03/15/2010 | Igor I. Mazin
once popular joke asked how a physicist would interpret experimental data on odd numbers. As the first experiments reveal that 1, 3, 5 and 7 are all prime numbers, the physicist becomes convinced that all odd numbers are prime and that a correct theory of 'primeness' should be able to explain this experimental fact. Further studies, however, show that 9 is not a prime number. The community initially disregards this as an experimental error; however, after more experiments, the researchers are forced to admit that 9 is indeed not prime, making it a unique case. This view is reinforced when further experiments show that the next odd numbers in the series, 11 and 13, are both prime. Only after it is found that, in violation of 'conventional wisdom', 15 is not a prime number, does the idea that there are infinitely many odd numbers, but not prime numbers, take root in researchers' minds.

[1] http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v464/n7286/full/nature08914.html


  • 2010.03.15 | Igor I. Mazin

    Personal reminiscences

    > As coarse as my own wits are, I have been privileged to wear the boots of the Sagacious and be clad in the robes of the Virtuous.

    > The Supplication of Daniel the Prisoner, a Russian monk, XIII century.

    For this volume, with the permission of the Editors, rather than discussing Room Temperature Superconductivity per se, I have elected to share with the readers my reminiscences from the period of 19761983, when I was a M.Sc. and then a Ph.D. student in Vitaly L. Ginzburgs High Temperature Superconductivity group at the P.N. Lebedev Institute in Moscow.

    I think I need to start first with some background information on the narrator, the time and the place, which should help the reader to properly place my story.

    I graduated from high school in 1971, and, at only 16 years of age, was presented with the tough choice of a future career. In the Soviet Universities, applicants were to declare their major before their freshman year, not as sophomores, as in the US [1]. In my case, I was vacillating between physics and linguistics, and the choice was, ironically, determined by the Soviet system itself: physics was taught at many colleges, not only at top league schools like Moscow State or Moscow Institute for Science and Technology (MIPT), but linguistics was offered essentially only at the Department of Philology of the MSU, and hardly any student of Jewish background would be admitted there in the early 1970s [2]. So, I was sort of predestined to try my hand at physics.

    The Soviet admission system was, theoretically, in many aspects superior to the American one. Instead of relying on school-dependent GPAs and ill-defined aptitude tests, all colleges administered entrance tests in the leading subjects (for physics and technology this would usually be physics and math). In principle, this system allowed for a thorough selection of gifted students. The famed Institute for Science and Technology was administering four tests, a written and an oral examination in both math and physics. As opposed to the Physics Department of MSU, the administration of MIPT was not anti-Semitic, so their actual policy varied depending on how much pressure was exercised in a given year from the Party authorities. My year, 1971, was particularly bad. A strict 2% limit on Jewish admission was applied. Admission to the faculty (division) I was applying to, the Faculty of Chemical and Molecular Physics, was 100 persons. The top score of 20 points was not reached by any applicant, 19 points by two, one of them a Jew, Michael Feigelman (who eventually got admitted and is now the Deputy Director of the Landau Institute and the Chair of the Theoretical Physics Department at MIPT), 18 by approximately 15 kids, including myself and 3 other Jews. Admitting all four of us would have been a violation of the unofficial limit of 2%, selecting one of four was too much of a hassle, so all four were rejected.

    Many second tier colleges were not subject to such close monitoring by the authorities, and some of them chose to profit from the Party policy. A number of unofficial recruiters from various technical colleges were hanging around the MIPT campus, hinting to rejected applicants that their institutions may be willing to waive entrance tests if the score from the MIPT tests were high enough. One of such recruiters from the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys picked up me and a number of other Jews with 17 and 18 point. This is how I got to this college that was mostly engineering, but also graduated a score of metal physicists every year. This is how my destiny as a solid state physicist was fixed.

    In the four years that followed I hardly had any choices: there were no electives in the Soviet universities, and every single course was a requirement. The next time I was presented with freedom of choice was when I was up for my Master thesis work in 1976, and by this time I knew that I wanted to become a theorist. The two main centers for theoretical physics in Moscow were the Landau Institute, in the small town of Chernogolovka about an hour away from the city, and the Theoretical Department of the Lebedev Institute, incidentally, within walking distance from my home. The latter was led by Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg, known at the Institute under the nickname V.L. [3], who was at that time, a decade after Landaus death, generally considered to be the patriarch of Soviet theoretical physics. So, I asked for permission from my alma mater to work on my thesis at Lebedev, and permission was granted both to me and to a friend of mine, another aspiring theoretical physicist who was also rejected by a top-rank university (in his case MSU) and also picked up by recruiters from the Steel Institute. His name was Alex Gurevich and he is now one of the leading theorists in the US in applied superconductivity. Alex and I showed up in Ginzburgs department one morning and declared our desire to work on our theses under the guidance of prominent Lebedev theorists. Curiously, we were not rejected, and in fact were both assigned problems related to high temperature superconductivity.

    What we did not know was that a few years earlier V.L. had successfully lobbied the Academy of Science of the USSR for funding the dream of his life a quest for high temperature superconductivity. I should add that V.L. is of the true enthusiasts ilk; his enthusiasm was contagious, infectious. It was not that easy to warm up the Academy bureaucrats, but V.L.s inner energy was overwhelming. He got the money, and got enough to hire several outstanding people. To name a few, among the new hires were Lev Bulaevsky, now at Los Alamos, Daniel Khomskii, now at the University of Cologne, and Andrey Linde, now at Stanford, all of them renowned leaders in their respective fields of research.
    • 2010.03.15 | Igor I. Mazin


      [1] I am using here and below the American terminology that roughly
      corresponds to the former Soviet system. Of course, there were no
      M.Sc. theses, but a so-called diploma, no Ph.D., but a candidate
      degree, no declaration of major in American sense, etc., but, in the
      first approximation, using the American terminology should give the
      reader a proper impression.
      [2] Ironically, the same argument that was used (unofficially) to justify
      discrimination against Jews is now being used in the States to justify
      the Affirmative Action: Jews (meaning people whose Jewish ancestry
      was indicated in their state IDs, not the followers of the Jewish faith)comprised less than 2% of the population, but a much larger fraction
      of all college students, so for the sake of proportional representation
      they were discriminated against in the admission process.
      [3] Usage of Russian patronymic names is not straightforward for an
      English speaker. In modern English, there are essentially two way of
      addressing a person: a more formal one, Mr./Dr./Ms. Doe, and a
      more intimate one, John/Mary etc. In Russian one has a choice of
      using (i) the second person singular or plural (like French tu and
      vous), (ii) the first name solely OR with the patronymic or (iii) using a salutation, Comrade or Citizen in the Soviet time, Gospodin (Master)now. An example can illustrate the basics of it: at Lebedev, my thesis adviser was Eugene Jenya Maksimov, about 15 years my senior
      and I also collaborated with Oleg Dolgov, a junior staff researcher at
      that time. The head of Superconductivity Section was Professor D.A.
      Kirzhnits, who will appear later on these pages. I was communicating
      with these people on a daily basis, addressing them, respectively, as
      Jenia + vous, Oleg + tu, and David Abramovich (of course, with
      a vous).

      see I.I. Mazin / Physica C 468 (2008) 105110
  • 2010.03.16 | thinker

    Re: Superconductivity

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