Obituary

Vitaly Ginzburg (1916–2009)

  • A Correction to this article was published on 20 January 2010

Nobel-prizewinning success in physics achieved in the Soviet system.

Credit: A. ZEMLIANICHENKO/AP

Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg, who died on 8 November, played a leading part in many aspects of theoretical physics during the Soviet era and after the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991. His research contributions were vast and of the highest order, culminating in the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2003, jointly with Alexei Abrikosov and Anthony Leggett, for pioneering studies in superconductivity and superfluidity.

Ginzburg was born in 1916 into a Jewish family in Moscow just before the Russian Revolution. His formal school education began only at the age of 11. In 1931, Evgeni Bakhmet'ev, a professor at Moscow's Technical University, helped him to get a job as a laboratory assistant in the university's X-ray laboratory. This experience whetted his appetite for physics and he entered Moscow State University in 1933 to study this discipline. Strongly attracted to theoretical physics, he was unsure of his mathematical ability and decided to work in optics under the supervision of Grigory Landsberg. He went on to take his PhD in 1940 and, having transferred to the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (FIAN) in Moscow, completed his science doctorate there in 1942. He was to remain a member of the FIAN for the rest of his life.

The scope of Ginzburg's research can be appreciated from his own attempt at a scientific autobiography, in which he listed, roughly chronologically, his range of interests in theoretical physics: classical and quantum electrodynamics, Cherenkov and transition radiation, the propagation of electromagnetic waves in plasma, radio astronomy and synchrotron radiation, cosmic-ray and γ-ray astrophysics, the scattering of light in crystals, the theory of ferroelectrics, and superfluidity and superconductivity.

In all of these areas, he wrote prolifically and made original contributions. For example, his work on transition radiation, a phenomenon that occurs when high-speed charged particles cross two media of different electric permittivity, followed on from his deep interest in electrodynamics, and his comprehensive treatment of the topic was truly pioneering. His studies of synchrotron radiation were highly influential in establishing that this process is the dominant non-thermal radiation mechanism in high-energy astrophysical phenomena in radio astronomy. These diverse interests were reflected in a series of influential books.

The pinnacle of his scientific achievement was his groundbreaking research with Lev Landau on the theory of superconductivity, published in 1950. This work built on Landau's theory of second-order phase transitions. Ginzburg had already applied Landau theory to ferroelectric phenomena. The crucial advance in the Ginzburg–Landau theory was the concept that, in the transition from the normal to the superconducting state, the phenomenon of symmetry breaking in a metal, a characteristic of Landau theory, was associated with the wavefunction of the metal's superconducting electrons, a non-gauge invariant process. This new paradigm was to have profound implications for many aspects of quantum physics beyond superconductivity, including the Higgs phenomenon, which gives particles mass.

His broad interests in theoretical physics were reflected in the famous Ginzburg seminars, which were held each week at the FIAN. Ginzburg stated that the topics for discussion should include all theoretical physics, except particle physics. His leadership at these seminars was impressive: he regularly interrupted the speaker to summarize what had just been said so that all listeners could follow the argument. These were celebrated weekly events, with most of Moscow's physicists making an effort to attend.

Ginzburg lived through a turbulent era. The Soviet Union entered the Second World War in 1941, and the Soviet Academy of Sciences was evacuated to Kazan, where Ginzburg worked for the next two years. In 1937, he had married his fellow student Olga Zamsha, but they divorced in 1946. In the same year he married Nina Ermakova, who had been arrested in 1944 on a trumped-up charge of plotting to kill Stalin. She was given a lenient sentence and released under an amnesty in 1945, but was not allowed to return to Moscow.

In 1945, Ginzburg was invited to become a visiting professor at the newly established radiophysical department at Gorky University in what is now Yekaterinburg, and he subsequently became chair of a group studying the propagation and radiation of radio waves. Living mainly in Moscow, for seven years Ginzburg made annual applications for his wife to be allowed to return there, but these were refused until after Stalin's death in 1953.

In 1947, he was personally attacked in an article in the Literaturnaya Gazeta, which blamed him for non-patriotic citations in his papers and for 'idealism'. Despite this attack, Igor Tamm, in need of physicists of the highest quality, arranged that he join the Soviet nuclear-weapons programme. The leaders of this project — Yulii Khariton, Igor Kurchatov and Yakov Zeldovich — assembled a brilliant team of physicists and mathematicians, including Andrei Sakharov, Israil Gel'fand, Alexander Kompaneets, Landau and Ginzburg, to develop nuclear weapons in response to the United States' development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Ginzburg's major contribution was to propose the use of lithium-6 as the fuel for the Soviet hydrogen bomb, a quite different process from that adopted in the United States. But he did not remain long in the nuclear programme.

After Stalin's death, Ginzburg was elected a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and his wife returned to Moscow. He became a full member of the academy in 1966 and, on the death of Tamm in 1971, became head of the theoretical physics department at the FIAN. During this period, Sakharov had become politically active and was classed as a dissident, being exiled to Gorky in 1980. The FIAN provided a scientific home for him, but, as a member of the theoretical physics department, this placed significant constraints on Ginzburg, who was not allowed to travel abroad for many years. Matters changed significantly with the period of perestroika that started in 1985, with Ginzburg being appointed a member of the Congress of People's Deputies from 1989 to 1991, when the body was dissolved.

Ginzburg was a strong personality, with deeply held humanitarian views that he maintained throughout the years of Soviet rule. He kept an open mind on issues in theoretical physics, but based his opinions on a strongly developed intuition for the underlying principles. He will be remembered with gratitude by all who experienced his kindness, and as an inspirational figure who carried out world-leading research against a background of significant political oppression.

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Longair, M. Vitaly Ginzburg (1916–2009). Nature 462, 996 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/462996a

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