The Scientist and the Tyrant

Pis’ma o nauke [Letters on Science]

by Peter Leonidovich Kapitsa, edited by Pavel Rubinin
Moskovskii rabochii, 400 pp., 1 ruble

The publication in Moscow last year of 155 letters by the famous Soviet physicist Peter Kapitsa on science and the organization of science was one of the more dramatic benefits of the policy of glasnost. Most of the letters are addressed to Stalin, Molotov, Beria, Krushchev, and other Soviet officials; they cover the years between 1930 and 1980, though most were written between 1934 and 1956. These letters have been drawn from Kapitsa’s own files, and have been carefully edited with helpful annotations by Kapitsa’s longtime assistant, Pavel Rubinin. They provide a fascinating portrait of a remarkable man who was the hero of numerous legends during his lifetime.

Kapitsa was known in the West to have gone to the aid of Soviet colleagues who had been arrested, to have refused to work on the atomic bomb, and to have been put under virtual house arrest by Stalin after World War II. But he was also rumored to have been, at various times, a spy master in Cambridge, the Soviet “atom tsar,” and science adviser to Stalin and Krushchev. In the absence of documentary evidence, it has been difficult, even for those who wished to do so (and not everyone did), to distinguish fact from fiction. Now glasnost has made it possible to publish Kapitsa’s letters and to clear up some of the mysteries that surround his life.

Kapitsa was born in Kronstadt in 1894, into a family with strong military and intellectual traditions, and he graduated from the Petrograd Polytechnical Institute in 1918. In the following year his wife and two children died in the epidemics then sweeping Russia. In 1921 Abram Ioffe, the most prominent of Russian physicists, took him on a trip to England, and in July Kapitsa entered the Cavendish Laboratory, which was then headed by Ernest Rutherford. Although intending to stay only a few months, he remained in Cambridge for thirteen years.

After some initial experiments on the behavior of alpha particles, Kaptisa devoted himself first to the use of magnetic fields to study various problems in solid state physics, and then to low temperature physics. The boldness and originality of his work impressed Rutherford. In 1925 he was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1929 he became a fellow of the Royal Society and a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The Royal Society Mond Laboratory was built for him in the courtyard of the Cavendish Laboratory and was opened in 1933 by Stanley Baldwin.

Kapitsa was a colorful man, and liked the limelight. He could be very charming and good company. He took a genuine interest in other people and liked to draw them out. He established a very close relationship with Rutherford, whom he admired immeasurably; Rutherford in turn regarded him with great affection and special favor. Although Kapitsa exuded enormous self-confidence, it is clear that Rutherford’s approval was extremely important to him and helped to calm his anxieties about his abilities …

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