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Tribute to Mandelshtam


Excerpted from Making Waves by Yakov Alpert 2000 by Yale University. Reproduced here by permission of, and all rights reserved by, Yale University Press.

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Tribute to the Scientific School of L. I. Mandelshtam

We left our homeland, its people, and the places where we were taught at the end of 1987.  The legacy of the scientific school that I became part of and of some of the people with whom I collaborated was within me, however.  It was a great privilege for me to live and work for dozens of years within that scientific and humanist community, especially for sixteen years at PhIAN.  It was in harmony with my needs and my nature. I would like briefly to pay tribute to that unique scientific school and its guru, the great physicist Leonid Isaakovich Mandelshtam, one of the most distinguished scientists of Russia.

Mandelshtam was born in Odessa in 1879; he died in Moscow in 1944.  His scientific works and lectures – Theory of Oscillations, Basis of Quantum Mechanics, Selected Problems of Optics, Basis of Relativity Theory – are on my bookshelves.  Next to them are a large photo of Mandelshtam, the volume of memoirs dedicated to him on the centenary of his birthday, and the collected papers of Nikolai Papalexi, Mandelshtam's collaborator and closest friend of many dozens of years.  The world scientific community lost a lot by the works of Mandelshtam not being translated into English and other foreign languages – especially his Theory of Oscillations, which fills up about two volumes of his collected works.  I wrote above about those lectures.

Mandelshtam began his research at the University of Strasbourg (Germany) with the famous physicist Karl Ferdinand Brown, who was the recipient of the 1909 Nobel Prize in physics together with Guglielmo Marconi for developing wireless telegraphy.  Mandelshtam came to Strasbourg in 1899 to continue his education when he was expelled from the University of Novorossiysk because of his participation in student disturbances.

Mandelshtam's collected works show that he was equally familiar with all the branches of physics.  For the reader who is a physicist or knows even a little about the history of physics, it will be interesting to know the following.  Mandelshtam discovered theoretically, and with Papalexi confirmed experimentally, the inertia of electrons in metals in 1912 – four years before the classical experiments by Tolmen and Stewart in 1916!  His wide-ranging ideas famously brought him into conflict with leading experts in several fields: arguing for the existence of radio side bands against Sir John Ambrose Fleming; debating Lummer on the nature of the optical image; and taking issue with winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt) in 1908 and Max Planck in 1918, showing that light will be scattered in a homogeneous medium because of the inevitable density fluctuations in the medium.  Although not a mathematician by training, Mandelshtam found an error in the classical mathematical theory of the physicist Arnold Sommerfeld on propagation of radio waves along the surface of the earth.  He showed very clearly in his lectures on quantum mechanics the faulty position Albert Einstein took in his famous polemic with Niels Bohr about the basics of quantum mechanics.  Mandelshtam said, "Now the erroneous point of A. Einstein seems to be so trivial that it is even difficult to expound that this initial point of view was Einstein's indeed."  Niels Bohr published some papers about that dispute.  But when Mandelshtam's disciples asked him to publish his understanding of those discussions, he said, "Einstein is so great that he himself understands the matter."

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