Lev Davidovich Landau

Lev Davidovich Landau
(1908 - 1968)

Soviet physicist who worked in such fields as low-temperature physics, atomic and nuclear physics, and solid-state, stellar-energy, and plasma physics. Several physics terms bear his name. He was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physics.
Landau had science-oriented parents. His father was an engineer who worked in the Baku oil industry and his mother a doctor who had at one time done physiological research. Landau graduated at 13 from the Gymnasium and, because he was too young to go to the university, attended the Baku Economical Technical School. He matriculated in 1922 at Baku University, studying physics and chemistry, and transferred in 1924 to the Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) State University, which at that time was the centre of Soviet physics. Graduating in 1927, he continued research at the Leningrad Physico-Technical Institute.

At that time there were practically no outstanding senior theoretical physicists in the Soviet Union, and, since the younger men had to teach themselves and each other, it was important for them to go abroad and be in touch with the Western theoretical physics schools that were flourishing in such centres as Copenhagen and Munich. Landau got his first chance to go abroad in 1929, on a Soviet government traveling fellowship supplemented by a Rockefeller Fellowship. After brief stays in Gottingen and Leipzig, he went to Copenhagen to work in Niels Bohr's Institute for Theoretical Physics. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the development of present-day theoretical physics owes more to Bohr's Institute than to any other place in the world. Almost all of the leading theoretical physicists of the 1920s and 1930s spent some period at this institute. Landau always considered himself a pupil of Bohr's, and his attitude to physics was greatly influenced by Bohr's example. After his stay in Copenhagen he visited Cambridge and Zurich before returning to the Soviet Union. Apart from short visits to Copenhagen in 1933 and 1934, Landau spent the remainder of his life in his own country.

In 1932 Landau went to Kharkov (now Kharkiv) to become the head of the Theoretical Division of the Ukrainian Physico-Technical Institute, a position he combined in 1935 with that of head of the Department of General Physics at the Kharkov A.M. Gorky State University. In Kharkov Landau began to build a Soviet school of theoretical physics, so that Kharkov soon became the centre of theoretical physics in the Soviet Union. It was also in Kharkov that, with his friend and former student, E.M. Lifshits, he started to write the well-known Course of Theoretical Physics, a set of nine volumes that together span the whole of the subject. His great interest in the teaching of physics is also shown in his plans for a "Course of General Physics" and even a series "Physics for Everybody."

Landau required that his students master all necessary mathematical techniques before coming to him. After that he expected them to master the so-called theoretical minimum, which included a basic knowledge of all the domains of theoretical physics. Only the ablest of the students were able to pass this minimum. In this way his students became proper physicists, rather than narrow specialists.

In 1937 Pyotr Leonidovich Kapitsa, a low-temperature experimentalist, persuaded Landau to move to Moscow and to head the Theory Division of the S.I. Vavilov Institute of Physical Problems, which had been created by the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. There, Landau's close interest in experimental physics led to his explanation of superfluidity in helium II, which is encountered when helium is cooled below 2.18 K (-270.97 C). Kapitsa had found that liquid helium is superfluid--that is, that it has less resistance against moving through a tube than any other known liquid. Landau's theory to explain this peculiar behaviour was the work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Landau's attitude to physics and physicists was critical; he did not suffer fools gladly. While always willing to help anybody, he hated pomposity. People either adored him or were his bitter enemies; he was imprisoned during the Stalin era, in 1938, and only a personal intervention by Kapitsa freed him.

In 1937 Landau married K.T. Drobanzeva, and in 1946 they had a son, Igor, who became an experimental physicist.

In Moscow Landau continued to make significant contributions to almost all parts of physics. The topics he covered range from low-temperature to nuclear physics, from the theory of metals to stellar energy, from cosmic rays to plasmas, from hydrodynamics to atomic physics. Landau's contributions are partly reflected in such terms as Landau diamagnetism and Landau levels in solid-state physics, Landau damping in plasma physics, the Landau energy spectrum in low-temperature physics, or Landau cuts in high-energy physics.

On Jan. 7, 1962, Landau was involved in a car accident. He was unconscious for six weeks and was several times declared clinically dead, but he somehow revived. Distinguished specialists from several countries helped to save his life. After Landau had regained consciousness his faculties slowly returned to him, but he was no longer able to perform creative work. His physical condition never returned to normal, and he died six years later.

Apart from the Nobel Prize, Landau received many other honours. In the Soviet Union he was directly elected a member of the Academy of Sciences, was given the title of Hero of Socialist Effort, and was awarded three State Prizes, as well as a Lenin Prize. He was a foreign member of the Royal Society of London and of the academies of The Netherlands, Denmark, and the United States, as well as a recipient of the Max Planck Medal and the Fritz London Prize.

Landau's scientific papers are found in Collected Papers of L.D. Landau, ed. by Dirk ter Haar (1965). Biographies include Alexandre Dorozynski, The Man They Wouldn't Let Die (1965), a popular account of Landau's life, focusing on his final six years; and Anna Livanova, Landau: A Great Physicist and Teacher (1980; originally published in Russian, 1978), a brief work. I.M. Khalatnikov (ed.), Landau: The Physicist and the Man (1989; originally published in Russian, 1988), is a collection of reminiscences by Landau's friends and pupils.

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