(Reproduced below is the full transcript of the acceptance speech given by
Leonid Brouchkov upon appointment to the position of Head of Physics at
Ghent University in 2015.)
When I look back at the events that informed my scientific thinking there
are two things that come to mind. The first is the death of my brother, and
the second is a game we played in childhood. At the time we played this game my
brother and I must have been ten and thirteen years old. Then, our father was a
teacher at the local high school. But he had previously been a handyman of
sorts and at the back of the garage he kept this huge metal chest of apothecary
drawers. Each draw was carefully labelled and individually filled with the
things he'd used for repairs, mechanics, and electronics. This is what inspired
It went a like this - my brother would rummage through the drawers filling his
hands with whatever he could find - screws, bulbs, circuitry - anything. We
would then exit the garage and climb up the brown muddy slope that ran up from
the back of our house. At the top of the slope there was a small pine forest
that sat peacefully overlooking the town. I would wait behind while my
brother disappeared into the woods.
After several minutes of sitting on the hill, looking down at the town below,
or watching the clouds above, my brother would emerge again. Now it was my turn
to lead. Under the cover of the trees I'd set about looking for these little
mole-hill-like mounds. This was where my brother had buried the things he'd
collected from the garage. Each item had it's own burial place and when I found
one I'd start tearing at the earth like a dog, churning the dirt, trying to see
what was buried below. My favourite moment was the first glipse of the object.
Perhaps the cylinder of a large golden nail, covered by a thin layer of soil,
or the protrusion of several wires through the ground, attached below the earth
to a motor torn from a ceiling fan.
Once all the items had been found we'd head back home. Dutifully we'd place
each of the items into their drawers. And that was it - that was the game.
Every time it went the same and we never switched roles.
Before we come to the relevance of this story to my scientific development let
me explain a little about where I grew up. I was raised in northern Siberia, in
a village located at the foothills of the Ural mountains, a little south of the
mining city Vorkuta.
Now, as anyone who has grown up in the middle of nowhere knows there is
something deeply depressing about living so far from civilisation. The lack of
things to do can be countered by finding good hobbies, but to shake off that
feeling of irrelivance is much more difficult. I learned to cling to any kind
of trivial speciality about the area - the nearby location of a military base -
a local type flora or forna - historical significance in some 17th century war.
In the case of our village - it had a few claims to fame which I quickly
memorized. Locally it was known for the high school which attracted most of the
young people in the area, but more widely in Russia it was known for being
quite a picturesque location for holidays. It contained several beautiful
buildings - built in the Imperial Russian style - quite a contrast to the
Soviet constructions found in Vorkuta. Additionally it was rumoured that due to
these nice buildings, during the war, the town had been residence to a host of
Russian generals. At this time Vorkuta had been a particularly brutal gulag,
with prisoners forced into many hours of hard labour down the coal mines.
I knew most of these things thanks to one of my brother's friend called
Nikolay. He was interested in this kind of local history and had often teased
my brother and I about the game we played in the forest. He said it was only a
matter of time before we dug up something left over from the gulag - a murderer
or a rapist preserved in the perma frost - ready to kill again.
I can't say these stories didn't have an impact on me. Looking back I believe
they were probably what convinced me that the elevator in our town might have
had some importance.
The elevator was more or less was exactly as it sounds - an elevator like you
might expect in any multi-story building. The strange thing about it was that
it was located outdoors. It was situated just behind the school and there was
a small concrete path that lead to it from the back of the science building.
But essentially it was just an upright metal box. It sat outside alone,
It looked quite tragic out there in the snow. The metal was a horrible
shade of dirty brown, rusted from years of abandonment. The carridge was
guarded by two sliding copper trellis gates. Next to the carridge was a panel
of ancient looking electronics. There really wasn't much to it - but for some
reason, as a child, it fascinated me.
Nikolay lived quite near the school, and from his attic it was possible to see
the elevator. When my brother was around to see Nikolay I would often go up
to the attic and sit by the window. I would stare at the elevator until the sky
got dark, hoping something might happen.
I asked every adult I could find if they knew anything about the elevator. Most
said they suspected it was something to do with the school - that perhaps it
had lead to some kind of the boiler room or storage area. Some suspected that
once an additional school building might have stood over it and covered the
shaft - but ultimately no one knew exactly what it was for.
I was almost fourteen before I finally got some idea about the elevator's
It happened when my brother and I were staying late at Nikolay's house. Nikolay
had smuggled some beer into his room and demanded I leave. He said I
would tell on them, and that I was too young to drink. I protested
but eventually Nikolay kicked me out so I wandered up to the attic and sat by
the window. Out behind the school, settled into the snow was the elevator as
usual, but as I looked closer I noticed that the lights were on inside the
carridge. There was a faint yellow glow coming from the slit between the doors,
and the buttons on the electronics panel were faintly lit up too.
After a few minutes a large man in a black ski jacket appeared at the corner of
the street. He was carrying a sealed cardboard box, shuffling it this way and
that in an attempt to get a better grip. He appeared to be walking toward the
elevator, clumsily stumbling through the snow.
When he reached the elevator he put the box down and pressed the call button.
The doors opened and he placed the box he'd been carrying in the center
of the carridge. Then he pressed and held another button (which was unlit) for
several seconds before turning away and lighting a cigarette. After a little
while the doors automatically shut behind him and the carridge descended.
The man continued smoking several cigarettes. After perhaps 15 to 20 minutes
the carridge returned. The man took out a small key from his pocket and
inserted it into a hole in the panel of electronics. The lights in the carridge
went out and everything dropped into darkness. The man in the black jacket
walked away, his hands deep in his pockets, the glowing butt of his cigarette
waving through the air.
For almost an hour more I continued to sit at the window. I couldn't come to
terms with an unwanted sense of purpose and agency that had fallen over me. It
was like I felt some kind of supernatural responsivility to discover more about
about the elevator. Also - I'd recognised the man in the black jacket.
He was a man called Mr Korsakov and he worked as the school's caretaker. I
didn't know much about him but my impression was that he was a quiet man who
kept himself to himself. He rarely spoke to any of the children.
For several more years this was all I knew. This sense of agency didn't
disappear, but I simply had no way to act upon it. You see, I was still a
teenager and I still had to do normal teenager things - I had to go to
school, eat dinner, see friends. I wasn't capable of questioning the school
caretaker about why he had carried a box into an unused elevator.
And it was during this time as a normal teenager that I discovered my love for
Physics. I found I had a natural desire to understand things, and good
practical skills in mathematics. In fact I became quite the techers pet. I
ended up forming a friendship with the lab technician - a young man
called Victor. Both me and Victor had nothing you could really call a social
life, and so after school we would often stay behind to perform silly
experiments. Victor's lab access was particularly useful for aquiring all the
materials we wanted. It is also worth noting that the caretakers office was
attached to the science lab. This gave me a good way to observe Mr Korsakov's
comings and goings if anything were to ever come up.
One evening Mr Korsakov came though the lab to lock up. Upon seeing me and
Victor doing an experiment he silently sat himself down at the computer that
was in the corner of the room and started checking his e-mail.
By this time the internet started to become a thing in Russia. I would
browse for hours on the various chat groups, forums, and websites dedicated to
unexplained phenomenon, government conspiracies. I had a particular
perchant for "Numbers Stations" on the radio but mainly I was desperate to find
some mention of the elevator, or at the very least something to do with
Vorkuta. Of course nothing ever arose - that was until I noticed a user called
- prizrak-byka. This user was posting in one of the forums I visited often
about the Russian space program. It was a name I'd seen before and after a
little thought I remembered - firstname.lastname@example.org was the e-mail address Mr
Korsakov had used that day he had come into the lab and checked his e-mail.
I frantically started stalking this name - trying to track down everything I
could find posted by anyone called prizrak-byka. Eventually I found what I
wanted. On a forum called "scientific writings" there was a post by
prizrak-byka titled "At the bottom of the Elevator...".
The post layed out every detail I'd wanted to know about the elevator.
It described a scientific lab, controlled by the KGB and linked to one of the
nearby mines. The role of the lab was a long running experiment to drill a deep
borehole as close as possible to the bottom of the earth's crust.
The post explained that by the end of the 1980s almost all developed countries
had stopped experimenting with deep drilling, but that Russia had continued in
secret with the lab near Vorkuta. The poster claimed that he himself had
gone down to the experiment and talked to the scientists. He said that he had
found the focus had shifted and now the work was on developing technologies
which could run at the high temperatures and pressures that were found at the
bottom of the borehole.
The poster did not give away his identity. He said he was scared that the KGB
may track him down, but that he had been employed in some degree by the
scientists - that he sometimes took down tools and materials.
For several nights I couldn't sleep. All I could think was that I had to go
down the elevator. I wanted to find the scientists running their experiments. I
imagined arriving at the bottom of the elevator, being welcomed by the
scientists and KGB agents, congratuated on finding the secret experiment, and
being offered role thanks to my excellent Physics grades.
Eventually I was given the chance to act on these impulses.
It was a friday evening and Victor and I had stayed back in the lab after
school. Mr Korsakov had already been in earlier and hung his keys on the hook
in the caretakers office. As we were staying late he'd asked Victor to lock up.
Halfway into the experiment Victor jumped up.
He was red faced, glancing at the door.
"I totally forgot - I'm meeting a girl for dinner. I'm already 15 minutes late.
Will you lock up for me? You've seen me do it enough times."
I agreed and immediately he grabbed his coat and rushed out the lab in a panic.
The lab felt wholly quiet. I looked through the back window at the snow drifts
behind the school. To the right I could see the elevator and the concrete path
leading up to it. Mr Korsakov's keys hung just a few meters from me in the
caretakers office. The lab felt extremely hot.
I took the keys and turned off the lights in the lab, shuffling out of the
back door and shutting it behind me. I walked through the snow up to the
elevator, avoiding the path and looking around to see which houses might have
had their lights on. At the elevator I ran the keys through my hands until I
found a selection of small keys that might fit into the electronics panel.
After a few tries a bronze key slid in perfectly. I turned it and the elevator
carridge lit up. A small mechanical whirr started, echoing around the back of
I pressed the call button and the doors quietly slid open. I felt the delicate
bounce of the carridge as I stepped onto the floor. It was covered in a red
mottled carpet. There were two buttons on the inside with arrows for up and
down. I pressed the down button and the doors shut. The carridge started it's
long, steady descent.
Once the doors had shut I felt an immediate sense of panic and regret. I was
annoyed at myself for all the stupid thoughts and actions that had lead up to
this point. I desperately wanted to punch the walls of the carridge but I knew
I had to stay quiet. To try and calm myself I lay down on the floor and took
deep breaths. Inside the carridge it was a lot
darker than I'd expected. The only illumination was a ring of small dim bulbs
inset into the top. The carridge was also somewhat fancier than I'd expected. On
the inside it was actually quite nice - with wooden panelling and simple
patterned wallpaper covering the metal frame.
I tried to figure out what my course of action would be upon arrival. I wasn't
sure if should prepare some explaination for my infiltration. If the KGB was to
kill me I thought I should at least prepare my final wishes. I thought of my
brother, and my family in the town above, and then thought of the bore hole
going unbelieable deep below the town.
The carridge stopped and the doors opened. Light flooded the room and I jumped
up to turn to face it.
Outside the carridge was a a pair of double doors with large safety glass
windows. Beyond was a long corridor leading out into the distance with several
doors and passages on each side. It was painted white, with blue trimmings an a
plain green carpet spread over the floor. It was clean and had an antiseptic,
institutional feel to it. The corridor was really like any other - like any
corridor you might find in a hospital, or school, or police station.
There was no handle on the double doors so I pushed on the flat metal panel
where the handle usually is. The doors rattled aggresively but didn't swing
open. They were locked. I searched the wooden frames of the doors for anywhere
that a key might be able to be inserted, and took out from my pocket the set of
keys I'd taken from the caretaker, but it was clear it was locked from the
I peered between the glass panes, trying to get a vantage of what was beyond -
to see if I could spot anything of interest. I couldn't see into any of the
I started to feel very hot again. I was confused - how had I been beaten so
quickly? Why had everything lead up to a moment like this. I sat down with my
back against the wall, picking at the white paint and trying to desperately
think if there was anything I could do.
But eventually I got back into the elevator and rode it back up to the
outside. It was late now, and very cold. I shivered as I went back and locked
up the lab, careful to replace the keys on the hook as I had found them.
Dutifully I put away the things we'd been using for the experiment. And then
after that I went home.
And I have never found out anything more about the elevator. I have thought
about it many times, but never again did I look into what was there below the
Instead I finished high school. And then I was offered a scholarship to study
Physics at Saint Petersburg State Polytechnic University. I accepted - the
first child in my family to go to University. I was extremely excited to escape
my home town and when I arrived in Saint Petersburg I quickly made several close
friends that supported me throughout my time there. I could not be happier.
That was when my brother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He was given
just a few months to live. During those months twice I made the epic journey back to
Vorkuta and managed to see him before returning to my studies. In my
mind there was no doubt about the cause of his cancer. As soon as he finished
school he had started work down the mines. The constant inhailation of
rock dust and chemicals had destroyed many worker's lungs. My brother was
simply unlucky to have it happen to him so young.
Initially the death of my brother affected my studies quite negatively and
really I was lucky to graduate. Then, for some unknown reason, after graduation
I was hit with a surge of ambition. I worked hard to fund myself through a
Masters degree. I got excellent grades, and was offered a placed on a PhD
course at the University of Strasbourg run by the incredible Jean-Raymond
Hullot - from there my career in academia was set.
I spent many years moving around Europe before settling at Ghent University
and I dare say in that time I've seen a few different buildings dedicated to
science. In those buildings I think it is again fair to say I've seen my
share of science labs. I must have seen hundreds of science labs, together
running thousands of different experiments - populated by many clever hard
Generally these labs are connected by corridors - normal corridors like the one
I saw at the bottom of the elevator. I must have seen thounsands of corridors
like the one I saw that day. But these corridors I have the keys to. I can
visit the rooms and witness the experiments taking placing. And the things that
happen in these rooms are probably vastly more interesting and important than I
could have ever imagined as a teenager.
And now I am honoured to be made Head of Physics at Ghent University. One
of the honours that comes with this role is unpresidented access to the many
corridors, labs, and experiments that are run by this department. In fact - I
dare say I have greater access to these corridors than any other staff member.
In each of the rooms, leading off from these corridors, there are many
things that as a child I would have called treasures - things found in my
father's garage - ciruit boards, wires, screws, knuts, and many things more
magnificent than I could have imagined at the age of ten. What I have access to
now, what I have achieved, is beyond my childhood dreams.
Yet, there is a feeling that always resides in me - that all of these treasures
I have collected lack some quality, some special variable, which makes them
worthless - and the real treasures are still buried in that small pine forest,
at the foothills of the Ural mountains, somewhere near Vorkuta.