Vitaly Ginzburg (1916-2009)

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November 10, 2009

Vitaly Ginzburg Dies at 93; Worked on Soviet H-Bomb By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ

MOSCOW — Vitaly L. Ginzburg, the Russian physicist who helped develop the first Soviet hydrogen bomb and went on to win the Nobel Prize, died in Moscow on Sunday. He was 93.

Mr. Ginzburg had been in poor health for some time, a spokeswoman for the Russian Academy of Sciences said. Mr. Ginzburg was a member of the academy as well as the National Academy of Sciences in the United States and the Royal Society in Britain. Russian press reports said he had died of a heart attack.

Born in the waning days of czarist Russia on Oct. 4, 1916, Mr. Ginzburg overcame severe prejudices against his Jewish, middle-class heritage in the Stalin era to become one of the world’s most renowned physicists.

In 2003 he shared the Nobel for his contributions to the theory of superconductors, which under certain conditions are able to conduct electricity without resistance. The powerful magnets that make particle accelerators and magnetic resonance imaging possible depend on superconductors.

Mr. Ginzburg’s theories have also been employed in string theory and other fields of physics.

After World War II, he worked with Andrei Sakharov, later one of the Soviet Union’s most famous dissidents, to develop the Soviet hydrogen bomb. Mr. Ginzburg came up with the recipe for the weapon’s nuclear fuel, for which he received the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize.

“Then an especially terrible time came: Stalin went totally insane,” he wrote in his autobiography for the Nobel committee.

Stalin initiated a wave of anti-Semitism and hostility toward intellectuals in the early 1950s that nearly derailed Mr. Ginzburg’s career. He was removed from the hydrogen bomb project, accused of anti-Communist leanings and denied promotions, he wrote. He also suffered for his marriage to a woman who had once been arrested on charges of plotting to assassinate Stalin.

“It was a tremendous luck that the great leader did not have enough time to carry out what he had planned to do and died, or was killed, on 5th March, 1953,” Mr. Ginzburg wrote. “In the former U.S.S.R. many people (at any rate, my wife and I) have up till now been celebrating this day as a great festival.”

After Stalin died, Mr. Ginzburg used his prestige as a scientist to speak on social issues when the political climate allowed.

Though an atheist himself, Mr. Ginzburg openly denounced prejudice against Jews in perestroika-era Soviet Union. In 1990, he and others sent a petition to the Soviet government calling for an official condemnation of anti-Semitism in the country.

In recent years, he warned of the increasing degradation of science in Russia and criticized officials for not more actively promoting scientific innovation.

He also spoke out against the increasingly close relationship between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2007 he and several other scientists signed an open letter to Vladimir V. Putin, who was then Russia’s president and is now its prime minister, expressing concern with the “increased clericalization of Russian society.”

Oleg Rudenko, a fellow physicist, told Echo Moskvy Radio, “Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg is of course an eminent physicist.” He added, “But no less important were his public activities and his articles in support and defense of science.”

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