Interview recorded by PoS collaborators Babak Ashrafi, Karl
Hall, and Sam Schweber at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 10 July 2002.
Maybe we should start at the
beginning. Are you from Moscow?
No, but I spent a few years in
Moscow. I was born in the
Byelorussian city Vitebsk in 1936. In 1941, my mother took me to Novosibirsk
(in Siberia), to escape the war. My family stayed in
Novosibirsk, but in 1954 I went to Moscow and became a student at the Moscow
Institute of Physics and Technology (MFTI).
How do you remember your life
As a good time. I had many
friends, participated in sports, gymnastics and boxing. All the Siberian summer pleasures. I
felt good in my All-boys High School #99. Life was full of interesting things, although not
1952 was a difficult year because we were Jewish, and my mother was a
physician. [In the months before Stalin's death in March 1953, the
Kremlin claimed to have uncovered the so-called "Doctors' Plot"
led by Jewish physicians.] My mother, Sofia Lipovna Bensman, was known
as one of the best physicians in town, the last hope and resort for many
people. In 1952, my mother had a heart attack. It was really hard. As for me, I felt some pressures, but
I always was deep into something interesting, and not attentive to the rest. I was one of the best students in
my school -- I graduated with a golden medal and other honors. But in 1952 I
got some negative marks in my school records, in writing. There was a special class meeting to
discuss my "behavior," and it appeared that my fault was my nickname, "genius." This was not given by myself -- it
was my physics teacher, the same one who later called the class meeting, an aktiv
of Komsomol or
whatever. It happened that in
a lesson, I promptly offered a solution of a problem he had just formulated,
and in surprise he just said, "oh, that's where the genius is hiding."
This appeared sticky, I got this nickname, and now this became "a violation
of moral rules of socialist society." Only much later I realized that this was part of the
anti-Jewish campaign of this year, probably a preparation for expelling me
from the school, because all Jews were expected to be placed in special
camps somewhere near Chita. My
sin was that I was Jewish (it was the ethnicity, not the religion; we all
were kept out of any religious teaching), and I was not hiding my
How many Jewish boys were there
in school? How many other Jewish students were there in your class?
In my class, there was only one
"explicit" Jew, maybe there also were a few hiding their Jewish origins. Siberia was not too densely
populated by Jews at this time, compared to Ukraine or Byelorussia. More Jews arrived later in
1952. Before this general concentration camp idea died with Stalin's death, preparations for more repressions were underway, and many Jews from central parts of the
Soviet Union were deprived of their positions and sent to Siberia. As far as I know, nobody hurried to
give them their positions back when the accusations of 1952 were
lifted later. Before Stalin's death
in 1953, it would have been practically impossible for me to apply and get accepted
into MFTI, which was a
really difficult institution to get into for anybody. In 1954, this became possible,
although the acceptance barriers were kept high, and for Jews even higher.
In 1952, were you expelled?
No, I was not, but preparations
were made. Another teacher also insisted on expelling me, but the school
principal, Michail Terentievich Mitasov, interfered, and stopped the
process. It was a feature of
Russian culture at that time that there were activists that would
anticipate the wishes of central authorities and act correspondingly, but
there were others who silently or even vocally opposed these actions, in
spite of known dangers. I was
lucky to have teachers who liked me and protected me. Our Siberian life wasn't easy, it was
poor: not enough money, not enough material stuff. From the beginning of the war, my
father was in the Red Army; he fell in 1944. Mother was alone to feed us all, and she tried to do
whatever she could, but her salary, the salary of a physician in the
state-run system, was low. At
the beginning of her practice in the thirties, my mother was a rising
medical star, working in a large military hospital. In 1937, her father and my
grandfather, Lipa Bensman, was imprisoned as an "enemy of the people", and that
resulted in big difficulties for all of his children.
Not all teachers were like my
8th-grade class supervisor, who later made an administrative career in the
Pedagogical Academy. I was
lucky to have very good teachers in my school and later in my university;
I was even more lucky that in my life the bad teachers were rather the exception
than the rule. In Russian
schools, you have a class mentor, a teacher who is supervising your
class. The supervisor of my
class from the 5th to the 7th grade (corresponding to Junior High in
America) was Nadezhda Grigorievna Anisimova, and she was good to all her
students, and very good to me. But in 1952 I was in the 8th grade. In 1952,
there was a school meeting
in my school, with all the students and teachers sitting in a huge assembly
room and listening to speakers. Suddenly, Nadezhda Grigorievna took the stage
and gave an emotional talk, recalling a story of Maxim Gorky about a Jewish
boy, with words at
the end like "... and now when Jewish people are again being accused of all
sins and killed..." You
have to understand how brave she had to be to speak that way, and how high
was the risk for her.
My father had, after 1917, difficulties
because he wasn't of the "right" class. I was told, without details, that before 1917 my father's
family had properties in Vitebsk. After 1917, everything was taken away, and my grandmother, Rachil
Meerson, was deprived of all civil rights. As you know, in the twentieth century Russian and world
history had a series of dramatic events. The October Revolution, wars, and waves of terror put a
toll on my family. So our
Siberian life was very poor -- we occupied a small room in somebody's
apartment, had eleven square meters' living surface, and there were five of us and not
enough room for all of us to lay down, so I slept in the kitchen.
Five because you have brothers
I have a sister Isabella (she's
now in Israel), born in 1941. The grandmothers were with us. I grew up in a family destroyed by disasters, my mother working too
hard and always coming home too late. My grandmother (my mother's mother Rachil Timkin) was very loving,
and taught me a lot of values. I tried many things in my life. I tried to
be a singer, not without success, but I had not worked hard enough to
pursue this line. I was a painter, I was a boxer, I was a lot of difficult
Mostly graphic arts, some
sculpture. I helped a
professional painter to make these large paintings for demonstrations,
which is not painting, actually -- you have an officially endorsed
post-card you have to enlarge. I returned to painting some time later, and given the opportunity I
would like to continue.
Who interested you in science?
When did you discover science? It was clear in high school that you were
exceptional in physics and mathematics?
It probably was, although I spent a lot of time
in sports and literature. I was the school's poet, and published in posters
(wall-newspapers). To be good
in physics and mathematics was simply in the nature of my family. I was taught by all my relatives, by
my mother, by my uncles, Josef Bensman (a navy commander) and Boris Bensman (economics professor), when they visited us, that my father was a mathematical
"star", never having any difficulties in mathematics. About the end of the 5th grade, I
became curious about math. I got a handbook in elementary mathematics, I read
and re-read this handbook chapter by chapter, and it appeared to me more
and more interesting. This
gave me an initial mathematical background. In the 6th grade, I bought, without mother's
permission, a college textbook, by Kudriavtsev and Demidovich, in higher
mathematics. My mother got
afraid, she took me to a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist testified that
I was absolutely normal and had no problems my mother was afraid of. I re-stole that book from my mother
(she had hidden it somewhere), and for some time this became my favorite
reading. At the end of the 6th
grade, I had comprehension of the mathematics taught in the high school,
and of some other parts. Probably even earlier, I found a book on physics, with covers and
some pages missing. This book
was my favorite reading and escape, and I made devices I saw in the book, or
invented, telescopes, microscopes, electrical motors, later radios, using stuff
I could find. Later, I found
that the book was the Moscow University textbook in general physics written
by Frish and Timoreva. And, of
course, I owned and read all the Perelman books--a collection of simple stories
and problems in physics and mathematics. I will never forget when the glass vacuum tubes in my first
tube radio began to glow for the first time.
In Siberia of the 1940s and 1950s, there were
only a few things you could do. You could do some skating and skiing in the winter,
and other sports, but the rest of the time is yours to spend, and you don't
have to do your school homework, sure, because you already know everything
that is taught. Most of my
teachers were so kind as to forgive me the written homework. Normally they ask you, in Russia,
to go to the blackboard and show how you solved this problem. When asked, I would have a glimpse
in the exercise book, and then write the solution on the blackboard. But if there was a challenging
problem around, it would be brought to me. Then I would turn on and work as long as the problem
allows. I was really happy
when I got special exercise books in math and physics from the Moscow
Institute of Physics and Technology (MFTI), full of interesting and
difficult mathematical and physical problems. This was my highest pleasure in the last year in school, to solve them. That
helped me later when I had to pass the MFTI admission exams.
But when you go to university,
it's clear what you want to do?
No, not at that time. I had no
special plans of any kind, I was just curious to look around and see what
happens where. I had the gold medal, and thus I was entitled to apply to
almost any university. My
mother thought for me to stay in Novosibirsk. At a graduation party, I met a girl from a neighboring
school, and she managed to convince my mother to allow me to go to Moscow,
and we went to Moscow together. I passed the MFTI admission tests; sadly enough, she did not pass
the tests in her university, and returned back to Novosibirsk. I became a student of PhysTech, the
MFTI. To follow my father's
steps, I had to become an electrical engineer. I liked the labs, and spent a lot of time there, more
than required. PhysTech had very good labs. Usually, the teachers in the
lab liked me, but there were also those who disliked me, maybe due to my
faults. I was lucky to get
support in critical moments. In the first university years, it was Emmanuel L. Fabelinskii, now
famous for his work in physical optics, who stood at my side.
He was one of your early
teachers at the PhysTech (MFTI)?
Yes. MFTI was a very special place to study, I know no
analogies. No expense was spared to hire the best Soviet scientists to be our teachers. The
number of students accepted each year grew rapidly over time, but in 1954,
the number of famous teachers seemed to be larger than the number of
students. It was fate that I
did not have to apply to MFTI until a year after Stalin's death. After the five
admission exams, a special commission, headed by the Rector, General
Petrov, interviewed me in order to decide whether to accept me or not. I was one of only a few people who
passed all exams without losing any points, and I had a gold medal from
the school and I was a boxing champion of my large Siberian city, and other
stuff. The difficult question
was, "Why are you Jewish?".
Oh, I had expected this
question. I had the answer from a book I read: "I'm Jewish because my
mother is Jewish, my father is Jewish, my cat is Jewish and my dog is
Jewish." This was my answer. It
wasn't clear after that if they would accept me. My friends decided just to kick out all the windows in
the building if I was not accepted. But when the day of acceptance came and I came to the
office, the secretary of the committee just waved her hand in a friendly
greeting, and my friends went away, probably disappointed.
How long were you in Moscow
before you were accepted?
Abut a month or two. I came, probably, in June, and the
acceptance exams in MFTI were scheduled in July or early August, earlier
than in other places, to allow those not accepted to try with other
And these exams were physics
and mathematics, or?
For a gold medallist, three
exams in mathematics, and two in physics, written and oral; for others,
additional exams in chemistry, in Russian language and literature, and
probably in history and foreign language.
So by that time you knew it was
going to be either physics or mathematics, or physics, strictly physics?
It was important that it had
some engineering flavor. I had
chosen the Department of Radio-Physics--my father had had ties to
electricity and radio.
As I mentioned, my father
Zakhar had no rights to normal higher education in USSR, but due to the
deficit of educated engineers in the 1930s, he had a job as an electrical
engineer, and learned extramurally, which was not forbidden to him. He got his engineering diploma just
before he went into the army, in 1941. I was told he was brilliant in math and could do many technical
things with his hands. I actually can't remember his image because I was
not even five when he went to the army, and he died from wounds in 1944. He
was a communications officer in a special howitzer regiment.
So in Moscow, what happened
when you went to the Institute? What courses did you take?
PhysTech, the Moscow Institute
of Physics and Technology, was a very special educational vehicle. The intensity of learning,
especially in the first 4 years was well above what was allowed in other
universities. You had to pass
a special medical test to prove that you would be able to hold the
load. Mathematics was taught
at a good university level for applied mathematicians, and experimental physics,
and engineering, a lot of lab work, and a lot of other stuff, and Marxist-Leninist
philosophy, and a foreign language too. I chose German, because the language in my family
was Yiddish, and my paternal grandmother actually spoke German rather than
Yiddish, I don't know why.
How many in the class when you
In the freshman class, there
were about 30 Radio-Physics students accepted in 1954. This went down to
about 20 at the end because some would not make it and had to go to other
institutions, to Moscow University, the Bauman Institute, or whatever.
That's for the Radio Technology
There was a Radio-Physics
Department, and a Radio Technology Department, too, and Aeromechanics, and
Physical Chemistry. About 150
students were accepted to all four departments in 1954.
For example, in the mathematics
course, how many would there be in a math class? In the classroom, how many
students would there be?
The students were free to attend
or not attend lectures, except for the mandatory Marxist-Leninist courses,
and language classes. But you
had to pass exams and exercise tests. Normally, students were assigned into groups of about ten students for
exercise training. This was
separate from lectures that were given in a large auditorium for all of
us. Our lecturer in
mathematical analysis was a famous mathematician, Professor Mark A.
Neimark, a well-known algebraist. At some point, when I attended his supplemental classes
in differential equations, he suggested that I become his student and a
mathematician. I wanted to
become an engineer at that time, I didn't want to become a
mathematician. General physics
was lectured by Professor Gabriel Gorelik. In 1957, he threw himself under a train, people
whispered this was because of disagreement with politics. In this summer,
Moscow students, and especially MFTI students, were sent to Kazakhstan to
help in the Virgin Lands. The
hidden reason for that expulsion was that there was an International Youth
Festival in Moscow, and it was seen as good to avoid us contacting
I'm sorry, why were you sent to
I, and many of my friends,
thought it was a desire to prevent us contacting foreigners. A lot of foreigners were expected
to attend the International Youth Festival in Moscow in 1957. Those students who tried to somehow
avoid going to Kazakhstan were punished severely, in many cases expelled
from MFTI. I went to
Kazakhstan, and I worked in these fields and it was a pleasure, but when we
understood the lies that lay behind keeping us in Kazakhstan for the
entire summer instead of doing something else, there was an attempt to
protest. This almost ended up in big troubles for me when we returned to
MFTI. I was warned, on time,
by friends, and my friends and other students made it impossible for the
guy (Kudinov) who was the party-assigned leader of our group in Kazakhstan,
to make public accusations in a meeting of all students. There was actually
nothing I could be really accused of, it was only my opinions and my
stance, so to say. The time
was the Khrushchev "thaw," a more democratic time, and for a short period
one got new opportunities to survive.
At what point did you switch
over to becoming a physicist?
Actually, in MFTI we all were
trained to become physicists of a kind. I graduated from MFTI as a Physical Engineer. The MFTI engineers were physicists
specially taught and trained to generate new ideas and communicate to those
who make real things, to hardware specialists, and do this on the fundamental and highest
available level of basic science. The idea in organizing MFTI (in 1948) was to pick the best students
available in the country and train them to lead in competition with the West
in military and important industries. This training included work in labs, in and outside MFTI, well-
equipped with anything available in the world. We were permitted the risk to break the devices we were
working on. This was, I bet,
the best education one can imagine, extremely expensive for the state, but
very good for us. In the U.S., I
am doing the job I was educated and trained for when interacting with science-based
institutions, in recent years it has been primarily the Dow Chemical Company.
So just for a little bit, what
is the kind of mathematics that Neimark would teach you?
The system of mathematical
education was: first to teach us general mathematical ideas and formalisms,
beginning with abstract spaces and objects in those spaces. Definitions,
objects and operations in abstract spaces, and then, on this basis, you can
easily teach details. Analytical geometry, mathematical analysis, differential equations,
Hilbert space, linear operators, groups. Say, if you go to quantum
mechanics, that's very important stuff. The only important void, as I now think, in our math
education was topology. Topology was not taught, probably because this was
not considered something that you can really use in calculations.
Where did you learn complex
Once, in a discussion here at
Northwestern with my friend John [Ketterson], I started using a few
theorems involving complex variables, and John said "Sasha, do you
pretend to have in your university a special course in complex
variables." Well, three semesters of complex variables. The Lavrentiev and
Shabad textbook plus some other books. The teacher in my group was Nikolay N. Moiseev, in later
years a well-known scientist and Academy member. To pass his exam was not easy because in several hours
of examination he tried to find my weak points.
Somehow you're being trained to
be some kind of very high-level engineer, but you gravitate towards
A natural process plus chance. You work hard in
the lab, and then make a test of the facility, and analyze factors limiting
the accuracy of the experiment, and show this to your teacher. Then you
hear that "oh, you probably will become a theorist." At
first, I hadn't paid too much attention to theoretical courses. We had to
take a train to go from Dolgoprudnaja, where the Institute is situated, to
Moscow. In my first student years, it was a steam engine. Once in this
train, I run into a group of students who went to a special interview. I
was told that Academician Kapitza (he was out of exile and returned to his
Institute of Physical Problems)
wanted to have a group of MFTI students specializing in Low Temperature Physics.
Curious, I went with them; after they all had gone through the interview,
I was interviewed,
too, and accepted. A year
later, I met in the train a student who told me that he was preparing
himself for the Landau theoretical minimum exam. It appeared that there was
a way to see Landau and even talk to him. Well, I and two of my friends got
the program and the books, did some exercises, and passed the first Landau
exam, math-1. In a few years, I
passed seven exams of the Landau theoretical minimum (out of nine); the
last two exams were waved for me by Landau himself when I became his
student. Landau's theoretical
minimum included two math exams, not in proofs and existence conditions,
but a test of free and elegant use of any kind of mathematics, including
tensors, curved spaces, differential equations, and complex variables. The
math-1 included stuff used in mechanics and field theory like ordinary
differential equations, the math-2--more sophisticated stuff used in quantum
mechanics. There were exams in mechanics, field theory including general
relativity and cosmology, quanta, statistical
mechanics, hydrodynamics, condensed matter, etc., actually all volumes of
Landau that exist now. Not all of them existed at the time I describe, but
there were very detailed programs and carefully chosen references.
What was your physics education
at the MFTI? Before you went to take Landau's exam, what was your physics
MFTI program was my physics
education, a lot of physics and mathematics. I had nothing to add.
In other words, your engineering
education was your physics education.
Yes, it was six years of
intense studies. I would rather say my physics education included a lot of engineering.
By the time you've finished
MFTI, you had, for instance, learned Gorelik's Oscillations?
This was a small part of the
large (about three years, six semesters) General Physics program, this part
was probably taught in the fourth semester, lectured by Gorelik himself.
There were also, besides the general physics program, courses in analytical
mechanics (Felix Gantmacher
lecturer), electrodynamics (Gorelik), quantum mechanics, statistical
mechanics, and then special parts of physics and applications for student
groups according to their specializations. All parts of physics were taught,
plus applications and labs, a lot
of lab work. We had lectures from 9am to 1pm, then exercise and labs from
2pm till 6-8pm, so that in six years all parts of mathematics and physics
with some overlap, plus engineering courses like materials strength, plus
lab, workshops, etc.
What kind of books, for
example, in physics, Landau's?
In general physics, it was
Papaleksi (Moscow University textbooks, in several volumes), Shpolskii for
atomic physics, Landsberg for optics, and a lot of other books, including
Landau lectures in general physics that I never saw published outside the
Institute. Landau's Course of Theoretical Physics was not especially recommended, actually, because there were other books considered as more effective
for students. Skanavi's
Dielectrics, Tamm's Electrodynamics, Mathematical Analysis by Fichtengolz (three large
Mathematical Analysis in 5 volumes, Petrovskii's Differential equations, Lavrentiev
and Shabad in complex variables, Gelfand in linear algebra, Mishlin in
integral equations, Gnedenko and Ventzel in probability theory, etc. We had special theoretical physics
tutors for analytical mechanics, quantum mechanics, statistical physics and
other courses; those tutors were usually younger than the lecturers, but known
scientists with higher degrees. There were many hours of exercise for each lecture hour. I normally would combine this with
reading Landau and Lifshitz.
Do you remember what text they
used for quantum mechanics and statistical physics?
In quantum mechanics, Landau
and Lifshitz was the best text for me and some others, but it was also
Leonard Schiff's book, probably, and, maybe later, the book of Dirac; Shpolskii
was a crack course in quantum mechanics.
What about statistical
For statistical mechanics, it
was Landau and Lifshitz, of course, and I can also mention German authors
translated into Russian, and a book by Levich. There are many good science books in Russia, domestic
and translations, some are better, some worse. They were published without
consideration of cost and profit, at state expense.
At that stage you had heard of
If you are in the Institute for
Physical Problems (the Kapitza Institute), as I was at this time, you could
not avoid hearing about Landau, the head of the theory department.
Before, when you were first
making your way into physics.
In Siberia, I have no
recollections. In MFTI, Landau
was a very popular name. The names of Kapitza, Landau, Lavrentiev, and of
other famous Professors of MFTI and MGU (Moscow State University named for
Lomonosov; at the beginning, MFTI was a special Department of MGU) were
among those frequently mentioned by students.
I mean, before, you mentioned
the path is taken by something pushing you.
This was rather natural; I was
always either talking about experiments or doing them, making a mathematical
model of what's going on and solving it and so on. Normally the end was
"O.K., you probably would go to become a theorist".
So it's contingency, it's an
accident that, because you met people...
I could, probably, have avoided
this. I prepared my experimental graduation work on Helium3 under Klavdia
Zinovieva's supervision in the Peshkov lab of the Kapitza Institute, and everything
was fine, but I still had about a year and a half of my university time
left. I didn't want to skip this, because of absolute uncertainty about
what I would do then.
Once you have taken the exam,
the Landau minimum, and you're accepted...
The nine Landau minimum exams had nothing in
common with my university program, I had no practical ideas or plans
related to these exams. I went
through all the courses and labs, this included a lot of experiments. The
idea of MFTI education was to be involved more and more in the scientific
life of the "base" institute, the Kapitza Institute in my case, as a
scientist. In the fourth year,
I was sent to the Peshkov lab. We assembled a facility to test superfluidity in He-3 by using the
amount of this gas collected in the Kapitza Institute, and benefiting from some
new pumps. There was, as I know now, no hope to succeed because we were
able to go in the best case down to about 1.5 K, and this is way too high for
He-3 superfluidity. Still,
this would be an experiment I actually could have used as my graduation
work, published, and probably extended and modified the experiments to reach a
PhD. In the meantime, I passed
at least half of the Landau exams, and I had two friends who had done the
same, Lydia Anziferova and Alexander Lazarev. We were interested in theoretical physics independently
of what we were doing in the Institute. Then, one day, in the hallway of the Kapitza Institute I
ran into Isaak Markovich Khalatnikov, and he said, "Patashinskii, I am
organizing a Theoretical Physics group in MFTI, do you want to join this
group?" OK, why not! It
was an interesting turn of events. Khalatnikov taught us low-temperature theory, superfluidity and
This was, I guess, in 1957 or 1958. So I was included in this
group. For theoretical graduation
works, we were sent to the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental
Physics (ITEF) to Professor Berestetskii, who interviewed us, and took
Lazarev and Anziferova (they were married) as his students; I was sent to
Vladimir Vasilievich Sudakov. Sudakov was the very unfortunate driver of the car in the tragic
accident in 1962 that ended Landau's activities in physics. It was a disaster for all of us, but
even more for him personally. Sudakov, who was close to Landau, involved me first in a theoretical
study he was conducting at this time. In about a month, I came up with the solution. He was impressed and told me he no
longer felt it right to give me an academic exercise like pi-meson
scattering or the like, but he had a Landau manuscript about singularities
of Feynman diagrams, and he suggested that I read this manuscript and find
something for myself. I took
this manuscript, and really found an opportunity to get some new stuff about
the location of singularities.
Where did you learn QED or
One of the Landau Minimum exams
I passed was QED; this included Akhiezer and Berestetskii and some
additional papers. One had to calculate the results of an experiment up to,
say, third order in the fine constant, to find the diagrams, write the
cross-section, calculate the trace of gamma-matrices, do the integration,
etc. In higher orders of QED
it's a cumbersome expression with gamma-matrices, you have to
know how to deal with that. The MFTI education plus the Minimum gave one a freedom
to work in practically any field of theoretical physics. I had skipped, with Landau's
permission, the macroscopic electrodynamics exam, and probably because of that I
had newer worked in plasma physics. I have done research in high energy
physics, quantum mechanics, condensed matter, general relativity,
hydrodynamics, and many other fields. I also skipped chemical physics, but
I have been working in this field for a rather long time.
Let me ask something:
Khalatnikov comes to you and says, "I'm organizing a theoretical
physics group." There are various people there, Khalatnikov works on
many-body theory, he has Sudakov who is high-energy, am I right?
Theoretical physics was
considered as one discipline in the Landau school, the field was not
divided into domains with high walls, the disciples had the Theoretical
Minimum background, and were able to jump into where a good problem
Are problems in high-energy
physics considered more important, more fundamental than, let us say,
Theoretical physics is about mechanisms of Nature and how to describe them. These mechanisms are frequently the same
for many different parts of physics, and the importance of a problem
depends on what is currently most interesting. Sudakov first gave me a
problem in hydrodynamics which in plain English could be described as
"could a tornado feed itself from small random perturbations in the
atmosphere?" I took Lamb's Hydrodynamics and some journal papers (Landau
and Lifshitz was not enough), used the Lamb transformation, and reduced the
math problem to that of bound states in a "quantum-mechanical" system
described by a Schroedinger equation. The "potential energy" term in this equation was a high order polynomial,
with some inequalities between coefficients coming from the original
problem, and I spent a lot of time in desperate efforts, but finally
managed to understand that, with the actual limitations I had, the system
has no discrete states (energy levels). That meant there would be no feeding. And when I brought
this to Sudakov, this was a new result, so that in the worst case scenario
I had something for a theoretical graduation work, and could risk to take
on a new problem. The Landau
manuscript I got from Sudakov reduced the problem of finding the position
of singularities to that of calculating polyhedrons in pseudo-Euclidean
energy-momentum space. In a pseudo-Euclidean space, two points may be at a
distance zero but have a huge difference in coordinates. You have to train
your geometrical intuition to see what happens in this space. After some time (a month or two) I
learned to understand pseudo-Euclidean polyhedrons that have a fixed
pseudo-length of sides, but have an infinite distance between some vertexes.
I had to design my own mathematical tools to prove my understanding, and
the entire construction had way too many parts, so that it was impossible
to explain the solution to anyone. The diploma thesis that I had later written on this stuff
was about forty pages of hard to read text, with too many details. There were
equations that were later called Landau-Bjorken equations, and some
pseudo-Euclidean currents on the lines of the graph, and a lot more. The algebraic part of this work,
but not the entire work, was later published. I tried with few theorists, including Sudakov, but
nobody was able to follow me through the too many details and logical
tricks and so on. I was
forced, at the end, to find somebody who's a patented
"understander". So I went to Landau.
I tried to talk to Landau at the end of his
seminar. My first attempt was
a disaster. Landau easily
found some defects. At this
time, I was especially bad at explaining, because I've seen things in my
imagination and this was hard to explain in words. Landau was tired by the seminar,
and he became angry, he just sent me to disappear. He was very angry about
all this stuff, and my friends who saw this were frightened about what I
had done. Well, in a week, at
the end of the next seminar, I just went to Landau and started again. I had found a way to explain some
parts better, and surprisingly Landau even praised some ideas, and then at
some point again found a point which was probably not well explained. This time I was sent away much less
hostilely. The third time I came to talk, Landau was smiling, the talk lasted
for about an hour, and then Landau told me, OK, this is too complex for me
to understand the details because I am after the seminar, I'm somewhat tired now, but let's
meet tomorrow morning. Call me in the morning, we will meet and talk.
We spent the next day talking, from morning to
late afternoon. Landau
listened without too many remarks, and it was good, and then this was
over. I felt very tired, the
only question I dared to ask was, "could I use this as my graduation
work?" He told me
something which I had not understood, something about other people
receiving degrees, something which probably was flattering, or else.
Next week, Khalatnikov met me in the hallway of
the Kapitza Institute where I was standing with Sudakov before the Landau
seminar. "Landau offers you his personal guidance as his aspirant (PhD
student)." This probably was something unusual, I had known no Landau
personal students. Sudakov told me very rapidly, "Sasha, accept
immediately!" And then there began a short time for me when Landau
was more like my father than my teacher. He would meet me in the hallway before the seminar when
all participants looked at us, and put his hand on my shoulder and talk to me
in a low voice, actually more not about science but joking and giving advice
how to behave.
When was it that Sudakov gave
you Landau's manuscript?
It was probably the fall of 1958, or early in
1959. The Landau paper was
published in ZhETF in 1959.
And when was what you're
describing now with Landau?
And what happened to the
problem that you found in Landau's manuscript?
This was not a major breakthrough
in high-energy physics, rather a technical problem, mathematically tricky
but deemed useful. I solved
it, to some extent. When you
are doing science, you meet, once in a while, technical problems which you
have to solve to move further. I did a technical stuff for a theory, based
on [Stanley] Mandelstam's ideas, that was forgotten a few years later. Some
experience came in handy later, when in 1963 we (Valery Pokrovskii and
I) started a study
of He-4 near the onset of superfluidity (the lambda-point). At some point,
we got to a tricky mathematical situation with diagrams, Matsubara diagrams
case. The analysis of the
generation algorithm for higher order diagrams, developed in the graduation
work, appeared very handy. There is a probability (but I have no facts confirming
this assumption) that Landau analysis of analytical properties of Feynman
diagrams is related to his attempt to understand fluctuations at the lambda-point,
so this could be a return to the source. Anyway, I had my means to analyze
an arbitrarily complex Feynman
diagram, and I applied this immediately, and we made a small step to a
discovery of what is now known as scaling.
But it wasn't this problem that
No, it was not. What I studied
were positions of singularities of Feynman diagrams in elementary particle
theory. But to solve this
mathematical problem I had to find a generation algorithm to analyze the
structure of an arbitrary complex Feynman diagram.
That first problem, you didn't
use that for your kandidatskaia [PhD] degree, or no?
Not all of the solution. It was too hard to describe some,
mostly geometrical, parts of the construction, and nobody would understand
me. Some parts, algebraic,
were published, in cooperation with Sudakov and Rudik, in JETP, and even
presented (by Lev Okun', we were not allowedto go abroad) at the International Rochester conference. This part was part of my thesis.
In the summer of 1961, I moved to Siberia,
having spent near Landau only one year and few months. The reason for going to Novosibirsk
was: I had a child, I had no financial
support, my mother and sister were in Novosibirsk and there was no hope to
bring them to Moscow. My PhD stipend at the Kapitza Institute would not be
enough even for renting an apartment in Moscow. In 1960, the newly created Siberian Division of the Academy
offered me incredibly nice conditions: I continue to stay in Moscow with
Landau, as a scientist of the Siberian Division. Landau signed some special agreement with the Siberian
Division (I saw it in my file later) that he will be my supervisor. I was given a room to live in
Moscow with my wife Nadya and son David, and a salary for me and even a
salary for my wife, without duties for her. After a little more than a year in Moscow, we moved to
Akademgorodok, a new city built for scientists near Novosibirsk, to occupy
an apartment given to me, a much better one than I was entitled to at this
point of my career. During the
months after moving, I had frequent trips to Moscow, to meet with people
and attend the Landau seminar.
In Academgorodok, I met Pokrovsky. At that
time, in high-energy physics new ideas appeared, and I started looking at
Regge poles. Listening to D. V. Shirkov
talk at a seminar, I got an idea that the quasi-classical approximation
might be used to get some useful information about Regge poles. I told this
to Pokrovsky. We were not yet friends, but we were known to each other
-- I had seen Valery in the Landau
seminars, he was a natural partner, so to say. Valery was a leader of a team
of nice and intelligent people, and the director of his Radiophysics Institute
was Yury Borisovich
Rumer, an extremely attractive personality who soon became my
friend. When later I told
Valery about quasiclassics, Pokrovsky, without words, took out of a
bookcase a thick (40 pages at least) typed manuscript and told me that a
few years ago, he and Khalatnikov, and independently Landau in parallel,
tried to solve the problem of quasi-classical scattering in three
dimensions by summing up partial waves, but for some reason they stumbled
(Landau, too!), and then the problem was declared unsolvable.
Valery gave me this manuscript, and from this
manuscript I understood that they had discovered Regge poles years before
Regge, but had not found any use for them, probably because a lot of things
(cross-symmetry, analyticity, and other ideas of the quantum field theory)
was simply missing. Pokrovsky
was not a high-energy physicist, he studied in Kharkov and didn't go
through the Theoretical Minimum exams -- he's universally educated in physics
but this was not his field. To that time, he had done a lot of work in
antennas, non-relativistic quantum mechanics, and condensed matter theory.
My experience was not as good in these parts of physics, so I had to test
many mathematical things by
myself. This was a Landau
idea, that you can't learn all necessary mathematics but rather learn how
to invent mathematical methods for each problem you have, you run on
principles rather than facts. In one point of the manuscript I found a
disagreement with what I thought is right. OK, there's a discrepancy here,
the traditional definition from the Landau book violates analyticity for
complex values of
the angular momentum variable. After this obstacle was eliminated, there
were many other to overcome, but at the end we were able to solve the
problem, and published the results in several papers, with Khalatnikov as
co-author. Unfortunately, in some parts the mathematics is somewhat cumbersome.
We did it, and in the course of this work Pokrovsky
and I became well-adjusted to each other. It was hard work, not everything
went easy, there were breakthroughs in math we had to make. At the end of
1962, we had done the job and come to Moscow. It seemed that in the Landau
circle everybody had known that Landau wanted to solve this problem. We found
In the course of explanations of the solution,
and following discussions, and chats, I asked Gor'kov and Abrikosov a
question, or maybe this was a declaration, "Now that we have solved this, well, there is a known
problem of second-order phase transitions, why don't you solve this
problem, you are so strong, so great here. If you don't solve it in the nearest
future, we will do it."
I did. I felt some kind of a
moral right to make this statement, and it has some prehistory for me.
Continue reading part II of the