The Ocean – Mika Alas

We have already written about this extraordinary man, one of the most important people of Serbian science and culture of all times (”Genius from the Sava Slope”, NR, no. 11). We know he was a first-class scientist, he got his doctoral degree at the Sorbonne, became a Serbian academic at the age of 31, founded the Belgrade School of Mathematics, was one of the first eight regular professors of the Belgrade University. He had a riverboat ”Karas” on the Sava, played the violin in the ”Suz” orchestra, passed the exam for a fisherman master. It is not commonly known, however, that Mihailo Petrović Alas (1868-1943) took part in polar expeditions, sailed far away oceans, visited the then unknown islands and published unforgettable books about it in the Cooperative’s libraries ”Instructor” and ”Contemporary”

By: Dragan Lakićević

The life of Mihailo Petrović resembles a novel, and his personality a portrait of a literary hero. If he had not been extraordinary, he would not have chosen to have his books of travels, knowledge and revelations published by the Serbian Literary Cooperative (Srpska književna zadruga – SKZ), which, at his time, was nearly fifty years old.
The Annals of the Life and Work of Mihailo Petrović counts more than 600 pages. It was written by the best expert in Mika Alas, Dragan V. Trifunović, versatile editor of his books, and published by the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. The annals are an important lesson in our science and culture.
Milutin Milanković, who shared a ”small room” with Mika in college, also said this about Alas: ”He spent days fishing on the Sava and the Danube, months on the wide sea, cruising between the Poles. He was an inexhaustible traveler and researcher in science, and he was the same in life.”


”The love for fishing and water made Mihailo Petrović a passionate traveler to exotic parts of the world. In 1931 and 1933 he visited the northern polar region in a scientific expedition and in 1935 the region of the southern pole.”
His books published by the Serbian Literary Cooperative write about it.
First the regular 35th ”Edition” published his book Through the Polar Region – a travel log from the region along the Norway shores, by the Bear Island, along the shores of Greenland, findings about polar tragedies, hunting in the polar region, whaling. – The anthological edition, intended for classics of world and Serbian literature and science included scientific travel logs of a mathematician, diligent researcher, who not only watched and analyzed, but also contemplated nature, people and the unwritten laws of the world.
”During that journey, Mika got to know the northern polar region with all its beauties and horrors, got baptized by crossing the polar circle, saw the midnight sun at the moment it touches the surface of the sea and releases horizontal rays which, reflecting from the sea surface, create magical pictures …” – writes Milanković.
At the open sea of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean – Alas played the violin.
Petrović printed his professional and scientific works from 1897 till his death (1943) in many newspapers and magazines: Hunter and Serbian Literary Messenger, Peasant and Economist, Politika and Annals of Matica Srpska, Fisherman’s Messenger and Red Cross Youth Messenger… And intended his books of travel logs for the Serbian Literary Cooperative’s ”Instructor” edition.
The Cooperative’s ”Instructor” has three of his books.
His work In the Pirates’ Empire was published in 1933. Some chapters from this valuable travel log are: cradle of the eel – Sargasso Sea, the Bermudas, the Bahamas, the Antilles, the Canary Islands, pirate tales, episodes from sea piracy...
In 1936, the Cooperative published Petrović’s book In RemoteIslands. Mika Alas from the Sava, a scientist who connected mathematics, philosophy and poetry, watched and described life in far away oceans. This book writes about the islands of the southern Atlantic, island of St. Helen, Napoleon’s journey, Madagascar, islands of the southern Indian Ocean, again whaling...
The most miraculous work of Mika Alas suggests its extraordinariness already with its title: Novel of the Eel. He published this perception of nature and its uncatchable laws in the ”Instructor” library too. Mila Alas reveals the ”century long natural mystery” of this water creature simultaneously using a mathematical method and his mind. The life in the ocean depths, he says, includes the ”marital journey of the eel over the ocean” and the ”unresolved mysteries of the eel’s novels”. The book was first published in 1940, and the second time in the second Yugoslavia, in the renewed ”Instructor” in 1952.
Svetlana Stipčević, author of the Literary Archive of the Serbian Literary Cooperative 1892–1970, found a letter written by Mihailo Petrović Alas dated August 14, 1939. He addresses Pavle Popović, secretary of SKZ: ”I have returned in one piece from my oversea adventure and brought new material which I would like to add to the Novel of the Eel.” The letter was handwritten, in Cyrillic script.
The third traditional Cooperative’s edition ”Contemporary”, intended for contemporary Serbian writers, accepts Mihailo Petrović, a scientist, as an extraordinary literate. In 1935, the ”Contemporary” published his book With Ocean Fishermen: from the French shores to Newfoundland, by the shores of Labrador, from the Magdalena Islands to the confluence of Saint Lawrence … In the area of travel logs and scientific narration, Mihailo Petrović Alas was what poets and novel writers Ćopić, Desanka and Ivo Andrić were for the then ”Contemporary”.
In 1967, the Cooperative remembered its dedicated author. That year, as the 405th book, the regular 60th ”Edition” published Metaphors and Allegories by Mihailo Petrović Alas, also edited by Dragan Trifunović.
As time goes by, his books are becoming more popular and are printed more often.


Alas begins his travel log from the polar region by remembering his favorite book, Adventures of Captain Hatteras. ”What he dreamed of in his childhood and youth while reading Jules Verne’s Adventures of Captain Hatteras and what he personally had a vague idea about while spending his days and nights in winter fishing on the Sava and the Danube full of hunting and fishing adventures” – Mika Alas saw personally, in a scientific polar expedition.
”One beautiful June night of 1931, last year, the six of us started out, five French researchers and me, from Dunkirk, the most northern French sea port, towards the north, heading to Norway...” In northern Norway, they joined the Scandinavian polar expedition consisting of 24 members – physicists, oceanographers and marine officers. The passengers did not take for serious the warnings of the English astronomer Harwood, so they experienced ”a hurricane of wind and tempest, a terrible sea storm accompanied by heavy and long lasting rain. The commotion was also followed by unusually strong earthquakes and seismic catastrophes.”
The travel log of Mika Alas is a historical, geographical and ethnographical presentation of the northern world: the lands, cities, sea, and mainly – life in the polar area. He did not miss to mention the ”notorious sea whirlpool of Maelstrom, which swallowed many people during the centuries and to which many stories and legends of that region and the whole north are related…”
The book also includes maps of the journey, pictures of fishermen, Lapponians and their children, ships, docks, icebergs and ice hills of ten-million tons, Greenland glaciers, ice sledges… And even more is in narrative pictures: sights and experiences, information and conclusions and excellent narration of the versatile writer and scientist.
Exciting are encounters with polar bears, life of the Eskimos searching for food, hunting dolphins. Also present are reviews of historical attempts of reaching the Pole as close as possible – names, dates, achievements of previous polar expeditions. Mika Alas also writes about the searches for lost expeditions and their scientific objectives – and all this illuminated by the unique light of the far north, between the sky and the ice. The adventure of the brave is here the adventure of a scientist.
The old sea wolf from Belgrade, Mihailo Petrović Alas, came to the place where the polar bear, seal, walrus, whale, musk ox live.
Professor Alas wished to tell the interesting details from his journeys to a wide circle of interested people. Therefore many texts of his were published in many newspapers and magazines: ”What are polar expeditions”, ”Among the most primitive race in the world”, ”Difficulties and dangers of traveling through the polar region”, ”In the homeland of true piracy”, ”Three weeks in the center of greatest fishing on Earth”, ”A big Muslim pirate”, ”With elephant seal hunters”, ”A northern oasis”, ”A journey on an iceberg”, ”Northern wonders”, ”Sailing under sea”, ”Shark hunting” – just to mention articles published in the daily Politika from 1931 to 1941.
”He often stepped over the borders of the explored regions and discovered new landscapes.” (Milanković)


In 1941, Mika Alas was a retired university professor. At the beginning of the war, he voluntarily applied at the military command as a reserve engineering lieutenant and asked for a uniform. In April he was captivated in Sarajevo. He refused to take off the uniform and thus avoid captivation, and was taken to the German concentration camp in Nurnberg. He was released after the intervention of his friend from youth Prince Djordje Karadjordjević. ”Ill and exhausted, he returned from captivity to destroyed Belgrade in September.”
He published his work Prime Numbers in 1943. Although old and weak, he was active at the Serbian Royal Academy… He died on June 8. ”The following day, fishermen carried the coffin of their master to the Cathedral Church. Episcope Venijamin, Professor Milutin Milanković and Professor Nikola Popović held speeches and said goodbye to him.”
Milanković also said: ”Before the mortal remains of our immortal, the Serbian science mourns its greatest mathematician Mihailo Petrović. With him, on the wide wings of his genius, our science ascended to the heights where the whole world could see it…”


”Nada” Society
As a fourth grade gymnasium student, he made a chemical laboratory in his house. Later he connected chemistry with mathematics.
”His school friends were Jovan Cvijić, Pavle Popović, Jaša Prodanović, Vladimir Ribnikar, Ljuba Jovanović...” They gathered at the Nada society.


With Milutin
He nearly drowned 11 times, once with prince Djordje. A legend says that he never learned to swim. Milutin Milanković taught him to swim at the Danube near Vukovar, when Petrović visited him in Dalj.
The archive of the Serbian Academy of Sciences preserves a witty poem, full of fishermen and mathematical slang, written by academic Milanković: ”Of all our scientists / master Mika is the greatest …”


Logs for Smoking Fish
Trifunović’s Annals inform us that in 1908 Alas was at the congress of mathematicians in Rome, in 1928 in Toronto (then went to Vancouver by train), in 1931 in Zurich, in 1932 in Liege, in 1928 at a seminar at the Sorbonne, in 1940 in New York – almost 40 congresses… He visited Switzerland with Prince Djordje, carried logs for smoking fish in Russia...


”It is a big merit of Mika’s school friend Pavle Popović for including the oversea journeys Mika described in the editions of the Serbian Literary Cooperative. After each such journey, while it was still fresh in his memory, Mika wrote a book about it.” (Milutin Milanković)


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