Born on this date in 1916 (Sept. 21 on the old Russian calendar) was Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb.
Ginzburg’s obituary in the UK Guardian called him a “vehement atheist” who strongly opposed the role of the Russian Orthodox church in state affairs after the 1991 Soviet collapse: “He protested against attempts to introduce religious lessons in schools, telling a newspaper in 2007 that ‘these Orthodox scoundrels want to lure away children’s souls.’ As a result, several Orthodox Christian groups threatened to sue him for ‘offending millions of Russian Christians.’ ”
Ginzburg was born in Moscow to Jewish parents. His father was an engineer, and his mother, who died of typhoid when he was 4, was a physician. After working as an assistant in an X-ray lab, he earned a Ph.D. in physics from Moscow State University and joined the Lebedev Institute. He and his first wife, Olga Zamsha, were married in 1937 and divorced in 1946, when he married Nina Ermakova. In 1944 Nina had been arrested for allegedly being part of a plot to kill Stalin. She was released in 1945 but was exiled to Gorki, where Ginzburg met her. The institute had been moved to Gorki during World War II.
His areas of expertise in physics included quantum theory, astrophysics and radioastronomy. Ginzburg was originally turned down to be part of the Soviet hydrogen bomb program due to his wife’s exile and his Jewish background, but later he joined a team that included Andrei Sakharov. 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. He would later say that only his participation in the H-bomb project saved him from the firing squad.
Ginzburg next turned his attention to superconductivity, the ability of some materials to carry electricity without any losses due to friction. With physicist Lev Landau, he worked out equations that correctly predicted a superconductor’s tolerance for a magnetic field. Their work paved the way for Alexei Abrikosov to develop ways to achieve superconductivity despite the presence of high magnetic fields. 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. Nobels are not given posthumously.
Ginzburg was part of a group of scientists who helped bring down Trofim Lysenko, who believed that acquired physical characteristics could be inherited, a belief that impeded genetic research in Russia for decades.
In a 2007 interview for the American Institute of Physics, Ginzburg said that “to be, or not to be, religious is a fundamental human right. 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 died on Nov. 8, 2009, at age 93.
I am an atheist, that is, I think nothing exists except and beyond nature. Within the limits of my, undoubtedly insufficient knowledge of the history of philosophy, I do not see in fact any difference between atheism and the pantheism of Spinoza. That is why I think that Einstein was also an atheist, because in 1929, when asked what he believed in, he answered: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who shows himself in the harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who takes care of the fate and actions of people.”
Unfortunately, in the post-Soviet time in Russia a clerical offensive has been going on, while the voice of atheists is completely stifled. That is why since 1998 I have been defending atheism in the press, and after being awarded the Nobel Prize I managed to say about that on television as well.
—-Ginzburg Autobiography, 2003, The Nobel Foundation