The first death of Lev Davidovich Landau

April 25, 2019

By Evgeny Mikhailovich Lifshitz from L. D. Landau, E. M. Lifshitz (1976). Mechanics. Vol. 1 (3rd ed.). Butterworth–Heinemann.

Very little time has passed since the death of Lev Davidovich Landau on 1 April 1968, but fate wills that even now we view him at a distance, as it were. From that distance we perceive more clearly not only his greatness as a scientist, the significance of whose work becomes increasingly obvious with time, but also that he was a great-hearted human being. He was uncommonly just and benevolent. There is no doubt that therein lie the roots of his popularity as a scientist and teacher, the roots of that genuine love and esteem which his direct and indirect pupils felt for him and which were manifested with such exceptional strength during the days of the struggle to save his life following the terrible accident.

To him fell the tragic fate of dying twice. The first time it happened was six years earlier on 7 January 1962 when on the icy road, en route from Moscow to Dubna, his car skidded and collided with a lorry coming from the opposite direction. The epic story of the subsequent struggle to save his life is primarily a story of the selfless labour and skill of numerous physicians and nurses. But it is also a story of a remarkable feat of solidarity. The calamitous accident agitated the entire community of physicists, arousing a spontaneous and instant response. The hospital in which Landau lay unconscious became a centre to all those his students and colleagues—who strove to make whatever contributions they could to help the physicians in their desperate struggle to save Landau’s life.

“Their feat of comradeship commenced on the very first day. Illustrious scientists who, however, had no idea of medicine, academicians, corresponding members of the scientific academies, doctors, candidates, men of the same generation as the 54-year-old Landau as well as his pupils and their still more youthful pupils - all volunteered to act as messengers, chauffeurs, intermediaries, suppliers, secretaries, members of the watch and, lastly, porters and labourers. Their spontaneously established headquarters was located in the office of the Physician-in-Chief of Hospital No. 50 and it became a round-the-clock organizational centre for an unconditional and immediate implementation of any instruction of the attending physicians.

“Eighty-seven theoreticians and experimenters took part in this voluntary rescue team. An alphabetical list of the telephone numbers and addresses of any one and any institution with which contact might be needed at any instant was compiled, and it contained 223 telephone numbers! It included other hospitals, motor transport bases, airports, customs offices, pharmacies, ministries, and the places at which consulting physicians could most likely be reached. ”During the most tragic days when it seemed that ’Dau is dying’ - and there were at least four such days - 8-10 cars could be found waiting at any time in front of the seven-storey hospital building. …

“When everything depended on the artificial respiration machine, on 12 January, a theoretician suggested that it should be immediately constructed in the workshops of the Institute of Physical Problems. This was unnecessary and naive, but how amazingly spontaneous! The physicists obtained the machine from the Institute for the Study of Poliomyelitis and carried it in their own hands to the ward where Landau was gasping for breath. They saved their colleague, teacher, and friend.

“The story could be continued without limit. This was a real fraternity of physicists… ”

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