Today, a creative legacy. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
December 20th, 1997: Mikhail Goldshtik lies in an open casket, his face serene as always. No formal service -- just friends who stand, one by one, speaking as the spirit moves them. An old Russian scientist speaks in Russian. I understand nothing until he turns to the casket and cries, "Droog, Droog, Droog!" -- the word for friend. That meant more than it may seem on the surface, for this man will prove to've been a good friend to all of us.
Those who knew him talk about his life as a Russian Jew. He was born in 1930 in Leningrad. At eleven, guarding an apartment rooftop during the Siege of Leningrad, he lost a leg to a German shell. His task had been to get rid of incendiary bombs landing there. His parents were killed in the Siege, and his uncle raised him. He learned engineering physics in the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute. But then he had a choppy career because of anti-Semitism.
Goldshtik finally joined a Turbine Institute where he began work on vortex flows. In 1960, he traveled to a meeting in Moscow to show his new ideas to leading scientists. His work was so extraordinary that they held a special session to study it. Two years later he was called to the famous Siberian think-tank, Akadem Gorodok, to develop vortex flow devices.
Goldshtik mixed high-flown theory and garage-type invention in a way almost no one else can. He invented a radical compact nuclear reactor by suspending a critical mass of uranium in a spinning gas. He created a swirling-flow air scrubber. He saw wild potential in the subtleties of swirling gas and liquid. At the end he was working on a liquid piston engine -- and on replacing helicopter blades with air swirling upward from a fuselage.
Only a few of Goldshtik's radical new technologies have made it to the market. His air scrubber and a vortex grinder are used in Russia. Other inventions are under development. When he moved to America, he had to begin selling his ideas all over again.
Mikhail was the exemplar of the risk-taking, seminal-idea person who precedes success -- whose reward is the game itself. One by one, his machines will rise like cream after his death.
And his death was, itself, emblematic of his life. In his last days his movements were terribly limited by degenerative heart disease. He waited for a dangerous heart transplant operation. Friends and family said, "Don't do it!" But Goldshtik was not one to shy away from risk and this was the only way to keep inventing.
Once before he'd reached the operating room door, only to find the match wasn't good enough. Later he told me he'd felt like he'd been called back from the firing squad. This man understood risk. Then, the next time he went in, he didn't survive the operation.
And so Mikhail Goldshtik died because he so wanted to live. He was indeed a Droog, a friend, whose passion for invention will now swirl upward and outward and will, in time, touch all our lives.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
My thanks to Mikhail Goldshtik's former colleague at Akadem Gorodok, Vladimir Shtern, for providing the background information and technical detail needed for this episode. Both Goldshtik and Shtern were/are Research Scientists in the Turbulence Laboratory of the UH Mechanical Engineering Department.
This episode is one of two that Shtern has rendered into Russian in response to astronaut Andrew Thomas's request that we send a set of Engines episodes up to the Mir Space Station. (The other one was Episode 47.) For the text in Russian, click on:
"Fuel" particles suspended in a vortex flow. The particles do not quite touch the container wall, and can react without damaging it.
Photo provided by Vladimir Shtern
A set of Goldshtik air scrubbers
Photo provided by Vladimir Shtern