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Patricia Sullivan

We've all had the experience of looking up a word in the dictionary and being distracted by another fascinating word, or looking on a bookshelf for one tome, only to find a related and utterly fascinating tale. So it was for me Friday, while working on Dr. Edward Chao's obit.

Dr. Chao was a geologist who discovered some naturally occurring minerals that no one knew existed on the earth's surface. He named one of them after a Russian grad student who had synthesized the mineral, a dense form of silica, in the laboratory. And therein lies the tale of a brash young scientist, Cold War-era academic politics in the Soviet Union and the ultimate triumph of a scientist. More after the jump:

Stishovite was named for Sergei Stishov, who had published a paper describing how he and a colleague synthesized the highly dense silica in a Soviet laboratory. The paper wound up in the hands of Dr. Chao, who immediately recognized what Stishov described, because Chao seen the mineral in the great Meteor Crater in Arizona. He quickly proved that Stishov's synthetic material was the same as the naturally occurring material, and in a matter of two or three weeks had his insight accepted for publication. With a looming deadline, he needed to name the material, so he decided to recognize Stishov, whose name was first in the list of authors.

That caused a furor in the Soviet Union in 1961. The Russian academic and scientific establishment considered it a breach of protocol that a grad student would reap such a reward, instead of his academic adviser or the colleague, who was more senior than Stishov. Neither had significantly contributed to the work, Stishov later wrote, but that didn't matter. The Soviet authorities insisted on a new name for the material, and came up with "stipoverite,"combining the names of those who felt they deserved credit. But the term stishovite stuck. Stishov himself was rushed into writing his dissertation without doing more research, and was forced to leave the Institute of HIgh-Pressure Physics for the Institute of Crystallography. A friend said he was blacklisted for 15 years.

The tale circulated in scientific circles for decades and in 1990 Stishov wrote an article about it in the High Pressure Research journal (Sorry, it's a subscriber-limited site so I can't link to the fascinating first-person tale). In the end, Stishov became the director of the Institute for High Pressure Physics at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

I asked Stishov, who considered Dr. Chao a friend, about this tale via e-mail. He shrugged it off.

"It caused some but not deadly trouble for me," he said.

By Patricia Sullivan |  February 9, 2008; 10:00 AM ET  | Category:  Patricia Sullivan
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Patricia, I was immediately drawn to this very well done obit because of my amateur's interest in geology, and while sending it to a friend, saw your great 'backstory'. I've had some limited exposure to academic publication 'rules' and can imagine the outrage this caused in the USSR...but kudos to Dr Chao (who must have known what would happen) for sticking to the naming...

Posted by: Dan Searing | February 10, 2008 11:18 AM

When I read a Washington Post obituary I feel like I'm reading a mini biography of the subject. Sometimes I may have not ever heard their name but your excellent writers "bring them to life" for me with anecdotes, quotations, and background material. The stories are so smoothly written I wonder how the writers have the time to pull their material together for the prompt reporting required. Many times the obituaries are the most inspiring thing in the paper. Thank you for crafting these tributes so consistently and well.

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