Evgenii Mikhailovich Lifshitz


Born: 21 February 1915 in Kharkov, Ukraine
Died: 29 October 1985 in Moscow, USSR

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Evgenii Mikhailovich Lifshitz's father, Mikhail Ilyich Lifshitz, was a doctor and a professor at the Institute of Medicine specialising in gastric diseases. He was a highly educated man who had a reputation throughout the Soviet Union as an outstanding doctor. We have information about Mikhail Ilyich, and also about Evgenii Mikhailovich's childhood, from a letter written by Evgenii Mikhailovich's cousins to his wife after he died (see [24]). Mikhail Ilyich's abilities as a doctor led to him treating important people, for example he cured Vsevolod Apollonovich Balitski (1892-1937), the Ukraine commissar for internal affairs, and Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinskii (1877-1926), a party leader and prominent member the revolutionary movement. He was also called to advise Mikhail Vasilyevich Frunze (1885-1925) and other members of the Ukraine government. Evgenii Mikhailovich had a younger brother Ilya Mikhailovich Lifshitz (1917-1982) who also became a famous physicist [24]:-

The brothers were different kinds of person, but had the greatest affection and regard for each other. Each knew the other's strengths and weaknesses, admiring the former and excusing the latter.

Evgenii Mikhailovich was educated at home only spending only two years, the sixth and the seventh, in the secondary school in Kharkov. He learnt English and German as foreign languages, but next to Russian he preferred to speak English. He claimed that the German teaching had been relatively poor. As well as enjoying mathematics and science, he also enjoyed music, poetry, literature and history, keeping up these interests throughout his life. We quote from the letter from his cousins given in [24]. Lifshitz's father:-

... often went on missions abroad, taking the family with him. He knew English extremely well. In the family, conversation with the children was in English, and they acquired a good knowledge of it. They had an excellent English teacher, Gordon, from their childhood until 1937. He was an émigré from Britain. The family also had an excellent music teacher, Alisa Nikolaevna Goldenger, who educated their musical taste and gave them [Evgenii Mikhailovich and his brother Ilya Mikhailovich] a love of music, for which they had more than ordinary talent. [The brothers] even wrote music and thought of becoming musicians. But they were simply talented boys who easily found their way to and appreciated anything they became aware of.

We learn more about the young boy Evgenii Mikhailovich from this letter [24]:-

[Evgenii] as a child was somewhat unsociable, wrapped up in himself, but lively and responsive to his friends, either children or, later, adults. He showed them from childhood that he was the person of principle he afterwards remained. He defended his view always to the end, was restrained, but often peremptory, in his judgements. [He] did not eat much and was a thin boy. As the elder brother, he was the more independent. The two of them had a good collection of books. They played table tennis on the big table in the dining room ...

The boys also loved to play charades and played other games such as bowling, croquet and table top games that their father had bought when on his trips abroad. They would go on holiday as a large extended family with the uncles, aunts etc being with them and making up a group of between 20 and 25 people. Evgenii Mikhailovich completed his secondary school studies in 1929 when he was only fourteen years old. He then studied for two years at the chemical college before beginning his university studies in 1931 in the physics and mechanics faculty of Kharkov Mechanics and Machine Building Institute. He graduated in 1933, having completed the examinations and had a diploma thesis accepted. In 1933 he began working as a graduate student at the Ukrainian Physicotechnical Institute having been accepted as one of Lev Landau's first Ph.D. students. He explains in [17] what he had to do to pass Landau's "theoretical minimum":-

... the first test which Landau gave to any one who desired to become one of his students was a quiz in mathematics in its "practical" calculational aspects. The requirements were: ability to evaluate any indefinite integral (in terms of elementary functions) and to solve any ordinary differential equation of the standard type, knowledge of vector analysis and tensor algebra as well as of principles of the theory of functions of complex variable (theory of residues, Laplace method). The successful applicant could then pass on to the study of the seven successive sections of the programme for the "theoretical minimum," which includes basic knowledge of all the domains of theoretical physics, and subsequently take an appropriate examination.

He completed the course and took the Ph.D. examination in 1934. In the same year his father Mikhail Ilyich died and, also his first paper On the production of electrons and positrons by a collision of two particles, written jointly with Landau, appeared in print. Let us note at this point that Evgenii Mikhailovich's mother, Berta Evzorovna, outlived her husband by 42 years, living until 1976. After the award of his Ph.D., Lifshitz worked at the Institute until 1938 as a senior research scientist. In 1935 two further joint papers with Landau were published, one being a continuation of their first paper while the second, On the theory of the dispersion of magnetic permeability in ferromagnetic bodies, is considered the most significant of his joint research papers with Landau. The paper [24]:-

... contains the so-called Landau-Lifshitz equivalent of motion for the magnetisation in ferromagnets. This paper also discusses the domain structure of ferromagnets and the problem of ferromagnetic resonance.

In 1935 he began work on his joint project with Landau, the ten volume Course of Theoretical Physics. The first part of the book is based on lecture notes. Lifshitz continued to work on the book after Landau's death and it was not completed until 1979. The work includes many of the results of Landau and Lifshitz's research over many years including the results of many jointly written research papers.

See extracts from the Prefaces to Landau and Lifshitz: Course of Theoretical Physics at THIS LINK

See extracts from Reviews of Landau and Lifshitz: Course of Theoretical Physics at THIS LINK

Reading the descriptions of Lifshitz, both as a person and as a scientist, that have been written since his death one is struck with the large variation in them. It becomes clear that, common with many families, there was stresses and strains both in Lifshitz's family and in Landau's family which has played a large role in colouring the views that have been expressed in the articles. Several things, however, are very clear. Lifshitz and Landau were close friends, Landau was the brilliant researcher while Lifshitz was the outstanding expositor. Their talents complemented each others extremely well and they made a remarkable team. However, their work was badly disrupted in the late 1930s by the extremely difficult situation that arose because of Joseph Stalin's 'Great Purge'. Beginning in 1935, Stalin began a systematic elimination of his opponents in the 'Great Purge'. Soon it was leading members of his party, of the military, and important people from all walks of life who were being sent to prison, penal camps or work camps. Soon Landau was under investigation by the KGB who had received information from informers that he was making anti-government statements. Lifshitz was in Moscow in early 1938, teaching from February of that year at the All-Union Leather Institute. On 28 April 1938, Landau was arrested and taken to Lubyanka prison. Lifshitz decided that the safest thing for him to do was to keep out of sight in case he attracted the same attention from the KGB. He remained in Moscow until May, then went with his wife to the Crimea where he lived for three months, during which time he was in continual fear that he would be visited by the KGB. In September 1938 he returned to Kharkov where he taught at the Chemical Technology Institute until June 1939.

In 1939 Lifshitz's thesis for the DSc examination of Leningrad State University was accepted. From September 1939 he worked entirely at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Physical Problems in Moscow. In fact it was Peter Kapitsa, the director of the Institute of Physical Problems, who invited Lifshitz to Moscow and arranged for him to share with Landau a 5-room apartment on two floors. Landau lived on the upper floor where there were three rooms, and Lifshitz and his wife, Elena Konstantinovna Berezovskaya, lived on the lower floor. It had been largely due to Kapitsa that Landau had been released from prison for Kapitsa had written several letters to leading government members arguing forcibly for his release. Lifshitz deeply admired Kapitsa's courage in sending these letters and he treasured copies of the letters which he kept throughout his life. We could note here a comment on Lifshitz's political views. He never liked the Communist way and this meant that his views were very different from those of Landau who strongly believed in the Communist principles. After Landau's arrest and year in prison, although he continued to believe in Communist principles he became strongly opposed to Stalin's leadership and this meant that from that time on Landau and Lifshitz had more sympathy with each others political views. However, the two friends still loved to argue about many topics, but most of all about the Course of Theoretical Physics.

In the afternoon, Evgenii Lifshitz would drop by Landau's place, and from behind the study's closed doors one could hear their loud arguments. After a couple of hours Lifshitz would leave, agitated and red-faced.

On 7 January 1962, Landau was involved in a car accident on the road from Moscow to Dubna. Although he lived for six years after this accident, he was never able to return to scientific work. Lifshitz had to take charge of the production of the final volumes of the Course of Theoretical Physics and also take charge of the new editions of the earlier books which were produced regularly. For example, in April 1966 when he wrote the Preface to the second edition of Statistical Physics, Lifshitz wrote:-

To my profound regret, L D Landau, my teacher and friend, has been prevented by injuries received in a road accident from personally contributing to the preparation of this new edition.

Some reviewers claim that volumes written after Landau's death do not quite come up to the standard of the earlier ones. For example [11]:-

This volume was written after Landau's death and unfortunately does not share with its predecessors these unique qualities. Not that there is anything wrong with the presentation - conventional topics of quantum field theory are adequately treated - but there is no personal imprint on the material.

However, others believe that the exceptionally high standard of the texts written with Landau are maintained in the later volumes where Lifshitz was the main author. After Landau's death, the further volumes that were written were jointly authored with Lifshitz choosing his co-authors with great care. The authors of [24] describe his behaviour when he was working in the Institute in Moscow:-

If you went into the Institute courtyard on almost any day you would come across Evgenii Mikhailovich. Not in an overcoat, whatever the season, though in winter with a beret and with a scarf around his neck, he would be walking with rapid steps from one building to another, but never, one felt, just because he was a bustler; he was genuinely incapable of wasting time. Knowing his vast work on the 'Course' in its many languages (for he made changes and corrections in every new version), the time spent on writing further volumes, the demandingness and thoroughness with which the 'Course of Theoretical Physics' was conducted, we all understood that he had no time to waste. This did not mean that, when he crossed the courtyard, he failed to notice people, or avoided meeting them and conversing. far from it; often one could see a group of two or three in conversation and could join in. ... However, when the topic was exhausted, when the matter was settled, or when it became clear that nothing more could be added, the conversation ended, and Evgenii Mikhailovich continued at his rapid pace, until the next person crossed his path.

For around thirty years he was been the deputy chief editor of Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics. The chief editor was Kapitza but it was Lifshitz who was in complete charge of the day-to-day running of the Journal. He would choose referees for the papers submitted to the journal and correspond with the authors with a precision and exactness that characterised all of his work.

In 1966 Lifshitz was elected a corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences being elected a full member in 1979. In 1954 he was awarded a State Prize, and in 1962 the Lenin Prize jointly with Lev Landau for their Course of Theoretical Physics. The USSR Academy of Sciences awarded him the M V Lomonosov Prize in 1958 for his theory of molecular interaction forces between condensed bodies, and the Lev Landau Prize in 1974. This 1974 prize was awarded jointly to Lifshitz, V A Belinskii and I M Khalatnikov for their work on the singularities of cosmological solutions of the gravitational equations which was presented in sixteen papers between 1961 and 1985. In 1983 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London and, two years later, he received an honorary doctorate from Budapest University.

Although Lifshitz was married to Elena Konstantinovna, he became friendly with Zinaida Ivanovna Gorobetc as early as 1948 and his relationship with her was quite open. He married Zinaida in 1978. He had a son Mikhail who was born in 1946 and became graduated from the Institute of Medicine. In 1982 Lifshitz's brother Ilya Mikhailovich died. This hit Lifshitz very hard and from this time on his health began to deteriorate. For most of his life Lifshitz had enjoyed excellent health. His final illness was a heart problem which rapidly became worse. However, Lifshitz was always one to work extremely hard and so he battled to continue to keep up the same high work rate despite his illness. Despite his health problem, he continued to travel to many countries where he lectured at leading institutions. For example, he lectured at Cambridge University in England in 1985. However, he took very badly with the illness, particularly when taken to hospital in Moscow, and continued to the end to arrange for his work on the Course to continue. After his death he was buried in Kuntsevo Cemetery in Moscow.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


List of References (25 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor

  1. Landau and Lifshitz: Course of Theoretical Physics: Prefaces
  2. Landau and Lifshitz: Course of Theoretical Physics: reviews

Honours awarded to Evgenii Mikhailovich Lifshitz
(Click below for those honoured in this way)
Fellow of the Royal Society1982


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