Tsar Nikita and His Scientists

Once upon a time, a Russian tsar named Nikita had forty daughters:

                Every one from top to toe
                Was a captivating creature,
                Perfect—but for one lost feature.

So wrote Alexander Pushkin, the 19th-century Shakespeare who revolutionized Russian literature. In a rhyme, Pushkin imagined forty princesses born without “that bit” “[b]etween their legs.” A courier scours the countryside for a witch who can help. By summoning the devil in the woods, she conjures what the princesses lack into a casket. The tsar parcels out the casket’s contents, and everyone rejoices.

“[N]onsense,” Pushkin calls the tale in its penultimate line. A “joke.”

The joke has, nearly two centuries later, become reality. Researchers have grown vaginas in a lab and implanted them into teenage girls. Thanks to a genetic defect, the girls suffered from Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome: Their vaginas and uteruses had failed to grow to maturity or at all. A team at Wake Forest and in Mexico City took samples of the girls’ cells, grew more cells, and combined their harvest with vagina-shaped scaffolds. Early in the 2000s, surgeons implanted the artificial organs into the girls. The patients, the researchers reported in the journal The Lancet last week, function normally.

I don’t usually write about reproductive machinery. But the implants’ resonance with “Tsar Nikita” floored me. Scientists have implanted much of Pushkin’s plot into labs. The sexually deficient girls, the craftsperson, the replacement organs—all appear in “Tsar Nikita” as in The Lancet. In poetry as in science fiction, we read the future.

Though threads of Pushkin’s plot survive, society’s view of the specialist has progressed. “Deep [in] the dark woods” lives Pushkin’s witch. Upon summoning the devil, she locks her cure in a casket. Today’s vagina-implanters star in headlines. The Wall Street Journal highlighted the implants in its front section. Unless the patients’ health degrades, the researchers will likely list last week’s paper high on their CVs and websites.

http://news.wfu.edu/2011/05/31/research-park-updates-to-be-presented/, http://www.orderwhitemoon.org/goddess/babayaga/BabaYaga.html

Much as Dr. Atlántida Raya-Rivera, the paper’s lead author, differs from Pushkin’s witch, the visage of Pushkin’s magic wears the nose and eyebrows of science. When tsars or millenials need medical help, they seek knowledge-keepers: specialists, a fringe of society. Before summoning the devil, the witch “[l]ocked her door . . . Three days passed.” I hide away to calculate and study (though days alone might render me more like the protagonist in another Russian story, Chekhov’s “The Bet”). Just as the witch “stocked up coal,” some students stockpile Red Bull before hitting the library. Some habits, like the archetype of the wise woman, refuse to die.

From a Russian rhyme, the bones of “Tsar Nikita” have evolved into cutting-edge science. Pushkin and the implants highlight how attitudes toward knowledge have changed, offering a lens onto science in culture and onto science culture. No wonder readers call Pushkin “timeless.”

But what would he have rhymed with “Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser”?




“Tsar Nikita” has many nuances—messages about censorship, for example—that I didn’t discuss. To the intrigued, I recommend The Queen of Spades: And selected works, translated by Anthony Briggs and published by Pushkin Press.


This entry was posted in News, Real science, Reflections and tagged , , , , by Nicole Yunger Halpern. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicole Yunger Halpern

I’m a theoretical physicist at the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science in Maryland. My research group re-envisions 19th-century thermodynamics for the 21st century, using the mathematical toolkit of quantum information theory. We then apply quantum thermodynamics as a lens through which to view the rest of science. I call this research “quantum steampunk,” after the steampunk genre of art and literature that juxtaposes Victorian settings (à la thermodynamics) with futuristic technologies (à la quantum information). For more information, check out my upcoming book Quantum Steampunk: The Physics of Yesterday’s Tomorrow. I earned my PhD at Caltech under John Preskill’s auspices; one of my life goals is to be the subject of one of his famous (if not Pullitzer-worthy) poems. Follow me on Twitter @nicoleyh11.

7 thoughts on “Tsar Nikita and His Scientists

  1. Haha, this article really blows me away, in many ways! Also, there are a lot of interesting (and maybe more practical) progresses in bio-science. Good for physicists to keep track of them and one day we may do something too! 🙂

  2. Nicole, thank you for the Pushkin reference. I have assigned to “Tsar Nikita and His Forty Princesses” my BibTex category-keyword “RegenFic”, for “regenerative medicine fiction”, where it takes its place alongside works like Alfred Bester’s short story “The Disappearing Act” (1953, PTSD), Robert Heinlein’s young-adult novel Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958, limb regeneration), and Paul “Cordwainer Smith” Linebarger’s short story “A Planet Named Shayol” (1961, organ regeneration).

    Other suggestions for “RegenFic” are welcome (particularly from the 1950s and earlier).

    The quantum relevance? Any technology that presses against quantum and/or thermodynamic and/or informatic bounds is quantum-relevant … this definitely encompasses regenerative medicine in all its 21st century aspects.

    • John, thanks for your comment! Learning that someone has such a list made my afternoon. Two monographs came to mind: Madeleine L’Engle (author of A Wrinkle in Time) published The Arm of the Starfish in (according to Wikipedia) 1965. Published (according to Wikipedia) in 1844, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne involves intriguing biomedicine, albeit not-exactly-regenerative biomedicine. Not that Hawthorne portrayed scientists favorably.

      • Nicole, thank you for this gracious reply. L’Engle’s Arm of the Starfish was unknown to me, and so this title now heads my wife and my “most wanted” list on our Seattle used-book quests. I *did* find a collection containing Gene Wolf’s novella The Death of Doctor Island, which can be read as a (dystopian? utopian?) narrative centering upon cognitive regenerative medicine, as practiced under strictly free-market/libertarian principles.

        I’ve added both L’Engle’s novel and Wolfe’s novella to a STEM-oriented reading-list, focusing upon 21st century (re)generative medicine, that I’m putting together for a young colleague who will be attending this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. When it’s ready I’ll forward you a copy of it.

        Interestingly, the director of the Odyssey Workshops (Jeanne Cavella) is herself an astrophysicist/mathematician/writer; this is a valuable and exceedingly synergistic skill-set (as it seems to me).

        Thank you (again), Nicole, for your outstanding suggestions. If you have more, please post them!

        • One can always turn to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for Skele-Gro…

          Best of luck with your reading list.

  3. Pingback: One if by land minus two if by sea, over the square-root of two | Quantum Frontiers

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