“It was a typical morning at work in 1970 and I had just started working in Professor Robert Avagyan’s laboratory when we were witness to a ‘vandalism,’” recalls scientist Sargis Taroyan, advisor to the director of the Alikhanyan Scientific Library at Yerevan’s Physics Institute, also known as the Alikhanyan National Science Laboratory. “The warehouse was ‘attacked,’ and a diamond crystal, which was the only one at the Physics Institute, had disappeared from the broken safe. We later found out that Artem Alikhanyan had been the one who had taken it after he came up with an idea during the night to view transient radiation on the diamond crystal…”
Taroyan, who has been working at the Institute for decades, says that during the course of his career, this was the one incident that left the greatest impression on him.
The Halabyan-Margaryan intersection in Yerevan’s Ajapnyak district is known as the “Physics Intersection.” If the younger generation today simply associates physics with this intersection, the older generation remembers when the Institute was flourishing, when its reputation was renowned throughout the USSR. If you turn into the neighborhood nestled between Halabyan Street and the Hrazdan River bluffs, you can find the Physics Institute’s large property with its green courtyard. When looking at the building, it’s difficult to say what it is used for. Only the sign near the entrance, which reads “Alikhanyan Science Laboratory,” hints at the scientific experiments and research taking place inside.
In 1970, under the leadership of Artem Alikhanyan, experimental research on x-ray transition radiation detectors led to the development of new particle detectors that are widely used today in subatomic science experiments. Thanks to the efforts of Alikhanyan, a particle accelerator was also built to facilitate further research. Very few countries have such a facility within their borders. The Physics Institute also operates another world-class subsidiary.
Hasmik Mkrtchyan, a young scientist who works at the Cosmic Ray Division, points out the importance of the Cosmic Ray Research Station, established by the Alikhanyan brothers, located on the slopes of Mt. Aragats, the highest peak in the Republic of Armenia. “The research being conducted there has had a large contribution not only to elementary particles in physics but also to research on thunderstorms and solving the enigma of how lightning is formed,” says Mkrtchyan.
Ani Abrahamyan, Director of the Alikhanyan National Science Laboratory, who is also a professor at the University of Notre Dame in the U.S, has been heading the Laboratory for two and a half years. The Institute is facing many issues and they are trying to overcome them by collaborating with different international institutes and, most importantly, with the Armenian government. There are many details in the Physics Institute that are a reminder of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union has long fallen and scientific laboratories around the world have been replenished with new equipment. There is only one corridor in the building that was renovated on Abrahamyan’s instructions. However, she was criticized for spending unnecessary money on renovations. But how can you bring a young scientist to the Institute and tell them proudly that this is where Armenia’s future lies when it feels more like a relic from the past?
“I came to Armenia as a nuclear physicist to first start work on the cyclotron, which has significant importance for our country,” explains Abrahamyan. “In our region, only Turkey and Iran have a cyclotron. They don’t have one in Georgia and, through discussions we’ve had with them, we’ve come to understand that they want to purchase one from us.”
A cyclotron is an invention by Ernest Lawrence. It accelerates charged particles outwards from the center along a spiral path. The particles are held to a spiral trajectory by a static magnetic field and accelerated by a rapidly varying (radio frequency) electric field. Lawrence was awarded the 1939 Nobel Prize in Physics for this invention.
According to Abrahamyan, Armenia’s contribution to science is very small, but science is necessary for our economy. The economy and investors have to support science. If not, it will stagnate or will slowly move forward with difficulty at the expense of the dedication of Armenian scientists.
“In Croatia, a small country like us, science was at the same level - dilapidated and collapsed. However, currently, they are receiving large funding from their government for different scientific experiments and research,” explains Abrahamyan. “Their state took the responsibility of pulling science out of the swamp. Yerevan’s Physics Institute employs 300 staff and receives $1.5 million annually, 80% of which goes to salaries. Science can’t develop this way.”
Abrahamyan rushes to show the salaries their scientists receive but covers their names beforehand. She says she is ashamed when she sees these numbers beside the names of prominent scientists, i.e. monthly wages of 100,000-200,000 AMD ($200-$400). To compare, the current minimum wage in Armenia is 68,000 AMD per month.
“An ordinary shop-owner receives more than a scientist. I’m trying to get the younger generation paid much more because we have to get them involved,” says Abrahamyan. “However, when I do, I find myself against another wall - older scientists get upset that I pay the younger ones more. I feel bad because it’s shameful that we pay so little to world-renowned scientists. But I have no other choice. We need young scientists with fresh ideas and they need to be interested.”
Young scientist Hripsime Mkrtchyan has received several offers to work abroad, which she has rejected. She has worked at the University of Bath and the University of Reading and has offers to work in Europe. However, she is in no hurry to accept them, even though she agrees that the salaries for scientists in Armenia are very low.
“Enhancing and appreciating science’s role can yield desired results. When a scientist’s role is appreciated, when they understand what science is for - that is when then they will raise salaries,” says Mkrtchyan. She notes that specialists with a technical education are in high demand in all sectors - from banking to software.
In all developed countries around the world, economy and science develop together and Mkrtchyan believes that investments need to be made in scientific research institutions, infrastructure needs to be created and improved. Then all you have to do is wait and results will be forthcoming.
“By getting children interested in science, we can solve another important issue,” explains Mkrtchyan. “We can increase the number of students in the Physics Department [of Yerevan State University], which has been something like a dream during the past several years.”
The Cosmic Ray Division, where Mkrtchyan works, studies electric fields during thunderstorms, changes in meteorological parameters and particle waves in addition to other phenomena. The importance of research into these phenomena, according to Mkrtchyan, lies in the fact that our region sees a lot of hailstorms. Hence, a greater understanding of the factors involved can help mitigate its negative effects, especially on agriculture.
“If there is no research, then we can’t know how to avoid them,” explains Mkrtchyan. “Such research is necessary because hailstorms are an extremely serious issue in our country and cause economic losses. However, this isn’t the only problem. There is another issue we are going to have to address in the near future, which is research into radiation in Armenia. We have a nuclear plant and we have to ask ourselves if we know what kind of radiation there is around the plant or near the country’s borders.”
Amur Margaryan, a representative of the older generation at the Physics Institute, remembers with a smile the years when the Institute had more than 4,000 employees. According to Margaryan, the creation of the Physics Institute allowed Armenia to stand alongside advanced nations. The Alikhanyan brothers spared no effort in expanding the Institute's prestige and promoting science. Margaryan highlights one important instance that impressed him the most.
“After operating a 6 GeV [gigaelectronvolt] electron accelerator, Artyom Alikhanyan immediately started working on a 50 GeV electron accelerator,” recalls Margaryan. “When the surprised workers told him that they had not yet learned how to appropriately use the 6 GeV electron accelerator, he told them not to worry as he knew what he was doing. To compare, the leadership that came after him at the Institute had more financial means than he did. However, they did not add a single new device to what Alikyanyan has created.”
Margaryan believes that it is not the Institute that is facing issues or challenges; it is Armenia that must face them. A young scientist entering the Institute has to do their work not only because of their love and dedication toward science but also to take care of their families. It is for this reason that scientists need to get paid.
“If we want science to develop seriously and be a pillar for the economy, then investments have to be made,” states Margaryan. “The creation of new technologies and research that makes use of them is what will help promote science.”
Sargis Taroyan, for whom the Physics Institute is a second home, considers the Institute to have vital importance because their laboratory closely collaborates with the country’s scientific-technological and educational institutions, participates in international scientific projects, carries out joint scientific experiments at accelerators in the U.S. and Europe, and takes part in designing modern experimental equipment. According to Taroyan, these approaches are the most effective and direct way to integrate achievements in the fields of global scientific and advanced technologies into national projects.
“This is an organization with unique scientific research infrastructure,” notes Taroyan with pride. “The Institute offers ways to develop science and scientific technologies in different spheres in modern physics. The Institute’s scientists actively work on research in the spheres of elementary particles, nuclear physics, cosmic rays, and conduct them with the most modern techniques.”
Taroyan clarifies that the Institute is ready to collaborate with different sectors, including defense. He has turned down many offers to work abroad. Taroyan dreams that one day the Physics Institute will also turn into a research university like many similar institutions around the world.
“Research universities are institutions that are able to integrate science, education and production quite successfully,” explains Taroyan. “They immediately connect science and education and regulate the science-education-production chain. Creating a research university based on Yerevan’s Physics Institute is strategically necessary for Armenia and will allow it to instill entrepreneurial spirit into education and research, develop synergies between education and research in a transparent dynamic atmosphere.”
During these difficult times, Yerevan’s Physics Institute continues its work - collaborating with different bodies, organizing discussions with international institutions. At the Physics Institute, despite everything, scientists work devotedly because science has no time to stand idle.
How Artem Alikhanyan helped dissident Karapet [an excerpt from Sargis Taroyan’s memoirs]
We would often see someone known as dissident Karapet in our offices in the Academy who had just been discharged from the Soviet mental institute. He was constantly looking for physicists who could help him free himself from radiation which he claimed the KGB was using on him. Nothing helped him - not lead plates, nor changing his home or position, etc. Seeing he was in distress, some of our amused colleagues advised him to see Alikhanyan, who had to go to a seminar that day. Artyom Isakich [Alikhanyan] listened to Karapet carefully (by the way, I have to note that he was a very smart man even though he swore at Lenin every step he took). When Alikhanyan found out his bed was made of iron, he advised him to ground it. The next day in the morning, Karapet showed up with a happy smile, saying that the radiation had completely gone away.
Tech AM Report
EVN Report is pleased to launch a new podcast series entitled Tech AM Report, a collaboration with Samson Avetian, co-founder and VP of Angel Investor Club of Armenia. Every two weeks, Samson will speak with entrepreneurs, thought leaders and opinion makers from the realms of Tech & IT, innovation, science, entrepreneurship and biotech/pharma.
The purpose of the series is to provide an opportunity for the transfer of best practices with thought leaders, to dispense insights on markets and innovation trends and also tap into the experience of the diaspora.
Samson Avetian speaks with co-founder and CEO of IntelinAir Al Eisaian about his extraordinary decades-long experience in building companies valued at nine figures and his part in transforming Armenia’s technological landscape. They discuss pre-launch analysis, mission-based leadership, matching the product to the market and more.
Samson Avetian talks to Tigran Petrosyan, co-founder and CEO of SuperAnnotate, a platform to annotate, manage and automate computer vision projects. They talked about the firm's experimentation and validation approach used to gain customer following, growth in the role "from product to scaling," making pivots and strategic choices, assembling and leveraging strong advisor and board backing, Berkeley SkyDeck experience and much more.