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Lifshits, Il’ia Mikhailovich

(1917–1982), theoretical physicist. Il’ia Lifshits was a distinguished physicist, teacher, and loyal friend—a very dangerous combination in the Soviet Union, especially for a Jew who was not a Communist Party member. Not by chance, all his Soviet honors came much later than deserved, and only once—just six years before his death—was he allowed to travel beyond the Iron Curtain.

At the age of 19, Lifshits graduated from Kharkov University, as well as from the Polytechnic Institute and the Academy of Music. At 24, he explored the new field of disordered systems, received a chair at Kharkov University, and three years later became affiliated with the Physical-Technical Institute. He also organized a famous Kharkov seminar in condensed matter physics. In 1967, Lifshits was invited to hold a chair at Moscow State University, and a year later he succeeded his colleague Lev Landau in the theoretical physics chair at the Kapitsa Institute for Physical Problems, the most prestigious physics research institution in the USSR.

Many of Lifshits’s students, colleagues, and collaborators were Jews, a situation that drew the rage of party members, Soviet officials, and “ordinary” antisemites alike. The anti-Jewish pressures he experienced were damaging to his health and contributed considerably to his premature death, yet he never compromised his integrity. When in 1953 he was unable to register a Jewish graduate as an official doctoral student, Lifshits taught him nevertheless. In 1955, when this same student’s thesis (later known as Azbel’-Kaner resonance) was nearly rejected by the Kharkov University Scientific Council, Lifshits all but explicitly denounced the rejection as an act of antisemitism (later his direct intervention—which ultimately cost Lifshits a joint 1965 Lenin Prize—saved the former student from being fired from Moscow University for refusing to testify against dissident friends, the writers Iulii Daniel’ and Andrei Siniavskii).

One of the world’s leaders in condensed matter physics (dynamics of crystal lattice, superconductivity, and phase transitions; electron theory of metals; disordered systems; low dimensional systems, and in particular biopolymers), Lifshits was a full member of the Ukrainian (1967), Soviet (1970), and U.S. (1982) Academies of Sciences, and winner of the Simon Memorial (1962) and Lenin (1967) prizes.

Suggested Reading

A. Iu. Grosberg and M. I. Kaganov, eds. “I. M. Lifshitz and Condensed Matter Theory,” Physics Reports 288.1–6 (1997): 1–576, special issues dedicated to Lifshits on his eightieth birthday.