Kozyrev set to work to rebuild his shattered career. Despite the unconventionality of his post-World War II work, Kozyrev maintained a formal affiliation with the main astronomical observatory (Pulkovo) of the Soviet Academy of Sciences until the official retirement age.

During the autumn of 1958 Kozyrev began to examine the crater Alphonosus with the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory’s 1.3-m Zeiss reflector, which was equipped with a prism spectrograph. On the night of 3 November 1958, when the phase of the Moon was 1 day before last quarter, Kozyrev placed the slit of the spectrograph across the central peak of Alphonsus and opened the shutter of the camera to begin a 30-min exposure. Keeping his eye glued to the eyepiece of a 6-in. auxiliary guidescope, he made frequent manual corrections to keep the slit of the spectrograph centered over the crater’s central peak.

While guiding the exposure, Kozyrev noticed that the central peak “appeared brighter and whiter than usual,” until “suddenly, in a period of less than a minute, the brightness of the peak dropped to normal.” (It was late afternoon in Alphonsus at the time, so these impressions are hardly startling.) He stopped the exposure and inserted a second plate to record the spectrum of the peak, now “in its normal state.” This second exposure lasted 10 min. On the first plate, Kozyrev claimed that he could make out a set of faint emission bands centered at 474 nm and 440 nm, but these features were absent on the comparison plate. He attributed them to ionized molecules of diatomic carbon in a rapidly expanding, rarefied cloud of gas released from the central peak and excited to fluorescence by solar ultraviolet radiation. Curiously, the chemical composition of the gas was not similar to terrestrial volcanic emissions, but seemed to resemble the materials found in the nuclei of comets.

Kozyrev’s account appeared in the February 1959 issue of Sky & Telescope, complete with reproductions of his spectrograms. Expert spectroscopists who examined Kozyrev’s images suspected that his “emission bands” were simply artifacts of faulty guiding. Guiding errors would be far less pronounced in the second comparison spectrum, which was exposed with the benefit of the half hour of practice spent guiding the first spectrum and for only one-third the length of time, convincingly accounting for its dearth of supposed emission bands.

At least initially, the report was widely believed and regarded as very significant. Kozyrev received a variety of kinds of recognition, including the statement from Dinsmore Alter that the spectrum was “the most important single lunar observation ever made.”

One might expect that witnessing even the rather quiescent emission of gas from a lunar volcano would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance occurrence, so eyebrows were raised in 1960 when Kozyrev announced that he had managed to record a second event in Alphonsus, and this time nothing less than a bona fide volcanic eruption. This time there were no “peculiarities in the appearance of the crater,” so no comparison spectrum was taken. Kozyrev detected a very slight “uniform increase in contrast” between 530 nm and 660 nm, attributing it to the thermal blackbody radiation emitted by a flow of lava.

This time reaction to Kozyrev’s announcement was considerably less ethusiastic. Doubts were further compounded in 1963 when Kozyrev reported that he had repeatedly recorded the emission lines of excited molecular hydrogen in spectra of the crater Aristarchus. In 1969, he announced that new spectra of Aristarchus featured the lines of ionized molecular nitrogen and hydrogen cyanide, but by this time pronouncements elicited few comments.

With the Cold War at its height at this time, direct exchanges between western scientists and their Soviet counterparts were limited. During a visit to the United States, one of Kozyrev’s colleagues, the astronomer V. I. Krassovsky, confided to his hosts that not only were Kozyrev’s spectra “defective,” but that Kozyrev himself was “personally unstable.” Few could have imagined the ordeal that may have prompted this appraisal.

Doubts about Kozyrev’s lunar spectra are certainly valid when they are considered in the context of some of his other spectrographic “discoveries.” In 1954 Kozyrev announced that he had obtained spectrograms of a glow emanating from the night side of Venus. While the reality of the socalled ashen light continues to be debated to this day, even its proponents reacted with incredulity to Kozyrev’s claim that the emission he recorded was 50 times brighter than terrestrial “airglow.”

The following year Kozyrev published a bizarre claim that the characteristic ruddy color of Mars is an illusion caused by the optical properties of the planet’s tenuous atmosphere, which he mistakenly alleged was all but opaque to wavelengths shorter than 500 nm. In 1966 Kozyrev announced the presence of absorption bands in spectra of Saturn’s rings that suggested a tenuous atmosphere of ammonia; data from the Voyager space probes have ruled out such a possibility.

During a transit of Mercury in 1973, Kozyrev reported that he was able to detect the emission lines of hydrogen in an atmosphere about 1/100 as dense as the Earth’s. The ultraviolet spectrograph aboard the Mariner 10 space probe did detect a hydrogen halo during its flyby of Mercury the following year, but it proved to be 10 trillion times more rarefied than the one postulated by Kozyrev, far beyond the threshold of his instrument.

Even more serious questions are raised by Kozyrev’s forays into experimental physics. In 1951 he embarked on a prolonged series of experiments with gyroscopes, torsion balances, and pendulums in the laboratory of the Pulkovo Observatory, inspired by ruminations on the nature of time during his dreary years in captivity. Fifteen years later he published a number of utterly incredible claims: That he had observed quantum effects on a macroscopic scale, that time possesses a variable spatial density and can be shielded against by interposing chiral organic compounds, and that information can be propagated instantaneously through space – seemingly in violation of special relativity. His gyroscope experiments led Kozyrev to infer that the distance from the Equator to the north pole of a rapidly rotating planet should be less than the distance from Equator to its south pole, and he claimed to have confirmed this nonexistent asymmetry by measuring photographs of Jupiter and Saturn. His theory of “causal mechanics” held that the energy source of stars is not thermonuclear but derives from “the flow of time.”

Kozyrev’s lunar spectra continue to be cited as evidence that the Moon is not quite geologically dead, a tale that is often told in a distorted form and seldom with even a passing reference to the peculiarities of his other work. Yet some of Kozyrev’s work is quite praiseworthy, notably his 1974 observations of the azimuthal brightness asymmetry in the rings of Saturn.

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