Alexander V. Voronel has been professor of physics at Tel Aviv
University since 1973. He received his advanced degrees in Kharkov
and Moscow. While working at the Institute of Physical and Technological
Measurements in Moscow in the early 1960s, Voronel and his colleagues
demonstrated that even classical liquids like argon, oxygen, and
nitrogen could exhibit strong divergences in their specific heats
near the critical point. This work gave experimental endorsement
to the growing conviction that mean field theories were inadequate
to explain a wide range of critical phenomena.
Interview recorded by S. S. Schweber.
Topical links within the interview:
I. Biography and education
It is Wednesday, December 5, 2001, and I, Sam Schweber,
am in the office of Professor Voronel at Tel Aviv University in
Tel Aviv, Israel. Professor Voronel, could you tell me a little
about your background?
You see, I am from a family of engineers. My father was an engineer,
my mother was a teacher. I was born in Leningrad in September 1931.
There was a real famine then, so I got artificial milk and survived
against great odds.
And you were the first born of your family?
The first and the last. I was the only one. This is the usual situation
for Russian children, especially of this period, of this time. All
my friends are only childrenmy wife, everybody.
It had something to do with the stark conditions, and something
to do with the fact that both your mother and your father worked.
I believe this is it, this is interrelated. In Russia, we have
a joke, "Do you know why Russian fetuses are so nervous?" Answer:
Because during the first three months of the pregnancy, he's worrying
whether he will survive or not, because abortions are very common.
The next three months, he is worrying whether he has a father
or not, because fathers can avoid being the father. And the last
three months he's worrying whether he will get a grandmother or
not, because without a grandmother it was impossible to survive.
OK, so I got a grandmother, so everything was OK. And then, more
or less, the usual biography.
What is interesting, and probably what is characteristic of my
generation, is the following: In planning my career, my future,
I couldn't relate to anything other than being a scientist. The
only question was what kind of scientist, you know, but it was
absolutely clear that that was the only way. Maybe because I'm
a Jewish boy, I don't know why.
Let's talk about being Jewish. Your parents were members of the
communist party; were they religious?
No, actually, they were secular. Only my grandfather and grandmother
spoke Yiddish between themselves, especially if they wanted us not
to understand. But actually, it was, how do you say, lost knowledge.
My mother and father never spoke Yiddish.
Did you observe any of the holidays?
Did we observe? You know, grandfather made a great scene, that he
used the moment when mother and father were out on a job, and he
had me circumcised. (laughter). In fact, that's part of their
Or at least he thought this is what had to be done!
But you were still a baby then.
I don't know when. What I do know, and this is probably part of
my upbringing, that in kindergarten I got into some trouble. I didn't
realize that something is wrong with my, uh...
You're different from the others.
I am different from others, so I do remember that I was a little
bit self-conscious. Something was different. I didn't know what,
you know, but it was something. I was ashamed being naked, and so
on... This I remember, yes. But then, I lost even this feeling,
At age five, six, you start the regular school?
At eight. Until eight is it your grandmother who looks after you?
Yes. Actually, my mother also assisted, yes. But, my grandmother
more than the others.
Do you remember when you started reading, roughly?
You know, I did it fairly early. No, just the opposite: late.
I don't know why. Probably, now people would say they were dyslexic.
I don't know really. But I do remember that I was friendly with
one girl who was about six, and she read to me aloud; that we
were friends, but I couldn't read, she read for me. But then,
in school, I was not, well... not the excellent pupil. No, I had
some problems which probably had nothing to do with that, when
I was about 14. But this is sort of a long story. When I was about
14, I was very much interested in history and sociology and so
on and what does sociology mean in Russia? This is Lenin's and
Stalin's works, you know. When I read them I saw that it isn't
very much like what I see around.
So we decided -- this was not only me, it was our group of friends
-- we discovered that Soviet society does not work well, especially
not according to theory. So Lenin was against it. So we discussed
it, and then we had decided that we had to struggle, because it
was impossible to tolerate the situation, you know. So we did
write, and then spread, how do you say, the conflict that Soviet
society is not in justice, not, how do you say, not just. So we
did make rather, how do you say, a protest, which lasted about
half a year. Then all of us were arrested. And two of us, the
leaders, were put in jail. So I was sentenced to three years of
jail, in a concentration camp. This was when I was fourteen. I
had my fifteenth birthday in camp. The camp was near Chelyabinsk,
you know, this is near the Urals. I spent about half a year in
the camp, and then the higher echelon of the bureaucracy of the
Soviet Union discovered that probably we were too young, so they
changed the sentence from real to suspended.
Can you tell me a little bit more about who were members of this
discussion group? I mean, who were your friends? Were they Jewish
This is interesting. Of eight members of our group, seven were Jewish.
And there was nothing Jewish in our minds, but they were Jews. They
were nearly all boys, because it was a boys' school. It was a separate
school. But there was one girl in our group, and the girl was Russian.
Probably there was a romantic reason for that. One of the members
of this group now is a professor of Slavic Philology in Australia,
in Sydney. Another one, my best friend, who was with me, unfortunately
didn't get any education after that, because after being released
he was soon hauled back into the camp. He stayed in there a while.
But this is the special Russian picture, the Soviet picture, namely
that they got some plans of who should be jailed. So after a few
years, they put him in jail again, just because he was already suspicious.
So this time he got five years, and he spent these five years in
jail. So he couldn't get any education. And till now he lives in
Leningrad, in Petersburg. When I wanted to emmigrate in the seventies,
I called him, and asked him to go with me. But he said no no no,
after these two times I'm afraid to be jailed again. I could not
"reach" him and convince him to leave the USSR.
Tell me a little bit about the war. Where were you during the war?
During the war I was still young, too young.
Right, but still you stayed in Leningrad?
No. I didn't mean that, no. That's why we were arrested in Chelyabinsk,
Already you were in Chelyabinsk, I see. So then, when were you evacuated
This is more complicated than that, because before I was evacuated
from Leningrad the entire family went to Kharkov.
When did they go to Kharkov?
It was in 1936 or thereabouts. So I'd been in Kharkov, and then
we were evacuated from Kharkov to Chelyabinsk. And then, my father,
who was an officer in the army, he came from the front to Chelyabinsk.
And this time he helped me to get released. This release was not
so easy. They really reconsidered the sentence, but not only because
of mercy, but also because of a bribe. Father had arranged this
bribe, and that's why everything worked OK, and my father took me
and my mother to Astrakhan, where the Volga empties into the Caspian
sea. (phone rings, break) You know, I have too complicated
It is interesting. You know actually, my father died in the war.
And my real name is not the name I go by. My name is Polyakov. I
went to Kharkov with my mother, not with my father. They had separated.
The original name of my mother was Streymich. Polyakov was her married
name. And then my stepfather came back from the war and he married
my mother. And then she changed the city, and changed the name,
my name, and probably this saved me, you know, because otherwise
probably I would have been persecuted again as my friend was. Because
in the early 1950's Stalin gave instructions to imprison the people
Voronel is a Russian name?
No. It would still be identified as Jewish, as much as Polyakov.
But it meant that you now were Mr. Voronel, and they didn't know
where Mr. Polyakov was.
So, yes, Mr. Polyakov disappeared.
Yeah, it gave me some additional freedom.
So during the war, you were actually in the Urals. So you didn't feel the war quite as intensely.
We felt it because we were hungry.
It wasn't like being in Leningrad.
Where did you go to school?
I graduated from the school after my imprisonment. I graduated from
the school in Astrakhan. From the high school, in 1948. And then
I entered the University. Because my stepfather had changed cities,
he was an engineer, after Astrakhan he was in Makhatchkala -- do
you know this? It is in Dagestan, where I entered the university.
And only after a year I realized that I really, not just liked,
I adored physics. Since this provincial university didn't satisfy
me, I tried to enter the universities in the capitals, especially
in capitals. I tried all the universities, in Kiev, Moscow, Leningrad
and so on, but no one accepted me, in spite of the fact that I got
very high marks. And then I realized that my Jewishness is the reason.
They're in a quota system?
Yes, and since my mother was originally from Kharkov, she called
friends from her youth. Many of them were physicists, one of them
was rather famous, Berestetskii -- you know him-- he was from childhood
a friend of my mother, so he called another professor, Professor
Akhiezer, and Professor Akhiezer called Professor Milner, who was
the dean of the faculty in Kharkov. And Professor Milner told Professor
Akhiezer, "You know, for the son of Fanya (my mother's name) I will
do everything that is possible." So they did something which was
not 100% right probably formally, and until the end of my university
days I expected that they would kick me out. (laughter).
But they didn't.
When did you come to Kharkov? Who were your teachers?
I came to Kharkov in 1950, and I graduated from Kharkov in 1954.
My teachers were really outstanding physicists. Akhiezer was one
of them, another one was B. Verkin. As you know, science was a shelter
for people who had reason to be afraid of the government. Thus rumors
had it that Prof. Verkin was of German origin, and that originally
his name was Wehrkün. He had changed his name to Verkin because
being of German origin made one as vulnerable as being of Jewish
origin or even worse. It is interesting to note that all my fellow
students who became successful physicists were either Jewish, or
in some way vulnerable -- the sons of priests -- in general, "socially
Most of the people from Kharkov when Landau was there had gone to
Moscow with him?
Some of them, but Kharkov was still a center of really outstanding
physicists. The most outstanding of them was Lifshitz, Ilya Lifshitz,
the younger brother of Evgeny. Ilya Lifshitz was really a very interesting
lecturer. Because during the lecture, he sometimes forgot some things,
and he would discuss with us some of his doubts. As the creative
person he was so ...
It was very interesting, I would say, not so instructive, because
more instructive was Professor Piatigorskii. He's still alive. He
is, how do you say, he gives absolutely completely perfect lectures.
One could just could use a copier, a photograph. And the last teacher
was Professor Verkin. Professor Verkin, who was extremely talented
and became the director of the Kharkov Institute of Low-Temperature
Physics afterwards. At that time, he was rather young, but then
he finished as a director and scientific supervisor of this most
So when you come to Kharkov, you have to decide whether you're going
to be a theorist or an experimentalist?
Yes, I have to decide, and at first I was very ambitious, I thought
that I would be able to do both. But then simultaneously with being
ambitious I was disorganized, so I didn't do what I wanted, because
I sat in the laboratory days and nights and forgot to attend lectures,
so I missed a lot of theory. You know, for a young investigator
it's very seductive, yes, to do by my own hands, to see the real
nature, to see the atoms, because atoms are something you don't
So you work in Verkin's laboratory? What does he do at that time?
At that time he was interested in magnetism. But then, my first
real independent work was the investigation of the viscosity of
liquids. Liquid gases, argon, and others, at low temperature and
pressures up to a thousand atmospheres, that's rather high pressure.
When you say a gas, you say it's argon, and?
Argon, and nitrogen, and something else I think, but maybe not.
This is the early fifties. Then I prepared my physics diploma work.
And it was very highly appreciated by Verkin, and Borovik.
And the diploma work was after you'd discussed leaving?
And then again there were some discrimination problems, that after
the readings I had to be sent to work. In Russia one's education
was not free. And the administration didn't want to give me a proper
job. They wanted to send me to Tadjikistan. Even Uzbekistan was
too close for them. They wanted to send me to Tadjikistan. In Tadjikistan,
in some village, to a school for kids. But you see, Verkin did put
a lot of effort into saving me. This was not only my problemall
the Jewish people were sent to far-removed, isolated places. And
he did something at that time, which was an interesting time --
this was 1954, Stalin already had died, and Khrushchev started to
speak with the Germans stating that he will release the German prisoners,
scientists, who were working at that time on the Russian atomic
bomb. He did it in 1955. So this was the last year that they had
to work. So the supervisors -- of the German physicists -- got very
worried that they would not be able to do their task without these
people. So they looked for young, capable scientists who could,
how do you say, pick up the know-how from these Germans in their
institute. So Verkin found for us one of these administrators, and
told him that "I have very good people. But they're Jewish." He
said he was Armenian, and he said, "Ah, that they are Jews, doesn't
matter to me." OK, so we got the, how to say, assignment, the official
directive, to this institute. This institute was in Sukhumi, a resort
town in the Caucasus (Abkhazia). A sharp contrast to the godforsaken
village in Uzbekistan. There it was one of the atomic centers. So
we all got our directives to Sukhumi.
When you say we all, do you mean all the young people at grad school
who were Jewish?`
Me, Professor Kaner, who died, Professor Kontorovich, who is
now still in Kharkov, And the third was Professor Peresada, who
is not Jewish, but he was imprisoned by the Germans. In Russia
this was consequential and resulted in some interesting biography,
you know? So, he was also in the same group. But then, within
two weeks, this guy from Sukhumi wrote to Verkin, "you know, I
failed. It has become clear to me that I cannot accept Jews."
So, he declined [to have us on his staff], and he also wrote a
letter. But to save these good boys, he indicated that he was
not going to send a letter to officially inform about his refusal.
So we were not rejected formally, so as a result we were free.
In Russia, we were free. So two of us, Professor Kaner and Kontorovich
went to Landau to apply for graduate study. In Russia we call
it aspirantura (graduate study). OK. To become doctoral
candidates, and Landau agreed, but the Academy of Sciences said
no, so they were rejected. But I, because in my biography I already
had some experience, I didn't believe from the very beginning
that their application could be successful. So I went to some
small city with a university, a small provincial university and
said, "you know, I'm a married person, I would like to work
for you. I had some documentation in which it is written that
I am an outstanding student and so on. I have to reject my career
aspirations, and I'm prepared to work for you as an assistant
professor." This was in Saransk. This was 500 kilometers from
Moscow but you cannot imagine how wild it really was. This is
the real wilderness, you know, even no highways there, like Siberia.
So I worked there about a year. Teaching physics. I even did some
scientific work, but not experimental, theory or something. I
even published. And then my wife also graduated and I had to find
a job for her, but there was no job in Saransk. No job! But you
know, the times had changed. I went to Moscow to find some university,
some provincial university, where there would be two vacancies
for us both. And friends told me: "You know now the times have
changed, and they will give you a chance to find a job in Moscow."
First I laughed at them, but then, I thought "why not, what is
the risk?" So I wrote to twelve institutions in Moscow where I
could really be useful. So the ninth one said yes, you are good
for us. This was the Russian analogue of the American [National]
Bureau of Standards, this institute was something like the Bureau
of Standards. In this laboratory where I was accepted was working
the brother of this Borovik, whom I had known in Kharkov. And
this brother afterwards became an Academician, and you may know
of him, if you know Russian physicists, Borovik-Romanov, he became
the director of the Institute of Physical Problems after Kapitza.
So he was the person who accepted me, because he got the letter
of recommendation from his brother from Kharkov. And so I got
the job, in 1955, toward 1956.
And tell me just a little bit about your wife, where did you meet
At the university in Kharkov. In Kharkov, she was also in the same
department. It's interesting. She graduated from high school in
the same class as the future professors Kaner and Kontorovich and
she was better than them in solving and examining problems. But
after we started to to learn physics together -- it was from the
second year or third year -- I saw that she didn't understand the
physical meaning of the event.
So she understood formalism better than [the others]?
Yes, just formally. She could solve the problem, because there is
some other reason for that or something, you know? Probably I created
some inferiority complex in her, and as a result she dropped physics.
And she became a writer. She's a rather successful writer. Now she
writes fiction, plays, and two plays of hers were performed in New
And she goes under the name of Voronel too?
Yes, Nina Voronel. Also in London there was a show of one of her
screen plays on television, Granada television. She also has made
some films and so on. So she's rather successful in this new profession.
You say you were looking for two jobs in 1955 or 1956, so she still
was a physicist then?
Then, she still was a physicist, yes. She started all this, how
do you say, her first steps in writing was a translation of Edgar
Allen Poe's "The Raven." This poem in Russia, probably not
only in Russia, "The Raven" was translated 28 times and
now there is a great book with 28 translations of it in it. So my
wife's translation was recognized as the best one. And her next
success was the translation of Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of the
Reading Gaol, which was also a great success. And this was the
only success which could be achieved in the Soviet regime for Jewish
people. However, translations of foreign literature were widely
read -- because the Soviet literature was so uninteresting.
So when were you married actually?
Oh, we married sometime in the fifties, yes, 1952, in the beginning
of 1952. I can remember it only because I remember the age of my
son, who was born at the very end of 1952. The very moment of our
wedding was not really marked. We have only one son: the pattern
repeats itself, even in age. Every twenty-one years, but my son
has four children.
He came with you in 1970? Or was he already here?
He came before me. About a year before. So now we're different.
And also his wife is of French origin, so this will change her traditions.
No. The fact that he has four children has nothing to do with it.
All of them were born here in Israel.
So in 1955, 1956, you get a job in what is the equivalent of the
National Bureau of Standards. What happens to your wife?
If you're interested in the sordid details... I already worked in
the Bureau of Standards. But it was impossible for my wife to get
a job. And in Russia there's registration, you know. Of the Western
countries only Germany has this registration. And registration is
something very important, especially in Moscow. So we didn't know
what to do, and for about a year we lived in different flats. And
after the militia made records about us, we had to move out. So
it was a fantastic ride. But then one of our friends had a fantastic
idea. She said "If Nina is writing anyway, why not try to enter
the Literary Institute. In Russia there is a special institute for
writers." And we laughed again, for the discrimination was impossible
to overcome, but then we tried. And when we tried we were told "Why
yes, the poems are really good, but that's why we don't want her
to be our student, because we don't need to teach those who can
write, we prefer to teach those who cannot." And after this rejection,
the secretary said, "but you know, we have now a position for a
translator. If she agrees to translate from the Tadjik language,
maybe we can accept her." Then I ask her, "Tadjik, is this Farsi?"
And she answers "Yes, Farsi." OK! Because Farsi is a really great
language, it's a great culture. So, it was me, not her, -- because
she was at that time with her mother who was ill -- who signed for
her, and she became a student of the Institute of Literary Studies.
Yes, learning Farsi. And she really translated from Farsi, Omar
Khayyam, and others. So it was rather interesting work, and she
got the registration, as a result. Life was becoming better and
better, and simultaneously, probably my good luck was good luck
of all of us, the entire generation. When, at the end of the winter,
you had a, how to say it, advancement in temperature, they named
it "ottepl'" (the thaw).
Thus also warming the relations between East and West at that time?
Yes, also, but the main thing for us was not the relationship with
the U.S., but the liberalism within the country. It was Khrushchev's
time, with some reforms. In 1956 they claimed that Stalin was a
criminal, which we knew before, but for some people this was really
Continue to part II of the interview
with Professor Voronel.