Nataliia Kundikova: "The happiness of a scientist is to know what no one else in the world knows"

Nataliia Kundikova is the only woman in the world to receive the Galileo Galilei Prize. This professional award from the International Commission for Optics (ICO) recognizes outstanding contributions to scientific developments. However, the physicist, who has been engaged in fundamental research for several decades, has philosophical attitude towards her achievements. Moreover, not always the scientist had everything going for her. Once her employer even wanted to fire her ...

Our conversation today is about ups and downs, about overcomes, scientific insights and about physics, of course, to which Nataliia devoted her life.

From the Dossier

Nataliia Kundikova is a graduate of the Department of Physics at Moscow State University. Today she is a SUSU Professor, Doctor of Sciences (Physics and Mathematics). In 2003, Nataliia founded and headed the SUSU Faculty of Physics, which is today under her guidance as well. Nataliia is also a head of the Nonlinear Optics Laboratory. She is a chairman of the Galileo Galilei Prize Award Committee, Vice President of the International Commission for Optics, and Honorary Fellow of the Optical Society of America (OSA). Nataliia Kundikova is the author of over 200 scientific papers.

The First and Only

- Natalia, there are no more women in the world who have a personalized Galileo Galilei Medal. So you are the most famous modern woman physicist in the world, are you?

- Not at all! The Nobel prizes go to women as well. It's just that this particular prize in optics has been awarded only to me so far. Although, by and large, there are not so many women physicists. And those who receive some kind of awards are even fewer. But I cannot say that I am the most famous (laughs). Too cool!

- Okay. Let's agree on the wording "one of the most famous in the world...". And what do you think, is it more difficult for a woman to break into science, prove her worth, assert herself?

- When I studied at the famous Kolmogorov Boarding School No. 18 at Moscow State University, my male classmates said that "a chicken is not a bird and a woman is not a person​". Well, what do you expect from a girl?! There was such a patronizing attitude. Meanwhile, in the ninth grade, only me and my female friend, out of the entire batch of students (and those were five classes), passed the test in mathematical analysis ahead of schedule. And then it became clear to everyone that a chicken is a bird... (laughs). Yes, of course, there is some dismissive attitude in the scientific community towards female colleagues. But when you are passionate about what you love, you pay little attention to it.

I was lucky to have my teachers. It was they who gave me the love of physics. The students in my class were at different learning levels, and I was always given more difficult tasks, because I won the Olympiads. Initially, I was more interested in Mathematics. Later, when I was studying in Moscow, I pondered for a long time where to go: to the Faculty of Physics or the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics. And do you know what became the main motivating factor? I had a grade of "good" in Physics in my secondary school certificate. So I decided to prove that I was capable of more, for myself and for everyone.

The school provided very good training. At the university, I was tormented by boredom in the classroom, everything was so easy and simple. I received a scholarship named after Academician Artsimovich and graduated from Moscow State University with honors.

- Usually, the attitude towards excellent students at school is skeptical... Did your classmates give you trouble?

- I played football with them, we went hiking, to exhibitions and concerts. Until now, many of my classmates are my best friends. Despite the fact that I am in Chelyabinsk and they are in Moscow, we always keep in touch. Many guys, by the way, have defended their doctoral dissertations.

- How did you end up in Chelyabinsk?

- After completing my postgraduate studies at Moscow State University, I worked in Fryazino, a scientific town in the Moscow region, in a closed research institute. I dealt with applied science, but preferred to do academic science.

For several years, I regularly attended the All-Moscow Seminar on Theoretical Physics by Academician, Nobel Prize Laureate Vitaly Ginzburg. At these seminars, Boris Zeldovich always admired me with his reports. When I heard from our mutual acquaintances that he had gone to the South Ural region and organized a university-academic Nonlinear Optics Laboratory at the Institute of Electrophysics of Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Chelyabinsk Polytechnic Institute, I called him. As a result of negotiations, he invited me to Chelyabinsk, and I moved to this city in 1988. And I officially started working at SUSU much later − I became an Associate Professor at the university in 1994.

- Are Optical Effects your scientific interests today and for a long time now?

- Yes. In particular, the change in the properties of the laser beam. To make it clear, I will give an example. You have a round green apple, and you colored it red − and it became flat. That is, you changed one property − and then another property changed as well. Until 1992, relatively speaking, it was believed that it was impossible to change the shape of an apple if it was painted red. And we have scientifically proven that this is possible. I received the Galileo Galilei Prize in 1997 for my first work in this direction.

- So, your entire scientific background, in fact, had nothing to do with this?

- Things happen. An anecdote about academician Krylov came to my mind right now. In England, a passenger ship was being prepared for launch, but the engine knocked very hard. An award was announced equal to approximately the annual salary of a ministry clerk. They invited a Russian scientist who was in England at that time. Krylov came, looked, listened, asked for a hammer, and knocked once −and the noise stopped.

When he was given money, the ministry clerk was perplexed: "For what merits are you given such sums of pounds?! You only hit once with a hammer...". And Krylov replied: "They gave me one pound for knocking, and the rest of the money for knowing where to knock."

Everything you have done before does not disappear without a trace. A cumulative effect is triggered. It is dialectical process. The quantity turns into quality sooner or later. Probably, if I came to work in the laboratory immediately after my student days, I would hardly be able to experimentally discover what I discovered.

- Where and how was the awards ceremony held?

- I received a letter from the Chairman of the Galileo Galilei Award Committee, who was in charge those days. It was on my name day, on September 7th, 1997. And the ceremony of awarding diplomas and medals was held at the Optics International Congress, which took place every three years. I was awarded a medal in San Francisco in August 1999.

- It is pure silver medal. How many grams?

- I need to weigh. It somehow didn’t occur to me (laughs).

- Have you appeared before the scientific community in an evening gown?

- You know, in 1999, the financial situation was that we couldn't afford evening dresses. Moreover, it turned out that I did not have time to drop into the hotel and change my clothes. Therefore, at the ceremony, I was in a dark skirt and light jacket. The only thing that I managed to do before the presentation was to put on pearl earrings and a necklace presented to me for my 40th birthday by my relatives. But when I was at the congress in Japan in 2017, I took an evening dress with me. Fortunately, I had no trouble changing, as the convention was held at my hotel.

-…Such a triumph! How did your colleagues react to your victory?

- After the award, a lot of attention was drawn by the press: interviews in newspapers and magazines, TV shows. I received the award of the mayor of Chelyabinsk Vyacheslav Tarasov "Person of the Year" in the category "Science".

- It seems that a gold badge was handed out then...

- Yes, it is definitely gold. Because my tax was deducted for it (laughs). Of course, Rector German Vyatkin was very happy. By the way, there was a funny situation. When I left for the award, for some reason the university administration decided that I would stay abroad. And then the SUSU Vice-Rector conveyed to me the words of German Vyatkin: "If she comes back, ask what she wants...".

- And what did you wish upon your return?

- I wished a separate office. At that time, the department had only one small room at its disposal, except for laboratories. ... And they provided me with an office.

- And were there prerequisites for such Rector's thoughts? Were you really invited for permanent residence abroad?

- Yes. And more than once. But I had already moved from Moscow to Chelyabinsk and understood what it was. Moving to another city is very difficult, and moving to another country is even more difficult. I had rather personal motives than patriotic. After all, I considered myself in this process, and not my role in the development of the country. I did not reach this level then ...

- And later, was there a moment when you did realize your role in the development of the country?

- I would rather say that I realized my role in the development of the region. This happened at the stage when I  was organizing a regional competition for the Russian Foundation for Basic Research. I was the Deputy Chairman of the Regional Expert Council for the Chelyabinsk Region German Vyatkin. Together with the Chelyabinsk Scientific Centre, through which the grants were financed, we did a lot of organizational work. Now this regional competition has revived, the Chelyabinsk Region allocated funds for co-financing at the end of 2020.

Main Intrigue

- Actually, you have been doing fundamental research for the entire Chelyabinsk period. What is the most interesting in this process?

- The most interesting thing is when you suddenly realize: “I know what no one else in the world knows…”.

- And what do you feel when you know what no one in the world knows?

- A state of euphoria.

- Does it manifest itself in some way outwardly?

- I believe, a stupid smile appears on my face ... (laughs).

- But it is called “discovery”, isn't it?

- Discoveries are of different levels. What is fundamental research? This is the acquisition of new knowledge about nature, man and society. As for the discovery... Let us consider gravitational waves, for which the Nobel Prize was given, as an example This is what they have been looking for for over a hundred years. Or we are talking about new knowledge that has significantly changed the quality of life. In general, lazy people are engaged in physics. Everything is aimed at indulging the laziness of humanity.

- So after all, any science is aimed at this. The task is for a person to have nothing to do in the end.

- You're right. It is no longer necessary to cut firewood since there is electricity. We don't need to meet with you either since we have the Internet.

- And is we establish telepathic communication, it will be wonderful in general! By the way, what do you think of this? Is it possible?

- It is debatable. You see, the matter is that some elements of such interaction exist. My mother from Moscow came to Mogilev on assignment. My grandmother lived with us, helped raise my brother and me, and my great-grandmother lived in Moscow. At the moment when she was gone, the grandmother woke up at night with full awareness of the grief that had happened. Sometimes there is a bad feeling, and then completely unpleasant news comes to you. So there are probably some mental connections between people, especially if they are relatives. But I cannot say how it can be used.

- Are you interested in quantum physics as a scientist?

- It is better to consider some things at the level of quantum theory. The laws of quantum physics are laws of small quantities. But now I work exclusively at the macro level, though the same effects can be called using the terms of quantum physics. The trouble is that now many people are trying to transfer quantum physics to the mystical level. No doubt it is complete nonsense. They simply call those effects that are observed somewhere with beautiful words sticking labels that have nothing to do with science, flaunting beautiful words. In fact, quantum physics is a serious and promising science.

- I also know beautiful words... For example, ball lightning. Is this quantum physics?

- No, this is not. This is a purely macroscopic phenomenon, an electric discharge, a plasma clot. The scientific problem is that they have not yet learned how to obtain a controlled ball lightning in laboratory conditions.

- Let's turn to things that are more understandable. Let's say the English language. Are you fluent in it?

- At one time there was an episode when the SUSU rector Aleksandr Shestakov (then - Vice-Rector for Research) and I travelled to the United States, and there I sometimes helped in communication. I know the language enough to write and read, so that in any English-speaking country I can calmly communicate on everyday and research topics. You need to constantly keep yourself in a linguistic form. To this end, I daily read several pages of fiction in English without a dictionary.

- Is it true that your fundamental research allow you to create a technique for recognizing cancer in the early stages?

- At present we are not specifically engaged in this. But when you do things in one area, you often end up branching. The same thing has happened in the field of polarizing optics, the methods of research of which make it possible to create such a technique. In principle, the work has already reached the clinic. This is done in Nizhny Novgorod and in France.

- And if you look far into the future, what can humanity get thanks to optical effects?

- It started in Russia. Legendary physicist Professor Veselago had long written an article on the existence of media with a negative refractive index. The Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) has released a documentary. A person puts on a raincoat and becomes “transparent”, through it you can see everything. This is, in fact, an invisible man. This is one of the fantasies, though it is not mine. Well, then ... Now the urgent task is to create optical or optoelectronic devices of very small dimensions. I think there are great prospects in this regard.

- When you see a successful scientist, one gets the feeling that everything comes easy for him/her.

- There were all kinds of things. Once I was even nearly fired from my job. At the end of the 80s of the last century, there was a tendency to develop science on the periphery. The idea was supported by German Vyatkin, and a university-academic laboratory of nonlinear optics was created, the founder and head of which was Boris Zeldovich. The laboratory was of double subordination, that of the Academy of Sciences and the CPI.

In 1994, Zeldovich immigrated to the United States, appointing me as an acting head of the laboratory. And then the chairman of the Ural branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences Gennady Mesyats uttered the following phrase, which was given to me: “The laboratory was created for a scientist with a worldwide reputation. And who knows Kundikova?”.

In Yekaterinburg, at the Institute of Electrophysics, after a meeting of the Academic Council, I was told that my immediate task was to find a job. I remember how I was traveling by bus to Chelyabinsk and roared all the way. And the next morning I went to German Vyatkin, who said: “We will not leave you.”

We were deprived of funding at the Institute of Electrophysics, but Vyatkin found an opportunity to support the laboratory staff. Many years later, he confessed to me: “I looked at that girl then and thought: “What will she be able to do?”. But, it turned out, I was not mistaken.”

And then the question of returning the funding to the laboratory arouse. On that occasion, I had a conversation with the director of the Institute of Electrophysics Gennady Mesyats. I twisted the numbers back and forth. What was I supposed to do? How was I to present them? And suddenly it dawned on me. The laboratory's entire budget was equal to the cost of a taxi from New York to Kennedy Airport. Since Gennady Mesyats was quite popular in the US, he flew to the States more than once. The next day, I clearly answered to his question “how much money do you need” with that comparison and the problem with funding was solved.

- What is the most exciting thing about physics?

- The most exciting thing is when you make a report at a conference and after your last phrase there is silence. And then there is applause, and you understand that you have shared your innermost and the colleagues have liked it.

- But silence can be deceiving. Applause may not come.

- This is the main intrigue. It's interesting.

- Do you like students?

- I love students. However, to be honest I don’t like teaching very much.

- I don't really like the process of going into the classroom; I'm closer to chamber things, such as to study science individually with students in particular.

- How do you rise above yourself?

- Oh, well, there are many things which you have to rise above yourself. Science is not an easy thing at all. You know, sometimes, in principle, you don’t understand what’s going on. Together with a student we have been trying to figure it out recently: there are two expressions that must coincide, but they do not coincide. So we have been thinking hard about it. However, it is very exciting. When you get a non-obvious result, something amazing can be hidden behind it. And then amazing ideas can appear and events develop in a new direction, from the point of view of physics.

Tatiana Stroganova, photo from the archives of Nataliia Kundikova
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