Lev Landau

Imprisonment, Accident, & Quantum Mechanics: The Life & Work of One of the Most Outstanding Physicists.

Ever thought, who is the man behind the concepts of superfluidity and liquid Helium? The only name that should cross our minds when we come across these scientific theories is that of the great Scientist Lev Landau. On his birthday today, let’s remember the life, work, and contribution of this great Soviet physicist.

Imprisonment, Accident, & Quantum Mechanics: The Life & Work of One of the Most Outstanding Physicists. 2
Lev Landau

Early life

113 years ago today, Lev Davidovich Landau was born to Jewish parents in the Russian Empire on 22nd January 1908. As Lev’s father was an engineer and his mother was a doctor, he was fortunate enough to have had a supportive educational background that went on to ignite Lev’s intellectual abilities in childhood itself. Over the years, Lev proved himself to be a child prodigy. At the age of 12, he learned to differentiate, followed by excelling in integration at 13.

Lev Davidovich Landau graduated at the age of 13. Although Landau possessed all the qualities to enter a university, his parents considered him too young to join the university. Therefore, he was made to study at the Baku Economical Technical school for a year. Finally, at the age of 14 in 1922, Landau joined the Baku State University, where he studied in two departments simultaneously; the department of physics and mathematics and the department of chemistry. However, even being involved in these different subjects, Landau always had his interest delved deep into physics.

Eventually, in 1924, Landau finally chose Physics as his field of investment for the rest of his life and entered the main center of Soviet physics during that time. Landau spent his further life dedicating himself completely to the world of theoretical physics. In 1930, Lev Landau went to work at the Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, after which Bohr greatly influenced landau’s approach to physics.

You might also like:

Scientific Contributions made by Lev Landau

Like many other scientists of the first Soviet generation, Landau did not get an opportunity to write a formal doctoral thesis as academic degrees had been abolished and were not restored until 1934 due to the ongoing Russian Revolution of 1917. But this didn’t stop Lev from becoming one of the finest physicists of his time.

Lev Landau achieved many milestones in physics and made immense contributions to the field of Theoretical Physics. Lev Landau contributed extensively to almost all theoretical physics branches, ranging from fluid mechanics to quantum field theory. In 1930, Landau pointed at a new effect that results from the quantization of free electrons in crystals. This effect came to be known as the Landau diamagnetism. Later, Landau published one of his revolutionary theories of phase transitions of the second order.

In 1941, Lev Landau became the first person to provide a quantum theoretical explanation of Kapitsa’s discovery of the liquid helium’s superfluidity. In the 1950s, several experiments were conducted that confirmed some effects and quantitative predictions based on Landau’s theory. This resulted in worldwide acceptance and recognition of Landau’s theory of Superufluidity. Throughout his scientific career, Landau developed numerous new theories. The famous Fermi-liquid theory put forward by Lev not only provided the basis for the modern theory of electrons in metals but also helped to explain superfluidity in He-3(the lighter isotope of helium).

Looking at Lev’s above contributions, one can conclude that his work was concerned with cryogenic physics only. Although Lev Landau won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physics for his theory of superfluidity that explains the properties of liquid helium II at extremely low temperatures below 2.17 K (−270.98 °C), Landau’s presence is equally felt in other areas as well!

In 1946, he described Landau damping of electromagnetic waves in plasma. This concept of Landau damping is one of the most used ones to study plasma dynamics. Other vibrant contributions of the genius include the independent co-discovery of the density matrix method in quantum mechanics (alongside John von Neumann), the Landau pole in quantum electrodynamics, the two-component theory of neutrinos, and Landau’s equations for S matrix singularities.

Lev Landau with his wife Kora Drobantseva and physicist Isaac Konstantinovich Kikoin (Image: Science Photo Library)
Lev Landau with his wife Kora Drobantseva and physicist Isaac Konstantinovich Kikoin (Image: Science Photo Library)

Personal Life

In 1937, several UFTI scientists were arrested by the police due to political complications. Following this, Lev Landau was also arrested in April 1938 after discussing an anti-Stalinist leaflet with two colleagues. However, a year later, Kapitsa wrote to the Russian prime minister, Vyacheslav M. Molotov, that he required Lev’s help to understand a new phenomenon observed in liquid helium and eventually managed to get Landau released from prison.

Lev Landau as photographed in prison in 1938-39
Lev Landau as photographed in prison in 1938-39

Lev Landau always believed in “free love” rather than monogamy. He often compelled his wife and even his students to believe in the concept of free love. Landau also was an atheist and did not believe in anything other than scientific truths. On 7 January 1962 came the unfortunate day when Landau’s car collided with a truck, and he was taken into two complete months of coma due to the severe injuries past the accident.

More on scientists

Though Landau recovered taking many days, he could never return to his scientific world of theoretical physics again. His injuries were severe to the extent that he could not even receive the 1962 Noble Prize for Physics in person. Lev Landau died at the age of 60 on April 1st, 1968, due to the car crash injuries’ immense complications, which he was strong enough to sustain for 6 years.

Landau trying to walk again after the car accident, Credits: Science Photo Library
Landau trying to walk again after the car accident, Credits: Science Photo Library

All his life Landau was known for his witty nature and sharp humor. This is very well portrayed in his very popularly known conversation with a psychiatrist, who was trying to test for Landau’s possible brain damage post the car crash accident.

Psychiatrist: “Please draw me a circle.”
Landau draws a cross.
Psychiatrist: “Hm, now draw me a cross”
Landau draws a circle.
Psychiatrist: “Landau, why don’t you do what I ask?”
Landau: “If I did, you might come to think I’ve become mentally retarded”.

Also Read: Basics of Astrophysics series

Scroll to Top

Let's Stay In Touch

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest and the greatest from our blog right in your inbox.