YAKOV ISIDOROVICH PERELMAN (1882-1942)
Yakov I Perelman was born 22nd November 1882 (4th December by Gregorian Calendar) in the town of Belostok in the Grodno region (now a part of Belarus). His father was an accountant at a cloth mill, whilst his mother taught at primary school. Yakov was the second child in the family which rented a small flat and hardly made both ends meet on father’s meagre earnings. However when he died in September 1883 the responsibility for the children’s education fell on mother’s shoulders and she did well to educate her sons well despite her calamitous circumstances.
In 1980 Yakov entered the primary school and on 18th August 1895 he entered the Belostok modern school - the only comprehensive school in the town. Being naturally talented and hard working he was very lucky with teachers who strove not only to give knowledge to their pupils also to inculcate in them skills of original thinking, scientific research and not to give into difficulties.
Perelman’s activity in popularising science began at school when in September 1899 he published an essay entitled “Concerning the fiery rain being expected” in the newspaper Grodneriskiye guberniskiye vedomosty under the pseudonym “Y.P.” The widely spread rumours about the advent of Doomsday - with the exact date even fixed as 1st November - were the reasons for his publication. The “star rain” destroying everything had to come down upon the Earth as prophets said, exactly on that day. Perelman decided to try to explain the forthcoming phenomenon and expose the prophets. Drawing upon historical scientific data Perelman told his readers about the Leonids meteorite showers which regularly visited the Earth and concluded that the “fiery rain” was a regular natural phenomena posing no danger to the citizens of Earth.
The publication of this article inspired Yakov to study more and on leaving school he enrolled in the St Petersburg Forestry Institute in August 1900, which in addition to specialist studies provided an excellent higher education, affording Perelman exposure to advanced studies in Physics and Mathematics. However paying for this education was a struggle for Yakov for by this time his mother was ill and could not support him as before, so the young man decided to try his hand at journalism, publishing an article called “The Century of Asteroids” in Nature and People in 1901 again using his “Y.P.” nom de plume.
Yet was not earning enough through his writings and had to beg his college Principal to exempt him for the annual fees which was approved on account of his brilliance. Following his mother’s funeral he returned to St Petersburg, snow receiving a small grant on account both of his brilliant but because he was now an orphan.
In 1908 Perelman presented a degree work “Starorussky State Saw-mill. Its equipment and functioning”, passed his final exams and obtained a distinction being given the title Educated Forestry Specialist 1st Class”, though he did not pursue a career in this field as he began to contribute more and more to Nature and People and by 1904 whilst a student had become Secretary in Chief of the journal.
At first the themes of his publications were confined mainly to astronomy but his interests widened gradually and articles on Maths, Physics and Technics appeared in the journal. Perelman began to correspond with Konstantin Tsiokovsky in 1913 and published his works “Without Gravity” (1914) and “Out of Earth” (1917) and their correspondence lasted until Tsiolkovsky’s death.
In July 1913 the first part of Perelman’s book “Entertaining Physics” was published and was not only a stunning publishing success but provoked the interest of other physicists. Professor of Physics at St Petersburg University O.D. Khvolson was astonished that the text had come from the pen of a forestry specialist and not a regular physicist and encouraged him to keep writing.
Perelman contributed to Nature and People in total for 17 years publishing over 500 articles. Thanks to him collections of short stories and takes entitled “The World of Adventure” appeared as a free and very popular supplement to the journal from 1910 until 1928 including works by writers in English such as Wells, Conan Doyle and Poe.
May literary people had tried to popularise science before Perelman but he managed it best and he was characterised by the great Russian scientist, creator of rocket engines, Valentin P. Glushko, who called Perelman, “singer of mathematics, bard of physics, poet of astronomy, and herald of Cosmonautics”. Perelman had worked out his own methodology which allowed him not only to relate scientific facts in an entertaining way but also created a new style of teaching to millions of people.
After the October Socialist Revolution Nature and People was closed down and Perelman devoted his energies to teaching, being accepted as an inspector at a Department of United Labour School in February 1918. Here he worked on new textbooks and learning programmes on physics, maths, and astronomy teaching these subjects in various different educational establishments at the same time.
Then an idea to establish the first Soviet scientific-popular journal came to him since all the pre-Revolutionary ones had ceased publication. So in the Spring of 1919 the new “In Nature’s Workshop” appeared and he continued to edit this until 1929, publishing the work of many remarkable scientists such as K..E. Tsiolkovsky, A.E.Fersman, M.Y.Piotrovsky, and N.A.Rynin.
Perelman worked with out publishers at the same time, himself working in the department of “Red Newspaper” in Leningrad from 1924-29 and he was a member of the editorial board of “Science and Technics”, “Pedagogy” and “Time” and later “Young Guards”. In his bibliography there are references to over 1,000 of his articles in addition to 47 books popularising science, 40 science books and 18 school text books several of which using the title “Entertaining....” such as “Astronomy”,” Geometry”,”Mechanics” and there have been 30 editions of his “Entertaining Physics” in Russian alone.
As well as publicising ideas about Cosmonautics in books such as “To the Far Universe” and “Interplanetary Travels” he was a founding member of the presidium of LenGIRD - Leningrad Group of Learning of Reactive Motion and head of its propaganda department between 1931/33.
Moreover Perelman worked up the project of the first Soviet anti-hail rocket jointly with engineer A.N.Stern doing all the necessary calculations. He had the good fortune to work with many pioneers of rocketry and Cosmonautics on that project, actively corresponding with Sergei Korolev who worked in the Moscow GIRD from 1932 to 36.
A considerable landmark in Perelman’s career as a popularises of Science was opening the House of Entertaining Sciences in Leningrad on 15th October 1935. This attraction became the favourite place for most of Leningrad’s pupils in the 1930s where they could study many scientific and technical achievements in a very accessible format. However most of the exhibition was lost during World war Two.
During the War which Russians knew as The Great Patriotic War, Perelman read dozen of lectures to soldiers and sailors working on themes which could be of practical help in warfare.
However the power of a now elderly man was gradually depleting by the hunger and cold of blockaded Leningrad and his wife Anna died in January 1942 from exhaustion whilst on duty at the hospital. Yakov outlived his wife only for a further two months dying of hunger on 16th March 1942 in the besieged city.
However, of course his books continued to be read and have been republished over 300 times reaching nearly 15 billion copies in Russia alone. They have been translated into many languages such as German, French, English, in fact most European languages.
Yakov Isidorovich Perelman did not invent anything in the field of Technics and didn;t discover anything in the Scientific arena - he had no scientific tittle or degree, but was devoted to science and brought the joy of science to the people for over four decades.
("ORBIT", Journal of the Astro Space Stamp Society, Issue ¹ 49, March 2001).