Issue 1, 2016. February-March

   

THE KEEPERS OF THE DREAM: ABASTUMANI'S DEDICATED ASTRONOMERS

The oldest astronomical observatory in the South Caucasus is hidden on the top of a mountain above the spa city of Abastumani. The observatory's glorious historic tradition has been kept alive thanks to the engagement and enthusiasm of the old guard of scientists.

Tatjana Montik

Abastumani's fame for astronomy goes back to the times of the Russian Empire. The brother of the last Tsar, Great Duke Georgi, suffered from tuberculosis and frequently traveled to Abastumani for treatment. In the early 20th century, Georgi's astronomer, Sergey Glazenap, discovered that the climate in Abastumani-with its still and clear air -was particularly favorable for astronomical observations.

The Russian Revolution interrupted the Tsar's plans to build an observatory there, however, and the first Georgian observatory was not built until 1932. In addition to the observatory, perched above Abastumani on Kanobili Mountain, an entire village was built for the scientists working there.

An Isolated Village Designed for Research

Astronomy professor Giorgi Javakhishvili, a former observatory director, spent 27 years living permanently in this science village, known as "the Mountain." He says the observatory's remote location made it ideal for research: "Especially in winter, you see hardly any people, and you go to work, come back, and you can be only on your own. All you can do is think about your work, only about the most serious and important things."

I travel to Abastumani in the company of an engineer, Alexander Avsajanishvili, who used to work at the observatory in the 1980s. Avsajanishvili worked on a team studying the middle layers of our atmosphere.

"We were performing amazing work that was real science! My boss, who was also my friend, Yuri Matyshvili, was a very educated man. He challenged us with a lot of interesting tasks," he says.

"We studied the layers of the atmosphere between 40 and 120 km, which are too high for airplanes and too low for satellites. And we came across exciting discoveries."

Unfortunately, much of the team's work remained unfinished due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Avsajanishvili tells me.

From Fairytale to Hardship

We arrive at nighttime during a full moon, and the village makes a fairytale impression. The freshly renovated domes of the Stalinist observatory towers glow magically in the moonlight. One of the scientists, Givi Kimeridze, lets us look at the surface of the Moon with a telescope with the power to magnify 250 times. The craters and the mountains of the Moon seem to lie on our palm.

Avsajanishvili and his wife, also an astronomer, still have an apartment in the science village. However, today it is not easy to live on the premises. At Avsajanishvili's apartment, located in an impressive Stalinist building, we must first collect firewood so we can heat a small stove.

"In Soviet times, our living conditions were more comfortable than in the surrounding villages. But the Soviet Union collapsed, and together with it, the central heating and the warm water supply broke down," he recalls.

The years following the fall of the Soviet Union were difficult for most Georgians.

Many struggled just to survive - including Abastumani's scientists.

Eduard Janiashvili, an astronomer at the observatory, recalls they had to supply themselves with firewood to replace the central heating, carrying it on their backs due to the lack of gasoline. They even exchanged their clothes for food in the nearby villages.

But despite the many difficulties, their scientific research continued, he says. "As the science of astronomy develops very quickly, you need to make your observations every day," he explains. "We kept working, hoping for the better times to come. Now our hopes are tied to our students; many of them could become great scholars, but we all need better financing and new equipment."

Georgia's Space Ambitions

At the observatory museum, Janiashvili explains the glorious history of this science village, showing me many historic pictures and old telescopes, and telling stories about the major discoveries of his colleagues.

It was the academic Ilia Kiladze who first measured the thickness of the rings around Saturn. It was also Kiladze who predicted the existence of Pluto's moon Charon.

Many of the discoveries were made with the aid of the so-called 40cm refractor. One of the big publishing successes was the "Polymetric Atlas of the Moon." With this atlas one can easily study the geological structure of the Moon.

Another great scientist, Mikheil Vashakidze, whose name was given to a crater on the Moon, first observed the polarization of the Crab nebula from this observatory.

Nowadays, says Janiashvili, astronomy has become a science of privileged rich people. Many of his colleagues, especially those specialized in astrophysics, received lucrative offers from foreign science centers and left the country.

Enthusiasts like Janiashvili and Kimeridze, as well as some of their colleagues, are still dedicating their lives to this observatory, however.

For them, working in astronomy now means not only observing the night sky but also repairing their telescopes and machines themselves, and even buying new computers with their own money in order to keep up with technological progress.

The Abastumani astronomers still dream, however, that Georgia can become a "space power" in the Caucasus. "There are several small space powers in the world," notes Javakhishvili.

"In order to become a space power, you don't necessarily need to release your own rockets; you only need to have an access to the rockets in order to launch your own satellites to optimize your scientific observations," he explained.

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