Master of world physics

When Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, came to Moscow his lecture was translated by Yevgeny Lifshits, Lev Landauґs student and co-author, who was fluent in English. When someone from the audience asked Bohr how he had managed to build such a wonderful school of physicists, he replied that his secret was that he didnґt mind telling his students that he was a fool. Misunderstanding, Lifshits told the audience that Bohr never minded telling his students that they were fools. He promptly corrected himself, but the future Nobel Prize-winner Pyotr Kapitsa, who was at the lecture, remarked that the slip of the tongue reflected the difference between the schools of Bohr and Landau.
Lev Landau was a great Russian physicist, capable of undoubted genius just as he was of insulting his students. He was also frank about his extramarital affairs, which he would willingly reveal to his wife. Already a well-to-do man, he refused his relatives the most elementary of help.

But there was a different side to Landau. The number of students Landau showered with his ideas, which they turned into famous articles and dissertations, runs into many dozens. The country's top physicists consider him to be their teacher. What is more, Dau, as everybody called him, usually refused to put his name to these papers.

Landau's beautiful wife Kora may not have been happy about his amorous peccadilloes, but she always said in his lifetime and wrote in a biography after his death that meeting the great physicist was the best thing that had ever happened to her.

As for money... Landau helped many of his colleagues, often secretly, and he was the last man to be accused of being stingy. We will never learn whether he really sabotaged his friend Yevgeny Lifshits's attempts to become a member of the Academy of Sciences. But we do know that Lifshits will go down in the history of physics mainly because Landau chose him as co-author of his famous textbook, A Course in Theoretical Physics. Just as the Bible is referred to as "The Book", this textbook was known simply as "The Course" and was reprinted many times during Landau's lifetime and after the winter of 1962, when he was injured when his car skidded and crashed into a truck.

Landau was born on January 22, 1908, into a family of intellectuals (his father was an engineer and his mother a physiologist). He finished secondary school at 13 and university at 19. He was sent for internship to Europe, where he worked under Niels Bohr and met Heisenberg and other great physicists. On his return to the USSR he formed his own physics school. It was extremely hard to get into: the entry test, called "Theoretical Minimum", was administered by Dau himself, and competition was tough.

Landau's contribution to physics was boundless: Landau the theorist made huge strides in the study of stellar systems, light dispersion, the nature of magnetism, the theory of phase transformations of substance and the quantum theory of the behaviour of free electrons in a magnetic field. And he didn't pull back from doing his share toward the building of the Soviet atomic bomb, although he did minimise his contribution.

He got his Nobel Prize for his explanation of the paradoxically high fluidity of liquid helium. The liquid penetrates through the tiniest apertures, ignores gravity and rises up the walls of a vessel. Other measurements indicate that the liquid does possess some viscosity. Landau suggested that at temperatures close to absolute zero (minus 273 degrees Celsius) liquid helium is simultaneously two liquids, one behaving as super fluid and the other as "normal". Experiments bore out his theory, although it is impossible to imagine the "dual" liquid. The theory predicted some other wonderful phenomena, for example the first and second sound in liquid helium.

However, Landau would hardly have been so highly respected and even idolised by the physics community and millions of his contemporaries if he had been only a great theoretical physicist. He was also a great teacher and a man of great foresight. Although he was enthusiastic about socialism in his youth he realised much earlier than Andrei Sakharov the criminal nature of the Communist regime. In the late 1930s his anti-Soviet pronouncements landed him in jail. He was rescued by Pyotr Kapitsa, author of experiments in super-fluidity, who was highly regarded by the Communist authorities.

The injuries Landau sustained in the car crash were thought to be fatal. However, thousands of physicists and doctors from all over the world mounted an unprecedented battle for his life. The best surgeons from France, Canada and Czechoslovakia came to the USSR for consultations and operations and sent medicines that were unavailable in the USSR. After lying in a coma for a month and a half the scientist regained consciousness. But while his life was saved, Landau never recovered sufficiently to regain his creative force and died six years later. He could not even go to Stockholm to collect the 1962 Nobel Prize, being barely able to lift himself from his sofa. [Incidentally, Landau never had a desk of his own at the Physics Institute, and he composed all his famous works lying on the sofa at home.]

The Theoretical Physics Institute has been named after Landau. "The Course", or "Landafshits" [Landau and Lifshits] as it was jokingly called, sold hundreds of thousands of copies in dozens of languages, unheard of for a physics textbook. His students and his students' students are the elite of world science.

Liquid helium, meanwhile, still flows out of the vessel strictly according to Dau's formulas.

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