Landau and his School

John Ziman

  • Landau: A Great Physicist and Teacher by Anna Livanova, translated by J.B. Sykes
    Pergamon, 226 pp, £10.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 00 023076 6

Name the greatest Russian physicist of this century. The public vote would go for Andrei Sakharov – but for moral stature rather than for contributions to knowledge. A generation ago, Pyotr Kapitza would have been supported by many, in the mistaken belief that he was the master mind behind the Russian Bomb. Among physicists, however, Ley Davidovitch Landau would stand preeminent. He ought, by rights, to be still with us, for he was born in 1908: but a ghastly car accident in 1962 destroyed his intellectual powers and in 1968 he died.

Perhaps he does not rank in the public mind with the top dozen theoretical physicists of our times because, as he himself admitted ruefully, ‘I was born a bit too late,’ thus missing the ‘Golden Age’ of the late 1920s, when all physics was being rebuilt from the ground up. But then again, he always insisted that it was sheer vanity to tackle only the most ‘important’ problems of science, so there is no saying whether he would have invented quantum mechanics and won that sort of fame.

Perhaps one has to accept that he was, above all, a paragon of the professionals. His Nobel Prize citation, in 1962, was ‘for pioneering theories for condensed matter, especially liquid helium’. Anna Livanova devotes half of her book to a most lucid elementary account of the theory of superfluidity of liquid helium, bringing the general reader as near as words can convey to an appreciation of this magical phenomenon and the wizardry he displayed in explaining it. And this was only one of the ‘Ten Commandments of Landau’ – a tablet presented to him on his 50th birthday, engraved with the famous formulae which he contributed to quantum theory, thermodynamics, magnetism, superconductivity, nuclear physics and the theory of elementary particles. His range within theoretical physics was unrestricted: his knowledge and creativity affected every branch of the subject. Very little of this work has come to the outer surface of science, in the form of useful hardware or disconcerting philosophy, but that is because theoretical physics is, by its very nature, an esoteric activity which is conducted in its own dimensions of the intellect, in its own particular language. Landau’s scientific thrusts were always directed at the central core of the subject, where only other theoretical physicists could fully appreciate their sharpness, precision and force.

The language of theoretical physics is, of course, mathematics, of which Landau was a master. Indeed, like every top professional, in performance he was oblivious to mere ‘technique’, which he had already transcended. There is a deceptive simplicity about the arguments of his papers, as if, somehow, everything followed naturally and inevitably from the basic physical laws. This apparently intuitive approach concealed a deep understanding of the mathematical inwardness of the situation, which few other physicists could adequately grasp. What we all admired about his scientific work was its unity – of mathematical formulae with physical concepts, of theoretical hypothesis with experimental fact, of romantic imagination with classical rigour. It was eclectic – and yet all of a piece.

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