In honour of FLNP anniversary. Path to science

Interview, 03 September 2021

In the jubilee year for the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and on the eve of the own anniversary of the Frank Laboratory of Neutron Physics, FLNP employees recall how their working biographies began, and show us what makes the laboratory’s installations and investigations interesting. Today FLNP Deputy Director for Science Egor Valerievich Lychagin speaks about his career path.

I was born in the Dimitrovgrad city famous for its Institute of Atomic Reactors. My dad is a reactor physicist. At school, I excelled in exact sciences. I participated in city and regional Olympiads in physics and mathematics. Therefore, after finishing school, I had no doubts about where to further my studies. As a participant in the Olympiads, I had the opportunity to try to enter MIPT, but I did not meet their score demands. Though, I entered MEPhI without any problems. The first two years at the Faculty of Theoretical and Experimental Physics, which I entered, are devoted to general physics, and from the third year specialisation begins. I chose the Department of Theoretical Nuclear Physics. And then we were told: go wherever you want! The Soviet system of working by allocation no longer existed at that time, and universities did not yet grow new connections, so we set off on our free voyage. Together with my fellow classmates, I started going to different organisations. It was in 1996, and there were only modest salaries.

Because I already knew my wife-to-be, who is from Dubna, and who also studied at MEPhI, I came with her to her hometown. I took a telephone directory and started calling all the laboratories offering myself as a young specialist. The laboratories were eagerly responding. The first place I went to was the Laboratory of High Energy Physics. I remember that it was the Cryogenic Department. I walked through completely empty buildings where no life was visible. The whole site left a depressing impression on me. The next was the Bogoliubov Laboratory of Theoretical Physics. Vitaly Vladimirovich Pashkevich spoke to me and suggested that I enter the postgraduate course, which had been already organised at the JINR University Centre by Svetlana Petrovna Ivanova. About work he added, “First you study at postgraduate school, write a dissertation, then we’ll talk about work.” I left BLTP pensive, I was not offered a job. And only after that, I went to the Frank Laboratory of Neutron Physics. Here I was sent to two relatively young physicists. The first was V. L. Lomidze, who worked in the Nuclear Safety Group. But he wasn’t available at the moment, so some other employee (who isn’t working here anymore) spoke to me on his behalf. He addressed me in stock phrases, so there was no response in my soul. The second young employee was Valery Nikolaevich Shvetsov, who had recently become the Head of the Nuclear Physics Department. He, unexpectedly, devoted a huge amount of time to me, and for an hour and a half at the blackboard, he showed what they were doing, as well as what kind of work I could immediately get involved in, which bought me. And the main part was that I could get hired immediately without any postgraduate schools.

So, I ended up in the group of ultracold neutrons, where Valery Shvetsov worked, and Alexander Strelkov was our main ideologist. It was one of the few groups actively labouring at that moment. It was clear that the IBR-30 would soon be shut down, and it turned out that I hadn’t worked at it at all. The room of Victor Pavlovich Alfimenkov’s group was next door. There were many experimental instruments assembled by the team itself. Victor Alfimenkov was often seen working at a small lathe. Vladislav Ivanovich Lushchikov had already moved to Aspect, but he still kept in touch with colleagues, was interested in working news, expressed his ideas. In addition to Strelkov and Shvetsov, I was deeply impressed by Lev Borisovich Pikelner, Walter Ilyich Furman, Albert Borisovich Popov. Despite the fact that I graduated from the Department of Theoretical Physics, MEPhI also provides an engineering physics education: we were taught to work with drawings, to design (what is lost now, I think). So, I managed to make some drawings. Although at first, I was given one problem to calculate, and I probably counted it for the whole year! Because I worked alone, had little contact with anyone else.

The situation changed in 1998. My wife, who also worked at FLNP, was invited to work for six months at the GKSS research center in Geesthacht (Germany), and I went to her during my vacation. When I was in Germany, our group went to an experiment in Grenoble. And I decided to join them. There was a so-called “weekend ticket”, which allowed me to travel all over Germany for just 35 marks (~20 $). The German Railways website allowed me to plan the route to the minute, so I travelled from Hamburg to Grenoble, making, I believe, ten connections. Sometimes there was an interval of only 10 minutes between trains, so it was necessary to hurry. But I worried in vain: I was not alone – many Germans did the same by entire train cars. I managed to take part in measurements in Grenoble. After this, I somehow got involved in the work of the group, in planning experiments, designing equipment, and then even became its leader. Later on, when I became the Deputy Director, I continued to perform the administrative functions of the Head of the Sector into which the group transformed.

Based on my experience, young people are attracted by financial issues. But it can’t be the main driving force for those who graduate from universities. What they’re really looking for is applications to their strengths and knowledge. This defines their actions. The financial component is important, but it is crucial to have an interesting task that looks promising in terms of obtaining professional skills and results – writing a dissertation, professional growth. I think that our laboratory looks good in this regard. We have the reactor, one of the few operating in Russia. Our instruments allow applying knowledge. The new neutron source project is commensurate with the NICA facility in terms of both financial and intellectual contribution. This is a promising task for one, or maybe two decades ahead. An opportunity to get involved in such grand work always attracts people. We would like to attract more qualified engineers and reactor workers to this endeavor. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of such specialists now. We have teams of experienced staff ready to teach youth. However, we get upset when trained young people leave FLNP afterwards. And the research areas are very diverse: scientific research using neutrons, design of new experimental instruments, work with moderators, neutron optics – the creation of efficient systems for neutron extraction.

Text by Olga Tarantina, JINR Weekly Newspaper
Photo by Tetiana Nagorna