Vitaly Ginzburg: Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helped the Soviet Union develop the hydrogen bomb

Ginzburg’s scientific career was almost ended before it had begun following his marriage to his second wife, who had been arrested by the KGB for counter-revolutionary activities. State anti-Semitism was flourishing and an attack on Ginzburg was published in the widely distributed Literaturnaya Gazeta in October 1947. He later recalled in an article written for the Nobel Prize committee, “I can only guess what fate awaited me in this situation at this time. I think that it would have cost me dear, but I was saved by the hydrogen bomb.”

At the end of the Second World War, Ginzburg returned to the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow, where he worked in the theory department as a deputy to Igor Tamm. In 1948, in spite of his wife’s background, Ginzburg became part of the team that developed the Soviet Union’s hydrogen bomb. This was largely thanks to Tamm, who was asked to suggest people who could contribute to the effort. Ginzburg worked alongside Andrei Sakharov, later a well-known dissident. Together they are credited for developing and submitting the two key ideas which led to the creation of the bomb. Ginzburg’s key contribution was to suggest using lithium-6 as a nuclear fuel ? an idea that made it possible to build a practical H-bomb.

In 1951, however, Ginzburg was removed from the H-bomb team for reasons that were never made explicit but that were undoubtedly due to his Jewish background and the fact that his wife was a former political prisoner. Furthermore, Stalin was leading a fresh campaign of anti-Semitic purges which aimed to blame the Jews for the Soviet Union’s problems and exile them to labour camps. The first Soviet H-bomb was eventually detonated on 12 August 1953, four years after their atomic bomb test.

In 2003 Ginzburg wrote that it was “tremendous luck that the Great Leader did not have enough time to carry out what he had planned to do and died, or was killed, on 5th March, 1953. In the former USSR many people (at any rate, my wife and I) have up till now been celebrating this day as a great festival.” With the death of Stalin, Ginzburg was reinstated and elected as a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

His position on his role in the development of the H-bomb for Stalinist Russia is best left in his own words. Ginzburg later explained in an interview with Physics World, “We thought at the time that we were working to prevent a monopoly on the atomic bomb ? Hitler’s monopoly if he got the bomb before Stalin. The thought of what would happen if Stalin had a monopoly on atomic weapons somehow never entered my head. Scary thought. Stalin would seek to subjugate the entire world. I admit this may betray stupidity, but this stupidity was, back then, a common way of thinking in the Soviet Union.”

Ginzburg was a pioneering theoretical physicist who often deprecated his own abilities in mathematics, yet made seminal contributions in a number of areas of physics, including quantum theory, astrophysics and radio-astronomy. Following years of nominations, he won the 2003 Nobel Physics Prize for developing the theory behind superconductors; materials which allow electricity to pass without resistance at very low temperatures. His work had been done with his fellow physicist Lev Landau, but he had died in 1968 and awards were not given posthumously. He shared the prize with the British-American Anthony Leggett and the Russian-born US scientist Alexei Abrikosov.

Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg was born in Tsarist Russia, to a Jewish family in Moscow on 4 October 1916, a year before the Bolshevik Revolution. His father, Lazar Ginzburg, was an engineer working on water purification and his Latvian born mother, Avgusta Vildauer-Ginzburg, was a doctor, but died of typhoid in 1920. His mother’s younger sister, Rosa, helped to bring him up. Due to the disruption caused by the revolution, Ginzburg only had four years of education, starting at the age of 11.

Fortunately, a family friend, Professor Evgeni Bakhmetev, a former sailor, found him a job as a technician in an X-ray laboratory at a local higher-education technical institute. It was here that the young Ginzburg first became interested in science. This was aided by his reading of The Physics of our Day by the Russian physicist Orest D. Hvolson. In 1933, the Moscow State University changed its admission’s policy and so, with the help of a tutor, he studied for a competitive examination for entry into the university. He worked tirelessly, compressing three years’ study into three months and securing partial entry. A year later he gained full admission.

In 1938 he graduated with a degree in physics and completed his PhD in 1940. He then immediately joined the P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, where he was to remain for the rest of his scientific career. With the Soviet Union’s entry into the Second World War in June 1941), the Institute, along with the Academy of Sciences, was moved to Kazan in central Russia. Ginzburg gained a Doctor of Science in 1942. He had written it as quickly as possible because he thought he would be conscripted. The same year he joined the Communist Party. During the war he worked on the transmission of radio waves through the ionosphere.

In between his studies, Ginzburg had married his fellow student Olga Zamsha in 1937. They divorced, however, after nine years, having had a daughter, Irina Dorman. It was while he was a visiting professor at the University of Gorki, in 1945, that he met Nina Ermakova, who had been exiled to Gorki because of her supposed participation in an anti-Stalin plot. She had been arrested in 1944 and sentenced to three years in a labour camp, but was released following an amnesty a year later. She was, however, exiled from Moscow and deprived of many rights. Despite her position, they married in the summer of 1946. For another seven years Ginzburg was forced to commute regularly to see his wife, until Stalin’s death in 1953, when another amnesty was offered.

Over the decades Ginzburg wrote and published hundreds of papers, articles and books and received honours from around the world. The two most notable were the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1994-95 for his contributions to the theory of superconductivity and to the theory of high-energy processes in astrophysics, and then, of course, the Nobel Prize in 2003.

He later became the editor-in-chief of the leading scientific journal Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk and went on to become head of the P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow. He was also the chief of the Academic Department of Physics and Astrophysics Problems, which Ginzburg founded at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology in 1968.

As an atheist and secular Jew, Ginzburg was among Russian scientists who signed an open letter to Vladimir Putin in July 2007 warning that the Orthodox Church’s growing influence in Russia threatened to erode the separation of church and state and upset other officially recognised religions. Also in 2007, Ginzburg and his 1200 colleagues from the Academy of Sciences found themselves on a collision course with Putin because they rejected the Kremlin’s proposal to end its unique independence from state control. The new charter would give the government control of its funding and multi-billion pound property holdings.

Ginzburg claimed that Putin was worse than Stalin, writing, “Of course, in Stalin’s times, the Academy was under the control of the central committee of the Communist Party. But in those days you could come up with an idea and create ? that’s how we put the first Sputnik satellite into space. Now the government thinks science must bring only income and profit, which is absurd.”

It was reported by the Russian Academy of Sciences that Vitaly Ginzburg had died of cardiac arrest in Moscow following several years of illness. He had spent the last few weeks in hospital. Upon hearing of his death, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called him “a remarkable and purpose-driven man who has left us, one of the greatest physicists of our times, whose discoveries had a huge impact on the development of science in our country and around the world.”

Martin Childs

Vitaly L Ginzburg, physicist: born Moscow, Russia 4 October 1916; married 1937 Olga Zamsha (marriage dissolved, one daughter), 1946 Nina Ermakova; died Moscow, 8 November 2009.

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