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Alexander Gurshtein (1937–2020)

Alexander Gurshtein (1937–2020) grew up Jewish in Moscow admist the turbulence of Stalinist rule and World War II. He become deeply involved in lunar cartography for the Soviet space program as well as archaeoastronomy. He emigrated and taught at Mesa State College until 2010.

Published onJun 17, 2020
Alexander Gurshtein (1937–2020)

Alexander Aronovich Gurshtein. Credit: unknown.

Alexander Aronovich Gurshtein died on Friday the 3rd of April, 2020.

Alexander A. Gurshtein was born on 21 February 1937 in Moscow, the son of Aron Sheftelevich Gurshtein, a notable writer, literary critic, translator and member of the Union of Soviet Writers, and Yelena Vasilievna Resnikova, a journalist who for a number of years was a leading editor in a radio studio specializing in foreign broadcasting. An only child, Alex grew up Jewish in Moscow amidst the turbulence of Stalinist rule and World War II, in the course of which his father was killed in combat when Alex was four years old. Raised by his mother and grandmother, at age thirteen Alex acquired a fascination for science by visiting the Moscow Planetarium, which became a center of his social life “with a charming and very adequate circle of young boys and girls” in a school club dubbed “The Special Scholar’s Circle.” (oral history 1/13/94, p. 5) He also began studying astronomy in school at that time.

Although Alex succeeded in school, devouring all available publications on astronomy, being an ethnic Jew made it impossible to attend the prestigious Moscow University. He was, however, able to enter the Moscow Institute for Geodesy and Cartography, an engineering school, and trained as an “astrometrist” and engineer in “high geodesy” or aerial cartography. He was exposed to mathematics through differential equations and became a member of the Geodesy-Astronomy circle. Upon graduation in 1959, he was assigned to a workplace located in the Lake Baikal region far from Moscow to perform cartographic projects in field geodesy, but eventually was able to remain in Moscow and enter the Shternberg State Astronomical Institute in 1960 after meeting and befriending Iosif Shklovsky, who became his protector and mentor at the Institute. It was there that he for the first time encountered electrical “arithmometers” or digital mechanical calculators and became both a computer and celestial observer, as well as a laboratory teacher, or “preparator.” (OHI, p. 28)

He returned to the Moscow Institute for Geodesy and Cartography in 1962 as a graduate student to write his first dissertation based on his continuing work at the Astronomical Institute. Gurshtein became involved in lunar mapping after a few years at the latter. By 1965, he had become a liaison between the Institute and Sergei Korolev’s Design Bureau, which was planning to send men to the Moon in rockets. Gurshtein’s assignments included calibrating and correlating images of the far side of the Moon from Zond 3 into large cartographic maps. He began by performing extensive temperature calibrations of micrometer screws for the study of lunar cartography and stellar astrometry by ocular microscopes and through the 1960s applied these and other calibrations to the development of a fundamental system of coordinates for the lunar surface as well as the analysis of its topographic features, like mountains, craters, and rills. He continued this line of work through the early 1970s arguing for the development of a precise scheme for the calibration of lunar time. By the mid-70s, Gurshtein had moved from Shternberg to the Space Research Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences where his primary focus remained lunar cartography, including identifying the best landing sites for the Soviet uncrewed missions to the Moon. He also invented several instruments intended for more precise determination of coordinates for landing an uncrewed apparatus on the lunar surface. By this time, he had also developed an interest in archaeoastronomy.

At the Space Research Institute, in line with these interests and activities, Gurshtein eventually rose to become a Deputy Chief of the planetology section, using lunar investigations to develop techniques for comparative planetology studies. Not being a member of the Communist Party, Gurshtein could not take on full management positions, yet he led groups that conducted numerous studies covering broad subjects, e.g., the astrometric determination of Moon-to-Earth trajectories for sample return. After the Soviet lunar program was ended, in the early 1980s, Alex shifted his priorities and directed his energies into the history of science and education and eventually to astro-archaeology. He became first the senior researcher and then Vice Director at the Institute for History of Science & Technology within the Academy of Sciences and a member of the Council for Astronomical Education at the Russian Ministry of Education. He edited journals for the Russian Academy of Sciences, published widely, and energetically reached out to international colleagues in order to become active in international organizations accessible to him, like the International Astronomical Union.

During an early visit to the United States, he participated in a January 1994 conference on “Astronomy and the State” held at the U.S. Naval Observatory, where he and his coauthor, Constantin V. Ivanov, argued that the revered Pulkovo Observatory, founded in 1839, was restored after World War II even though the reconstruction was more a “symbolic rather than a scientific necessity.” (Journal for the History of Astronomy, xxvi (1995), 363)

In 1995, he was able to secure a leave of absence from the Russian Academy to be a visiting Professor of Astronomy and History of Science at Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University) in Grand Junction, Colorado. He brought to the U.S. his family and a growing conviction that the zodiacal constellation forms we are familiar with today did not appear simultaneously or randomly, but developed out of groups of pre-historic asterisms that changed in number over time due to precession. His conclusions were hotly debated in discussions that centered on how he interpreted Mesopotamian cuneiform sources as evidence. Between 1993 and 2017, he published his assertions widely in both refereed and popular journals and in the book The Puzzle of the Western Zodiac: Its Wisdom and Evolutionary Leaps.

Alex and his second wife, Olga Vorobieva, worried about their children’s futures given the uncertain social and economic situation in Russia in the early 1990s. Therefore, they decided to become permanent residents and then citizens of the United States. After 1995, Alex stayed at at Mesa State College, where he taught until 2010, all the while remaining active in his extremely broad universe of academic and popular interests. He joined the AAS in 1997 and was especially active in the IAU, serving as president of Commission 41 History of Astronomy from 2003-2006 and remaining active in Commissions C1 (Astronomy Education and Development) and C4 (World Heritage and Astronomy) until the year of his death.

After the dissolution of his first marriage, Alex married Vorobieva in 1981. She was a Moscow lawyer and senior legal researcher for the Institute of State and Law until the family’s move to the United States. In the U.S. she has worked as a paralegal. Alex and Olga have two children, Ksenya and Michael. Soon after they moved to the U.S. Alex had coronary bypass surgery and a decade later developed Parkinson’s disease, which further weakened him in his final years. In 2012, Alex published in Russian his memoir A Moscow Astronomer at the Dawn of the Space Age as a fitting testimonial to his long, very energetic, and passionate life.

References and Acknowledgments

Alexander Aronovich Gurshtein 1937–2020, by Ksenya Gurshtein.

Alexander Gurshtein Oral History, 13 January 1994, by Ron Doel, R. McCutcheon and David DeVorkin. American Institute of Physics Center for History of Physics.

Composed with the assistance of Ksenya, Michael, and Olga Gurshtein.

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