Shubnikov, Alexei Vasilievich

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(b. Moscow, Russia, 17 March 1887, d. Moscow, 27 April 1970)


Shubnikov was the son of Vasilii Mikhailovich Shubnikov, a bookkeeper for a large textile company. His father died when Alexei was two years old. His mother, Anna Ivanovna Shubnikova, who was not professionally trained, raised six children. She was a very energetic woman, however, and soon found work as a seamstress. Despite great poverty she managed not only to bring up her children but also to educate them.

Shubnikov received his secondary education at the Commercial School, from which he graduated in 1906 with a silver medal. According to his own testimony, he developed an interest in crystallography while attending a popular course in crystallography at the Polytechnical Museum given by Georg (Iurii Viktorovich) Wulff. In 1908 Shubnikov enrolled in the department of natural sciences of the Physical-Mathematical Faculty of Moscow State University. He first studied under the famous naturalist, mineralogist, and geochemist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadskii, who headed the mineralogy department at the university. Soon, however, he transferred to Wulff, who worked in the same department, becoming his devoted pupil and assistant.

In 1911 Wulff, Vernadskii, and many other professors left the university to protest the reactionary policy of Minister Lev A. Kasso. Wulff and Shubnikov began to work at the Shaniavskii People’s University in Moscow. Shubnikov graduated from Moscow State University with honors in 1912 and the next year was called up to military service. In 1914, at the front near Warsaw, he was seriously wounded. After recovering he was assigned to non-combat duty as a chemist at a war plant in the Ukraine, and he worked there from 1916 to 1918. In 1916 he married Olga Mikhailovna Lebedieva; they had two daughters and a son. In 1918 Shubnikov returned to work as Wulff’s assistant at the People’s University in Moscow, but during the difficult years of civil war he could not do serious research work. In 1920 he therefore agreed to lecture on crystallography at the Urals Mining Institute of Ekaterinburg (now Sverdlovsk) and moved there. Despite the economic chaos of that period, he was able to create a basis for future research and teaching work at the institute.

Shubnikov, who enjoyed working with his hands, built tables and desks, made crystallographical models, and ground stones and minerals. Having made the acquaintance of a few skilled grinders from the Urals, he learned from them how to cut, grind, and polish stones. He made his first quartz wedges and laid the foundation for his later studies of quartz. His lectures on crystallography were a great success with students and were published as a textbook (1923–1925). Later he developed them, jointly with Evgenii Flint and Georgii B. Bokii, into his famous book Osnovy kristallografii (Fundamentals of crystallography, 1940).

In 1925 the famous mineralogist Aleksandr Evgenievich Fersman invited Shubnikov to Leningrad, where he accepted a position at the Mineralogical Museum of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. There he founded the laboratory of crystallography and organized an excellent staff of researchers with a great range of scientific interests. The main subject, however, was quartz, its processing, and the making of piezoelectric quartz plates. The results of the work were summarized in Shubnikov’s book Kvarts i ego primenenie (1940). Shubnikov’s team also carried out interesting investigations on crystal growth that were described in his popular book Kak rastut kristally (1935). Shubnikov also studied symmetry and its applications to science, engineering, and the arts. This work resulted in another popular book, Simmetriia, 1940, which went through three editions and was translated into English.

In 1933 Shubnikov was elected a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences; he became a full member in 1953. When the academy was transferred to Moscow in 1934, Shubnikov moved there and became head of the crystallography section of the Lomonosov Institute. In 1937 the section was reorganized into the independent Laboratory of Crystallography of the Academy of Sciences, and Shubnikov was head of the laboratory from then until 1943. In Moscow, Shubnikov directed the work on the growing of large, defect-free seignette (Rochelle) salt crystals and conducted research on corundum (ruby-sapphire) synthesis.

After the Soviet Union entered World War II in 1941, the Laboratory of Crystallography was evacuated to the Sverdlovsk region in the Urals. There Shubnikov continued his intensive theoretical work. During this period he developed the idea of antisymmetry, that is, the unification of such opposite concepts as positive and negative, positron and electron, plus and minus, by means of symmetry. Unlike his predecessor in this field, the mathematician Heinrich Heesch, of whose work he was unaware, Shubnikov approached the subject from the physicist’s point of view. This “abstract” field of crystallography rapidly found wide practical application in the study of magnetic and other properties of crystals.

The discovery of antisymmetry resulted in many papers on black-and-white as well as colored symmetry (finite and infinite). In 1960 Shubnikov suggested a new extension of the symmetry concepts. According to his “similarity symmetry,” not only congruent but also all similar figures are considered to be equal. Nature has a great abundance of such forms, such as shells and flowers. From 1944 to 1955 Shubnikov also published papers on piezoeiectrically active anisotropic media (piezoelectric structures) that he had discovered.

In 1944 the Institute of Crystallography of the Soviet Academy of Sciences was organized in Moscow and Shubnikov was appointed its first director, serving until 1962. Following his death the instituted was named for him. Shubnikov helped to organize specialized crystallography departments at Gorki University (1946) and at Moscow University (professor 1953-1968). He also was the founder and editor in chief of the journal Kristallografia, which was established in 1955.

Shubnikov’s scientific papers are characterized by fine style, and clear and exact language. His film Crystal Growth (1960) was a great success.

Shubnikov was the recognized leader of Soviet crystallographers and the founder of Soviet applied crystallography. For his scientific work he was awarded two State Prizes (1947, 1950) and numerous orders and medals. He was also elected a foreign member of the mineralogical societies of Great Britain and of France.


I. Original Works. Kak rastut kristally (How crystals grow; Moscow, 1935); Kvarts i ego primenenie (“Quartz and its applications”; Moscow, 1940); Osnovy kristallografii (Fundamentals of crystallography), with Evgenii Flint and Georgii B. Bokii (Moscow, 1940); Simmetriia: Zakony simme trii i ieh prime nenie v nauke, to klinike i prikladnoin iskusstve (Moscow, 1940), 2nd ed. published as Simmetriia v nauke i iskusstve (Moscow, 1972), with V. A. Koptsik, trans, by G. D. Archard and ed. by David Harker as Symmetry in Science and Art (New York, 1974); Piezoelektricheskie tekstury (“Piezoelectrical Structures”; Moscow, 1946); Simmetriia i antisimmetriiu konechnykh figar (“Symmetry and antisymmetry of finite figures”; Moscow, 1951), trans, by Jack Itzkoff and Jack Gollob in Shubnikov, N, V. Belov, et al.. Colored Symmetry (New York, 1964); Osnovy opticheskoi kristallografii (Moscow, 1958), trans, as Principles of Optical Crystallography (New York, 1960); “Autobiographical Data and Personal Reminiscences,” in Peter Paul Ewald, ed.. Fifty Years of X-Ray Diffraction (Utrecht, 1962), 647–653; and lzbrannye trudy po kristallografii, B. K. Vainshtein, ed. (Moscow, 1975).

II. Secondary Literature. M. V. Belov and I. I. Shafranovskii, eds.. Aleksei Vasilievich Shubnikov (Leningrad, 1984).

I. I. Shafranovskii