One of my notebook entries for a possible article reads: "Robert Vitolnieks, stellar boy." He created a sensation four years ago. TASS reported then: "The Academic Council of the Radio Astrophysical Observatory of the Latvian Academy of Sciences has approved new research into a mysterious natural phenomenon - luminous clouds. New data has been obtained by a 16-year-old boy, Robert Vitolnieks." What is he doing now? Is he still interested in Astronomy? Or in something else by this time?
I went straight to the university in Riga, figuring that Robert is now about 20. There I was told: "He is working for the Academy of Sciences of our republic." I headed for the Academy of Sciences, pleased at having located Robert so easily and wondering what he is doing at the Academy of Sciences. There hadn't been enough time for him to get his university degree. The director of the academy's Radio Astrophysical Observatory, the well-known Latvian scientist Janis Ikaunieks, explained: "Yes, Robert is a scientist at our observatory. He is still a university student, but circumstances delayed his studies. For several years he had to work to support his ailing parents. He is now in his second year at Moscow University. You will find him at a conference on ionospheric research going on here in Riga." At the conference, with scientists from all over the Soviet Union present, I met Robert. Slim, with smooth blond hair and ruddy cheeks, he looked like a boy among these sedate older people. When I told him that I wanted an interview, he turned red with embarrassment. Robert follows a strict work schedule. I had to tag along after him, looking and listening, so that, for the most part, the following is my own impression of this young scientist. ... In 1956 Robert's family lived in the city of Liepaja, on the shore of the Baltic Sea. He had just started school and was also taking violin lessons at a music school. One November day, on his way to an exam at the music school, Robert saw an announcement of a lecture on Mars at the city library. It was still early for the exam, so he went to the lecture. It was so interesting that he didn't want to leave, but there was an exam to take. From that day on he read astronomy - first simple books, then more difficult ones. Like all the boys in Liepaja, Robert spent his summers at the seashore. He went in for skin diving. From a rubber hot water bottle and a piece of plexiglas he made himself a mask and from old automobile inner tubes, flippers. He became an underwater hunter. On one dive he came across some tiny jellyfish, a kind he had never seen before. Each was about two inches in diameter, with a brown cross on its back. They must have been washed in by a storm. Robert caught some of these odd jellyfish, brought them home and put them into a homemade aquarium. Next day he couldn't move his arms or legs. The doctors thought it was polio. Later it was found that the paralysis was caused by the jellyfish he had caught. The semi-paralyzed boy was bedridden for a long time. His father, an architect, gave him a pair of field glasses for his birthday so the boy could have a closer look at the outside world. His mother, a lawyer, left her job to take care of him. One of her first chores was to get him books on astronomy. To answer his questions she, too, began to read the bulky volumes. Once Robert came across an article by Janis Ikaunieks. "Mama, I want to write and tell him that I am going to be an astronomer, too." "Why write? When you get better, we'll go to Riga, and you'll tell him yourself." It was an offhand comment. The boy, she was certain, would develop other interests and soon forget the article, its author and her remark. Janis Ikaunieks takes up the story: "The door opened and a frail boy walked in. 'I want to work here,' he said. 'What can you do?' I asked. He told me what he knew. Just then another astronomer came in whom I introduced to our future colleague. I gave Robert a task: to observe the star Delta of the constellation Cepheus every night for a year and to compile a graph of variations of its brightness. I did not tell him the star had been studied long ago." A year later Robert returned to the academy and put the graph of his observations of Delta that he had compiled on the astronomer's desk. Janis Ikaunieks was impressed enough to propose Robert for the Astrogeodetic Society. He was 11 then, the youngest member of this august society. He was given other, little known stars, to observe. But his real work began when he became interested in luminous clouds. Luminous clouds are a strange natural phenomenon. The are clearly discernible only in northern latitudes, and then only occasionally-in summer and after sunset. At times they are barely visible, and only the eye of an experienced astronomer can discern them. Sometimes they grow bright enough to read by. Astronomers knew that they appear at heights of up to 50 miles and travel at a velocity of 187 miles an hour, but they knew nothing about their origin or the periodicity of their recurrence. Latvian astronomers undertook to study these clouds during the International Geophysical Year. Part of the work was entrusted to Robert. Janis Ikaunieks told me: "We tried dissuading the boy, telling him it was too hard. But he was adamant." To make the observations, Robert had to travel to the observatory in Sigulda, quite a distance from Ogre where the family now lived. Three times a week he took the evening train to Sigulda and returned early next morning. From 10 p.m. till daybreak he would stand at the instruments, entering his observations in a log. Precisely, pedantically. A mistake of a second, or even a tenth of a second, he considered a discredit to himself. During these sleepless nights, Robert decided for himself that the old equipment - telescopes - were no longer adequate. The stars were now being observed by means of the radio waves they emit. So he began studying radio engineering and radio astronomy. In a foreign radio magazine he came across a curiously familiar curve, very much like the one marking the occurrence of luminous clouds. But the caption read: "Graph marking the appearance of the ionized layer of the atmosphere." This layer appears at limes at heights of 62 miles and reflects ultrashort waves, those responsible for transmission of distant television broadcasts, as remote as other continents. Robert was struck by a thought: Perhaps the similarity in the curves was not happenstance. Perhaps it is when this ionized layer develops that luminous clouds appear. TV amateurs who went in for long-distance reception could help. Robert got the address of one of them, Leopold Osols of Krustpils and went to see him. Osols turned out to be a systematic person who noted down the precise times he received long-distance transmissions. Robert compiled a graph on the basis of Osols' notes. The graph looked like the one marking the appearance of luminous clouds. His father came home from work shortly thereafter and found that the TV set he had bought the day before was a pile of components, screws and wires. His son was assembling something from them. "Listen here," fumed the father, "If that TV set is not assembled when I come home tomorrow, I'll throw out all of your junk." Next day Robert toiled in earnest. He got it together in time and even installed an antenna. When father came home, son and mother were sitting in front of the screen. But it was not the studio broadcasts that interested Robert. He was waiting for the day when he would see dark, nearly black bars on the screen, a sign of the appearance in the atmosphere of that condensed layer which allows television broadcasts to be received many thousands of miles away. At last the bands appeared! A broadcast from London. A turn of the knob and there was Rome. Robert was so excited he saw nothing of the broadcast flickering on the screen. Drumming in his head, as if in Morse code, were the words: "In two days luminous clouds should appear!" Next day he went to the Academy of Sciences and reported that in two days luminous clouds should appear. His announcement was received with considerable skepticism. Thus far no scientist had been able to even approximately forecast the appearance of luminous clouds. The clouds appeared as predicted. They were followed by that sensational TASS report which began my story. "That was a happy day," recalls Esmeralda, Robert's mother. "But even happier was the day we learned that the Academy of Sciences in Moscow was shipping a radar station to Robert for his further investigation of the ionosphere. For two days he could neither eat nor sleep. He posted himself in the street, waiting for the trucks with the equipment. And when he saw them, beside himself with joy he ran up the hill shouting: 'Mama, they've come!'" He set up the equipment by himself, without the help of technicians. Esmeralda, still young and attractive, sits on a couch in their house, showing me books and articles that refer to Robert. "We used to live in a different house, near the river. But when Robert had to install high antennas, we applied to the town council, and they gave us this house on top of the hill. They also gave us ground near the house for the antennas and equipment. We will soon be getting even bigger antennas from the observatory in Baldone. I don't know where we'll put them." Esmeralda explained everything to me in great detail. Something she did not tell me, I later learned in Riga, was that she, too, has become an astronomer. She is now working with the magazine Stellar Sky and is a member of the astronomical society. Truly, the ways of a mother's love pass all understanding. She showed me a large collection of badges. Many of them had to do with space exploration. "This collection and a motor scooter are all that are left of his earlier enthusiasms. He still wants to take up skiing and sailing, but he can't make the time." And indeed, I noticed that Robert, like all scientists, values time highly. He doesn't slow down even when he walks. But he did find the time to enter a contest sponsored by the German Federation of Astronautics, an international contest in which 6.000 people took part. A reminder of his participation is a Stassfurt TV set in his room. One of the contest requirements was to write a composition on the theme of man and space. Robert wrote a science fiction story about men eventually traveling in space at the speed of light. For this man has to be transformed several times during the flight into something other than man, but he becomes man again at the end. Risky, of course, but so is living. The story is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's "The Star Child" with a difference. That boy was a visionary, too, but his dream was that no one would be cruel to wild animals. He dreamed also of prosperity for his city. Good things to dream about but very down to earth. Who would have thought that in a few decades a boy of his age, a real boy and not a literary character, would dream of flights to other worlds and of prosperity on a universal scale.
This article from the Aug 1968 issue of Soviet Life was first sent to me by Bob Cooper (KV4FU/K6EDX/W5KHT now best-known as ZL4AAA) during the summer of 1968. I made a typewritten transcript of it then. In early 1988 Bill Fahber of the WTFDA mentioned to me that he had become interested in seeing if there might be a connection between Es and NLC's (noctilucent clouds). I mentioned this article from 20 years prior to him, and he was able to find it in the Rutgers University Library in Camden, NJ and sent me a Xerox of it.
Now, some may see this all as Soviet hype propaganda from the Cold War. In quick WWW searching I've found no later prolonged scientific studies that substantiate any linkage as the phenomena are separated by about 10 miles in altitude. In 1968 there was still some belief that the condensation nuclei for NLCs was meteor dust, which would sure fit the connection with Es and long-lived metallic ions! Then there is the unexplained 2-day delay between Es and the appearance of NLCs. Many now consider that the events are simply a coincidence of summer. Some more-recent articles (in abstract form) suggest that there indeed may be a 48-hour "settling" period for the metallic ions to go from Es levels to NLC levels! link Also this lastest item from NASA.