This Day in History

2009: Father of Russian Bomb Dies

Ironically, the hydrogen bomb that could potentially kill millions saved Vitaly Ginzburg, whom had become suspect to the Kremlin.

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On November 8, 2009, Vitaly Ginzburg, the Russian physicist who played a key role in development of the Soviet Union’s hydrogen bomb, and who won a Nobel Prize for his discoveries about superconductivity, died, at the age of 93.

Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg was born on October 4, 1916, in Moscow. His father, Lazar' Efimovich Ginzburg, was a water-purification engineer and his mother, the former Augusta Veniaminovna Vildauer, was a Latvian-born physician. She died of typhoid when Vitaly was a young child.

A variety of circumstances related to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 meant that Ginzburg attended school only between ages 11 and 15. In 1931, a family acquaintance helped him get a job as an assistant at an X-ray laboratory. It was there that he became interested in physics. When he decided he wanted to study the subject at Moscow State University, he had to make up the years of school he had missed, and crammed three years of studies into three months.

A questionable diagnosis of thyroid disorder saved Ginzburg from military service in World War II.; Instead he served in a civil capacity, while continuing graduate work at the Lebedev Physical Institute, which during the war was evacuated from Moscow to Kazan, Tatarstan. He completed his Ph.D. in 1940 and his D.Sc. two years later.

He also married in 1937; he and his wife had a daughter, Irina Dorman, who is herself a physicist too, before they divorced, in 1946. That same year, he married Nina Ermakova, who remained his wife until his death.

Ginzburg and Ermakova met when he was a visiting professor at the University of Gorki, the city to which she had been exiled after being convicted on trumped-up charges of participating in a plot to assassinate Stalin. Though she was released from labor camp after a year, Ermakova had to remain away from Moscow until 1953, the year of Stalin’s death.

A radiant communist future

Ginzburg had become a member of the Communist Party in 1942, a decision he said later was based on naïve faith in communism, rather than any “careerist considerations.” In the fascinating autobiographical essay he wrote for the Nobel Prize committee, Ginzburg admitted that for some time, “I believed in ‘a radiant communist future,’ not understanding that here we had, in fact, a regime of a Nazi type, headed by a criminal no less mean and bloodthirsty than Hitler.”

After World War II, Ginzburg’s mentor at Lebedev, Igor Tamm, recommended him for the team, which also included Andrei Sakharov, working on the Soviet hydrogen-bomb project. Ginzburg’s contribution was the idea of using solid lithium-6 deuteride for the bomb’s nuclear fuel.

Bizarrely, during the same years, Ginzburg became increasingly suspect to the regime, as a Jew, and as someone married to former political prisoner, and he writes that he was only “saved by the hydrogen bomb.” It also didn’t hurt that Stalin died, on March 5, 1953. Ginsburg wrote in 2003 that he and his wife “have up till now been celebrating this day as a great festival.”

And then he won his Nobel for something completely different

Ginzburg’s Nobel Prize in 2003, however, which was shared with the British-American scientist Anthony Leggett and the Russian-American Alexei Abrikosov, was not related to his research on nuclear fission, but rather on superconductors, materials that, when cooled to low temperatures, can conduct electricity with very low levels of resistance. His special contribution was related to superconductors that remained effective in the presence of magnetic fields. This work also led to his receiving the Israeli Wolf Prize in physics for 1994-95.

At the time he won the Nobel, he told an interviewer that he planned to give his share of the $1.3 million prize to his great-grandsons. He told a reporter from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that it seemed like a lot of money to him, as it would “to any Russian who is not a crook or a business magnate.”

Ginzburg was a lifelong atheist, and only a few years before his death, he openly criticized President Vladimir Putin for allowing growing involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church in state affairs (and also for not supporting science). At the same time, Ginzburg was very active in the rebuilding of the Jewish community in Russia after the fall of communism, in 1991. He was a charter member of the board of governors of the Russian Jewish Congress, and he was politically active in expressing support for Israel, even though in 2002, he objected, as an atheist, to local Jewish leaders showing their solidarity by adopting a prayer for the welfare of Israel. He died in Moscow from cardiac arrest and was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery, the final resting place of many Russia notables. As of 2003, he had a granddaughter living in Israel.