Russian Mastermind: Theoretical Physicist Lev Landau

Landau was one of the most prominent theoretical physicists in the last century.
Trevor English

Theoretical physicist Lev Landau was an interesting intellectual prodigy who had a rocky childhood but would go on to make pivotal discoveries in quantum physics, even winning the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Landau's early life and education

Born in 1908, he grew up moving back and forth from school to school during the tense periods in Russia's history after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Due to all of the disruption that occurred during his schooling, he never actually completed many years of his education, including his final years. The period after the revolution defined the educational stature of Landau's generation as academic degrees were abolished for a period, not restored until 1934.

This meant that in Landau's higher educational studies, he never wrote a doctoral thesis. He was, however, able to complete an undergraduate course in physics. He studied at Leningrad State University in the mid-1920s, and after nearly a decade of educational and intellectual work following his studies, he was granted a doctoral degree. By that time he was already a highly established scholar, well beyond the level of doctoral education.

While studying in college, most of the world's top physicists were discovering and conceptualizing the field of quantum mechanics. The then young Landau notably expressed that he was too late to make any major discoveries in the scientific revolution that was occurring while he simply still laid a foundation for his education. 

1927, the year that Landau finished his undergraduate work, quantum mechanics had been established and decently fleshed out as a new field. At this point, most of the research was shifting to ideas of nuclear physics and general relativity. 

Landau's work in quantum mechanics

He began working in these fields and by 1932, he was heading up the Department of Theoretical Physics at the National Scientific Center Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology.

Russian Mastermind: Theoretical Physicist Lev Landau
National Science Center Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology. Source: Wikimedia/AceeVG

This institute was tasked with exploring new fields in physics at the time, such as theoretical, nuclear, and even low-temp physics. It was during this time, with the help of his students at the institute, that Landau made many discoveries and famous calculations. 

He calculated the effects in quantum electrodynamics and began writing his first book, Course of Theoretical Physics, which is still today used as a graduate-level physics textbook.


As head of the school, he developed an incredibly hard entrance exam called the "Theoretical Minimum." This exam covered practically everything currently known in theoretical physics and for the 30 years, after it was implemented, only 43 students passed. However, rather expectedly, nearly every person that did pass this exam went on to become highly esteemed physicists and scientists.

In 1937, Lev Landau made the move to head up the Theoretical Physics department at the Institute of Physical Problems in Moscow. 

Russian Mastermind: Theoretical Physicist Lev Landau
Kapitza Institute for Physical Problems. Source: Kerman/Wikimedia

This was at the height of Stalinism in Russia, and Landau would soon find himself caught up deeply in the politics of the era. In 1938, Landau was arrested after it was found that he compared Stalinism to Nazism while discussing an anti-Stalin leaflet with two of his colleagues. He spent a year in prison until a year later when Pyotr Kapitza, the founder of the Institute where Landau worked, successfully appealed to the prime minister to get him released. 

Life after prison

After getting released, Landau made discoveries in the theory of superfluidity, including a new quantum excitation, known as rotons, as well as phonons. 

Landau also notably led a team of mathematicians and scientists that were working on developing the hydrogen bomb for the Soviets. He was able to calculate the dynamics of the first nuclear bomb the soviets developed, helped the teams understand the theoretical yields it would produce.

Some of the more prominent scientific discoveries that Landau made during his lifetime include the discovery of the density matrix in quantum mechanics, the theory of diamagnetism, and the theory of superfluidity. 

The list of discoveries that Landau made in quantum physics is too lengthy to explain individually, that's how significant his scientific prowess was at the time.

In 1962, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in superfluidity, the first project he worked on after his release from prison. The reason that he was awarded the Nobel Prize nearly 20 years after his initial work on superfluidity is that it took roughly this amount of time for the rest of the physicists in the world to corroborate his initial discoveries. 


Landau's work is expansively held and admired throughout every modern branch of theoretical physics. One of his primary discoveries was that of Landau damping, an effect causing the slow loss of energy in plasma over time without the collision of molecules.  

Like many great minds, while Landau excelled professionally, his personal traits were rather quirky. He married in 1939 and believed strongly that marriage shouldn't define the partner's sexual freedoms. He strongly opposed Stalinism and throughout his time criticized the Soviet regime as one that moved from socialism to fascism.

Much of his work on soviet nuclear projects and other classified government projects he largely viewed as a way to protect himself from his early charges. After Stalin died in 1953, he declined to work on any more classified government projects as he saw that they were no longer necessary for his protection.