Thursday, October 26, 2023

Paradise Lost - Migdal, Polyakov, and Landau

This is a placeholder for a longer post I hope to expand on in the future, based on this essay: 

Migdal and Polyakov were two of the great Soviet physicists of their generation. Polyakov is on the upper left and Migdal the lower right.

Wikipedia: Migdal, Polyakov

The essay describes their education as young physicists. They were examined by Landau himself at age 15, and by age 19 had written a paper anticipating the Higgs Mechanism and the role of spontaneous symmetry breaking in gauge theory.

Migdal: Khalat was a genius of political intrigue. Being married into Inner Circle of the Soviet System (his wife Valya is the daughter of a legendary Revolution hero), he used all his connections and all the means to achieve his secret goal — assemble the best brains and let them Think Freely. 
On the surface, his pitch to the Party went as follows. “The West is attacking us for anti-Semitism. The best way to counter this slander is to create an Institute, where Jews are accepted, allowed to travel abroad and generally look happy. This can be a very small Institute, by standards of Atomic Project, it will have no secret military research, it will cost you very little, but it will help “Rasryadka” (Détente). These Jews will be so happy, they will tell all their Jewish friends in the West how well they live. And if they won’t –it is after all, us who decide which one goes abroad and which one stays home. They are smart kids, they will figure out which side of the toast is buttered.” 
As I put it, Khalat sold half of his soul to Devil and used the money to save another half. I truly respect him for that, now once I learned what it takes to create a startup and try to protect it against hostile world. 
As many crazy plans before it, this plan really worked. Best brains were assembled in Landau Institute, they were given a chance to happily solve problems without being forced to eat political shit like the whole country and – yes, they sometimes traveled abroad and made friends in the West. 
In a way the plan worked too well — we became so worldly and so free that we could no longer be controlled. And, needless to say, our friends in the West became closer to us that our curators in KGB.
I was in the 1990s generation of American physicists who had to contend on the job market with a stream of great theorists from the former Soviet Union. Both Migdal and Polyakov ended up at Princeton, and there were many others in their wake, closer to my age.

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