As you should know, our great father physicist Lev Davidovič Landau died in a gloomy day of January 1962. About ten months later, he received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physics, crowning his pioneering theories of condensed matter, and notably his works on liquid helium.
Now I see already the sharpest critics among you jumping on their chair, with a suspicious look. “Come on, it’s well known that a Nobel can never be awarded to a dead person!”. As it happens, some will rush to Wikipedia to check, and come back with a mocking smile: “Aha! I knew you were wrong! Landau died on April 1, 1968!”
It was early morning, the 7 of January, 1962, and after a rainy night most roads were covered by a thin layer of ice. The student Vladimir Sudakov, at the wheel of a brand-new Volga, was driving to Dubna his young wife Vera and his mentor, Lev Landau, who were amiably conversing in the backseat (more below, about Landau and women…). In the attempt to pass a coach bus that was slowing down, Vlad jumped on the left lane just at the wrong moment when a truck was coming from the opposite way. The truck driver tried to steer away from the car, but the collision was inevitable, and he could not help hitting the Volga on the back left side. The hit was apparently not so dramatic, since Vera still wrapped in her fur coat checked the basket of eggs she wanted to offer to a friend, and found all eggs still whole. But instants later, the lifeless body of Landau fell onto her shoulder, dripping blood, pale and with an unrecognizable expression on his face. In desperation, Sudakov moved the body of Landau out of the car and laid it on the road, wrapped in blankets and his own coat. The truck driver went to call for an ambulance, which luckily arrived a few minutes later at took the unconscious Landau to the closest Hospital 50 of Timirjazevskij District.
The A&E doctor on duty, Lidija Ivanovna Pančenko, was even surprised to hear Landau’s heart still beating, as she uttered все еще жив!, “He’s still alive!”. Several fractures at the base of the skull, a broken hip bone crushing the internal organs, fractured left femur, three or four broken ribs which also pierced through the lung membranes, weak and irregular breathing, made the case desperate. The doctor added that with such a trauma his life would have stopped in the matter of hours. During the first night Landau underwent an emergency tracheotomy. There were clear signs of cerebral hemorrhages, hence a discussion was taking place among the clinical team about the need of operating a dangerous craniotomy. While the news circulated very quickly among the friends and reached at all levels, Landau’s accident was not announced publicly (in Soviet Union, reporting in the press individual questions was considered буржуазная сенсация , “bourgeois sensationalism”). However, friends and colleagues started crowding at the hospital almost immediately. More than 90 professors and students assured a continuous voluntary service, improvising as drivers, delivery, secretary, porters, suppliers of anything useful, help to the nurses, and the director of the Hospital 50 provided them with his own studio as operating base. In 1962, despite one year spent in prison as “enemy of the state”, “Dau” was a celebrated individual, venerated as a semi-god by colleagues and students in a country otherwise devoted to atheism and collectivism. His admirers saw him as the quintessential ivory-tower theorist: bold, impudent and charming, but detached from the banality of everyday existence.
However, there is a dark side of the moon. Just consider two heavily political aspects of his life: the year he spent in Stalin’s prisons in the late 1930s, and his contributions to the dictator’s nuclear bomb a decade later. After the partial opening of KGB archives, we know that Landau had a political persona that made him a permanent suspect to the Soviet secret police, once it became clear that a pride of Soviet science was not just one of the innumerable innocent victims of Stalinist insanity, but a genuine “anti-Soviet criminal”. For the sake of “glasnost”, Landau’s file was made public in a 1991 issue of the Bulletin of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The science historian Gennady Gorelik could access these documents, and reconstructed the whole story behind Landau incrimination.
In 1937, at the peak of Stalin’s Great Terror, the KGB arrested several physicists working at the Khar’kov Physico-Technical Institute, where Landau was head of the theory division. He had been since his earliest youth a sincere and ardent communist, attitude which he sought to translate into his professional life with a genuine, maybe naïve enthusiasm. The idea of creating a new way of teaching the whole of physics by including solid mathematical foundations started at that time, with the first volumes of the famous course in theoretical physics written together with Evgenij Lifšic. In Khar’kov he had started his seminal works on second-order phase transitions and ferromagnetism. But a couple of years earlier, he could also author a piece in the Izvestia, titled Буржуазия и современная физика, Bourgeoisie and Contemporary Physics, in which he genuinely praised the “unprecedented opportunities for the development of physics in our country, provided by the Party and the government.” However, Landau had come under the light cone of KGB already in 1935, when he steadily defended his closest friend Moise Koretz from a weird accusation of “sabotage”. Koretz was released, but a note in the arrest file mentions he as probable member of a “counter revolutionary organization led by Landau”.
This thin path was enough to seek confirmation. Landau was often bold and impudent, for example, one April 1 he posted a comical notice in which he ranked his colleagues by their abilities, and proposed a corresponding adjustment of their salaries. Right before being shot by the red guards in 1937, Landau’s friends Shubnikov and Rozenkevich had “confessed” that Landau headed a counter revolutionary organization in Karkhov. Landau felt he had to flee to a safer place. He had met the great experimentalist Pjotr Kapitsa in London many years before, where the two (Landau was barely 21 years old) solved the problem of electron diamagnetism in metals. Kapitsa, now one of the most celebrated Soviet scientists, offered Landau a position as head of the theoretical division, in his Moscow Institute of Physical Problems, and there he went in February 1937. Koretz followed him to Moscow, while Dau’s other good friend Yuri Rumer was already there. Within a year, on April 28, 1938, Landau and his two friends were arrested.
Thanks to his friends’ depositions, Rumer was discharged and sent for 10 years in a sharashka (a sort of technical institute run like a prison), while Koretz and Landau remained under arrest, accused of assembling a counter revolutionary organization directed by Landau himself. Landau was taken to the Lubyanka prison. A note in his file records that he was forced to stand up without seating for seven hours a day, and threatened to be transferred to the horrific Lefortovo prison. After two months he broke, and wrote a six-page confession in which he admitted to have considered the Party degenerated, and that the government no longer acted in the interests of workers but in the interests of a small group. He recognized having suggested to overthrow the existing government, and creation in the USSR of a more moral state that would preserve communist ideals, but assume the principles of bourgeois-democratic states. Although such confessions cannot be taken too seriously, given the circumstances, this statement seems too unusual to be entirely false. Actually, Landau’s file contained a typewritten copy of a leaflet, supposed to be ready for distribution at the next May 8 Victory Parade, stating those exact words and signed by a mysterious (and unheard of) Aнтифашистская рабочая партия, “Antifascist workers party”. The original of this document was in Koretz’s file, but has never been made accessible.
Koretz spent 20 years in the Gulag, until he came back to Moscow in 1958 to work at a popular science magazine. Landau was held one full year in Lubjanka, until Kapitsa came again to help. Having invented a new technique for producing oxygen that was crucial to the Soviet metallurgical industry, Kapitsa was held in high regard by the government, and he used his influence in more than 100 official letters to the Kremlin on various subjects of pure and applied science, including saving Vladimir Fock when he was prosecuted for his (honest but doomed) attempts to reconcile the relativity theory with marxism. By the end of 1938, Kapitsa wrote directly to Molotov, the Prime Minister, to explain that he had just made a crucial discovery “in the most puzzling field of the modern physics” and that no theorist other than Landau could explain it. On May Day, 1939, Landau was freed. In the matter of a few months, he explained Kapitsa’s discovery of superfluidity in liquid helium using sound waves, or phonons, how the phonon dispersion curve originates the superfluid gap, and the new excitation he baptised roton. This earned both of them a Nobel Prize a few decades later.
A few years after Landau’s release, Stalin instituted the Soviet atomic project, the Moscow Institute being quickly identified to spearhead the research program, and KGB Director Lavrentij Beria as the supreme officer overseeing the effort. Kapitsa found it unbearable to work under Stalin’s chief gendarme, and wrote to Stalin, charging that Beria was unfit to be heading such a project. This was an exceedingly dangerous move. General Andrei Khrulev, a friend of Kapitsa, reported him a conversation he overheard between Beria and Stalin. Beria wanted Kapitsa’s head, and Stalin replied that he would remove Kapitsa from all positions, but he could not kill him because of his worldwide reputation (Kapitsa was even a member of the British Royal Society). Kapitsa escaped execution, but remained under a kind of house arrest until Stalin’s death. Landau was instead fully engaged in the top-secret affair. His bomb duty was to lead the numerical mathematics team calculating the dynamics of the explosion. For his contributions Landau received, ironically enough, two Stalin Prizes in 1949 and 1953, and in 1954 he was awarded the title “Hero of Socialist Labor”. In the KGB transcripts, Landau described himself as a “scientist slave.” Given his rebellious nature, that is not surprising. But the documents reveal a deeper political transformation. When a friend remarked that if Lenin were suddenly to revive, he would be horrified by what he saw, Landau retorted “Lenin employed the same kinds of repression, it is quite clear that Lenin was the first fascist.” Such views were extraordinary in the 50s, when even those who saw Stalin as a criminal considered him to have betrayed Lenin’s cause; still Lenin remained a hero. As far as we know, there were only two physicists in the USSR who expressed their distaste for working on Stalin’s bomb. One was Landau, and the other was Mikhail Leontovich, head of theoretical research in the Soviet fusion program. Landau’s position was specially poignant, because he was so good to be simply unable to do a shoddy piece of work, and so he did all his calculations at his best, while at the same time he realized with full clarity for whose lurid hands he was creating the mighty weapon.
At the origin of the 10-volumes theoretical physics course, Landau had developed a famous comprehensive exam called Теоретический минимум, the “Theoretical minimum” which students were expected to pass before admission to the school. The exam covered all aspects of theoretical physics, and between 1934 and 1961 only 43 candidates could pass it frankly, the second of them being Lifšic who then became his coauthor. Landau’s office in the Khar’kov Institute was on the third floor, where the corridor was sign-posted “Rue de Dau”; another notice, hanging on the office door, famously warned: “Landau here! Beware, he bites!” (see the romantic recollections by Alex Akhiezer in Physics Today, June 1994, doi:10.1063/1.881434). He was well known for his straight and bold humour, a tireless creator of catchphrases and jokes associated with his name. “The worst sin in life is being bored. Extermination of bores is the duty of every decent person”, used to say. And always making rankings and lists of everything, he classified sciences into natural, subnatural and unnatural. Among his many formulas, he once wrote one for happiness, consisting of only three elements: work, love and open communication. But in addition to the reputation of a brilliant and funny physicist, Landau also had a strong reputation as a womanizer. His beautiful wife Concordia “Kora” Drobantsova, of Ukrainian birth, described it in the book Как мы жили, How we lived, which she started in 1968 and kept writing for more than 10 years. For a long time this book existed only in the form of samizdat. Many solid academicians (and their wives) tried to destroy it, so outraged they were by what was described there, until it was published in 2008 by the editor Zhakarov, about 25 years after Kora’s death. In 2019 a movie project based on Kora’s book and entitled “DAU” was put together as an immersive multi-screen installation, by Russian film director Ilya Khrzhanovski. (The beautiful photos attached to this letter of the times after the accident come from Kora’s book.)
“I am the wife of the great twentieth-century physicist Lev Landau,” Kora wrote. “Our history is similar to the history of many families in the era of the sexual revolution. The only difference is that Landau is a genius. For 10 years now I have been writing about that happy and dramatic fate. I write only the truth for myself, with no hope of publication. Dau was a sunny person. But after his death he left too many mysteries, and also many charms.” According to Kora, Dau did not tolerate chaos either in science or in love. He had his own system for classifying beauties. All women were divided into “Beautiful”, “Pretty” and “Interesting”, with two more classes for the non-interesting ones: “Reprimand to her parents” and the lowest one “Send to execution.” In the narrow circle of friends, he stated that not a single woman had ever left him unsatisfied. And apparently his brightest charisma attracted attention from ladies of all ages. When they first met in 1934, Dau and Kora verbally concluded a “non-aggression pact in married life”, which according to his idea gave both spouses the freedom to have novels on the side, and he actually had more than one at the same time. In a letter to Kora he wrote: “Oh my God, how much I like this Hera! She demands to be looked after, and you know, Korochka, how I don’t like it. It takes too long!” He did not understand why all the courtship, beautiful words, poems? If two people are interested in each other, why waste time?
The morning of January 8, 1962, Landau’s condition appeared more and more desperate. Kapitsa asked around friends scientists in London, to send urea and some special antibiotics that were unavailable in Russia, and they were delivered by John Cockroft in the hands of an Aeroflot line pilot, simply addressed to “Mr. Landau”. In the next days, more scientists and friends everywhere in the world mobilized and sent the required drugs to Moscow. However, by the afternoon of January 11 the fever reached 42 C, Lev’s face became livid, his blood pressure dropped to zero, and his heart stopped. The “resuscitation protocol for clinically dead” was immediately applied, the doctors at the Hospital 50 could not give up. A syringe with blood from a donor, supercharged in oxygen, was fitted in the left arm, and the blood pressure slightly raised. Epinephrine was added, and Landau’s heart restarted a faint beat. Then an injection of strophantin came, and Madame Death kindly stepped back from the bed.
Landau remained in a coma for several weeks, with sudden crises and sudden resurrections. Kora had got a heart attack at the news and was recovered in another hospital, where they also discovered a breast cancer which, fortunately, resolved positively. In the meantime, Landau was lying in his bed with absent look, lifeless and speechless, eyes open but no signs of brain activity. Some of the best neurologists and brain surgeons in the world were invited to Moscow, among which the French Gerard Guillot and Raymond Garcin, and the famous Canadian specialist, Wilder Penfield. On February 27, Kora finally arrived, to kiss and embrace Dau for the first time after the accident. Penfield discussed with her of his idea of opening the skull to remove the numerous hematomas that x-rays showed. In Penfield’s own words: “I suddenly saw a change in his looks. He was now looking at his wife, as if he wanted to understand what we were discussing. When she stopped talking, he looked at me. There was no doubt, his eyes were following me. The sight of his wife had unlocked his central system connections, despite the hemorrhage blocking the mesencephalus.”
At the beginning of March he was transferred at the Burdenko Neurologic Institute, where he started having some muscular contractions. April 8, a nurse heard him murmuring спасибо, “thanks”, after she gave him water. In the coming months he resumed autonomous respiration, some brief talks, and memories started to come back, in a strict chronological order. He fisrtly remembered his infancy in native Baku, Azerbaijan, then his studies in Leningrad, his travels, and the Khar’kov period. He soon restarted speaking perfect English and German, quite shocking for his doctors since at the same time his mind was still in confusion. To a nurse who asked him about his wedding ring, he replied it was his wristwatch. When famous psychologist Alexandre Lurija, asked him to draw a circle and a square, Landau made a triangle and a star, and a zero for a cross. When Lurija left, Dau commented: “That man is ridiculous, I just wanted to get rid of him”.
November 1, Kora found in the mailbox the telegram from Stockholm announcing the award of the Nobel. The news went immediately public, and his colleagues expressed congratulations. Landau was happy, but corrected their pronunciation: “You can’t say Nobiel, but Nobel. The man was Swedish, not Russian”. However, despite all the intensive care and efforts, it was impossible for him to go to the award ceremony in Sweden. Kora and their son Igor’ thought of going, but eventually renounced. For the first time, the Nobel Foundation went against its strict rituals, and exceptionally performed a supplementary ceremony by the Swedish ambassador, in the main hall of the Soviet Academy of Science in Moscow. Lev arrived on a wheelchair, but before the door he wanted to stand up and walk in the room, keeping hold at Kora’s arm. At the end of the ceremony, he sent “his best regards” to the King and went back to the hospital. In the following years he could resume a semi-normal life, but never worked to anything new physics anymore. By then he had already delivered all the insights about the universe granted him by God. He died for a second time on April 1, 1968, no date of chance for a scientist who always made jokes about everything.