Lev Davidovich Landau

Lev Davidovich Landau

Lev Davidovich Landau (Russian language: Ле́в Дави́дович Ланда́у) (January 22, 1908 – April 1, 1968) was a prominent Soviet physicist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics whose broad field of work included the theory of superconductivity and superfluidity, quantum electrodynamics, nuclear physics and particle physics. He developed the theory of second order phase transitions. Among many physical effects named after Landau are Landau pole and Landau damping. He co-authored, with Evgenii Lifschitz, a beloved series of physics texts which are still widely used as of 2005.


Landau in his youth

“In fact, usually it was sufficient for him to know just the guiding ideas of a study in order to reproduce all its findings.”

Lev Davidovich Landau was born in Baku, in the Jewish family of a petroleum engineer who worked on the Baku oil fields. His mother was a physician and at one time had engaged in scientific work on physiology.

Recognized early as a child prodigy, Landau completed his school course at the age of thirteen. Even then he already was attracted by the exact sciences, and his mathematical ability manifested itself very early. He studied mathematical analysis on his own and later he used to say he hardly remembered a time when he did not know differentiation and integration.

In 1922, Landau enrolled at the Physics Department of Petrograd University. At that time, Petrograd (renamed Leningrad in 1924) was the main centre of Soviet Physics and there Landau made his first acquaintance with genuine theoretical physics, which was going through a turbulent period. He devoted himself to its study with youthful zeal and enthusiasm and worked so strenuously that often he would become so exhausted that at night he could not sleep, still turning over formulae in his mind.

Later he used to describe that at the time he was amazed by the incredible beauty of the general theory of relativity. He also described the state of ecstasy to which he was brought on reading the articles by Heisenberg and Schrodinger, signaling the birth of the new quantum mechanics. He said that he derived from them not only delight in the true glamour of science but also an acute realization of the power of the human genius, whose greatest triumph is that man is capable of apprehending things beyond the pale of his imagination.

Landau always attached great importance to the mastering of mathematical techniques by the theoretical physicist. The degree of this mastery should be such that, insofar as possible, mathematical complications would not distract attention from the physical difficulties of the problem – at least whenever standard mathematical techniques are concerned. This can be achieved only by sufficient training.

A unique aspect of his style of work was that, ever since long ago, since the Kharkov years, he himself almost never read any scientific article or book but nevertheless he was always completely au courant with the latest news in physics. He derived his knowledge from numerous discussions and from the papers presented at the seminar held under his direction. This seminar was held regularly once a week for nearly thirty years, and in that last years it sessions became gathering of theoretical physicists from all Moscow. The presentations of papers at this seminar became a sacred duty for all students and co-workers, and Landau himself was extremely serious and thorough in selecting the material to be presented. He was interested and equally competent in every aspect of physics and the participants in the seminar did not find it easy to follow train of thought in instantaneously switching from the discussion of, say, the properties of strange particles to the discussion of the energy spectrum of electrons in silicon. To Landau, listening to the papers was never an empty formality. He did not rest until the essence of a study was completely elucidated and all traces of “philology” – unproved statements or propositions made on the principle of ”why might it not” – therein were eliminated.

In fact, usually it was sufficient for him to know just the guiding ideas of a study in order to reproduce all its findings. As a rule, he found it easier to obtain them on his own than to follow in detail the author’s reasoning. In this way, he reproduced for himself and profoundly thought out most of the basic results obtained in all the domains of theoretical physics. This probably also was the reason for his phenomenal ability to answer practically any question concerning physics that might be asked of him.

Landau’s scientific style was free of the – unfortunately fairly widespread – tendency to complicate simple things (often on the grounds of generality and rigor which, however, usually turn out to be illusory). He himself always strove towards the opposite – to simplify complex things, to uncover in the most lucid manner the genuine simplicity of the laws underlying the natural phenomena. This ability of his, this skill at “trivializing” things as he himself used to say, was to him a matter of special pride.

The recognition of the results of one’s work is to a greater or lesser extent important to any scientist; it was, of course, also true to Landau. But it can still be said that he attached much less importance to questions of priority than is ordinarily the case. And at any rate, there is no doubt that his drive for work was inherently motivated not by desire for fame but by an inexhaustible curiosity and passion for exploring the laws of nature in their large and small manifestations. He never omitted a chance to repeat the elementary truth that one should never work for extraneous purposes, work merely for the sake of making a great discovery, for then nothing would be accomplished anyway.

In 1946, Landau was elected a full member of the USSR Academy of Sciences. In 1951, he was elected member of the Danish Royal Academy of Sciences and in 1956, member of the Netherlands Royal Academy of Sciences. In 1960, Landau became the recipient of the F. London Prize (United States) and the Max Planck Medal (West Germany). In 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering theories for condensed matter, especially liquid helium.

Professorship and later life

Since 1932, Landau headed the Department of Theory of the Ukrainian Physical and Technical Institute in Kharkov (now Ukraine). In 1937 he became head of the Department of Theory of the Institute for Physical Problems in Moscow. He was also a member of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

Landau in Prison

He was arrested in 1938, during the Great Purge, but released one year later. He suffered a major car accident in 1962 which precluded him from further scientific activities.1

In 1965, his research laboratory was transformed into what is now known as Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics.

He was a Nobel Laureate in Physics for the year 1962 for his pioneering theories of condensed matter, especially liquid helium. He is also admired for a prolific series of textbooks on theoretical physics, co-authored with E. M. Lifshitz, Course in Theoretical Physics, 10 volumes, as well as science books for high school and earlier grades.

Landau was elected an Academician of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (1946) and of Academies of many other countries. He won the Lenin Award and the Soviet State Award (three times), and the title of Hero of Socialist Labor.

He died in Moscow in 1968 and was interred there in Novodevichy Cemetery.

Books by Landau

  • "Course of Theoretical Physics : Mechanics". E. M. Lifshitz, L. D. Landau
  • "Course of Theoretical Physics : The Classical Theory of Fields". E. M. Lifshitz, L. D. Landau
  • "Course of Theoretical Physics : Quantum Mechanics: Non-Relativistic Theory". E. M. Lifshitz, L. D. Landau
  • "Course of Theoretical Physics : Relativistic Quantum Theory". E. M. Lifshitz, L. D. Landau
  • "Course of Theoretical Physics : Statistical Physics Pt. 1". E. M. Lifshitz, L. D. Landau
  • "Course of Theoretical Physics : Fluid Mechanics". E. M. Lifshitz, L. D. Landau
  • "Course of Theoretical Physics : Theory of Elasticity". E. M. Lifshitz, L. D. Landau
  • "Course of Theoretical Physics : Electrodynamics of Continuous Media". E. M. Lifshitz, L. D. Landau
  • "Course of Theoretical Physics : Statistical Physics: Theory of the Condensed State Pt. 2". E. M. Lifshitz, L. D. Landau

Books about Landau

  • Note 1: Dorozynski, Alexander (1965). The Man They Wouldn't Let Die. (After Landau's 1962 car accident, the physics community around him rallied to attempt to save his life. They managed to prolong his life until 1968.)
  • Landau-Drobantseva, Kora (1999). Professor Landau: How We Lived (in Russian)
  • Course of Theoretical Physics: Physical Kinetics at lib.ru


Biography at the MacTutor archive

Lev Davidovich Landau

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