Peter Leonidovich Kapitza

(1894—1984) physicist

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Soviet physicist noted for his work in the field of low temperature physics. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978.

The son of an engineer, Kapitza was educated at the Petrograd Polytechnic. He graduated in 1918 and in 1921 came to England to study physics under Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. While in Cambridge, Kapitza developed his interest in low-temperature physics, his first major success being the invention of a simple method to liquefy helium. As a result liquid helium, once a rare and expensive commodity, became readily available in laboratories.

Kapitza first published details of his helium liquefier in 1934. In the same year he returned to Moscow to visit his family, but was refused permission to return to Cambridge. Instead he was appointed director of the Vavilov Institute for Physical Problems in Moscow. In the previous year a special laboratory had been opened for Kapitza in Cambridge, stocked with specialized equipment. On hearing that Kapitza would not be returning to Cambridge, Rutherford arranged for the new equipment to be purchased by the Soviet authorities for his former pupil. Kapitza continued his low-temperature research in Moscow and in 1938 announced his discovery of the phenomena of superfluidity. He found that below 2.2 K, helium flows through fine channels with no apparent friction and will defy gravity and flow up the walls of its container.

Kapitza's career in Stalinist Russia was not without its problems. He is reported to have been under arrest from 1945 to 1953 for, according to one account, refusing to work on nuclear weapons. Clearly a man of independence and courage, he defended Lev Landau in 1938, when he had been arrested as a German spy, and many years later, in 1970, he publicly protested at the detention of the biologist Zhores Medvedev.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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