Vitaly Ginzburg dies at 93; Nobel Prize-winning Russian physicist

Vitaly Ginzburg, the Russian physicist who played a key role in the Soviet Union’s development of the hydrogen bomb and who later won a Nobel Prize for his work on the theoretical underpinnings of superconductivity, died in Moscow late Sunday of cardiac arrest. He was 93 and had been in ill health for some time.

Ginzburg obituary: In Tuesday’s Section A, the headline on the obituary of Vitaly Ginzburg said he was born in 1922. The Russian physicist, who played a key role in the Soviet Union’s development of the hydrogen bomb and later won a Nobel Prize for his work on the theoretical underpinnings of superconductivity, was born Oct. 4, 1916. —

A pioneering theoretical physicist who often deprecated his own abilities in mathematics, Ginzburg made seminal contributions in a number of areas of physics, including quantum theory, astrophysics and radioastronomy.

A confirmed atheist despite his Jewish heritage, he was outspoken against anti-Semitism and firm in supporting the state of Israel. In his later years, he was highly vocal about what he and other scientists considered the “clericalization” of the Russian state.

In a telegram to Ginzburg’s family, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called him “a remarkable and purpose-driven man who has left us, one of the greatest physicists of our times, whose discoveries had a huge impact on the development of science in our country and around the world, and whose professional career and personal life are examples of a citizen’s service to his homeland.”

That statement seems somewhat ironic because Ginzburg was ostracized and refused high-level clearances throughout most of his career and was unable to travel abroad until late in his life because his wife had been erroneously accused of participating in a plot to assassinate Josef Stalin. He often said that it was only his participation in the H-bomb project that saved him from the firing squad.

The Soviet H-bomb project was ultimately a success through a series of fortuitous circumstances. In 1948, it was clear that the Soviet Union would acquire the atom bomb to compete with the United States. Some sources had indicated that America was also working on a hydrogen bomb, and the Soviets decided they should make a similar effort -- although it was not initially considered a high priority.

One of the original team members was physicist Igor Tamm, head of the theory department at the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow. Tamm proposed bringing his deputy, Ginzburg, but was initially turned down. Eventually, however, Ginzburg’s scientific pedigree outweighed his Jewish background and his wife’s exile, and he was accepted.

Physicist Andrei Sakharov was placed on the team because he and his wife had a young child and no place to live. Project members were given housing, in this case a single room in a communal flat.

Their inclusion was fortuitous because the team had little idea how to proceed. Sakharov suggested using alternating layers of uranium and fuel in the bomb. Ginzburg suggested using lithium-6 as fuel because, when hit by neutrons, it would release tritium and helium nuclei and significant amounts of energy.

“I do not think that either of these ideas was terribly bright,” Ginzburg said in a recent interview with the American Institute of Physics, “but together they made it possible to create the H-bomb.”

Once it was decided to use these two ideas, the work was moved from Moscow to what is now the city of Sarov. Ginzburg, who had been tarred as a “homeless, stateless cosmopolitan,” was not allowed to move to Sarov and stayed behind in Moscow to do thermonuclear calculations. Eventually, he lost clearance to do that as well.

Ginzburg next turned his attention to superconductivity, the ability of some materials to carry electricity without any losses due to friction. Early work on superconductivity had yielded few practical results because even weak magnetic fields interfered with a material’s ability to conduct electricity.

With another Russian physicist, Lev Landau, Ginzburg worked out a series of equations that correctly predicted a superconductor’s tolerance for a magnetic field and its conductive ability. Based on Ginzburg and Landau’s work, physicist Alexei A. Abrikosov developed ways to achieve superconductivity despite the presence of high magnetic fields. That work paved the way for a wide variety of uses, such as in medical imaging.

In recognition of their work, Ginzburg and Abrikosov shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physics with Anthony J. Leggett, who explained why helium became a superfluid when placed in a magnetic field at low temperatures. Landau, who had received a Nobel for other work, did not share in the prize because he had died and Nobels are not given posthumously.

Ginzburg had given up hope of receiving the award. “They have been nominating me for about 30 years, so in that sense it didn’t come as a surprise,” he said of the early morning phone call from Stockholm. “But I thought, ‘Well, they’re not giving it to me, I guess that’s it.’ I had long ago forgotten to think about this.”

Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg was born Oct. 4, 1916, in Moscow. His mother was a doctor who died when he was 4 and his father an engineer. Because of disruption caused by the Communist Revolution, he attended school for only four years.

A family friend helped him get a job as an assistant in an X-ray laboratory, where he first developed an interest in science. That interest was further whetted by a popular book, “The Physics of Our Days,” written by O.D. Hvolson. In 1933, it became possible to enter Moscow University by way of a competitive examination. With the help of a tutor, Ginzburg compressed three years of high school into three months and passed the exam, although not with scores high enough to guarantee his admission.

Because he had already quit his job, he enrolled as, in effect, a corresponding student, and after a year he gained full admission. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics in 1938, his doctorate in 1940 and his doctor of science in 1942. He joined the Lebedev institute, where he spent virtually all of his career. During the war years, he worked on the transmission of radio waves through the ionosphere. Minor physical disabilities kept him from being conscripted into the army.

In 1937, Ginzburg married a fellow student, Olga Zamsha. They had one daughter, Irina Dorman, but divorced nine years later.

During the war, the Lebedev institute was moved to Gorki. There, he met Nina Ermakova, who was exiled because of her supposed participation in the anti-Stalin plot. They were married in 1946. Ginzburg was able to return to Moscow after the war, but she could not for another eight years, so they lived apart with him commuting frequently. They had no children.

As communist fervor eased, Ginzburg was able to play a bigger role in his country’s affairs. He was part of a group of scientists who helped bring down the reign of Trofim Lysenko, who believed that acquired physical characteristics could be inherited -- a belief that impeded genetic research in Russia for decades.

He also defended atheism from attacks by priests and others and wrote several books devoted to atheism and religion. In 2007, he was one of 10 Russian scientists who wrote an open letter to then-Russian President Vladimir Putin decrying the growing influence of clerics in the government.

“I think that to be -- or not to be -- religious is a fundamental human right,” he said in the AIP interview. “It is, however, a different matter if the church interferes with secular education, offering creationism as a foundation of science. . . . I am convinced that the bright future of mankind is connected with the progress of science, and I believe it is inevitable that one day religions (at least those existing now) will drop in status to no higher than that of astrology.”

He is survived by his wife, daughter and two grandchildren.