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Lev Davidovich Landau

While growing up in the Soviet Union, Lev Landau was so far ahead of his classmates that he was ready to begin college at age 13.

Lev Davidovich Landau

His parents noticed a particular gift for math in their young son, who was considered a prodigy. It came as little surprise to those who knew him that Landau would grow up to become a Nobel Prize winner and one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th century.

Having science-oriented parents played an important role in his early education: his father was an oil industry engineer and his mother worked as a doctor. At 16, he committed to a career in theoretical physics, graduating from Leningrad University at 19 and earning his Ph.D. at 21.

In 1929, he left the Soviet Union for the first time and went to Copenhagen where he worked alongside the renowned Niels Bohr at the Institute for Theoretical Physics. Such was the collective brainpower at the facility that by some measures it is considered to have advanced theoretical physics more than any laboratory in the world.

Choosing to pursue a broad field of work, Landau researched, among other subjects, the theory of superconductivity and superfluidity, quantum electrodynamics and nuclear and particle physics. In 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in recognition of his work on condensed matter (matter in the solid or liquid state). Landau found that at extremely low temperatures, liquid helium (called helium II) exhibits the extraordinary properties of superfluidity, notably the ability to flow through narrow channels with complete absence of friction. From these findings, he formed a mathematics-based theory of superfluidity that explains the behavior of liquid helium II at a temperature below -270.98 degrees Celsius. Subsequent experiments in the 1950s confirmed his findings. For his work in many areas of science, his surname is applied to several areas of study, among them: Landau diamagnetism, Landau levels, Landau damping, the Landau energy spectrum, Landau cuts, and the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics in Moscow. His legacy even extends a quarter million miles above the earth as a lunar crater is named in his honor.

Over the years, Landau held a variety of teaching positions, including leadership of the theoretical division of the Ukrainian Physico-Technical Institute. A demanding professor, he mandated his students have a full understanding of all applicable mathematics before even setting foot in his classroom. Once there, Landau expected them to master a wide range of the tenets of theoretical physics, which was his way of making sure they became well-rounded physicists, rather than narrow specialists.

Landau attempted to maintain a style that was counter to the tendency of the time to obfuscate relatively simple concepts. He always strove to present intrinsically complex subject matter in a clear way that reveals the true simplicity of the laws governing the natural world. Landau would refer to his skill as “trivializing” things, and to him it was a matter of special pride. Another unique aspect of his style was that he managed to stay informed on current physics news although he rarely read scientific material. He stayed up-to-date with other scientists mainly by paying close attention to the papers presented at the seminars he directed. To Landau, listening to the presentations was never a simple professional courtesy. He was insistent upon the core of a study being explained to his satisfaction and that all propositions and statements be proven. 

Contemporaries of Landau quickly learned he did not suffer fools gladly. For the most part, people either venerated him or despised him. In 1938, he was locked up for a year during the Stalin era on the suspicion of being a German spy. There is no evidence the accusation contained the slightest element of truth and it is likely Landau was simply a victim of the many purges made by Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin. His freedom came after a number of notable scientists sent letters to Stalin asking for his release. After his release, Landau married and had a son, Igor, who went on to become an experimental physicist.

A serious car accident in 1962 left him in a coma for six weeks, effectively ending the career of the celebrated scientist. A number of distinguished specialists from several countries managed to revive him and his faculties slowly returned. Nevertheless, he could no longer perform the creative research that had defined his career, and died six years later.