Vitaly Kuzkin: “It is the freedom for scientific creativity that is crucial for me”.

14 August 2020
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Imagine a real scientist at the forefront of sophisticated fundamental science, who makes breakthroughs, and whose studies are published in reputable scientific journals. If the image in your head is a scientist from old movies, it is time to bust some stereotypes! The hero of our interview is Vitaly Kuzkin, a 33-year-old Ph.D. in Physics and Mathematics, and associate professor of the Higher School of Theoretical Mechanics (HSTM) of the Institute of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics. He has made his way from a young student thinking of spending his life in the industry to  a respected scientist who has discovered a new physical phenomenon called “ballistic resonance”, which has brought him closer to solving the famous mathematical Fermi-Pasta-Ulam-Tsingou paradox. For these and many other achievements, Vitaly was awarded a medal by the Russian Academy of Sciences and a personal Zh.I. Alferov scholarship.

We talked to Vitaly about the work of a modern scientist, found the most joyous moments in the scientific process, and explained why mechanics is one of the most popular scientific fields.

- Vitaly, it has always been interesting to know what sense scientists put into the phrase “to do science”?

- Actually, now I come to think of it, it is a bizarre collocation (He smiles). I used to ask myself this question, too, and even wrote a small essay on this topic. But seriously, the task of scientists is to create a theory of everything. A scientist must understand what is going on around him and describe it using formulas. And the abstract “doing science” is close to the creative process where you try to solve a complex problem and describe what happens in nature, technology, or mathematical models. Scientists solve problems that everybody is trying to solve, but where nobody succeeds. They also write articles on these topics, which is an inseparable part of science. 

- And what brought you to science?

- I studied at the Department of Mechanics and Control Processes (now the Higher School of Mechanics and Control Processes – Ed.). In the second year of my studies, I attended lectures on theoretical mechanics given by Prof. Anton Krivtsov (director of HSTM – Ed.). He invited students who wanted not only to study but also to do science, to his Department of Theoretical Mechanics (in 2019, reorganized into the Higher School of Theoretical Mechanics – Ed.).

I expressed a desire to do research, and my first task was to model the formation of the Earth-Moon system as the result of the gravitational collapse of a gas-dust cloud. When Prof. Krivtsov asked what I wanted to do, I said that I wanted to calculate a bridge of some kind. He replied: “First of all, let’s create an Earth with a Moon, and then we will pass over to the bridge”.

-Did you complete this project?

-Sort of. But thanks to it, I gained Prof. Krivtsov as a scientific advisor. Since then, we have worked together for more than 15 years, in Polytech and at the Institute of Problems in Mechanical Engineering of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IPME RAS). I got a job at the Department of Theoretical Mechanics in 2009. When I graduated from university, I started to deepen my interest in science more and more, and in 2011 I defended my Ph.D. thesis. Through these years, I have been involved in all of Prof. Krivtsov’s initiatives: the transformation of HSTM into a graduating department, the creation of the FabLab, the opening of the Research and Education Center “Gazpromneft-Polytech” (REC), and the implementation of many scientific projects. Now I am Deputy Director for Research at both HSTM and REC. And I am also employed at IPME RAS as a senior researcher.

- Before meeting with your supervisor, did you already understand that you wanted to become a scientist?

- When I came to Polytech, I was sure that after university I would go somewhere in the industry, perhaps into mechanical engineering. But during my studies, I realized that science gave me more pleasure than solving purely applied problems.

- Why?

- I was able to work with several commercial companies. It was an interesting and meaningful experience for me, but not one I would like to have all my life. The industry has certain high-tech areas, but most of them still use existing knowledge. And the great thing about fundamental science is that you constantly create something new. You do not have to focus on one thing all the time: you can choose different problems for yourself at least every two days. In industry, you can’t do that: if people work in a certain department, they are engaged in the tasks of that particular department. And freedom for scientific creativity is vital for me.

- Vitaly, how did you arrive at fundamental research in the field of thermomechanical processes after working on the Earth-Moon system formation?

- After the Earth-Moon project, Prof. Krivtsov suggested that I switch to problems related to thermal processes in crystalline bodies, and this became my main scientific direction. When the trend toward nanotechnology arrived, I became interested in modeling carbon structures, in particular graphene. Then my work in the oil industry began. I participated in the European project on hydraulic fracturing modeling under the supervision of Prof. Alexander Linkov, solved applied problems for Weatherford, and was engaged in modeling cracked media together with Prof. Mark Kachanov from Tufts University. In 2015 the Department started working with Gazprom Neft, and I continued to work in the oil industry, but now as a project manager. Then when I began to write my doctoral thesis, some tasks related to thermal elasticity and thermal conductivity, including graphene, appeared.

- By the way, can you explain why graphene is considered such a promising material?

- Graphene is a relatively simple two-dimensional lattice with an ideal hexagonal structure. From the theoretical point of view, graphene is an excellent substance to research. From the practical point of view, graphene is a strong, rigid, thin material that conducts electricity well and has many useful properties that allow graphene to be really very promising, for example, for the creation of flexible electronics, wearable devices, and composite materials.

- And what exactly is your work with graphene?

- I study graphene not because it is so promising, but because it is an interesting and beautiful material. HSTM scientists began to study graphene properties even before it was synthesized in the laboratory. We are developing, in particular, new potentials of interatomic interaction that will allow description of its structural and mechanical properties. And lately, we have been studying thermal processes in graphene together with Dr. Igor Berinsky, a scientist from Tel Aviv University who also used to work at HSTM.

- How essential are practical results for fundamental science?

- Practical results are important and necessary when it comes to interaction with industry or applied science. But that’s not why people do fundamental science. There is a saying: “Science is a way to satisfy your curiosity for state money”. And so it is. Very often, it is interest and curiosity that lead to phenomenal results, which you would never have thought up if you were facing the problem of maximizing profits or winning over competitors. That’s why most scientists are engaged in fundamental science, because they are interested in it, not because the research should lead to some significant practical results. There is a lot of creativity in science, freedom of thought, not constrained by any boundaries.

- What is your favorite moment in the research process?

- When it starts to work out. When you have been thinking long and hard about a problem, and then it is solved. This is a rare moment because usually 90% of the time you spend in a state where nothing works. Or when you suddenly stumble upon something, ashappened with ballistic resonance. I was not planning to “discover” it, I just accidentally solved a problem.

- Tell us how it happened?

- I was working on my dissertation, and had to supplement it with some kind of thermoelasticity problem. I decided to see what would happen to the mechanical oscillations of the system, in which heat is distributed like a wave, ballistically. I was very surprised when, in the process of solving this, resonance appeared. Together with Prof. Krivtsov, we began to check the solution. At first, we thought it was just a mistake. But then we performed numerical modeling and realized that we had, in fact, discovered a new physical phenomenon: ballistic resonance. That was exactly the nice moment in the work you asked about.

- Do you have plans and dreams related to your research career?

- Of course, I would like to discover something meaningful. Covering other people’s work is also interesting when you prove that the scientists were wrong. But usually it doesn’t end well, and it is better not to do it (He smiles). In fact, you want to do something really new, something that other scientists have not thought of. Although, for me, the process becomes more important over time than the final result, it brings more joy.

- Not so long ago, you were awarded a medal by the Russian Academy of Sciences for young scientists in the field of mechanical engineering, mechanics and control processes. For what achievements did the academicians reward you?

- I presented a series of works on “Development of analytical methods for description of thermomechanical processes in solids with crystalline structure” at the competition . These papers developed a new analytical approach to the description of negative thermal expansion, thermal superconductivity, and other thermomechanical effects in crystalline solids. These also included my work on graphene and ballistic resonance. The competition for a medal is like the Olympic Games: on the one hand, it is a competition among young scientists who have already done something significant for science, and on the other hand, it is a recognition of your scientific work. I had tried several times, but have won only now. I’m happy that I had time before the age of 33 because there is an age limit for participants.

- Why should young people go in for fundamental science?

- It is worth doing science because it is interesting. It is an opportunity to communicate with intelligent and extraordinary people around the world. There is the possibility of self-realization, because in science you can create anything you want. In my opinion, this is the most exciting aspect.

- Is the field of mechanics also fascinating?

- Perhaps mechanics would be more popular if mechanicians paid more attention to popularizing their achievements. Many of the things that are accomplished by mechanicians and with mechanical methods are of extreme importance, but are often invisible. For example, many of the results in the field of new “smart” materials have been achieved by mechanical methods. In order to design and produce these materials, it is first necessary to make them sufficiently strong. Roughly speaking, if a structure falls apart, it usually loses all of its other useful properties. In this sense, mechanics plays a leading role, although probably every scientist finds his area the most important. In mechanics, there are many unresolved problems, and new ones are always being added. So mechanics is an excellent field for scientific creativity as well as for productive work in the industry.

- Vitaly, thank you very much for the interesting interview!