The Coolest Scientist In History (You've Never Heard Of)
Imagine that it's the late 1800s, you're living in some godforsaken Russian backwater, and as far as your barely educated ass knows, the greatest technology in human history is vodka. Meanwhile, the teacher down the road is mumbling to himself about elevators to space, flights to the moon, and mankind achieving blissful immortality among the stars. And here's the kicker: He's not even drunk yet! Who the hell is this guy? He is Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.
Tsiolkovsky was born in a small town in 1857, with all of the crappy circumstances that implies. By the age of ten, scarlet fever had knocked out most of his hearing, and by 13, his mother was dead, presumably from the sheer exhaustion of having 17 children. Schools wouldn't take him because of his deafness, and so Tsiolkovsky sat at home and read every book he could get his hands on.
His father recognized his son's growing passion for math and physics and, figuring he had enough spare kids kicking around to field a soccer team anyway, sent a 16-year-old Konstantin off to Moscow to learn all he could. Subsisting on cheap bread and not much else, he steadily worked his way through the country's finest library. He sporadically attended university lectures, but between the cost and his terrible hearing, a formal education was impossible.
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When he wasn't mastering various sciences, Tsiolkovsky was reading Jules Verne. Verne's science fiction was like the Star Wars of its day, and like most teenagers, Tsiolkovsky thought that whimsical space adventures sounded awesome. Unlike most teenagers, he did the math and determined that the method of launching a spaceship described in Verne's From The Earth To The Moon -- shooting the ship out of a giant cannon -- would in reality produce little more than a thick slurry of dead astronaut. And because it was more than a century too early for him to be a pedantic dick about it on Twitter, he instead got to wondering how one could actually reach space safely.
After three years of study, Tsiolkovsky passed a teacher's exam and, assigned to a village that made the middle of nowhere look luxurious, began the profession that would sustain him for the rest of his life. When not teaching, he tried writing his own science fiction, but he kept getting distracted by the accuracy of the "science" half. How would rockets be controlled? How would humans function without gravity? How would we handle an encounter with an entire planet of gangsters? So he set to work trying to figure all that out.
Tsiolkovsky wrote hundreds of scientific papers on both the practical and the ludicrous. He built Russia's first wind tunnel, and he built a centrifuge to test gravitational effects on what must have been some very confused chickens. In 1903, he was the first person to determine the formula that would properly launch a rocket into space while compensating for its changing mass and velocity, suggesting a mix of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen as fuel.
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Hydrogen had first been liquefied only a few years prior, and Tsiolkovsky knew that he'd almost certainly never be able to test his theory. But he was right. NASA calls his work "the basis of much of the spacecraft engineering done today," and his fuel recipe would later power space shuttles. You may recall 1903 as five years before Model Ts started rolling out of factories.
He also speculated that multistage rockets (awesomely dubbed "space rocket trains") would be essential for achieving orbit, as well as on the need for spacesuits and airlocks, how to grow and feed a space colony, and other technical problems. He sketched endless spaceships, airplanes, dirigibles, hovercraft, and trains, and was the first person to propose a space elevator, which has since become a staple of sci-fi ranging from Star Trek and Halo to a damn Sonic The Hedgehog game. And honestly, what better way to capture the relentless march of technology? In 1895, a Russian peasant who believed in a Utopian dream of science proposed a borderline magical feat of construction, and a mere 115 years later, Dr. Eggman would build one. And now we're talking about it on a global communications platform capable of instantaneously delivering a near infinite amount of Dr. Eggman porn to anyone who requests it. Never forget that the future will always be a bizarre mix of the predictable and the baffling.
Tsiolkovsky's isolated life could be tough, both personally and professionally. Some of his work was published and respected in Russia, but much of it was considered too fanciful, and he was an unknown to the rest of the world. It was so hard for him to receive news of modern developments that when he submitted a paper on gaseous properties, he was told that someone else had already reached his conclusion 25 years prior.
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Meanwhile, one of his sons committed suicide, a flood destroyed many of his papers, and a daughter was arrested for revolutionary activity. When the revolution did come, the new men in charge weren't quite sure what to do with him. First they jailed him for suspected anti-Soviet writings, then they encouraged his research while trying to get him to shut up about his very non-Marxist philosophy, which saw the entire Universe as a sort of mechanical self-contained god. In 1926, Tsiolkovsky was writing a 16-step guide on getting a united humanity into space, and eventually colonizing the entire Milky Way.
And while he eventually became an influential hero (in an extremely roundabout propaganda way) to his country, one of the side effects of the Cold War was that people like Tsiolkovsky remained obscure to anyone in the West who didn't own pinup posters of spaceships.
But good ideas can come from anywhere at any time. And that's how someone born 162 years ago played a big part in developing both real-life technology and many of the sci-fi tropes you enjoy today. And even if some of his dreams remain impossible, it's kind of nice that someone who died before ever seeing a jet engine thought up the space elevator.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.
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