The life of Soviet physicist Pyotr Kapitsa, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics yesterday with two Americans, is a saga encompassing not only pioneering research in atomic and space science, but also the ideological repression and rehabilitation that has so frequently shadowed the history of science.
Born June 26, 1894, in Czarist Russia, Kapitsa made brilliant discoveries in England at the dawn of the atomic age, continued them here after being seized and detained on Stalin's orders while visiting the Soviet Union, spent seven years under house arrest after refusing to work on atomic weapons, and was restored to his laboratory in time to help spearhead the successful Soviet effort to launch the first space satellite.
Today, at 84, Kapitsa still exudes youthful zeal for the yoys of research, according to his son, Sergei. He works "like a student" spending eight hours a day as director of the S.I. Vavilov Institute of Physical Problems, which he first headed in 1935.
Kapitsa is the first Russian since 1964 to win a Nobel Prize for science and the 14th from this country to win since the inception of the prizes in 1901.
Kapitsa's influence on modern Soviet science has been substantial, despite political represson. His name is associated with many areas of basic scientific research as well as such innovative ideas as the formation in the mid-1950s of the well-known "science city," Akademgorodok, outside Novosibirsk in western Siberia.
Kapitso went to England in 1921 to study at Cambridge, but retained his Soviet citizenship. He continued to work Britain and while there he designed exotic magnetic apparatus that achieved force fields not surpassed for 30 years. In 1929, he became the first foreigner in 200 years to be elected to the prestigious Royal Academy."
In 1934, he returned to the Soviet Union to attend a scientific conference after being assured that he would be allowed to return to England. He was seized on Stalin's orders, however, and detained. Kapitsa for a year refused to work, but in 1935, was named director of the institute he still beads. Kapitsa continued research into low temperature physics and he discovered what is called superfluidity, the ability of helium at extreme low temperatures to flow through minute openings in solid containers. His award is based on this discovery.
His research in this area continued through World War II, but in 1946, when he refused to work on atomic weapons, Stalin ordered him placed under house arrest. He was confined for seven years until after Stalin's death in 1953. Kapitsa was restored as director of the institute in 1954, and reportedly he was made head of the early Soviet Sputnik satellite program and given major credit for helping orbit the first two Soviet artificial setellites in 1957.
In recent years, he has been allower to journey outside the Soviet Union, and in 1969, he went to the United States to accept an honorary degree from Columbia University.
He and his wife, Anna, 74, live in a small country-style house near the institute. Their sons, Sergei and Andrei, are also scientists and there are five grandchildren.
Kapitsa was not available for comment yesterday, but his son, Sergei, said his father is "very, very happy" at the news. He quoted his father as saying," Well, that's great," upon learning of the award.
In 1970, Kapitsa was among 20 signers of an open letter deploring the detention of Soviet biologist Zhores Medvedev. A fellow signer was Andrei Sakharov whose 1975 Nobel Peace Prize for human rights advocacy has been attacked by the Soviets as a provocation.