Landau was a great physicist

"Be careful!"

On January 7, 1962, numerous roads in Moscow and the surrounding area were icy. Nevertheless, the Soviet physicist Lev Dawidowitsch Landau insisted on being driven to the Dubna nuclear research center. However, since the driver's service at his institute did not provide him with a company car, Landau persuaded a friend to chauffeur him to Dubna. On the road there, the car skidded and collided with an oncoming truck. Landau was seriously injured: his skull and eleven bones were broken. His brain was bruised, his ears were bleeding, and his lungs collapsed and he could hardly breathe.

The news spread quickly in Moscow: the "most brilliant brain in the Soviet Union" was struggling with death. Doctors opened the skull in Landau's hospital to relieve the pressure. Special drugs for treatment that were not in stock in Moscow were specially flown in from England and the USA. But Landau's condition deteriorated. Six times he was clinically dead, six times his doctors brought him back to life. Landau was in a coma for weeks with several tubes connected to it, and no one could say whether he would ever wake up again. Physicists all over the world followed the dramatic events in Moscow, and many people may have remembered the time when Landau, with his keen intellect, astonished even such luminaries in their field as Niels Bohr and Max Born.

Landau was born in Baku on January 22, 1908, the son of an engineer and a doctor. At the age of 14 he enrolled at the university there, two years later he switched to the physics department at the University of Leningrad, where he received his doctorate in 1927. Landau was just as fascinated by the "incredible beauty" of general relativity as by the newly developed quantum mechanics, which he counted among "the greatest achievements of the human mind" and on which he wrote his first work. In 1929 he received a Rockefeller scholarship and was allowed to travel to the West. He worked for Max Born in Göttingen, visited Werner Heisenberg in Leipzig and had stimulating discussions with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, whom he regarded from then on as his mentor. In Cambridge, Landau met the influential Soviet physicist Pyotr L. Kapitza, who was to be of fateful importance for his later life.

In 1931 Landau returned to the Soviet Union and worked at the Physico-Technical Institute of the University of Kharkov. Here he began his pioneering research on second-order phase transitions in which (unlike the freezing of water, for example) no latent heat occurs. The transition of a solid from the ferromagnetic to the paramagnetic phase is also a second-order phase transition investigated by Landau, as is the transition of a metal from the normally conducting to the superconducting state.

Even in the west, Landau had doubted the validity of the law of conservation of energy when attempting to solve the problem of radioactive beta decay. And although he soon dropped these doubts, after his return some Soviet authors accused him of damaging Marxist-Leninist philosophy with his work. The NKVD also kept a watchful eye on the physicist, about whom two imprisoned colleagues testified in 1937 that he was the head of a counter-revolutionary organization. Landau then accepted a call from Kapitza to the Academy Institute for Physical Problems in Moscow, where he took over the department for theoretical physics. Although he was usually courteous as a person, Landau did not tolerate any negligence as a scientist. In his study there was a sign that read: "Be careful!"

In April 1938, Landau was arrested and taken to the Lubyanka. In contrast to many other scientists who fell victim to the Stalinist terror, Landau knew why he was incarcerated: he had intended to secretly distribute a leaflet with two friends in Moscow on May 1, 1938. It contained sentences like these: “Comrades! The great aim of the October Revolution was shamefully betrayed. The economy is falling, famine looms. The country has sunk in rivers of blood and rubbish ... Don't you see that the Stalin clique carried out a fascist coup! Socialism only exists on the pages of the newspapers, which are hopelessly entangled in lies. "

It was a miracle that Landau was not shot as a result. It is believed today that it was Kapitza who performed this miracle. Without a doubt he wrote a letter to Vyacheslav Molotov, in which he described Landau as a gifted researcher, whose death would be a great loss for the Soviet Union. Kapitza also promised to take good care of Landau, who was released from prison in May 1939 - and thanked him in his own way. With the help of quantum theory, he explained a phenomenon that Kapitza had first observed in an experiment in 1937: At extremely low temperatures, liquid helium changes to a state of superfluidity. This means that it loses its viscous properties and can therefore flow through the narrowest capillaries without friction.

After the Second World War, Landau was involved in the construction of the Soviet atomic and hydrogen bomb and was named a "hero of socialist work". But Landau did not only achieve great things as a researcher. He was also a sweeping university professor who was constantly fine-tuning the quality of his lectures. Together with his colleague Jewgeni M. Lifschitz, he wrote a ten-volume “textbook on theoretical physics”, which is still one of the standard works in this field today and has been translated into countless languages, including German from 1957.

Landau woke up from his coma three months after his serious accident. Slowly he fought his way back to life, began to speak and finally went back to work. And he was highly honored: for his theory of superfluidity, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1962, which, to his regret, he was unable to accept himself. He then had six years left, which his friend and colleague Lifschitz described as "a story of prolonged suffering and pain." Landau died on April 1, 1968 after an operation in Moscow. He was 60 years old.

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