For a man who has just turned 91, Nobel-prize winning physicist Vitaly Ginzburg remains amazingly active in his intellectual life and continues to attract controversy.
His current passion is the defence of scientific rationalism in a Russia turning religious. With links between church and state converging – nuclear submarines are now routinely blessed before they leave port – Ginzburg is troubled by moves to reintroduce religious study in Russian schools, 90 years after the atheist Lenin insisted on a secular curriculum.
When a Moscow newspaper reported comments he had allegedly made, dubbing classroom teaching of religion as a project initiated by “church riffraff” and aimed at “despoiling the souls of young children”, religious and political activists were enraged.
Figures associated with the Russian People’s Assembly, a conservative pro-Orthodox think-tank headed by Patriarch Alexei II, started proceedings to indict the physicist under anti-hate laws more suitable to combat neo-Nazis.
The website of United Russia – the party behind Vladimir Putin – ran an angry article headlined ‘For Riffraff – an Answer’. It was illustrated with a doctored photograph of Ginzburg wearing a mortarboard and standing in front of the type of barred caged used for defendants in Russian courts. He wore a striped prison shirt branded with the number ‘666’.
The Russian Orthodox Church officially distanced itself from this ugly image. A spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchy said the church would not take legal action despite understanding those angered by the alleged comments. Ginzburg was left shaken but he refuses to be intimidated.
“This is absurd,” the now largely bed-ridden professor said in a telephone interview. “I am an atheist and I do not believe in God – Jewish, Orthodox or any – and that is why I do not understand how I can inspire inter-religious hatred. I am against religion at school but not against church people.”
Ginzburg played a key role in the development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and still works for Moscow’s Lebedev Physics Institute. He prefers not to meet outsiders at his Moscow home or the hospital where he spends time for a blood disorder. But his physical condition does not stop him working on scientific, political and personal projects or giving interviews.
More than 75 years after he first stepped into a physics laboratory, Ginzburg – who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physics with Alexei Abrikosov and London-born Anthony Leggett for his pioneering work on superconductors and super-fluids – retains his hallmark sharp wits and intellectual rigour. A telephone interview with him can be a formidable experience.
Contacted on his ever-present mobile telephone – a device that he argues by its very ubiquity in today’s world is a powerful demonstration of the relevance of physics to our lives – Ginzburg is happy to take questions in English but prefers to answer in Russian.
Famed for his scientific work, Ginzburg, who turned 91 on 4 October, is also an outspoken advocate for human rights and intellectual freedom. Although not a member of the anti-Putin opposition group The Other Russia, a rainbow umbrella alliance of those who fear Russia is fast headed toward a renewed police state, he is a supporter of the human rights movement here.
An attempt by Putin’s regime to undermine the independence of the Russian Academy of Science and seize control of its vast property holdings has the venerable professor dashing for the metaphorical barricades.
“The academy has a lot of valuable property and land and certain interests would like to take advantage of that. The academy may be state funded but it must retain its independence. Without this, scientists will become government servants,” he thunders.
Only those with a scientific education, he argues, have a long enough perspective to understand that investments in fundamental science rarely produce overnight results. If politicians or government officials took control of the academy’s property, the short-termism inherent in their outlook could spell disaster for Russian scientific research, he says.
Russian science is only now beginning to recover from the hammering it received following the social and economic collapse that came with the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many of the technological devices and conveniences that we take for granted today are the result of many decades of fundamental research with entirely unforeseen applications, Ginzburg points out.
“Take mobile telephones for example. These hardly existed 20 years ago and were in the realm of science fiction for many years. Research that began in the 19th century under Faraday and Maxwell eventually led to the development of radio in the early 20th century and from that the technology you find in today’s mobile telephone,” the professor says.
He still remembers his excitement as a boy growing up in Moscow in the 1920s when he saw his first ever crystal radio receiver, the forerunner of wireless radio. Other memories are less pleasant: an only child, he recalls loneliness was his chief companion because his parents did not trust Bolshevik education and kept him away from school until he was 11.
Then there are the attacks on him for the stance he has taken on teaching religion in schools. For a man who knows the cost of intolerance – the old Bolshevik who helped get him his first job as an X-ray lab assistant in 1931 died later “crushed by the millstones of Stalin’s terror”, as Ginzburg puts it – the incident simply serves as a reminder not to be intimidated.
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