Sunday, March 26, 2017

Ad memoriam Yuri Dmitrievich Ivashchenko. A very small tribute in the face of a very great loss.

     “Мечты, мечты! где ваша сладость?”
   Alexander Pushkin

It is always an ethical duty to eulogize and remember good people who have passed on because, while paying tribute to those who are good, we also point to a model of a real life worthy of being pursued by all. So many things can be remembered and told about Dr. Yuri Ivashchenko, who passed away last December; a man of great knowledge and integrity, continually in search of truth, in science as well as in life.
Dr. Ivashchenko, “Yuri” for those of us who had the honor and the pleasure of knowing him better, had the spirit of a real scientist: he was able and willing to question established paradigms with stringent logic because he was an admirer of truth, intelligence, and beauty. He was always ready to laugh at a silly argument – and sometimes to call it for what it was – but he was extremely serious about every intellectual topic, not only those pertaining to his professional area of expertise and research. I recall having many passionate discussions with him on topics ranging from literature and old Russian philosophy to the sciences, theology, ancient Greek, Latin, archeology, and Opera. Sharply questioning generally accepted truths was second nature to him. He was a great reader and a profound scholar with a passion for many topics and a weakness for manuscripts in Old Church Slavonic and the poet Alexander Pushkin, the latter of which he loved to the point that he could always quote Pushkin’s poems to you in their entirety and in the original Russian... The more obscure the topic of study or discussion, the more his eyes showed the brightness of the intelligent search and the curiosity of a sharp mind, and when an argument could not be settled in one way or another, his last answer was always a large smile under his mustache. You could literally spend hours in intellectual conversation with him and believe that only a few minutes had passed, and, at the same time, you could always learn something from his assertions and his questions. For example, many people are aware of the pseudo-scientific doctrines of Trofim Lysenko and the “Lysenkoism” propagandized by the Soviets from the 1920s until 1964, the year of de-Stalinization under Nikita Khrushchev. Yuri, whose specialization was the field of medicine and biology, liked to point out that movement’s references to Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, of whom Lysenko claimed to be a follower, and could go into extremely complex explanations regarding the differences and commonalities between the two Russian scientists and their mistakes. Yuri Ivashchenko could magnificently explain complex topics in the life sciences, but he was also capable of dissecting pseudo-scientific concepts for hours and he loved hearing about other examples of pseudoscience in other disciplines because he knew that we learn from errors as much as we learn from correct reasoning. This, among many other examples, clearly showed not only his intellectual depth and curiosity but also his keen scientific mind: a scientist never takes anything for granted, and if you tell a real scientist that 2+2 is equal to 8, the proper reaction is not to dismiss what you say, but, more simply, to request the burden of the proof by asking you to “prove it!” That was the challenge Yuri loved to make.
Yuri was also a devoted family man and extremely generous, supporting both ideas and people in many ways, as he did when, in 1995, he sponsored the U.S. immigration of Dr. Vladimir Vinnitsky, who later became a leading scientist in the oncogerminative theory of cancer development. Yuri is also the author of dozens of research papers and many patents. All of this is to say that he was a man of great intelligence and of many talents, but also a man able to see the very practical aspects of life, who had a taste for good cuisine and a love for barbecuing and good wine. Now that Yuri is no longer among us, we are faced with a great absence. After all, nothing confronts us with the realities of life more than death, and when this inevitable event strikes, especially when hitting someone who still had so much to give, it produces an experience that cannot be fully described, because there are no words or tears that can equal the pain and the shock that touches those who are remaining. Sorrow is always for those who are left, and when good people leave the earth, we are all impoverished by their absence. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his little book of reflections on the death of his wife, A Grief Observed, “The death of a beloved is an amputation.” Even when we are sure that those who have left have ascended to a reality that is so much more real than our imperfectly formed world, we still have the right to be sad, and to miss their words and wisdom, which can now point the way only through memory and remembrance.

(Sergio Caldarella)