Kapitza Pyotr Leonidovich (1894-1984)
Kapitza Pyotr Leonidovich (1894-1984), Russian physicist and
engineer, founder and director (1935-1946, 1955-1984) of the
Institute for Physical Problems of the Russian Academy of
Sciences, Moscow. Nobel Prize for Physics (1978) for his
research in low-temperature physics.
Born in Kronshtadt near St. Petersburg in a family of a
military engineer. Graduated from Petrograd Polytechnical
Institute in 1919. After the death of his wife and two small
children in a epidemic flu after the war and the revolution he
went in 1921 to England to work in Cavendish Laboratory with
Ernest Rutherford. Developed methods for obtaining strong
magnetic fields. In 1925 became assistant director of magnetic
research at the Cavendish. Elected Fellow of Trinity College
(1925) and Fellow of the Royal Society (1929). The Royal Society
Mond Laboratory was build in Cambridge specially for him, and
was officially opened in February 1933. In this laboratory he
invented and designed in 1934 a new original device for
liquefying helium in large quantities - a prerequisite for the
great progress made in low-temperature physics. In autumn 1934
when on a professional visit to the USSR his passport was seized
and he was detained there by Stalin's order. He founded the
Institute for Physical Problems, the equipment of which was
purchased from the Mond Laboratory by the Soviet Government with
the assistance of Rutherford. In 1937 he discovered in his
Institute the superfluidity of helium II, and in 1936-1938
developed a new method for air liquefaction with a low pressure
cycle using a special turbo-expansion device with a high
efficiency. The highly efficient radial compressed gas
turboengine developed by Kapitza, with an output of 80-85%,
still serves as a world model for modern large-scale oxygen
production plants by air fractionation using low pressure only.
In 1943, during the war, organized and headed the Department of
Oxygen Industry attached to the Government (Glavkislorod). In
November 1945 refused to work on nuclear weapons development
under Beria, and in 1946 was dismissed from his posts as
director of the Institute for Physical Problems and head of
Glavkislorod, and resided at his country house until after
Stalin's death and Beria's arrest in 1953. He conducted there
original research on high-power electronics. In January 1955
Kapitza returned to the post of director of the Institute.
However, on return to the Institute he did not go back to the
work on low temperatures, interrupted in 1946, but continued his
studies of high-power electronics and plasma physics begun at
his country house.
Apart from his scientific work, P.L. Kapitza became widely
known as a public figure, and greatly respected for his courage.
Even in the worst periods of repression he managed to defend his
colleagues, saving some of them from death in Stalin's prisons
(L.D. Landau, V.A. Fock). He also publicly defended his views on a
variety of subjects, from economics and ecology to the
organization of science and international scientific exchange.
Collected papers of P.L. Kapitza (ed. D. ter
Haar), 4 vol. (1964-1984), Oxford. Pergamon Press
Experiment, theory, practice (ed. R.S. Cohen), Dordrecht, Boston
and London: D. Reidel Publ. Co. 1980
David Shoenberg, Piotr
Leonidovich Kapitza. 1894-1984. In Biographical Memoirs of
Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 31 (1985), containing a
bibliography of Kapitza's works
Kapitza in Cambridge and Moscow. Life and letters of a Russian Physicist (eds. J.W. Boag,
P.E. Rubinin, D. Shoenberg). Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1990.
Copy of P.L. Kapitza's letter to Professor E. Rutherford, 18 June 1921.
P.L. Kapitza and his machine for generating strong magnetic
fields. Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, UK, 1925.
P.L. Kapitza with his assistant S.I. Filimonov carry out an
experiment with superfluid helium. IPP, Moscow, 1940.