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The city of scientists and the scientific potential of St. Petersburg

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Mendeleev, Pavlov, Landau, Alferov, Perelman. You can almost populate a whole new city with the great scientists of St. Petersburg. And it would be constantly filled with more people. St. Petersburg appeared in the most unconventional manner in the least obvious place – between swamps and forests. In a place where one would not build a city. And by its existence alone, it proves to all different scientists – sometimes you just have to act in the most unobvious way

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Pavel Nikiforov, reporter: “Mendeleev, Pavlov, Landau, Alferov, Perelman. You can almost populate a whole new city with the great scientists of St. Petersburg. And it would be constantly filled with more people. St. Petersburg appeared in the most unconventional manner in the least obvious place – between swamps and forests. In a place where one would not build a city. And by its existence alone, it proves to all different scientists – sometimes you just have to act in the most unobvious way”

This story is not about biology, but about IT. Exactly the type of unconventional moves by scientists. ITMO employee Ilya Viksnin developed a model which not only can decrease the number of casualties during a terrorist attack, but also predict a man’s behavior in different situations – and all that while analyzing the data of ants’ behavior.

Ilya Viksnin, head of “Multi-agent systems” laboratory at ITMO University: “This is how it works. At first, scouts find routes – after which strong ants take those and carry food. While they carry food, they emit a certain pheromone. The shorter the route, the stronger the smell – and other routes will gradually be abandoned and disappear”.

In other words, if you put an agent into a crowd – the one who knows safe exits – they will lead people out in case of an incident. During explosions and fires, the death toll is high primarily because panicking people run into wrong places. Or security guards are stood at wrong spots, or emergency exits are located in hard-to-reach places.

Ilya Viksnin, head of “Multi-agent systems” laboratory at ITMO University: “Ants perform the task in the best possible, optimal way. In our world, if a human is in panic, he or she would attempt to flee via an optimal route, trusting the fleeing majority. If a crowd runs through this door, a human would follow. It’s the same thing here”

When we assemble into a crowd, the power of consciousness becomes weaker and we act upon the “hive intellect”. By studying behavior algorithms of the fauna, we would be able to make our own lives safer. But to get there, we need to take the least obvious route of all.

For instance, St. Petersburg’s scientists took one like that when they were creating the Botanical garden at Aptekarskiy Island. It emerged 300 years ago at the parallel of Kamchatka and Alaska – where palm trees don’t grow, and even oak trees don’t. But those grew here. Historian Evgeniy Anisimov explains – Peter the Great managed to change the nature of location, but could not change the nature of a Russian man.

Evgeniy Anisimov, professor at research institute of Higher School of Economics: “He tried to change the nature of a Russian man, but what is it? There’s a saying, “hit a Russian, he would build a clock”. He genuinely dislike the Russian people. Thought of them as liars, lazy, defying progress. And he had a simple concept – progress through violence. I will make you!”

And he really made people do things. That’s the main essence – by understanding and studying Peter’s reforms, we learn more about ourselves today. And that’s the main answer to a question – why do we need to study our country’s history from the 18th century today’? And why do we need to study mathematics – which has all but become an abstract science? What would ordinary St. Petersburg residents gain from that?

Mathematician Anatoliy Vershik is not just the head researcher at the famous Steklov Institute. He is the teacher and direct boss to Perelman, who used to work at the Institute. Vershik is a legend. And if there’s one person who could explain to ordinary people of today as to why they should study mathematics – that has got to be him.

Anatoliy Vershik, doctor of physics and mathematics: “Mathematics is a part of a human’s brain. Of a human culture. And you can ask a question this way – why would anyone try to raise one’s cultural level?”. That would be the same thing. I think the answer lies in how mathematics affect every sphere of a person’s life”

But mathematics has another, very concretely applicable quality. And its not about consciousness, rather about logic

Mathematics teaches you to hate lies! While some other scientists see those differently. A mathematician, if he is one, should be totally responsible for everything he says. I don’t want to insult other jobs, but here – this is essential”

By the way, Grigoriy Perelman, who used to be Vershik’s subordinate, solved one of the seven mysteries of the millennium based on these principles – hatred towards lies and unconventional solutions. Because the city itself is suggesting to its scientists – sometimes you have to find peculiar ways to reach your goals.

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