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Lenin's Laureate

Lenin's Laureate: Zhores Alferov's Life in Communist Science

Paul R. Josephson
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Lenin's Laureate
    Book Description:

    In 2000, Russian scientist Zhores Alferov shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of the heterojunction, a semiconductor device the practical applications of which include LEDs, rapid transistors, and the microchip. The Prize was the culmination of a career in Soviet science that spanned the eras of Stalin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev--and continues today in the postcommunist Russia of Putin and Medvedev. In Lenin's Laureate, historian Paul Josephson tells the story of Alferov's life and work and examines the bureaucratic, economic, and ideological obstacles to doing state-sponsored scientific research in the Soviet Union. Lenin and the Bolsheviks built strong institutions for scientific research, rectifying years of neglect under the Czars. Later generations of scientists, including Alferov and his colleagues, reaped the benefits, achieving important breakthroughs: the first nuclear reactor for civilian energy, an early fusion device, and, of course, the Sputnik satellite. Josephson's account of Alferov's career reveals the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet science--a schizophrenic environment of cutting-edge research and political interference. Alferov, born into a family of Communist loyalists, joined the party in 1967. He supported Gorbachev's reforms in the 1980s, but later became frustrated by the recession-plagued postcommunist state's failure to fund scientific research adequately. An elected member of the Russian parliament since 1995, he uses his prestige as a Nobel laureate to protect Russian science from further cutbacks. Drawing on extensive archival research and the author's own discussions with Alferov, Lenin's Laureate offers a unique account of Soviet science, presented against the backdrop of the USSR's turbulent history from the revolution through perestroika.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28952-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    When you look at the lights on your alarm clock or stop at a traffic signal, more than likely you see light-emitting diodes in action. LEDs consume 80 or 90 percent less energy than incandescent lights, and they last years longer. In addition to LEDs, in everyday life we encounter semiconductor lasers, solar cells, and transistors in a variety of communications and energy electronics—for example, CD players and mobile phones. These items reflect the practical applications of the heterojunction, a kind of semiconductor device that operates with very high efficiency at room temperature. The heterojunction was developed in the...

  4. 1 Childhood
    (pp. 15-56)

    A wail spreads over the village. The cavalry is trampling the grain and trading in horses. The cavalrymen are exchanging their worn-out nags for the peasants’ workhorses. One can’t argue with what the cavalrymen are doing—without horses there can be no army.

    —Isaac Babel,The Red Cavalry Stories

    If there could be a typical family in revolutionary Russia—a time of radically shifting borders, occupations, and political allegiances, of war and civil war, pogroms, epidemics, starvation, and of violent efforts to create a new, socialist, industrial society on the foundation of an agrarian, peasant economy and a failed autocracy—...

  5. 2 Heroes and Hero Projects
    (pp. 57-108)

    Perhaps the most important event in Zhores Alferov’s life was World War II. Young Zhores, his mother, and his father lived out the war in the Urals region, far from the front. They never doubted victory. But at what costs? During the “Great Fatherland Patriotic War” at least 20 million Soviet citizens died; several new studies raise the estimate of loss to 35 million. Millions more were maimed and lived out their lives their secluded from public view. The agricultural and industrial achievements of Stalin’s five-year plans were destroyed. After the war, as a young student, Zhores Alferov applied himself...

  6. 3 Research and Reforms
    (pp. 109-152)

    Zhores Alferov commenced his scientific career at one of the world’s major centers of solid state physics research on the eve of the death of Joseph Stalin. By all accounts, Alferov was far more concerned with science than with anything else, including politics. Remarkably, he remained focused on his research in the period after Stalin’s death, when a succession struggle was eventually won by Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev then triggered what became known as the Thaw (after a recent novel of the same name by Ilya Ehrenburg). Khrushchev attacked Stalin for his murderous policies and his “cult of personality,” although he...

  7. 4 From Transistors to Heterojunctions
    (pp. 153-176)

    In December of 2000, Zhores Alferov stood at the lectern in the Grand Hall of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm to deliver his Nobel lecture. He proudly proclaimed that semiconductor heterostructures were the major foundation of modern solid state physics, and that their applications stretched from CD players at home to solar cells in space. He described his research as grounded in the solid state physics of a “high theoretical, technological, and experimental level” that had been going on at the Leningrad Physical Technical Institute since the 1930s.

    When Alferov arrived at the LFTI, in 1953, the institute...

  8. 5 Perestroika and Politics
    (pp. 177-214)

    During the 1980s, Zhores Alferov rose to the top of the scientific establishment. He became a full member of the Academy of Sciences, one of its eleven vice presidents, the director of the Leningrad Physical Technical Institute, and the chairman of the Leningrad Scientific Center. He remained active in research in solid state physics, although administrative responsibilities slowed his work. Travel between the LFTI near Sosnovka Park and the presidium building of the Academy on the Neva River, and between Leningrad and Moscow, even on the fast, comfortable overnight train, the Red Arrow, occupied more and more of his time....

  9. 6 Scholar, Laureate, and Statesman
    (pp. 215-266)

    Russians play a high-stakes game of politics. They have a lot to play hard about. Russia’s natural resources of oil, gas, minerals, and timber are perhaps the richest in the world, and since the breakup of the USSR businessmen and politicians have fought over the disposition of those resources. Many of these individuals are former Communist Party officials who learned to play politics in the Soviet era, and they often use tactics from that era. They have their sights on real estate, too; the booming real estate markets of Moscow and St. Petersburg are central arenas of a struggle over...

  10. Afterword and Acknowledgments
    (pp. 267-270)

    In some ways this book dates back to a lecture I attended in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1980. Sheldon Glashow, co-recipient of a 1979 Nobel Prize for work on quantum gravitation, gave a talk on the background to his theory and mentioned in passing the work of a relatively unknown Russian relativist, Alexander Friedmann. In 1922, Friedmann had proposed equations that suggested that the universe could be expanding or contracting as a function of the amount of matter in it. The equations were a challenge to Albert Einstein, whose initial theory of general relativity (1916) had included a cosmological constant that...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 271-300)
  12. Index
    (pp. 301-307)