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THE FINAL CURTAIN : Footprints : Science and Technology

December 31, 1991

In a span of about 10 years, beginning in the late 1920s, the former Russian Empire transformed itself from a backward agrarian nation to a major modern industrial power--and thus became better prepared for the Second World War. Some examples of how Soviet scientists left their mark:

SCIENCE: Party ideology had devastating effects on the scientific community. Foreign scientific concepts such as Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics were labeled "bourgeois." But such far-fetched theories as agronomist T.D. Lysenko's anti-Darwin concepts--which held that characteristics acquired through environmental changes can be transmitted by heredity--received Stalin's support. Still, Soviets have won five Nobel Prizes for science since the nation's inception.

SPACE EXPLORATION: As an outgrowth of their intensive postwar effort to build intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Soviets developed an impressive space program. Some milestones:

1957: launching of Earth's first artificial satellite

1961: first manned space flight

1963: first woman in space, Valentina V. Tereshkova.

Currently: the orbiting Mir space station which has housed cosmonauts for up to a year.

RESEARCH: In the 1950s and '60s, the Soviet Union turned out a third more Ph.D. graduates in engineering and natural sciences than did the United States. Soviet work in theoretical physics and mathematics ranks among the best in the world. However, there have been chronic problems in applying these successes to practical needs.

TECHNOLOGY: Soviets are considered among the most advanced in many of the applied sciences, including metallurgy, medical research and aviation. But in the high-tech fields of computer and information technologies, they have failed to keep pace with the West, except for some military applications.

MEDICINE: Among the medical breakthroughs to come out of the Soviet Union is radial keratotomy. The corrective eye surgery, developed by Soviet ophthalmologist Svyatoslav Fyodorov, has allowed thousands of people with poor vision to permanently discard their eyeglasses.

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