Feature. Italian researcher Giulia Rispoli follows old threads in a three-decade-old science mystery: the disappearance of Vladimir Aleksandrov, who modeled nuclear winter. The discrediting of his findings during the Cold War is strikingly similar to the discrediting of climate science today.

Vladimir Aleksandrov’s inconvenient climate predictions

On the night of March 31, 1985, in Madrid, the 47-year-old Ukrainian physicist Vladimir Aleksandrov disappeared without a trace. Now, the historian of science Giulia Rispoli offers a new interpretation of this mysterious event in an essay included in the collection De la guerra fria al calientamento global (“From the Cold War to Global Warming,” published by Los Libros de la Catarata) that just came out in Spain. The episode is, in fact, remarkably relevant to today.

Aleksandrov had arrived two days earlier from the USSR to attend an international meeting of the anti-nuclear movements in Cordoba. He was one of the stars at the conference. The computer simulations of his climate model predicted that a nuclear attack would cause a very cold “nuclear winter,” which would quite possibly result in the extinction of mankind. US climatologists trusted his theories enough to embark on a collaboration with him. His prestige and international contacts made him into a perfect advocate for the peace movement.

However, his trip to Spain took a strange turn from the beginning. Usually a moderate drinker, Aleksandrov seems to have spent his time in Spain in a permanent state of drunkenness. On the night of the conference, they had to pick him up off the sidewalk and take him back to the hotel in Madrid, where he kept on drinking. He was last seen late at night, staggering between the hotel and a nearby bingo hall. In the morning, Russian embassy envoys knocked on his hotel room door, but nobody answered. The scientist seemed to have vanished into thin air.

After ruling out the possibility that he had escaped to the West, the prime suspects were the intelligence services—first of all the Soviet ones, which could have decided to eliminate a scientist who was about to defect to the enemy. In Madrid, while he was still sober, he had been approached on one occasion by embassy staff. However, Aleksandrov was doing very well in the USSR: he was the star researcher at the Informatics Center in Moscow, and was allowed to travel freely to the West and maintain his constant collaboration with the scientists at the National Laboratory in Livermore, California. Furthermore, he adored his family, and had a rather lavish lifestyle, even by the standards of his American colleagues.

The CIA could also have had something to gain from making him disappear. Aleksandrov had access to the powerful American supercomputers whose use was being closely monitored by the military. In addition, he was an activist in the anti-nuclear movement. However, despite all the suspicions, no hard evidence has ever emerged that the Russians or the Americans were involved.

Now, over 30 years later, according to Rispoli, we can get a better perspective on his disappearance if we follow the story of the scientific breakthrough achieved by a handful of researchers: the Moscow group, to which Aleksandrov belonged, and the American climatologist team with whom the Soviet group had been collaborating since the ‘70s. Combining US computing power and a Soviet theoretical approach, they integrated their analysis of the atmosphere with the laws of ecology and the economy. Their research questioned not only nuclear proliferation, but the entire Western development model. It was then that the questions took shape which would end up at the core of the studies on global warming after the Cold War.

However, from the perspective of both governments, this unconventional collaboration threatened to get out of hand. The collaborative project was dismantled, with the economic crisis in Russia as pretext. The US researchers were themselves marginalized. Aleksandrov was denied access to American computing power, and his scientific reputation was subject to a campaign aimed at discrediting him. Three months before his death, a Pentagon report said that in his case “it was difficult to distinguish the researcher from the activist,” and claimed that his model was “outdated.” According to the researchers interviewed by Rispoli, however, Aleksandrov’s theories and predictions were “brilliant ideas, which are still at the core of the most advanced research being done.”

Then as now, these were troubling predictions, because they showed that humanity could have an irreversible impact on the environment at a global level. Last February, an article in The Times of London referred to nuclear winter “a hoax” created by Russian spies. One cannot fail to notice the resemblance of such dismissive attitudes to Trump’s notion that global warming is a hoax by the Chinese.

According to scientists, however, the climate crisis is real, and we only have a few years left to reverse the current escalating trend and limit the damage. If the research by the handful of courageous scholars in the ‘80s had not been stopped in its tracks so early, we might have been facing better odds today.

Giulia Rispoli earned a degree in philosophy at the University of Rome and worked at Moscow University and at the National Natural History Museum in Paris. She now carries out her research at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Her work on cybernetics and complex systems soon took her to Russia, on the tracks of eclectic intellectuals such as Alexander Bogdanov and scientists such as Vladimir Vernadsky, the inventor of the notion of ”noosphere,” according to which “man has become for the first time the most important geological force.”

In a similar vein, Vladimir Aleksandrov’s research also showed that the evolution of society and that of nature were closely interconnected. Such theories could turn a scientist into an uncomfortable figure in both the East and the West. Aleksandrov’s disappearance recalls what happened to other scientists whose knowledge could have been considered useful, or dangerous, depending on one’s point of view: among Italians, for instance, Bruno Pontecorvo (who then re-emerged on the other side of the Iron Curtain) or Ettore Majorana.

In such cases, the intelligence services often played a decisive role in muddying the waters. In the case of Aleksandrov, indeed, very little is clear. “Many hypotheses have been put forward,” Rispoli told me, “but there is no concrete evidence against the CIA or the KGB. It is certainly true that I am still finding that people are very nervous about talking about this case nowadays. Some witnesses did not want to be contacted via email or Skype.”

When Aleksandrov vanished, some thought he would reappear in the West, perhaps even in Italy. According to Rispoli, this was an unlikely theory, even at the time: “He wouldn’t ever have defected to the Americans. In Moscow, he was a star—the US wouldn’t have offered him greater opportunities.”

In addition, he enjoyed an unusual amount of freedom of movement for a Soviet scientist. What is the explanation for that? “The history of the notion of nuclear winter has two phases. At first, there was a strong promotion of international scientific collaboration. Aleksandrov was totally in his element in this context. He was ambitious and spoke English very well. He also had a climate model that was more advanced than the American one. In the second phase, however, reluctance and mistrust came to dominate. The collaboration didn’t work anymore. Aleksandrov became a loose cannon, because he abetted the anti-nuclear movements.”

And, at that point, “nuclear winter” started to be dismissed as the ‘80s version of fake news. “But that wasn’t true,” Rispoli said. “The first models for air circulation in the atmosphere were actually highly advanced, because they took into account a large number of natural and social factors. This holistic approach to complex systems was typical of the Soviet scientific school. Two months ago, I met the US climatologist Alan Robock [a former collaborator of Aleksandrov, today one of the authors of the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. He told me that even nowadays, computer simulations based on Aleksandrov’s models are still able to reproduce the actual climate patterns.”

By comparison, the US models were overly simple, as they took into account only a few variables. “It started being considered ‘fake news’ when the scientists became activists and began to argue that sustainability and development would have to go hand in hand from now on. In the United States, people became afraid.”

However, the nuclear winter theory was actually first developed in the US, thanks to Carl Sagan’s research group. It was then that people began realizing that the human impact on the climate could be systemic and long lasting. “The American scientists were also accused of conducting political campaigns instead of doing research, and were forced to abandon their studies. These are the typical methods of the Cold War, and they are very similar to those being used by Trump today.”

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!