January 16, 2019

Lev Landau: A Jewish Physicist and Nobel-Winning Genius from Azerbaijan

Swedish ambassador in the Soviet Union Rolf Sulman (L) on behalf of The Nobel Committee awards Lev Landau with the Nobel Prize in Physics in Moscow. 1962 car accident prevented him to travel to Stockholm to personally receive his Nobel Prize.

Swedish ambassador in the Soviet Union Rolf Sulman (L) on behalf of The Nobel Committee awards Lev Landau with the Nobel Prize in Physics in Moscow. 1962 car accident prevented him to travel to Stockholm to personally receive his Nobel Prize.


It is always interesting to follow the announcements of the Nobel Prize winners each year. This year the Nobel Prize winners are expected to be announced in October. Widely regarded as the most prestigious award in literature, physics, medicine, economics, chemistry and activism for peace, the Nobel Prize is annually awarded to extraordinary individuals for their outstanding contributions for humanity. I am proud to mention that one of those extraordinary individuals is a prominent Jewish physicist from majority-Muslim Azerbaijan – Lev Davidovich Landau, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1962 “for his pioneering theories for condensed matter, especially liquid helium.”

Landau was born on January 22, 1908, in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, into a Jewish family. His father was a prominent engineer working in the oil industry in Baku and her mother was a physicist and later taught at the Jewish High School as well as Baku State University. Both parents lived in Baku until the beginning of 1930s before moving to then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

He began his schooling in Baku, graduating from the Jewish High School. Recognized very early as a wunderkind in mathematics, he enrolled at the Baku State University (BSU) at the very young age of 14, studying in two programs at the same time: Mathematics and Physics, and Chemistry. He learned fundamentals of physics at the Baku State University, which is the oldest and largest university in Azerbaijan. Established in 1919, BSU is also one of the first secular universities in the Muslim world.

Landau benefitted from the open and embracing long-standing culture of tolerance in Azerbaijan, where a Jewish child can grow to become a well-known scientist, with the rights and freedoms to pursue his passions and goals, just the same as anyone else. We have seen this with many other examples too, including Azerbaijan’s current Supreme Court Justice Tatyana Goldman, Jewish Parliamentarian Yevda Abramov, Jewish doctor and scientist Gavriil Ilizarov and many other leaders and heroes.

In 1924, Landau moved to Leningrad to continue his study in physics at the Leningrad State University and in 1927, at the age of 19 he successfully graduated from that university and began his academic career at the Leningrad-Technical Institute.

In 1929, supported by a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, Landau embarked on an eighteen months-long scientific journey through Europe, conducting research and attending scientific conferences in Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. The research he conducted at various universities of Europe, especially in Copenhagen and learning from well-known physicists Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr greatly influenced Landau’s views of physics.

After his return to the Soviet Union in 1932, Landau held various teaching positions, including the head of the Theory Department of the Ukrainian Technical Institute in Kharkov and the Head of the Theory Division of the Physical Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

Landau worked on many branches of theoretical physics, including atomic collisions, astrophysics, low-temperature physics, atomic and nuclear physics, thermodynamics, quantum electrodynamics, kinetic theory of gases, quantum field theory, and plasma physics. He conducted thorough research on the basis of physician Kapista’s general thermodynamical theory of phase transitions of the second order and in 1938, he discovered the superfluidity of liquid helium. Even suffering from Stalin’s “Great Purge” and spending a year in prison in 1938 didn’t stop his enthusiasm for getting more outstanding achievements in physics. Between 1941 and 1947, Landau wrote many papers mainly focusing on the theory of quantum liquids. His comprehensive research on this theory was recognized with the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physics. In his award presentation speech Professor I. Waller, member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, said: “Landau has by his original ideas and masterly investigations exercised far-reaching influence on the evolution of the atomic science of our time.”

In addition to Nobel Prize, Landau received many international honors for his contributions to the development of physics. He was a member of the Danish Royal Academy of Sciences (1951), the Netherlands Royal Academy of Sciences (1956), the London Physical Society (1959) and the Physical Society of France (1962). In 1960, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the Fritz London Prize and the Max Planck Medal. Moreover, he was elected to the USSR Academy of Sciences (1946), received the State Prize three times (1946, 1949, 1953), received the Lenin Prize in 1962 (shared with E.M. Lifshitz for the Course of Theoretical Physics), was granted the title Hero of Socialist Labour (1953) and awarded twice the Order of Lenin.

He died in 1968 – suffering from the implications of a serious car accident six years earlier. Sadly, this accident prevented him to travel to Stockholm in 1962 to personally receive his Nobel Prize.

Lev Landau has always been the source of pride for the people of Azerbaijan and the Jews living in this country, where people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds have been living for many centuries in peace and harmony. In Baku, a memorial plaque has been placed on his birth house. Also, one of the beautiful streets in downtown Baku is named after Landau.

Being one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th century, Landau’s work, dedication to science and outstanding achievements have taught and inspired many scientists not only in Azerbaijan and in the former USSR, but in the entire world. As he mentioned repeatedly: “Everybody has a capacity for a happy life. All these talks about how difficult the times are we live in, that’s just a clever way to justify fear and laziness.”

Episode 80 – What Makes Us Curious?

What were the qualities that pushed mankind forward throughout history? Deduction was an important element in our ability to understand the world around us. Innovation certainly aided us in our pursuit the master the forces of nature. But perhaps one characteristic above all others has driven our species forward: Curiosity.

Curiosity is almost an instinct, an impulse to find an answer to question. The itch to find new questions to which we ought to seek answers. And the ability to doubt and question everything around us – these abilities led us to be the dominant species on earth and known universe, light years above any other form of life.

But a very reflexive question comes to mind when we speak of curiosity, and that is – what is it that makes us curious? It seems we are so eager to find answers to questions, that we never quite stopped to think about why we’re asking the questions.

Dr. Mario Livio is a world renowned scientist and the author of six internationally acclaimed popular science books. He was a professor of physics at the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, and worked with the Hubble Space Telescope from 1991 to 2015. His bestselling book The Golden Ratio – the Story of Phi won the Peano Prize and the International Pythagoras prize for popular books on Mathematics. Dr. Livio’s new book, titled “Why? What makes Us Curious”, depicts his journey to understand the roots of curiosity.

It’s a great privilege to have Dr. Mario Livio with us today to discuss this curious topic.

Mario Livio’s books on Amazon, his FacebookTwitter and Official Website

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Rainer Weiss, scientist who fled Nazis, among Nobel Prize in Physics winners

Physicist Rainer Weiss at his home in Newton, Mass., on May 13, 2016. Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Three American scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, including one who fled the Nazis with his parents and another whose grandparents were Polish immigrants.

Rainer Weiss, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, both of the California Institute of Technology, were awarded the prize on Tuesday for the discovery gravitational waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space and time that help scientists explore objects in space.

Weiss won half of the $1.1 million prize, with Barish and Thorne sharing the other half.

The Nobel winners and the late Ron Dreyer, also of Caltech, founded the international collaboration of physicists and astronomers known as LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. In February 2016, they announced that they had recorded gravitational waves emanating from the collision of a pair of black holes a billion light years away.

Drever died this year; the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously.

Weiss, 85, was born in Berlin to a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father. The family fled Berlin for Prague when Weiss was a baby because his father was Jewish and a member of the Communist Party. After the Munich agreement in 1938, the family left Prague for the United States. Weiss earned his doctorate from MIT and in 1964 joined its faculty.

Barish, 81, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in Los Angeles, the son of Lee and Harold Barish, the children of Polish immigrants to the United States. He earned his doctorate in 1962 from the University of California, Berkeley, and joined Caltech in 1963.

Thorne, 77, received his doctorate from Princeton University in 1965 and joined Caltech in 1967.

Russian-Jewish billionaire gives out $22 million in science prizes

Russian-Jewish  billionaire Yuri Milner gave out nearly $22 million in Breakthrough Prize Awards for contributions to life sciences, math and physics.

Milner was joined Sunday night at a televised ceremony in Northern California’s Silicon Valley by prize co-founders Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, and his ex-wife, Anne Wojcicki; Alibaba founder Jack Ma and his wife, Cathy Zhang; and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

The prize was established three years ago in an effort to make the sciences more popular.

Animator Seth MacFarlane hosted the black-tie event at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Singer Pharell Williams performed.

The 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, worth $3 million, was presented to Ian Agol of the University of California, Berkeley and the Institute for Advanced Study.

Five Life Sciences prizes of $3 million each were presented to Edward Boyden of MIT; Karl Deisseroth of Stanford and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; John Hardy of University College London; Helen Hobbs of the University of Texas’ Southwestern Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The prize in Fundamental Physics, worth $3 million, was awarded to five experiments investigating neutrino oscillation. It will be shared equally among all five teams, comprising 1,377 scientists.

Several other prizes, including the New Horizons awards that recognize the achievements of young scientists, were presented.

Milner announced in July that he would dedicate $100 million to a 10-year project launched with astrophysicist Stephen Hawking to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life.

In Spring a reader’s fancy turns to thoughts of … books

Michael Chabon’s Alaskan Adventure

In Michael Chabon’s invented world, Yiddish is spoken in the Alaskan panhandle.

After World War II, the Federal District of Sitka in Alaska — not Israel — became the homeland for the Jews.

“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (HarperCollins, May, $26.95) is the much-anticipated novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” While Chabon has published short stories, a novella and a novel for young adults, this is his first full-length work of fiction since 2000. Film rights have already been bought by Scott Rudin.

Sitka is “a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapor street lamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat. The lamps of the Jews stretch from the slope of Mount Edgecumbe in the west, over the seventy-two infilled islands of the Sound, across Shvartsn-Yam, Halibut Point, South Sitka, and the Nachtasyl….”

The novel is set in the present, and Sitka is reverting to Alaskan control, after 60 years of prosperous times for the Jews. Homicide Det. Meyer Landsman of the District Police discovers the corpse of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy, but his investigation is mysteriously ordered closed. This is a hard-boiled detective story that’s an homage to 1940s noir, a love story, a meditation on identity and faith and a celebration of language, spiced with Chabon’s distinctive humor.

Chabon’s first novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” was originally written for his master’s degree from the University of California, Irvine, and became a national bestseller. His other novels include “Wonder Boys” and “Model World”; his adventure novel, “Gentlemen of the Road,” is now running in serial form in The New York Times Magazine.

Born in 1963, Chabon grew up in Columbia, Md., a planned community with utopian aspirations, and has lived in California for the last 20 years. He now lives in Berkeley with his wife, novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their four children.
Chabon will embark on a 15-city author tour, making two unusual stops — in Anchorage and Juneau.

Chabon will speak in Los Angeles on May 9, 7 p.m., at the Los Angeles Public Library, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles; and May 10, 7 p.m., at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, visit www.michaelchabon.com.

Einstein, Times Two

Two new biographies look closely at the life and work of the 20th century’s most celebrated mind, Albert Einstein, whose name — and shock of hair — has come to symbolize genius.

Veteran journalist Walter Isaacson, formerly managing editor of Time magazine and chairman and CEO of CNN, who now heads the Aspen Institute, has written “Einstein: His Life and Universe” (Simon & Schuster, April, $32), following his best-selling biography of Benjamin Franklin.

A journalist with a background in physics, Jurgen Neffe is the author of “Einstein: A Biography,” translated by Shelley Frisch (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May, $30). His book was a bestseller in Germany when it was published in 2005, on the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

Isaacson’s book is based largely on newly released personal letters of Einstein. More than 3,500 pages of correspondence between Einstein and his two wives and children, along with photos, were released last year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The release was made in accordance with the will of Einstein’s stepdaughter, Margot.

Isaacson probes Einstein’s private side, as well as how his mind worked. He sees Einstein as a rebel from childhood, always questioning conventional wisdom; his character, curiosity, creativity and passion for freedom were interconnected, driving his life, science and politics.

As Isaacson writes, “His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to the expansion of the cosmos. A century after his great triumphs, we are still living in Einstein’s universe….”

Isaacson is also the author of “Kissinger: A Biography” and co-author of “The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made”; he lives in Washington, D.C.
Neffe looks at Einstein as a parent and physicist, as a citizen and a Jew and as an American. He writes of his complicated subject: “He could reconcile discrepant views of the world, but he was a walking contradiction. Einstein polarized his fellow man like no other. He was a friend to some, an enemy to others, narcissistic and slovenly, easygoing and rebellious, philanthropic and autistic, citizen of the world and hermit, a pacifist whose research was used for military ends.”

He adds, “Rarely has a single individual been so far-sighted and myopic at the same time.”

The English version was updated to include information from the recently published 10th volume of Einstein’s collected papers.

Isaacson will discuss and sign “Einstein: His Life & Universe” on April 27, 7 p.m., at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena.

Memoirs from Harry Bernstein and Ruth Gruber, both 95

In this age of memoir, two new volumes are particularly notable for their wisdom and the age of their writers: Both Harry Bernstein and Ruth Gruber are 95. Bernstein is a first-time author, making his literary debut with “The Invisible Wall” (Ballantine, March, $22.95), and Gruber is a veteran author and journalist. “Witness” (Schocken, April, $27.50) is her 19th book.

The wall of Bernstein’s title is the figurative barrier running down the middle of the street in a northern English mill town on the eve of World War I. On opposite sides were Jewish families and Christian families; the two didn’t speak, although they had much in common in terms of poverty as well as prejudice. Written from the perspective of a young boy, the memoir details how the author’s sister crossed the line, falling in love with a brilliant young Christian man. Harry was the go-between, hiding their secret. He describes the atmosphere inside their home and outside in the fear-filled world.

Bernstein, who lives in Brick, N.J., began this book about four years ago after his wife died. At his age, he says, people have less of a present and no future, so the past becomes larger. When he started thinking about his childhood, the memories came easily.

Five Jews Nab Nobel Science Wins

When David J. Gross, a winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics, was asked whether he was Jewish, he told a reporter, “What do you think? Of course!”

The same affirmative answer applied to five out of six 2004 science Nobel Laureates. Two are Israelis, three are Americans — all from Southern California universities — and two of these Americans have close ties to Israel.

The Israeli winners, Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion in Haifa, shared the $1.35 million prize in chemistry with Irwin A. Rose, professor emeritus at UC Irvine.

They were recognized for their research on the regulatory process taking place inside human cells, a discovery leading to the development of drugs against cancer and degenerative diseases.

“The practical applications are too numerous to mention,” said Rose, generally addressed as Ernie, who was quick to give major credit for the prize-winning work to Hershko.

In the typical research collaboration between professors and their graduate students, Rose became Hershko’s doctoral thesis adviser when he spent part of his 1972 sabbatical year at Israel’s Hadassah Medical Center.

“I took my wife, four children and mother-in-law and we settled in Jerusalem,” he said.

Ciechanover, in turn, became Hershko’s graduate student and over the next 19 years, the two Israelis spent the summers at Rose’s lab at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

Ciechanover is director of the David and Janet Polak Center for Cancr Research and Vascular Biology, a project of the Southern California chapter of the American Technion Society.

The two Technion researchers are the first Israelis to receive Nobel Prizes in a scientific discipline and their work has been supported for many years by the New York-based Israel Cancer Research Fund.

Jubilant Israelis liked the Nobel award to the Olympic gold medal won by Israeli windsurfer Gal Friedman. The prize was also seen as a telling answer to some European academicians who have called for a boycott of Israeli scholars.

Rose was born in Brooklyn, attended Hebrew school, but became a “confirmed secularist” at age 10. Now 78, he and his wife live in Leisure World in Orange County, are active in the retirement community’s Concerned Citizens group and express their Jewish identity mainly through their ties with Israel, he said.

For the Nobel prize in physics, Gross, director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara, shared the award with professor H. David Politzer of Caltech and professor Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Nobel Foundation recognized their development of quantum chromodynamics, the study of the mysterious “strong force” that holds the nuclei of the atom together, even as the protein’s electrical charges try to blow them apart.

The development is seen by many scientists as a major step toward a “Theory of Everything” — a single set of equations to explain all phenomena from the force holding atoms together to the gravitational fields that hold planets in orbit.

Colleagues confirmed that Politzer is Jewish, but he did not respond to an interview request, and former Los Angeles Times science editor Irving Bengelsdorf described the Caltech physicist as unusually shy and sensitive.

Politzer affirmed this description by refusing to attend a press conference in his honor, despite the pleading of Caltech President David Baltimore.

Gross, who previously taught at Princeton, was more outgoing. As a teenager and young man, he lived for eight years in Israel, while his father served as economic adviser to the government and founded the business administration school at the Hebrew University.

The younger Gross received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Hebrew University.

“For one day, until Hershko’s and Ciechanover’s award was announced, I was considered the first ‘Israeli’ scientist to have won a Nobel Prize,” Gross said.

For five years, he directed the Jerusalem Winter School at the Hebrew University’s Institute for Advanced Studies and will be back in Israel in April to participate in a symposium on Albert Einstein.

The figure for the total number of Jewish Nobelists varies slightly, depending on the strictness of the “Who’s a Jew?” definition. But the figure cited most frequently is 161, or 22 percent of Nobel Prizes in all categories awarded between 1901-2003. With the 2004 additions, the total apparently stands at 166.

Just a Theory

In a sea of competitors, 17-year-old Ilya Gurevich of Israel is alone in the field of theoretical physics. All the other teenagers competing in the physics division at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair have entered projects in practical physics, Gurevich said, but he stuck with the theoretical.

"The world’s largest science fair," formerly known as the Westinghouse Competition, is taking place at multiple locations May 9-15, including the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Gurevich recently won first prize in the Intel Israel-Bloomfield Science Museum Young Scientists Competition and said he was "very surprised" when he won the award for his research on the behavior and influence of small disruptions in the uniformity of the universe.

"I know it was on a very high level, but it was not practical," said the high school senior, who has been taking courses at Ben-Gurion University, in Beersheva, for two years.

Practical or not, Israeli scientists have chosen Gurevich and Igor Kreimerman of the Israel Arts and Science Academy in Jerusalem, winner of second prize in the Israel competition, to represent Israel in the 2004 Intel competition.

About 1,300 teenagers from 40 countries are competing in 15 categories for a total of $3 million in scholarships, internships, and travel and equipment grants from the Intel Foundation, public and private universities, and about 70 corporate, professional and government sponsors. The 1,200 judges include scientists, engineers and Nobel Prize laureates.

The three winners of the grand prize, the Intel Young Scientist Award, each will receive a $50,000 scholarship and an invitation to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden.

Gurevich said his project, called "Deviations From an Isotropic and Homogeneous Expansion of the Universe," defies simple explanation.

Essentially, he said, the project tries to preserve Einstein’s theories with regard to the expanding universe and its impact on cosmology.

Science is not about reading books, Gurevich said: "At some point you have to start working and thinking yourself."