Feature

Vitaly Ginzburg

The Soviet physicist who worked on the H-bomb

Vitaly Ginzburg
1916–2009

Vitaly Ginzburg, who helped develop the Soviet hydrogen bomb, was later a survivor of Stalin’s pogrom against Jewish intellectuals in the 1950s. In 2003, he shared the Nobel Prize for his work on superconductivity.

Born in Moscow in the waning days of czarist Russia, Ginzburg earned two doctorates in physics from Moscow University, in 1940 and 1942, said The Washington Post. He also joined the Communist Party, a decision he later “seemed to regret.” In 1948, he and other physicists at the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow raced to develop a hydrogen bomb before the U.S. “The team had little idea how to proceed.” Andrei Sakharov proposed using layers of uranium as fuel, while Ginzburg suggested lithium-6. Their combined efforts eventually succeeded in creating the H-bomb.

In the 1950s Stalin “initiated a wave of anti-Semitism and hostility toward intellectuals,” said The New York Times. Ginzburg was removed from the H-bomb project and accused of being an anti-communist. Adding to his difficulties was his marriage to a woman wrongly accused of involvement in a plot to assassinate the Russian leader. Only his prestige as a scientist, Ginzburg believed, saved him from the firing squad. Soon after Stalin died, the Russians detonated an H-bomb, and Ginzburg was ultimately elected a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Ginzburg eventually turned his attention to the rapidly emerging field of superconductivity, said the Los Angeles Times. Earlier research had yielded few practical results “because even weak magnetic fields interfered with a material’s ability to conduct electricity.” But Ginzburg and another physicist created a series of equations that paved the way for the use of superconductors in such fields as medical imaging. A confirmed atheist, he also became an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism, a supporter of the state of Israel, and a leading critic of the Kremlin’s growing relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church.

“I am convinced that the bright future of mankind is connected with the progress of science,” he wrote, “and I believe it is inevitable that one day religions will drop in status to no higher than that of astrology.”

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