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Mineralogist Mihail Maleev: Nothing Compares to Joy of Scientific Discovery

Nothing compares to the joy of scientific discovery, says mineralogist Mihail Maleev. There are two types of discoveries: the eureka-moment type when one a discovery strikes you, as it were, and the other is empirical when a generalization is made based on a large number of scientific facts. The second type are the result of a lot of hard work, often by many people. “This discovery is like a puzzle of many elements: you put them together, you look at the whole puzzle, you say, ‘Oh, but this is something new, it’s useful, and it’s a discovery,” Associate Professor Maleev said in a BTA interview.
He made a discovery that put his name in the Golden Book of the Patent Office, in the area of crystallography, on June 4, 1987, together with Academician Ivan Kostov and Bogdana Zidarova. Jointly with Soviet scientists, they discovered the fundamental natural regularity in the crystallomorphological evolution of minerals in mineral-forming processes. Their discovery made it possible, based on their knowledge of the evolutionary development of the crystal forms of a mineral, to create new effective methods for prospecting, exploring and evaluating mineral deposits. 
Assoc. Prof. Maleev is also a recipient of the badge of honourof the defunct Institute of Rationalizations.
He says that the shape of crystals changes: not in a haphazard manner but in an orderly way. This change is both in space and time, and can help see patterns that lead to the finding of ore deposits. 
“When you see somewhere a crystal of a certain shape or a specimen of two different minerals, you can predict where the centre of the deposit is. This discovery has very practical significance,” he added. 
Another discovery of the Russian-Bulgarian team was the possibility to synchronize the minerals, i.e. to match two specimens and determine which was formed earlier.
Maleev’s work is related to a Russian branch of mineralogy that has existed since the 1950s, which is called mineral ontogeny. It looks at the individual specimen rather than the type. “This is something of psychology: you study the individual, not the whole society,” the scientist noted with a smile.
Like poetry
Maleev likens his work with minerals to Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem about “about the place of the poet in the workers’ ranks”. Mayakovsky says there that “poetry is like mining radium. For every gram you work a year.”, or you have to go through tonnes of ore to get a gram of radium. “It is the same in ontogeny – thousands of specimens go through your hands and mind, to find them, to make sense of them, to find that single specimen which offers the answer to the riddle of a whole group of minerals,” Maleev said. 
The scientist added that he feels as happy as a small child every time he comes across a unique specimen. “These discoveries are my greatest joy. You know my heart would burst, I would just go off my feet with happiness,” he said. 
He remembers one such find he made near Moscow, in a mine near the town of Ryazan, on the Oka River, 60 years ago. “I found a unique specimen. I remember the exact date. It was a Friday, November 13, 1962.”
The find itself is a challenge, but working on a specimen or a hypothesis is no less challenging. When examining mineral specimens, work is done with radiography and electronic microscopes. 
The moment is equally joyful when the scientist discovers a new scientific fact. “When you see something that disproves some scientific myth that has been in the textbook for decades and everybody accepts it, and you see that it’s not true. The joy is huge! Isn’t it also a discovery?! I have had quite a few happy moments, when the soul sings,” he said. 
He said some of the things he has found match the definition of scientific discovery but not everything he has applied for has been patented. Besides, he said it is too much bother for him to write applications and go from office to office. “I’m more interested in making the discovery and publishing it, and them I leave it to whoever wants, to evaluate it.”
Founder of Earth and Man Museum
Assoc. Prof. Mihail Maleev describes the Earth and Man Museum that he founded, as a dream-come-true. “It is my child. I invented it. I have carried half the specimens on my back. Can you imagine: me walking beyond the Arctic Circle, in the tundra, in winter, in the middle of a blizzard, and carrying a backpack full of specimens, and the snow about to bury me. It never occurred to me to get rid of something from my backpack, to reduce its weight,” the mineralogist said, adding that he was absolutely happy even then. 
Maleev has been the director of the National Museum of Earth and Man for 30 years, from its foundation in 1986 until 2012.
The stones “We are interested in the history of stones. You see, the stone is the only witness to the entire history of the Earth since its formation. And we read the history, but the entire history of the Earth, not just of human society as historians and archaeologists do, not of life as biologists do. Geologists deal with the history of the whole planet,” he notes.
The agates passion
Maleev’s longest-standing passion is agates. “There are many mysteries, riddles, in them, and I have solved almost all of them. I can confidently say that no one in the whole world knows more than me about agates and their history,” says the scientist. He is now writing a book, Ontogeny of Agates, and says it will be his swan song. 
Maleev said that his passion for gates was born in his school days. He started collecting and studying agates when he was in 9th grade – in 1957 – and this passion never went away. “Can you imagine: for 65 years now I have been collecting them from all over the world, studying them with X-rays, electronic microscopes, you name it,” he said. His currently preoccupied with passing on this knowledge to other people – along with the stones from his collection, which are “many thousands”. This collection is currently at the Earth and Man Museum. “It is the world’s richest scientific collection on the ontogeny of agates, not just the beautiful ones, but also the scientifically important specimens,” he added. 
Mihail Maleev was born in Sofia on August 21, 1941. In 1965 he graduated in mineralogy from the Moscow State University and in 1968 he finished a full-time postgraduate course there. He was an assistant professor and then associate professor in the Department of Mineralogy and Crystallography  of the St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia (1969-1979); first deputy chair of the Metallurgy and Mineral Resources Association (1987); founder and director of the Institute of Applied Mineralogy of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (1983); founder and director of the Earth and Man Museum (1986-2012); founder and chairman of the Earth and Man Foundation (1993).
This interview was taken under a partnership initiative between BTA and the National Patent Office.