Professor Nikolai Platé, Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a world renowned
scientist, came to London recently.
Nikolai Platé, who specializes in chemistry, is widely known for a number of discoveries he
has made in the field of membrane conductivity and the development of
non-conventional fuels. In particular, he came up with novel techniques,
superior to anything used before, to destroy the enormous stocks of chemical
weapons existing in the world today.
Professor Platé visited our office and had a talk with the Herald of Europe’s editor-in-chief, Prof. Michael
M.B. Dear Professor, I am so glad you have found the time to call on us and share
your ideas about the role of science in society today, and I thank you for
coming. Our magazine is very much in its infancy, and our goal is to provide a
forum in which intellectuals, from European countries and the world at large,
can exchange views on the greatest challenges facing the world today.
If you agree, I would like our conversation to focus on two groups of subjects.
The first I mentioned briefly just now, that is, your perception of the role of
intellectuals in the progress of contemporary society. I don
’t mean the intelligentsia, but intellectuals.
N.P. Reasonable enough.
M.B. Intelligentsia, I’m certain, is a completely different, innately Russian idea that goes back into
the 19th century. The role of intellectuals in today
’s economics, politics and society generally is visible in virtually all
countries. Why is it in decline, particularly in relation to the shaping of
public opinion? This is one group of subjects. The other relates directly to
your work on membranes. I have a few questions to ask you about them, even if I
know little about them.
N.P. Go ahead, please.
M.B. Well, you are certainly an eminent member of the Russian intellectual elite, and
this, I imagine, plays a not insignificant part in your sense of identity.
’s important to each one of us how we see ourselves, in the context of society.
What do you think is happening today to the concept of
‘intellectual’ in, say, Russian politics? Whenever you turn on the box, you see a bunch of
characters, from politicians like Mitrofanov or Zhirinovsky to half-baked
journalists prattling pathetically about problems they know little or nothing
about. All this leaves the public terribly confused. We rarely hear the
sensible, calm and balanced views of educated and intelligent people who know
what they are talking about. Would you give us you view on this problem?
N.P. What you said about Russia is really more than a Russian affliction. It actually
plagues the whole of Europe. There are several European science forums
addressing the role of science and its relevance to economics and to the
intellectual standards of member states and the European Union. Quite a few
French, German and British scientists who attend these European forums complain
constantly that their voices are not heard by the people making policy at
government level, Presidents, and so on. This seems to be a growing trend in
both the European Union and the European nations that have yet to join. Where
should we look for its roots? To my mind, one of the reasons is rising living
standards throughout Europe. If you have followed developments in European
countries over the past 20 to 25 years, you will have to admit they are pretty
high. Take any country, Holland, for example. More than 12 per cent of its
working age population is unemployed, and yet you don
’t see street demonstrations or protest marches, or anything like that. This
seems to indicate that the government
’s social support is so generous that people can choose to live on welfare
’s not that they live like millionaires, but they don’t have to go begging in the streets. To live like this, people in Europe are
– some with consuming, and others with helping them to consume. In the past five
to ten years in Russia, we, too, have been turning into a society of consumers.
We see how people are wooed and coaxed into never-ending expenditure, for cash
or on credit, or by whatever means they can, going on a spending spree, simply
to make themselves feel good. Look at the fantastic number of glossy magazines
all across Europe
… and the mass advertising that you simply can’t escape from.
M.B. Recently, last week, to be exact, I was flying back from Spain. Before I boarded
my plane I bought a special edition of The Economist, attracted by its cover
‘Intellectual Life.’ What do you think I found inside? Tips on buying a car, decorating your home,
and much more in the same vein.
N.P. This is a good illustration of what I’ve been saying. The corollary of this is that people have lost any sense of
purpose in their lives, or of what
‘intellectual’ is about. Another reason for the lack of intellectual input is that current
policymakers and decision takers in general are not necessarily people with a
broad education and a thorough knowledge of the history of human civilisation.
M.B. An extremely dangerous situation in the modern world, with its advanced
technologies and globalization.
N.P. You’re right. It’s a great hazard. I’d say it’s more serious than that. This is a trend, and it has accelerated out of
control. If we live in a consumer society, we have to resign ourselves to
external policy decisions being influenced, directly or indirectly, by people
who excel, in the proper sense of the word, in market economics, balance
sheets, revenues, risks, prices, and so on. But turn it around, and think what
you make of the buzz stirred up when a global business organization named as
’s most successful businessman, an American, who had floated nearly five hundred
companies over a decade. He started out by collecting and incinerating garbage,
raking in piles of money. Fine, big money is good. But it can
’t be raised without auto concerns, without Siemens or Philips, Aerospatiale, or
other similar European businesses. Life would certainly be far less comfortable
without many technologies. But it
’s people in Big Business who make the political decisions. Either that or
professional politicians who long ago lost all sense of the difference between
cause and effect in economics, politics or social justice.
M.B. Could you, please, speak about the analytical situation in today’s Russia? Don’t you think the role of intellectuals in political and economic policymaking
there has declined, as it has elsewhere, from what it was for decades under the
N.P. True, the centralized government back then always kept its ear tuned to the
voice of experts, above all scientists in various fields. In making political
decisions, though, it certainly ignored the opinions and role of the most
educated section of society. These days, the academic community in Russia is
almost never called in by the authorities to air its views, even though
scientists of the Russian Academy of Sciences masterminded and wrote our
current Constitution. That was their hour of glory. Since then intellectuals
have been banished to the sidelines. Take this simple example. Social
scientists would have had no difficulty in predicting the wave of social
protest that was triggered by replacing social benefits in kind with cash
allowances of a much lower real value. That
’s one example. A second example turns my stomach just thinking about it. It’s Russia’s policy, every aspect of it, in the North Caucasus. Couldn’t they have brought together historians, ethnographers, and experts who
understand its culture and religion, the trends in Islam and the history of the
Caucasus from hilltop-dwelling tribes down to Imam Shamil in the 19th century?
’t they ask those people to advise them on the policies to be followed there?
M.B. You know what makes me angry? Galina Starovoitova, who was an ethnographer,
spent half her life in the Caucasus. She knew many people there personally. At
one time, she was President Yeltsin
’s adviser on ethnic policies. Duty took her three times to Chechnya for talks
with its President Dudayev. The last time she came back from there, a month
before her dismissal from office, she wrote an analytical memo to Yeltsin, with
a warning about what war in Chechnya could precipitate, and how such a war
could be prevented. It involved nothing more than giving to the Chechens what
people in Tatarstan had then, and have now.
N.P. May I add a kind of follow-up? The academic community, the community of experts,
at any rate, is increasingly losing weight and influence. We see this from your
two examples, monetization of fringe benefits and Russia
’s policy in the Caucasus. And even more in its policy toward its other CIS
’t it as clear as day with the Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan? In Moscow they knew, and
realized they had a crisis on their hands, and yet they were deaf to reason,
and listened to a small group of people who had their own axe to grind. And now
we are throwing up our hands in despair,
‘How did that happen? How could it all have gone so wrong?’ It’s a pity no lessons have been learned, to avoid mistakes on projects that are
now winding their way through government and the higher levels. Construction
projects are a case in point. We all remember the dam at Leningrad, or the
story of the Solikamsk integrated works.
But this is a diversion, so let’s go back to our main subject. From the philosophical point of view, where is it
that many young, and not so young, reformers in power today are going wrong? In
deference to business, and all things new, Putin proclaimed, and rightly so,
‘We have opted for innovation. We are building our economy around high
’ Many people with power today come from the world of business. They evaluate
scientific knowledge in the same way as they do ball bearings, gear-boxes, or
chips for computers and smart cards. That is to say as something which has a
market value attached to it
– a commodity to be sold or commercialized. Never in the past, not in the 18th or
19th centuries, when economic progress was much more leisurely, nor even in the
20th century, has the product of scientific endeavour been assigned a market
value. It is wrong to try to evaluate science in terms of results. The current
philosophy cobbled together at the Ministry of Education and Science puts it
– the work of research institutions should be geared towards an end result. It’s not hard to extrapolate this. Let me hypothesize a little. Let’s imagine you and I are at the Astrophysics Institute, and we have set ourselves
the task of discovering a new star in the constellation Cassiopeia or Taurus.
We failed; so what? We bungled our task after three years of effort. The boys
upstairs think we have misused government money and have to be axed.
M.B. You remember, of course, that attitudes like these sprouted while the Communists
were still at the top, and often, even more so over the past 20 years, purely
scientific research has been pushed onto the back burner.
N.P. The situation looks darker today. You are now required, whether it’s possible or not, to prove your research has a sales value. Something you can’t do in basic sciences.
M.B. How can this be countered?
N.P. As I see it, two things are needed. First, overzealous reformers in science need
to be booted out. That
’s the first and it’s a government prerogative. Second, science needs to be promoted to a much wider
public. Too many people, both in Russia and in Europe, think they live in an
ivory tower. Ordinary people, whether from Namur in Belgium or Kostroma in
Russia, need to be reminded, from time to time, that without the great
fundamental discoveries that were made many years ago, they wouldn
’t now be able to turn on their radio, let alone have a modern-day television or
M.B. A recent poll produced the curious finding that between 35 and 40 per cent of
European university graduates didn
’t know why we have seasons and why they follow one another the way they do.
N.P. Or day and night, either? No. This is a sign their educational system is in big
trouble. Another serious flaw of the modern educational system is that many
scholars cannot explain simple things in simple language. They are good in
their discipline, like mathematics
– pure or applied. They shine in their own field. Let me say in passing, the
Russian school of mathematics is still the best in the world. Believe me, I
speak with knowledge. Between 45 and 48 per cent of maths teachers at American
universities have Russian backgrounds. I am a member of the European Academy
and represent the Russian Academy at the association of European academies. The
issues we are talking about have been discussed exhaustively many times at the
UNESCO Commission and in the Twelfth Committee of the European Commission. They
have both aired exactly the same complaints. Just look at booming
pseudosciences, from astrology to torsion fields, magnetic supereffects,
bioeffects, and much else, that are often a cause of death
– that can have disastrous effects. We must make the public aware of the
consequences. We have to do this, and, in my view, we have to follow an all-out
aggressive policy against pseudoscientists spreading disinformation. They are
ruthlessly aggressive plying their trade, and we have to be equally aggressive
M.B. I fully subscribe to your view. Could we turn this subject around and look at
things from the vantage point of your direct pursuits? They are absolutely
intriguing and highly interesting to me. You will excuse me, I hope, if I put
my question inexpertly.
Clearly, the world economy of our day depends on oil to survive, and you, among
other people, have spoken on many occasions about several new kinds of fuel,
more reliance on natural gas, and many other such things. For myself, I
remember attempts were made in the late 1960s and early 1970s to separate water
into hydrogen and oxygen and to use hydrogen to power cars, for example.
N.P. Still earlier attempts at this are on record as well. Nothing to be surprised at
here, deriving hydrogen and oxygen by water electrolysis.
M.B. The drawback was high costs of electrolysis itself and the reagents needed.
N.P. It was indeed about high power inputs and low outputs.
M.B. Exactly. Is this a challenge that we still haven’t met to this day?
N.P. Happily, we have.
M.B. But then you have the oil lobby which is strong enough to prevent its
commercialization, and other contrary factors.
N.P. It’s not just the oil lobby. But the idea of hydrogen power engineering will gain
recognition in any case. Enormous funds, many billions of dollars, have been
sunk in conventional fuel production, and oil producers, refiners and investors
are not entirely to blame for the foot-dragging we see. Hydrogen power
engineering must be many times as economically effective as oil is, not just 10
or even 20 per cent, to turn energy tradition around and force governments to
review their energy policies. What governments can do now is toughen their
environmental regulations. No one is going to change to methanol or dimethyl
ether, or hydrogen, unless they have no choice.
M.B. Or unless oil prices skyrocket making them too high for other industries to
N.P. You’re absolutely right about that. That’s one consideration. We must have laws to ban uncontrolled emissions into the
atmosphere. In Moscow, we have an exceptionally large number of polluting
trucks, buses and other vehicles. How far advanced are we in technological
terms? For all I know, it may be impossible to use hydrogen fuel in all motor
vehicles; some of them will always have to run on gasoline. Hydrogen has
greater promise in power generation, and power plants are giving it close
scrutiny. Particularly, small power plants.
M.B. Small plants and those on the shoreline, I would say.
N.P. Shoreline generation is another story. There, you have many choices – wind and tidal power which are there for the taking, for example. Also there is
a huge niche market to be developed, where Russians and Americans have been
making great strides. Starting with the manufacture of mobile, small power
cells, to replace lithium, cadmium, cobalt and other cells. Not with solar
cells, no. The problem is though that hydrogen itself is not very handy. We
have to find a workable system for use with mobile and small devices. Mobile
applies to more than just mobile phones. It is any electronic gad-get or mobile
device such as a small television set, or anything of that sort. What
’s important is that it has to function at room temperature, say, 20 degrees
centigrade, and be small, and environment-friendly. Whenever pure hydrogen
comes up, we always think it has to be compressed and rechargeable. In fact
there is another point at issue. We need a harmless, low-toxicity,
environment-friendly hydrogen-containing liquid fuel that starts to release
hydrogen at the touch of a button. This is where membranes come into the
picture. When you press a button for hydrogen to be released, air starts to
flow through the membrane that filters out the nitrogen, and passes on oxygen
that interacts with the hydrogen in a reaction that transfers two electrons and
M.B. Are there any reagents available today that make this reaction economically
N.P. Up to now it’s still pretty expensive. Toshiba of Japan have started to produce notebooks you
’t have to plug in anywhere, and they don’t have to be powered by heavy batteries. Instead, they have a small box the size
of a liquefied-gas cigarette lighter, the kind we happily carry around with us
all the time. So this LG box, it
’s filled with methanol, a compound of one carbon atom, four hydrogen atoms and
one oxygen atom
– CH3OH. The gas breaks down easily on a catalytic membrane into its three
components, and hydrogen bonds to oxygen. Quite expensive, I
’d say. But remember we’re looking at a global market of a billion users. It’s a challenge we have taken on at the Academy of Sciences.
M.B. Another question, if you will. In your recent interview with Literaturnaya
Gazeta you touched in passing on compression of elements used in chemical
ammunition to destroy enormous quantities of chemical weapons in an instant.
N.P. Actually, the elements I used are not those found in chemical weapons. We put
forward two simple ideas. There are two types of very powerful engines that are
used around the world to produce mechanical traction. Diesel engines propel
ships and locomotives, and, of course, motor vehicles, from heavy trucks to
mini cars, and liquid-fuelled jet engines. Fuel is burned, and the powerful
thrust it generates drives the crankshaft, power train, wheels, whatever. As I
pondered on this, I asked myself one day, why are we fixated on mechanics,
dynamics, kinematics in general? The ideal thing is a chemical reactor. Why not
use it to incinerate chemical agents, instead of turning shaft and wheels? Put
the jet or diesel engine on the ground and fix it the way they do at
diesel-driven power plants
– it doesn’t move there, but turns a shaft to drive a power generator. With us, it only
needs a few microseconds to produce a very clean and fine chemical reaction,
and temper, cool and freeze reaction products, which always end up in an
averaged equilibrium in a regular chemical reactor churning a homogeneous
gaseous mixture. Here, though, we get fragments that we cool immediately so
’t have their original reactivity. We can increase output many times over, from
only a few percentage points they get in averaged conditions. What we get now
is that high temperatures and pressures in the reaction chamber of a
liquid-fuelled jet engine, souped up only insignificantly, destroy extremely
toxic agents, including nerve gases, completely. At the end of the line, we get
– hydrogen chloride, water, carbon dioxide and phosphorus pentoxide, good enough
to be used as fertilizer, all of which give no problems to chemical
technologists. This is now part of our national programme for the destruction
of chemical weapons.
M.B. Are the governments of developed countries that possess enormous stocks of
chemical weapons ready to start their destruction?
N.P. I wouldn’t describe the stocks as ‘enormous’, at least as far as Russia is concerned. Russia has 40,000 tonnes of this stuff
– not really very much.
M.B. What about America? Or China?
N.P. The US has 36,000 tonnes, and China none. China has no chemical weapons. Europe
used to have American chemical dumps, in Germany. All have been repatriated.
Continental Europe is now clean. There are some in Britain. France has burials
of mostly German chemical ammunition, artillery shells, in fact, dating back to
the Great War. Negligible quantities, indeed.
M.B. Are, say, the British or French ready to destroy their stock?
N.P. It’s more definite than that. It all falls under an international convention,
which, fingers crossed, is closely complied with and monitored by all nations.
It is not a question of readiness. We, for our part, have much to do at home.
M.B. One last question. How long will it take to destroy all that stuff?
N.P. The convention sets the year 2012 as the deadline. And it will be met.
M.B. I want our next issue to focus on European science, and its influence on society
and the European Union. We hope to examine its current state of health, general
trends and future developments.
N.P. From what you say, an in-depth study of this subject should be published in the
not too distant future. Russian science tends to receive a bad press from the
European media. This is partly a short-term view because not everyone sees
advantage in Russia being strong in the sciences. Despite the changes since
1991 there are still those who see Russia as the ‘bad guy’ bent on destruction. Our science sector has always been strong in many fields – not only in defence. Some people would like to see it disappear as part of an
outmoded system. So it
’s no surprise to see, in the press, analytical articles about science with an
anti-Russian bias. From discussions in Brussels and Paris I have become aware
of the extent to which people have been inundated with one-sided information.