Archive for Physics

R. I. P. Wolfgang Rindler (1924-2019)

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 5, 2019 by telescoper

A recent comment on this blog drew my attention to the sad news of the death, at the age of 94, of Wolfgang Rindler. He passed away almost a month ago, in fact, but I have only just heard. My condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

Wolfgang Rindler was a physicist who specialized in relativity theory and especially its implications for cosmology. Among other things he is attributed with the first use of the phrase `Event Horizon‘ as well as elucidating the nature of horizons in general relativity, both in the context of black holes and in cosmology. I never met him personally but to me, and I think to many other people, Wolfgang Rindler will be familiar through his textbooks on relativity theory. I have two in my collection:

I bought the one on the right on recommendation when I was an undergraduate over thirty years ago and the other (shorter) one I acquired second-hand some years later. Both are still very widely used in undergraduate courses.
I found the first one then (as I do now) rather idiosyncratic in approach and notation but full of deep insights and extremely effective from a pedagogical point of view. I still recommend it to students, to balance more conventional modern texts which tend to be far more conventional. It’s no easy thing to write textbooks and Wolfgang Rindler deserves high praise for having devoted so much of his time, and considerable talent, into writing ones whose impact has been so widespread and lasted so long.

Rest in peace, Wolfgang Rindler (18th May 1924 – 8th February 2019).


Ahead of Teaching

Posted in Biographical, Education, mathematics, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , on February 3, 2019 by telescoper

It’s 3rd February 2019, which means that today is two days after Imbolc, a Gaelic festival marking the point halfway between the winter solstice and vernal equinox. This either happens 1st or 2nd February, and this year it was former, i.e. last Friday In Ireland this day is sometimes regarded as the first day of spring, as it is roughly the time when the first spring lambs are born. It corresponds to the Welsh Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau and is also known as the `Cross Quarter Day’ or (my favourite) `The Quickening of the Year’.

I wrote a post about this time last year, on the day I gave my first ever lecture in Maynooth University, on Computational Physics, in a theatre called Physics Hall. That was on Thursday February 1st 2018. It’s hard to believe that was a full year ago. Time certainly has gone quickly this year.

Owing to the vagaries of the academic calendar we’re a week later getting back to teaching this year than last year so my first Computational Physics lecture won’t be until this Thursday (7th February) at 9am, but sadly it won’t be in Physics Hall, which I rather liked, but in Hall C – a much less atmospheric venue, but one rather closer to my office, which will be handy if I forget anything (which I am prone to do). There are about 25 students taking this module, a few down on last year, which means they should fit comfortably into our computer lab. I’m not surprised they moved the lecture, really. The capacity of Physics Hall is 90, and even last year I only had about 30 students. Still, it did have a piano (which Hall C does not):

Computational Physics doesn’t start until Thursday. Before that I have to start my other module: Engineering Mathematics II. This (what you would probably call a `service course’) covers a mixture of things, mainly Linear Algebra but with some other bits thrown in for fun, such as Laplace transforms. Interestingly I find the Mathematical Physics students do not encounter Laplace Transforms in the first year, but perhaps engineers use them more often than physicists do? I think I’ve written only one paper that made use of a Laplace transform. Anyway, I have to start with this topic as the students need some knowledge of it for some other module they’re taking this semester. I reckon six lectures will be enough to give them what they need. That’s two weeks of lectures, there being three lectures a week for this module.

By coincidence rather than good planning, the timetable for this module is quite nice. I have lectures on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then the students have a choice of tutorial (on either Thursday or Friday). That means I can get through a decent amount of material each week before each tutorial. I don’t do the tutorials, by the way: that’s left to one of our PhD students, who gets paid for doing that and correcting the weekly coursework. There are about 50 students on this module, divided into two courses: Electronic Engineering and Robotics and Intelligent Devices. We don’t have Civil or Mechanical or Chemical Engineering, etc at Maynooth.

Campus has been very quiet for the last week or so. The exam period finished in late January but lectures don’t start until tomorrow morning (Monday 4th February) so there have been few students around. No doubt it will be a different story tomorrow. I’ve done my first week’s notes and compiled my first problem set so I’m more-or-less ready to go. First lecture at 2pm tomorrow in Hall H, which is one of the rooms I taught in last term so at least I know where it is!


Fourier, Hamilton and Ptolemy

Posted in History, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on December 17, 2018 by telescoper

As we stagger into the last week of term I find myself with just two lectures to give in my second-year module on Vector Calculus and Fourier Series. I didn’t want to present the two topics mentioned in the title as disconnected, so I linked them in a lecture in which I used the divergence theorem of vector calculus to derive the heat equation, the solution of which led Joseph Fourier to devise his series in Mémoire sur la propagation de la chaleur dans les corps solides (1807), a truly remarkable work for its time that inspired so many subsequent developments.

Fourier’s work was so influential and widely admired that it inspired a famous Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton to write the following poem:

Hamilton-for Fourier

The serious thing that strikes me is not the quality of the verse, but how many scientists of the 19th Century, Hamilton included, saw their scientific interrogation of Nature as a manifestation of the human condition just as the romantic poets saw their artistic contemplation and how many poets of the time were also interested in science.

Anyway I was looking for nice demonstrations of Fourier series to help my class get to grips with them when I remembered this little video recommended to me some time ago by esteemed Professor George Ellis. It’s a nice illustration of the principles of Fourier series, by which any periodic function can be decomposed into a series of sine and cosine functions.

This reminds me of a point I’ve made a few times in popular talks about Astronomy. It’s a common view that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion according to which which the planets move in elliptical motion around the Sun, is a completely different formulation from the previous Ptolemaic system which involved epicycles and deferents and which is generally held to have been much more complicated.

The video demonstrates however that epicycles and deferents can be viewed as the elements used in the construction of a Fourier series. Since elliptical orbits are periodic, it is perfectly valid to present them in the form a Fourier series. Therefore, in a sense, there’s nothing so very wrong with epicycles. I admit, however, that a closed-form expression for such an orbit is considerably more compact and elegant than a Fourier representation, and also encapsulates a deeper level of physical understanding.

The Strumia Affair

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 3, 2018 by telescoper

I’m very late to this story as it broke over the weekend when I was preoccupied with many things, but it has triggered quite a reaction in the media (including here in Ireland). The story involves a physicist by the name of Alessandro Strumia who works at the University of Pisa in Italy. This person used the opportunity provided by a Conference on Theory and Gender to deliver a talk that contained highly inflammatory comments about gender and physics ability.

As a service to the community I’ve uploaded the slides for Strumia’s talk to Slideshare so you can read them here if you’re interested in his argument:

There are detailed discussions of Strumia’s talk by fellow bloggers Philip Moriarty here and Jon Butterworth here. Between them they cover most of what I’d say on the topic if I had time so I’ll direct you to them rather than repeat the arguments here. There are a host of other reaction pieces elsewhere, and I won’t attempt to summarize them either. Suffice to say that the old argument that `women are intrinsically not as good at physics as men’ has been refuted many times using solid empirical evidence; see the above post by Philip. It’s no wonder, though, that women get put off doing physics, when there are people like Alessandro Strumia in the field and potentially responsible for evaluating the performance of female staff.

What I will do add is that, for someone who purports to be a scientist, Strumia’s use of evidence is shockingly unscientific. His argument is riddled with non sequitur, unjustified assumptions and formulaic prejudice. Apart from everything else I think this is symptomatic of a malaise that is a widespread affliction in the field theoretical physics nowadays, which is worst among string theorists (which Strumia is not), namely a lack of basic understanding of, or even interest in, the proper application of scientific method.

Breakthrough Prize for Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2018 by telescoper

I awoke this morning to find my Twitter feed full of news about the award of a special Breakthrough Prize to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. To quote the press release:

The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

Bell Burnell receives the Prize “for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community.” Pulsars are a highly magnetized, rapidly spinning form of the super-dense stars known as neutron stars. Their discovery was one of the biggest surprises in the history of astronomy, transforming neutron stars from science fiction to reality in a most dramatic way. Among many later consequences, it led to several powerful tests of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and to a new understanding of the origin of the heavy elements in the universe.

For the full citation and background information, see here.

The prize is not only prestigious but also substantial in cash terms: $3M no less. Jocelyn has made it clear however that she intends to use the money to set up a fund to encourage greater diversity in physics, through the Institute of Physics. That is a wonderful gesture, but if you know Jocelyn at all then you will not be at all surprised by it, as she is a person of enormous integrity who has for many years demonstrated a huge commitment to the cause of increasing diversity. I look forward to hearing more about how this initiative works out.

In an interview with the Guardian, Jocelyn said “Increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.” I agree, and not just because an open and inclusive environment is a good thing in itself (which it is) but also because the fewer barriers there are to entry for a particular field, the broader the pool of talent from which it can recruit.

P.S. What would you do if you won a prize of $3M?

P. P. S. If I had $3M to spend, I think I’d spend it on whatever would most annoy all the miserable twerps complaining on Twitter about what Jocelyn Bell Burnell is doing with her Breakthrough Prize money.

Age, Memory and Learning

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2018 by telescoper

Today’s a big day for prospective students at Irish universities. It’s the day when the Central Applications Office (CAO, the equivalent of the UK’s UCAS) makes offers of places to students based the Leaving Certificate results that were announced last week. Thus begins the process by which universities find out how many students we will have for entry next month. Lectures here at Maynooth start on 24th September, with an induction week before that, so there promises to be quite a rush to get everything sorted out.

The first thing that struck me thinking ahead to this year’s new entry of students was that the majority of students starting this autumn either here in Ireland or in the UK were born in the year 2000. That means that I’ve been a Professor (at four different universities: Nottingham, Cardiff, Sussex and Maynooth) all the time they have been alive! Yikes I feel old!

The other thing that struck me among all the press coverage of the Leaving Certificate in Ireland is the significant amount of griping about how these examinations are basically just memory tests and the system encourages rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, as a number of people have pointed out in opinion pieces (e.g. here) and letters (here and here), a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right.

I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, however, they are not sufficient. You other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in such a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!

Lev Davidovich Landau (1908-68) – Guest Post by Anton Garrett

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on July 2, 2018 by telescoper

A couple of months ago a comment appeared on this blog (on a post about Richard Feynman) that said `not so much is known about Landau’. That was swiftly followed by an offer from Anton Garrett to post a biographical essay on him. In the original version of this article the author included his sources, but the references are absent from this piece owing to lack of time. I’m sure if there is demand we can ask Anton to update it with references when he’s back from MaxEnt 2018. In the meantime, here’s the piece:


Lev Davidovich Landau, pictured c. 1937

Lev Davidovich Landau was the greatest theoretical physicist that Russia has produced. He was born in 1908; lost to physics by a car crash which left him medically dead for a while, in 1962; and he finally died six years after that, in 1968.

He was born to a Jewish family in Baku, Azerbaijan, a university and oil town on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, in January, 1908. His father was David Lvovich Landau, an engineer from a well-off family. He was the manager of a stock company concerned with the oil business in the Baku oil fields, and was over 40 when Lev Davidovich was born. (There was an elder sister, Sophia, who became a chemical engineer.) Landau’s mother was Lyubov Beniaminovna Garkavi, 10 years younger than her husband. She graduated in 1898 from the St. Petersburg Midwifery Institute, and six years later from the Women’s Medical School. She met her husband when he was visiting his sister, who was having a baby. Landau’s mother ran the school which her son Lev attended at the age of eight, and the young Landau would arrive with her daily by carriage. Both parents perished in the siege of Leningrad in World War II.

As a young child he had been interested exclusively and obsessively in arithmetic and mathematics, concerning himself with anything else – intellectual or other – only to get it out of the way; the interest in music that his parents had hoped for came to nothing. At school he excelled in mathematics and science. When nine years old, he had said that he wished to investigate every matter that life brought him into contact with, and to find his own solutions. (Later in life he seldom read a paper through, looking at the introduction and then working out the rest himself.) He was able to discuss the Revolution seriously in 1918, when aged 10, and had mastered the calculus by the time he left high school aged 13. He appears to have undergone a crisis at that age, for he resolved to commit suicide; fortunately he did not do so. During his schooling, the chaos of revolution was taking place, and Baku was taken four times in the struggle.

His parents felt he was too young for University at 13, and preferred a financial career for him. Accordingly he spent a year with his sister Sophia at Baku Economic Technicum. At his own insistence he then transferred, in autumn 1922, to science at the University of Baku. He enrolled in two departments: physics-mathematics and chemistry.

In 1924, at 16, he transferred to the physics department at Leningrad University. Leningrad was the Soviet Union’s leading physics centre, and it was here that Landau matured into a theoretical physicist proper. He said he only went into the University twice a week to “meet friends and see what was happening”, but he devoted most of his spare time to study, and often could not sleep for turning formulae over in his mind. Landau was staggered by the beauty of Einstein’s conception in general relativity, later stating that such rapture on first meeting it should be recognised as a characteristic of the true theoretical physicist. Experimentalists always found him most approachable, and he would always lay pure theory aside if asked for calculational help by an experimentalist. Later in life he vehemently declined to set up an exclusively theoretical institute.

In 1926 he simultaneously enrolled at the Leningrad Physicotechnical Institute as a supernumerary graduate student, and a year later graduated from the University and commenced full time studies at the Institute under Frenkel. George Gamow was a fellow student. At this time the revolutionary papers on the new quantum physics were coming in, from Schrödinger, Jordan, Born, Heisenberg and Dirac. Landau read them avidly. He immediately saw the importance of the new work, but through youthful lack of experience was not in its forefront. Certainly he had the ability; he often regretted not having been born seven years earlier.

Nevertheless, his first four papers, published in his late teens, all concerned the new quantum mechanics. In the second of these, he quantised the rigid rotator to find the spectra of diatomic molecules, and extended the analysis by perturbation theory to Zeeman splitting in magnetic fields. Another paper was on quantum-mechanical damping, also studying spontaneous emission. It introduced the concept of the density matrix independently of von Neumann. All four papers appeared in Zeitschrift für Physik. He published nothing more for three years.

In 1929 Landau won a Rockefeller Fellowship, which the People’s Commissariat of Education supplemented, and he went abroad to learn from the great European physicists. He took his opportunity, saying later “It was a pleasure to talk with everyone I met. Not one of them showed a trace of conceit, pretentiousness or arrogance.” He met Born in Göttingen, Heisenberg in Leipzig, and went on to Niels Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. This was the most formative part of his trip, for all of the leading physicists regularly gathered there for seminars and discussion. Landau was one of the most active participants. He always considered Bohr as his mentor and, once he had gained a measure of autonomy, he returned in 1933 and 1934. From Copenhagen he went on to Cambridge for four months, where he wrote up the idea of innate electron diamagnetism. There he worked with Rutherford, and met his fellow citizens Pyotr Kapitza and George Gamow, touring Britain in a red jacket on the back of Gamow’s motor cycle. After Cambridge he went on to Pauli in Zurich where he also worked with Rudolf Peierls, then assistant to Pauli; Peierls later married a prominent member of Landau’s Leningrad circle.

He returned to Leningrad in March 1931, and became active in teaching as well as research. At this time, dialectical materialism was universal dogma in Russia and it crept into physics. Landau did not initially perceive the seriousness with which this was taken; he, Gamow and three others fell into trouble over a satirical telegram, sent to the author of an encyclopaedia article attacking relativity as incompatible with dialectical materialism.

Nevertheless, at 24 Landau was appointed head of the theoretical division of the newly organised Ukrainian Physicotechnical Institute in Kharkov, then the capital of the Ukrainian SSR.(Today the capital is Kiev.) He stayed in Kharkov five years. The Institute was an offshoot of the Physicotechnical Institute of Leningrad, whose head, Joffe, put great effort into setting up such institutions countrywide.

By this stage Landau knew what he could do, and at 24 was in the enviable position of being in charge. His research flourished, and branched into diverse fields. In 1936 he published or co-authored the following papers:

  • Theory of Photo-Emf in Semiconductors,
  • Theory of Monomolecular Reactions,
  • Theory of Sound Dispersion,
  • Transport Equation for Coulomb Interactions,
  • Properties of Metals at Very Low Temperatures,
  • Scattering of Light by Light

and in 1937:

  • Origin of Solar Energy,
  • Absorption of Sound in Solids,
  • Theory of Phase Transitions (1&2),
  • Theory of Superconductivity,
  • Statistical Theory of Nuclei,
  • Scattering of X-rays by Crystals Near the Curie Point,
  • Scattering of X-rays by Crystals with Variable Lamellar
  • Stability of Neon and Carbon to alpha-Decay,
  • Production of Particle Showers by Heavy Particles.

These are impressively varied. He also displayed a mastery of mathematical techniques. It was said of von Neumann that he never solved any problem he found difficult, only problems others found difficult; but when Vitaly Ginzburg put a similar charge to Landau, he replied, “No, that is wrong; I did what I could”. Landau had already developed an interest in the theory of matter at low temperatures, a field studied experimentally in Kharkov by Lev Shubnikov and his wife Olga Trapeznikova, who had both earlier worked in Kamerlingh-Onnes’ pioneering low temperature laboratory in Leiden. These were to become two of Landau’s closest friends; later, Artemii Alikhanian was to become a personal confidant. Paul Ehrenfest, who had lived in St. Petersburg pre-revolution, was a frequent and valued visitor to Kharkov. In 1935 he moved over to head also the general physics department at the University of Kharkov. He must have been able to do with very little sleep!

In Kharkov, Landau met Concordia (Cora, or Korusha) Terentievna Drobantseva, a Ukrainian chemistry student and food technologist. Overcoming his original reticence with women, he courted her, and in 1937 they married. The Landaus had one son, Igor, born in 1946. He became an experimental physicist.

It was at Kharkov that Landau developed his ideas about the teaching of physics. Landau’s master plan was to write, or at least oversee, a graded series of textbooks, from school and lay texts to a course for professional theoreticians. He never completed the task, but by the time of his disablement in 1962, he and Evgeny Lifshitz had finished nearly all of the full Course of Theoretical Physics, and the first part of the Course of General Physics. For this they received the Order of Lenin, the highest Soviet honour. The original nine volume, full Course of Theoretical Physics is universally known as “Landau and Lifshitz”; it has been kept up to date, and translated into English. (Among the translating team was John Bell of Bell’s theorem.) These books are masterpieces. They include all pertinent facts, and never waste a word or use an inferior method. The initial Russian reviews were, ridiculously, negative; again dialectical materialism was involved. But the physicists knew better.

From 1930 on, Landau’s output was actually written by Lifshitz or a collaborator and overseen by Landau; perfectionism to the degree of self-torture was responsible.

The full Course of Theoretical Physics was what Landau uncompromisingly believed every intending theoretician should master before undertaking research. He also believed in a mastery of mathematical methods, so that technicalities should not obscure the physics of a problem. Landau initially examined students for this ‘theoretical minimum’ himself. The test involved the evaluation of indefinite integrals expressible in elementary functions, solution of ordinary differential equations of standard type, vector and tensor analysis, and elements of complex variable theory. 43 persons passed the theoretical minimum from its inception in 1933 up to 1961; by 1988, 10 of these were Members of the Academy of Science (equivalent to FRS), and 20 were D.Sc’s.

In 1937 Kapitza, who three years earlier had been refused permission to return to Cambridge after a visit home, was able to invite Landau to head the theoretical division of the new Institute of Physical Problems in Moscow. Landau accepted, and was based there for the rest of his working life. The timing was fortunate; factions within the Institute at Kharkov were interpreted as being related to those in the secret police (the NKVD), and most of the senior scientific staff were arrested. Landau was aware that his sharp tongue made him an obvious target of the arbitrary purges then prevailing, although a naivety still prevailed, for in 1936 Landau declared that Stalin’s “democratic” constitution would soon deprive him of power.

Unfortunately, departmental factionalism at Kharkov pursued him and in April 1938, in Moscow, he was charged as a German spy. He was only released a year later after Kapitza had risked personal intervention with Stalin, Molotov and Beria, and after Landau had to admit to lying (under torture or its threat) in his “confession”. In his cold and crowded cell, Landau trained himself to think without writing materials, but was convinced that another six months would have killed him. Colleagues report that the experience had a deep effect; “How dare they laugh” he exclaimed, overhearing a party just after his release.

More understandable is secrecy over Landau’s war efforts. In summer 1941 Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, initiating what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. The Institute was evacuated 400 miles east to Kazan, where it assisted in the war effort. Landau became a member of the Engineering Committee of the Red Army. Later, four papers surfaced on detonation and shock waves. Evacuation and war work did not stop his own research, although a glance at his publications shows it slowed.

In 1941 Landau published the first of several papers for which he was to receive the Nobel Prize: a quantum treatment of the superfluid phase of helium-4 (confusingly called helium-II). Landau deduced the energy spectrum of the Bose excitations semi-empirically; it has a valley at 8-10K. The energy gap is the cause of superfluidity, and the quasiparticles existing in equilibrium in this valley Landau called rotons. This enabled him to reproduce Laszlo Tisza’s prediction of “second sound”, an extra wave mode. It was detected by Peshkov three years later. The differing theories were perceived as rivals, leading to a vigorous exchange which is summarised in Stephen Brush’s fine history of statistical physics.

Landau returned often to the mysteries of low temperatures; he refined his theory in 1947, and in the 1950’s turned to the equally enigmatic isotope, helium-3. In 1950 he and Ginzburg published a paper on superconductivity which is still much used today. Another famous discovery, from 1946, is collisionless (energy-conserving) attenuation of longitudinal waves in plasma (“Landau damping”). It is a kinetic, velocity-space effect which cannot be foreseen from the hydrodynamic plasma equations.

It was in 1946 that the USSR Academy of Sciences, under threat of mass resignations, at last elected Landau a Member. The delay, which particularly incensed Kapitza and Fock, was clearly a result of Landau’s sharp tongue.

Landau was a member of Igor Kurchatov’s nuclear weapons team. (Another prominent figure was Andrei Sakharov.) Although Landau never worked full-time on the Soviet atom bomb, he published nothing for the three years prior to detonation of the first Soviet hydrogen bomb on 8th August 1953. That year he was also awarded the title Hero of Socialist Effort; Kapitza states in the Royal Society of London obituary of Landau that this was partially for “fulfilling government projects”.

Landau resumed his research from 1953. First to surface was the paper he found most challenging, taking up Fermi’s ideas about multiple particle production in collisions. Landau analysed the expansion of a cloud of emerging particles using the equations of relativistic hydrodynamics. These were valid because the mean free path was far less than the dimensions of the cloud. He solved these asymptotically, using tricks borrowed from other areas of physics. He also published on quantum electrodynamics, fluid flow, and many aspects of low temperature theory. His greatest efforts, according to Ginzburg, went into an attempt to develop a theory of second order phase transitions going beyond the self-consistent field approximation. He was particularly appreciative of Onsager’s solution of the two-dimensional Ising model.

The seminars at Moscow, which took place at 11am prompt on Thursdays and lasted the day, were renowned. Questions or interruptions were permitted at any stage, but with ‘Dau (never the formal Lev Davidovich) conducting, a conclusion would be reached. Outstanding results were entered into a “golden book”, and nontrivial problems arising into a “problems book”, a fertile source of research topics. Conclusions were by no means always favourable to the speaker, and waffle was seized on mercilessly. Landau tended to be overly influenced by his first opinion of speakers.

In 1958, on his 50th birthday, a party was held. All formalities were banned. Landau was presented with his own Ten Commandments: small marble tablets engraved with his ten most significant formulae.

Landau was by this time recognised abroad, and added many international honours to his clutch of domestic ones (although he was not permitted to travel abroad, obviously because of his knowledge of Soviet atomic secrets). These included:

  • 1951 Member, Danish Royal Academy of Sciences (recall
    Bohr was Danish)
  • 1956 Member, Netherlands Academy of Sciences
  • 1959 Honorary Fellow, British Institute of Physics and
    Physical Society
  • 1960 Foreign Member (equivalent to Fellow), Royal
    Society of London; Foreign Associate, US National Academy of Sciences
    Fritz London Prize (USA); Max Planck Medal (Germany).

1962 brought the tragedy which ended his career abruptly at its height. On Sunday, January 7th, Landau was being driven by a colleague to Dubna. In Moscow’s northern suburbs the car braked sharply to avoid a pedestrian, slewing on the icy surface only to stop in the path of an oncoming lorry. In the resulting collision Landau suffered multiple fractures, collapse of one lung and part of the other, severe internal damage to the abdomen, and a fracture to the base of the skull. He was rendered deeply unconscious, and in hospital was thought to be dying on several occasions. Few persons suffering such injuries could be expected to survive, but he hung on with a tenacity belied by his physique.

During his unconsciousness, scores of academics formed a fraternity of volunteers willing to do anything the doctors suggested; at one stage they brought a respirator from the nearby poliomyelitis research institute. The best specialists were summoned to the hospital, in the Timiriasevsky district. Landau had inspired nothing less than love among his fellow physicists.

To minimise trauma, it was decided to repair his body before undertaking any operation on the brain. Late in February, 50 days after the crash, came tentative indications that consciousness was returning. Landau first responded to a request to blink acknowledgement. An international neurosurgical team subsequently decided it better not to operate on his brain. (This was long before non-invasive tissue imaging, which could detect haemorrhage.) In early April Landau began to recover his speech, reflexes and memory, but only in July did he question where he was, and why.

Sadly, it was becoming obvious that Landau would not recover his talents. He remained apathetic. Detailed thought, rather than reactive conversation or specific memory recall, was largely beyond him.

Late in 1962 came the announcement that Landau had been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics “for his pioneering theories concerning condensed matter, especially liquid helium”. Precedent was broken by presenting the prize, not in Stockholm, but at Landau’s bedside, by the Swedish ambassador. This award cannot be given posthumously, so it is likely that Landau’s poor health catalyzed what was a well-deserved honour. That year he also received a Lenin Prize.

Only in 1964 could he at last return home. His physical recovery, though incomplete, was better than his mental. He learned to walk again, though suffering intense frustration. But early in the morning of 1st April, 1968 he died, following an intestinal operation.

The post-war explosion of research led to the founding of an Institute of Theoretical Physics in the USSR in 1964. As tribute, it bears Landau’s name today.

What of Landau’s personality? He was characterized by a sharp and quick tongue – he did not suffer fools gladly – and this abruptness was often likened to Pauli. Examples abound. Landau believed that genuinely talented physicists would be known and have peaked by their late 20’s (a notion he disproved by example), and this led to his famous comment “So young, and already so unknown?” At a conference he replied, after others had demurred, that the difference between Pauli and a particular philosophy professor was that Pauli understood [the uncertainty principle]. Landau’s features, at least in early photographs, were intense. Physically he was very thin, and moved angularly. His hands were never still. He chose never to learn to drive. Nevertheless he played tennis and was fond of (cross-country) skiing. He enjoyed travel, and vacations were often spent driving with Lifshitz. He was an inveterate classifier, classifying physicists on a logarithmic scale; thus a second class physicist supposedly accomplishes ten times as much as a third class physicist. He was already suing this scale by 1929. Einstein alone was rated 1/2, while rank 1 included Schrödinger, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac and Fermi. Landau placed himself at 2 1/2, ultimately re-assessing himself at 2. In response to a question he replied: “No, I am not a genius. Bohr is, and Einstein is; I am not. But I am very talented”. Those in the fifth rank he called pathological types; “pathology” was a favourite term of denigration.

Landau did not like the unexpected, and did not alter his opinion easily, although it was so rarely necessary in science as to cause no trouble. In personal contexts this could be more irksome.

Landau was graceful to all correspondents who showed interest in physics, at any level, but if he detected a trace of careerism then his reply was sharp. He disposed of one, enquiring in which branch best to specialise, after first giving the answer: that which interests him most. He wrote a definitive letter to one of that pestilential category who claimed to have disproved relativity:

“I must say that your manuscript is lacking in any interest. Modern physics is a tremendous science, based primarily on a large number of experimental facts. You are patently almost completely unacquainted with this science, and you attempt to explain physical phenomena, about which you know little, with meaningless phrases. It is clear that nothing can come out of it. If you are seriously interested in physics, you should not engage in discoveries, but first learn at least a little about the subject.
“Modern physics is a complicated and difficult science, and in order to accomplish anything in it, it is necessary to know very much. Knowledge is all the more needed in order to advance any new ideas. It is obvious from your letter that your knowledge of physics is very limited. What you call new ideas is simply prattle of an ill-educated person; it is as if someone who never saw an electric machine before were to come before you and advance new ideas on this subject. If you are seriously interested in physics, first take time to study this science. After some time you yourself will see how ridiculous is this nonsense that came out of your typewriter….”

When writing he worked on the floor or on a settee, never at a desk. As a young man he was very shy; he confessed later to despair at this, which he tried to overcome by conscious effort. He saw it as an obligation to be happy. He gave unsolicited personal advice irrespective of possible offence whenever he deemed it necessary. He believed that interpersonal relationships were ultimately simple and analysable. When young he disapproved of marriage as a “typically capitalist institution”, in pushing a good thing too far. He never took Judaism seriously, and was characteristically caustic about religious belief. His “school” of physics, though meritocratic, was predominantly Jewish, and he made no effort to heal the schism with Bogoliubov’s school. He became fond of literature, poetry, realistic art and cinema, but described himself as musically blind, and positively detested opera and ballet. He was uninterested in chess, a Russian passion. He was interested exclusively in an argument’s quality, and never in unsupported appeals to higher authority. Above all else Landau detested pretension; Lifshitz suggests he disliked opera and ballet because they are more contrived ways of telling a story than literature or cinema. He was fond of history. He tried to categorise and quantify everything. The rationalist facet of his personality always dominates.

While the tragedy of his loss – it is not too strong a word – left physics the poorer, his achievements are lasting. Physicists today owe a major debt to his teachings and scientific ideals.

ADDENDUM: Sources Used


Usp. Fiz. Nauk vol.64, 615 (1958) (50th birthday biography)

JETP vol.34, 3 (1958), English trans: vol.7, 1 (1958) (50th birthday biography)

Physics Today vol.14, 42-46 (March 1961) (Fritz London prize)

Landau – A Great Physicist and Teacher (A. Livanova; English translation: Pergamon 1980)

Usp. Fiz. Nauk vol.97, 169-183 (1969) (by Lifshitz), English translation: Sov. Phys. Uspekhi vol.12, 135-143 (1969). (Obituary biography)

Mechanics; Course of Theoretical Physics Vol 1, Landau and Lifshitz, 3rd Ed. (Pergamon, 1976); Introduction. A minor emendation of previous reference.

Landau’s Collected Papers, ed D. ter Haar; Intro p(xiii) (1965; Pergamon).

Bird of Passage (R. Peierls; autobiography, Princeton 1985)

Obituaries of Landau: The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, London, April 3rd 1968.

The Man They Wouldn’t Let Die. Alexander Dorozynski, Secker & Warburg (1966)

Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society vol.15, 140 (1969). Obituary by Kapitza and Lifshitz.

My World Line. George Gamow, Viking press, NY 1970.

Statistical Physics and the Atomic Theory of Matter. S.G. Brush, Princeton U.P. 1983 (a history).

Reminiscences of Landau. I.M. Khalatnikov, Physics Today, May 1989, p34.

Landau’s Attitude Towards Physics and Physicists. V.L. Ginzburg, Physics Today, May 1989, p54.

Landau: The Physicist and the Man; Recollections of L.D. Landau, ed: I.M. Khalatnikov. Nauka, Moscow 1988; English translation published by Pergamon, 1989.

Pages from Landau’s Book of Life. Maya Bessarab. Moscow Worker Press, 1971.

Proceedings of the Landau Memorial Conference, Tel Aviv, Israel, 6-10 June 1988, eds E. Gotsman, Y. Ne’eman & A. Voronel (Pergamon 1990).

Reflections on Liquid Helium. E.L. Andronikashvili, Adam Hilger, 1990.

Landau’s Brain Injury: A Fuller Account. Letter to Physics Today, May 1990, p118.

Proceedings of the Landau Birthday Symposium, Copenhagen, 13-17 June 1988, ed A.H. Luther (Pergamon 1990).