Vitaly L. Ginzburg dies; Russian physicist, Nobel recipient

Dr. Ginzburg, shown in Moscow in 2003, said his work on a hydrogen bomb might have saved his life in the Stalin years.
Dr. Ginzburg, shown in Moscow in 2003, said his work on a hydrogen bomb might have saved his life in the Stalin years. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/associated Press)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Vitaly L. Ginzburg, 93, a Russian scientist and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in physics who said that his work on the Soviet Union's hydrogen bomb saved him from Joseph Stalin's anti-Semitic purges decades earlier, died of cardiac arrest Nov. 8 in Moscow, the Russian Academy of Sciences announced.

Dr. Ginzburg shared the Nobel Prize with two other scientists, Anthony Leggett and Alexei Abrikosov, for his work 50 years earlier developing the theory behind superconductors, materials that allow electricity to pass without resistance at very low temperatures. It made possible such breakthroughs as magnetic resonance imaging and high-energy particle accelerators.

A wide-ranging intellect, he did groundbreaking work in quantum theory, astrophysics, radio astronomy and diffusion of cosmic radiation in the Earth's atmosphere, all of which were of Nobel caliber, said Gennady Mesyats, director of the Lebedev Physics Institute in Moscow, where Dr. Ginzburg worked.

But in the late 1940s and 1950s, "I proved to be a good target for all sorts of attacks," Dr. Ginzburg wrote in his autobiography for the Nobel Prize Web site. "Indeed: a member of the party, married to a former prisoner, who had been accused of counter-revolutionary activities and therefore deprived of many rights. And a Jew at that. So finally they started to accuse me of idealism, cosmopolitism and so on, and so forth."

Deprived of an expected promotion, "my name began to be mentioned wherever possible as a negative example," he wrote. "I can only guess what fate awaited me in this situation at that time. I think that it would have cost me dear, but I was saved by the hydrogen bomb."

He was included on a team run by his mentor, Igor Tamm, that was working to develop the bomb. With Andrei Sakharov, Dr. Ginzburg helped formulate the ideas that made it possible to build the bomb, although he did not participate in its construction, partly because within a few years of starting the work he lost his top-secret clearance. Stalin had launched another era of terror, personally signing orders for 40,000 people to be executed by firing squad.

"I have no idea why I missed one of those execution lists," he told Physics World in an interview last week. "Perhaps it was sheer luck."

Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg was born in Moscow on Oct. 4, 1916. His mother died when he was 4, and his aunt helped his father raise him. He was educated with great difficulty, at a time when education was not compulsory. He started school at age 11 and was forced to quit three or four years later when the country abolished secondary schools. He became a technician in the X-ray laboratory of one of the higher-education technical institutes and consumed all the books on science that he could find. "I myself was already 16 when the neutron and positron were discovered in 1932," he said in his Nobel lecture.

By 1933, he passed college entrance exams and was allowed to enroll in Moscow State University. He was exempted from military service during World War II because of a swelling of his thyroid gland, a medical condition that he said never recurred. He considered the diagnosis pure luck; virtually everyone else inducted at the time was killed in the war.

Dr. Ginzburg graduated from Moscow State and received doctorates in physics there in 1940 and 1942. At age 34, Dr. Ginzburg and colleague Lev Landau adopted a "theory of superconductivity." Two years after that development, Abrikosov solved the question of how superconductors maintained their superconductivity even amid strong magnetic fields.

Dr. Ginzburg joined the Communist Party in 1942, although he seemed to regret it later. "I do not even want to name illiterate rogues who dictated to us under the sign of dialectical materialism how the laws of physics or, for instance, of genetics should be understood."

He had married fellow student Olga Zamsha in 1937, had a daughter, Irina Dorman, and divorced nine years later. The daughter survives him, as do two granddaughters and at least two great-grandchildren. In 1946, he married a second time, to Nina Ermakova, who had already been arrested, accused of being part of a plot to kill Stalin. Her family's apartment was on a street that Lenin often used, and her window was supposed to be the one from which an assassin would shoot Lenin. But the KGB didn't realize that after her father had been arrested on another charge, the family was left only one room and it did not overlook the street.

Dr. Ginzburg signed a 1982 petition with scores of other scientists urging a major effort to find possible civilizations in space by listening for their radio signals. He was an atheist, and after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, he became known as one of Russia's leading critics of religion, strongly opposing the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church in state affairs. He still found reason to believe in "the radiant future of mankind," despite threats of terrorism, AIDS, poverty and other problems, he wrote in 2003.

With time, he added, the horrors perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin have "sunk into oblivion. That is why we can hope for the ultimate triumph of the democratic system and the secular humanism all over the world. The necessary conditions for that are the presence of historical memory and the development of science."

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