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Landau, Lev Davidovich

(1908–1968), theoretical physicist. Born in Baku, Lev Landau graduated from Leningrad University at the age of 19. For the next two years, he was a doctoral student at the Leningrad Physical-Technical Institute; he also published his first two seminal papers. Then from 1929 to 1931 he studied in Europe, mostly in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, whom he visited again in 1933–1934 and considered to be his principal teacher.

At age 24, Landau was granted a chair at the Kharkov Physical-Technical Institute and at the polytechnic institute of that same city; and from 1935, he was affiliated with Kharkov University. In 1937, Petr Leonidovich Kapitsa invited him to hold the theoretical physics chair at the Institut Fizicheskih Problem (Institute for Physical Problems). This appointment saved Landau’s life. During Stalin’s Great Terror, Landau was arrested in April 1938, and only the fearless efforts of the intrepid Kapitsa brought him, exhausted and barely alive, back to the institute in April 1939, exactly a year after his arrest.

After 1943, Landau was a professor both at Moscow State University and at the Moscow Physical-Technical Institute, the leading academic institution for teaching physics. In 1962, however, he was involved in a car accident; unconscious for six weeks, he was declared clinically dead several times. Unprecedented joint efforts of scientists from around the world saved his life, but not his genius; he died six years later.

Landau was among the greatest Soviet theoretical physicists. His contributions to various fields within physics are reflected in the numerous scientific concepts that bear his name, including Landau diamagnetism and levels in solid state physics, the Landau energy spectrum in liquid helium, Landau cuts in high energy, the Landau-Lifshits theory of ferromagnetic domains, the Landau-Ginsburg phenomenological theory of superconductivity, and the Landau theory of Fermi-liquid.

Landau was also acclaimed for his teaching skills. His nine-volume Kurs teoreticheskoi fiziki (Course in Theoretical Physics), which he wrote with Evgenii Lifshits, is unique in its coverage of the entire field, and was translated into many languages. Indeed, leading Soviet theoretical physicists were proud to declare themselves Landau’s pupils. Between 1934 and 1961, 43 passed his famous test, the “theoretical minimum,” which entailed thorough knowledge of his entire course. Seven of his students became full members of the Academy of Sciences, and sixteen others became professors. Many of his students were Jews, whose talents Landau nurtured and for whom he was often able to secure appointments as doctoral students, and later as collaborators in his projects.

Landau was the recipient of numerous awards and honors. He was a full member of the Soviet (1946), Danish (1951), Netherlands (1956), and U.S. National (1959) academies of science, as well as American Academy of Science and Art, and a fellow of the Royal Society (1959). In addition, he was a winner of the Nobel (1962), Lenin (the highest Soviet prize; 1962), Stalin (1946, 1949, 1953), and Fritz London (1960) prizes, and the Max Planck Medal (1960). He was also named a Hero of Soviet Labor (1953) and received two Orders of Lenin.

Suggested Reading

V. L. Ginzburg, “Landau’s Attitude towards Physics and Physicists,” Physics Today 42 (1989): 54–61; Dirk ter Haar, L. D. Landau, Men of Physics (Oxford, 1969).