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Physics in a mad world

World Scientific


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Credit: World Scientific Publishing

Six decades -- from the 1920s till 1980s -- were the golden age of physics. Never before have developments in physics played such an important role in the history of civilization, and they probably never will again. The unprecedented prosperity of the world in which we now live came with technological innovations originating from the discoveries of the 20th century physicists -- from nuclear fission and fusion to transistors, and from lasers to personal computers and internet. This was an exhilarating time for physicists.

The same six decades also witnessed terrible atrocities, cruelty and degradation of humanity on an unprecedented scale. The rise of dictatorships (e.g., in Europe, German national socialism and the communist Soviet Union, Chinese cultural revolution, "killing fields" in Cambodia) brought misery to millions. {\em El sue\~no de la raz\'on produce monstruos...}

This book tells captivating and tragic life stories of two outstanding theoretical physicists: Friedrich (Fritz) Houtermans and Yuri Golfand. Chronologically these stories are 40 years apart from each other; and the only unifying link is the city of Kharkov in the Soviet Union (currently in Ukraine). However, the both lives were deeply interwined with the major tragedies of the 20th century -- one related to the other.

Fritz Houtermans (1903 -1966), a physicist who was the first to suggest that the source of stars' energy is thermonuclear fusion, invented electron microscope and made a number of other important contributions to cosmochemistry and geochemistry, was a German communist. In 1935, Houtermans, in an attempt to save his life from Hilter's Gestapo, fled to the Soviet Union. He took up an appointment at the Kharkov Physico Technical Institute, working there for three years with the Russian physicist Valentin Fomin. In the Great Purge of 1937, Houtermans was arrested by the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police, KGB's predecessor). He was tortured, and confessed to being a Trotskyist plotter and German spy, out of fear of threats against his wife Charlotte. However, due to a miraculous turn of event, Charlotte had already escaped from the Soviet Union to Denmark, after which she went to England and finally the USA. As a result of the Hilter-Stalin Pact of 1939, Houtermans was turned over to the Gestapo in May 1940 and imprisoned in Berlin. In 1941 Houtermans authored the so-called ``Plutonim Report," which, if noted by the German authorities at that time, could change the history of civilization, providing Nazis with the A bomb before it was created in the US.

The second part consists of two essays that narrate the life story of Yuri Golfand (1922-1994), one of the co-discoverers of supersymmetry, arguably a major breakthrough in theoretical and mathematical physics in the 20th century. In 1973, just two years after the publication of his seminal paper, he was fired from the Lebedev Physics Institute. Because of his Jewish origin he could find no job in the USSR. Under such circumstances, he applied for an exit visa to Israel, but his application was denied. Yuri Golfand became a refusnik and joined the Human rights movement, along with two other prominent physicists, Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov. To earn his living, he had to do manual work, repeatedly being intimidated by KGB. Only 18 years later, shortly before the demise of the Soviet Union, did he obtain permission to leave the country, emigrating to Israel in 1990.

The titans of physics of the 20th century -- from Niels Bohr to Igor Tamm, from Wolfgang Pauli to Pyotr Kapita and Andrei Sakharov, present the background of the narration in this book. The book thoroughly discusses both scientific and human aspects and includes a large number of archive documents found recently in Ukraine, Russia, Germany, UK and US, as well as interviews with relatives of Fritz Houtermans and Yuri Golfand. Photographs from their personal archives (most of them so far unpublished) supplement the narration.


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