Brilliant mind of mathematician, globetrotter and fisherman – Mihajlo Petrovich Alas

Re-posted from: Igor Sestanj’s Blog

It is incomprehensible how Serbian society in this day and age deals with science and art if it is not folklore or mainstream. Allow me to introduce you to one of the worlds greatest minds in the field of differential calculus, practical founder of cryptography in the Balkans and nominated numerous times for president of the Serbian Academy of Science. Due to his sexual orientation he was considered as a renegade, and better known as Mika Alas (1868-1943).


Mihajlo Petrovic was born in Belgrade and spent his childhood on its rivers. He graduated from high school with some of the greatest minds of Serbian science and culture such as: Milorad Mitrovic, Jovan Cvijic and Pavle Petrovic. This generation of the First Belgrade Gymnasium certainly influenced and emancipated the “oriental” Serbian society in the late 19th and early 20th century, which was then divided between the two “royal families”. Ominous behaviour of these royalties in the troubled state often led to fatal endings. Under these circumstances there was little space for science or art. So, after completing high school our hero was forced to seek further education in Paris.

In September of 1889 Mihajlo Petrovich went to the City of Lights and spent the next four years studying mathematics and physics at the Sorbonne, where he graduated with top honors and was received by the President of France twice. He successfully received his doctorate in the field of differential equations in 1894. Living in the capital of France formed the figure of a young Petrovich. In 1897 Petrovich developed his hidrointegrator, an analog computer that was able to solve two classes of differential equations, which many scientists now believe to be the first plotter. Three years later, this machine was exhibited at the Serbian science pavilion at the World Exhibition in Paris and was one of the most noted. Despite these accomplishments his full potential was never satisfied. As a young doctor in science he had a few offers of placement in universities throughout Europe. Yet, the young Mihajlo decided to accept the proposal of Alexander Obrenovic I whose decree placed him as a professor of the Great School in Belgrade. This school would later grow into the University of Belgrade. He became a regular member of the Serbian Royal Academy in 1899 as one of the youngest members in its history.

Several years later, during the coup d`etat, the family Obrenovic ceased to exist when the king and queen were brutally murdered in their bedroom. In the days that followed everyone who had any familial ties to the dynasty experienced the same fate. The coup d`etat brought to power the opponent Royal Family, which represented the traditional core. The royal family soon returned it’s retrograde values, which still plague Serbian society today. Nepotism and corruption were spread through society like the plague. Mihajlo Petrovich was certainly not an exception. While all doctoral dissertations in the field of mathematics at the University of Belgrade until the beginning of World War II were exclusively under his guidance, his scientific work was usually published abroad. He was the founder of the Belgrade Math School and was a visiting professor at universities in Prague, Krakow, Warsaw and Bucharest, while in his own country his work was only valued at the University of Zagreb. His coding systems and work in the field of cryptography were used in the Serbian Army, with which he participated as an officer in the wars until the beginning of World War II.

Mihajlo Petrovic was a versatile personality and a passionate traveler. It is a little known fact that he traveled extensively to every country in Europe as well as the North and the South Poles! He wrote his impressions of people from distant lands and was an avid violin player.

During the first half of the 20th century the government tried to portray him as a misfit who chose to live as a fisherman. Several times they blocked his chances to become president of the Royal Academy, although he was unanimously proposed. Life on the river piers with limited company was the only way for him to preserve his sanity. The reason for this lifestyle, some historians have sought in the friendship with untried Prince George, which was presented to society as gay and who after the tragic death of his servant and strongly influenced by populist politician and speculator Nikola Pasic was forced to renounce in favor of his younger brother Alexander II. After the death of their father Alexander declared him  insane. Despite all the political manipulations, Mihajlo Petrovich Alas was very popular among the people. They loved and respected him. With his superior intellect he was certainly able to distance himself from the picture they tried to create. And so alienated from public life and science, for which he was destined in his lifetime he was able to negotiate agreements with neighboring countries on the protection of fish and fisheries management as they were far ahead of the times in which he lived. He was drafted at the beginning of World War II and soon captured by the Germans who quickly freed him because of his illness. Following his death in Belgrade there was a renewed appreciation of his accomplishments.

Published by shekOOs

I enjoy sailing and dreaming of how to build a space ship.

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