October 4, 2013

The Real Miracle Workers

Vitaly Ginzburg: 1916–2009

Vitaly Ginzburg was one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century. Ginzburg was born this day in 1916 and died on Sunday November 08, 2009 at the age of 93. He had been ill for some time and had been hospitalized for more than a month before his death.

Ginzburg was born in Moscow on October 04, 1916 into a Jewish family. He had a relatively short primary education, only starting school at age 11 and leaving four years later in 1931 to work as a technician in an X-ray laboratory at a local higher-education technical institute. It was here that his interest in physics first began, sparked by popular-science books such as Physics in Our Day (not in print in English) by the Russian physicist Orest Danilovich Hvolson.

Ginzburg joined Moscow State University in 1933, graduating five years later with a degree in physics. He then began a PhD, which he completed in 1940, taking just two years instead of the usual three. Ginzburg immediately joined the P N Lebedev Physical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, which, the following year, after the Soviet Union entered the Second World War, was moved to the city of Kazan in central Russia. Ginzburg obtained a DSc in 1942.

Although Ginzburg started out as an experimental physicist in the field of optics, he eventually realized that his talents were as a theorist and went on to work in many different areas of physics and astrophysics. In 1950, for example, he developed with Lev Landau a partially phenomenological theory of superconductivity. He also studied how electromagnetic waves propagate through plasmas, such as the ionosphere, developed a theory of the origin of cosmic radiation, and worked on the superfluidity of helium II.

"To me, the special charm and specific feature of theoretical physics is that you can quickly change what you are studying," said Ginzburg in an interview with physicsworld.com published a week before his death. "Typically, you do not need many years to build new equipment, as experimentalists often do. Having said all that, I think that my biggest achievement in physics is connected with the theory of superconductivity."

Ginzburg shared the 2003 Nobel Prize for Physics with Alexei Abrikosov and Tony Leggett for their joint work on the theory of superconductors and superfluids. Ginzburg’s work on "type-II" superconductor, or materials in which superconductivity and magnetism co-exist enabled the discovery. Type-II superconductors differed significantly from type-I superconductors, which repel magnetic fields.

In 1971 Ginzburg was appointed head of the theoretical department at the Lebedev, where he stayed until retiring in 1988. Even in retirement he continued giving his famous weekly seminars as he had done since the 1950s. In 1998 Ginzburg took over as editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk – a position he held until his death.

A staunch atheist, Ginzburg was critical in later years of the growing influence of the church in Russian secular education. He particularly disliked the church pushing creationism as the foundation of science, although he maintained that religion was a fundamental human right. "But I am convinced that the bright future of mankind is connected with the progress of science," he said in his interview with physicsworld.com, "and I believe it is inevitable that one day religions (at least those existing now) will drop in status to no higher than that of astrology."