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"As a student, Landau dared to correct Einstein in a lecture"

Lev P. Pitaevskii, physicist

The presence of this Nobel-winning physicist in Barcelona on 22 April was on the occasion of a highly-deserved tribute. Equipped with a samovar and a never-empty cup of tea, Pitaevskii paid tribute to his former master in a lecture at the Technical University of Catalonia. His teacher was one of the most influential researchers in modern physics: Lev Landau. For half a century, Landau’s school in Moscow was a cradle of equations, principles and theories that would end up garnering more than one Nobel prize. Here's why.

Jordi Montaner | 5 may 2010


Lev P. Pitaevskii
Landau was the pioneer of theoretical physics in the former Soviet Union, but the regime ended up suffocating him.

Those who were fortunate enough to work with him remember him very differently.

Talking about it seems to upset you.
Remembering Landau for me is remembering my days of youth, a climate of effervescent hope that would eventually turn into a great disappointment.

How did you meet Landau?
I was a physics student. The idea of studying in Moscow did not even cross my mind since I lived so far away. But some friends spoke highly of Landau and his team. At that time, Landau subjected the candidates for the doctorate course to ten very strict exams, which, I was to soon learn, had relative importance. After the second one (the first two were on mathematics), Landau accepted me into his classes. Even so, he still noted that I had "some problems with solving integrals." I realized that he was a great mind, an exceptional man, a genius. He wrote everything in small notebooks. He had records of what days and times I had exams and what my scores were. He was very fond of both cinema and poetry, but the amazing thing was his way of dealing with physics problems. He made everything complicated seem simple. Landau's school soon became a pilgrimage site for all the sciences of the Soviet Union. Scientists came from all over to pose seemingly impossible problems to him. With irony and sarcastic humor, Landau would turn the problem on its head and offer several solutions.

Was he a good teacher?
Everyone adored him, everyone except the bureaucrats and political commissars.

Why?
He was also a conflictive character. He never bit his tongue. In the period of Stalin, he was put in prison. The State never offered him positions of trust, such as the chance to be a chair or a dean, and, even worse, they did not let him leave the country. Sometimes, bureaucrats at the University of Moscow censored his speeches arguing that he had been drunk while giving them. And the strongest drink that Landau ever tasted was a lemonade.

In 1962, his approach to the mathematical theory of superfluidity earned him the Nobel Prize in physics.
Still, it was a horrible year. The day after Kings Day, Landau had a serious accident when he crashed his car into a truck and he was never the same again. He was seriously wounded and could not take care of himself. He retired from active life and he faded away till he died in 1968 at the age of 60.

Did he leave any family?
He was married, I believe, and had a son who I think now lives in Switzerland, but his family life was not exactly happy. His true devotion was physics. In addition to superfluidity, he also investigated the properties of superconductors and did work on quantum mechanics. His observations on the presence of poles in quantum electrodynamics gave rise later to the theory of neutrinos.

"Landau was one of a kind in terms of calculations, but he always said what he most wanted to be was a gymnast"Did his vocation for physics emerge when he was young?
Perhaps. Landau was one of a kind in terms of calculations, but he always said what he most wanted to be was a gymnast. His erudition led him to enter the University of Baku’s Faculty of Economics at just 14 years of age. In 1929, he obtained a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation that allowed him to travel to Göttingen, Leipzig and Copenhagen. It was in Denmark where he met the physicist Niels Bohr, who impressed upon the young Landau an extraordinary enthusiasm for theoretical physics. In his classes with us, Landau always referred to Bohr as “his master." Those may have been his happiest years. After Copenhagen, he traveled to Cambridge and Zurich.

Back in the USSR, things got complicated.
Landau returned very fired up from his European experience. It was then when he came up with the idea for his Institute for Physics Problems in the Ukraine, which he later moved to Moscow. But in 1938 ...

Stalin had him arrested.
It was the time of the great purge. Landau was accused of spying for Germany and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Pyotr Kapitsa [Nobel Prize for physics in 1978] intervened personally with Stalin and convinced him to release Landau and let him lead his institute under his [Kapitsa’s] responsibility. Landau did not hold back one bit when it came to criticizing the Soviet regime, but in deference to Kapitsa, he watched what he said and kept a low profile.

Tell us an anecdote.
I only spent seven years [1955-1962] with him, but they were very much like scenes in a movie. Landau, for example, was always walking around with a ranking of the best physicists in history recorded in his notebook. He scored them on a logarithmic scale of 0 to 5. Newton was rated the best. Einstein was next and, of course, Bohr. After them came Heisenberg, Dirac, Schrödinger, Bose and Wigner.

Another.
I think it happened in Leipzig, where Landau was still a very observant fellow. Albert Einstein was giving a conference on physics and in the question and answer session, a young man stood up at the back of the room and in a very rough German suggested that the equations Einstein had written on the blackboard were incorrect. There was silence in the room and all eyes stared at the bold complainant. But Einstein turned and looked at the blackboard, stroked his mustache with his hand and acknowledged that the young man was right, asking the audience to forget everything the had explained earlier. That intrepid young man was Lev Davidovich Landau.

Rather than brave, he was a kamikaze. No wonder the KGB kept an eye on him.
He was an intellectual, but also a committed socialist. In 1935, he published an article in the paper Isvestia entitled The Bourgeoisie and Contemporary Physics. In it, Landau attacked the bourgeois class, the religious establishment and the military. The USSR had him imprisoned, but also, on his death, he was awarded both the Lenin and Hero of Labor awards. He left, as his most valuable legacy, the essential ten volumes of his Course on Theoretical Physics.

If Landau were to rise from the grave right now ...
He would check how many of his theories have come to be recognized around the world. He would be amazed by the changes that have taken place in the Soviet Union, now Russia, by the fall of the Iron Curtain, a have a good laugh over how an Icelandic volcano can cause a nightmare in Europe. He liked to joke about the ability of nature to annoy scientists.

LEV PETROVICH PITAEVSKII Born in 1933, after his period as a student at the Institute for Physics Problems in Moscow, founded by Landau and directed by Kapitza, he joined the Department of Optics at the University of Trento (Italy), where for years he has been developing a theory of elasticity and Bose-Einstein condensation along with a theory on quantum relativity. Eric A. Cornell, Wolfgang Ketterle and Carl E. E. Wieman were honored in 2001 with the Nobel Prize in Physics for their synthesis of the first Bose-Einstein condensate.

Comments

       
5 comments

B. Levchenko 22/05/2013
"...the Institute for Physics Problems in Moscow, founded by Landau" Here you are totally wrong! The IPP was founded in 1934 and directed by Petr Kapitza. L. Landau has moved from Kharkov to Moscow only in 1937.

Julia 27/07/2012
Landau had very happy family life with his wife Cora Landau, it was Love of his life!

Núria 12/05/2010
Te tota la raó. Els guardonats el 2001 van ser Eric A. Cornell, Wolfgang Ketterle i Carl E. E., per la síntesi del primer condensado de Bose-Einstein. Gràcies per l'aclariment.

Núria 12/05/2010
Te tota la raó. Els guardonats el 2001 van ser Eric A. Cornell, Wolfgang Ketterle i Carl E. E., per la síntesi del primer condensado de Bose-Einstein. Gràcies per l'aclariment.

Jordi Mur 11/05/2010
Lamento informar el redactor que Lev Pitaevskii no va guanyar el premi Nobel el 2001, tal com s'afirma en l'article. Aquell any el van guanyar Cornell, Ketterle i Wieman, per la realizació experimental de la condensació de Bose-Einstein, en què Pitaevskii ha treballat.

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