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


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.1

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."

In Chapter 7, I related how Mandelshtam and Grigoriy Landsberg lost a share of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1930, awarded to Chandrasekhara Raman for demonstrating the combinational scattering of light, because of Soviet censorship of scientific publication.  Mandelshtam discovered that phenomenon theoretically in 1928.  His deep insight into the unity of physical phenomena brought him to that understanding and is encapsulated in his maxim "Optics, Mechanics, Acoustics are speaking in their national languages.  Their international language is the language of the theory of oscillations."  Mandelshtam developed the quantum theory of the combinational scattering of light with simple classical models of the oscillations of atoms and ions of different molecules and crystals, showing that the periodical variations of the distances between atoms are the cause of polarization of the electron envelopes.  That creates the modulation of the scattered light by the atoms.  The discovery of the combinational scattering of light, as Papalexi said, is equal to the great discovery of the basis of spectral analysis by Robert Wilhelm Bunsen and Gustav Robert Kirchof.

The brief sketch given here shows the diversity of the scientific thinking, activity, and teaching of Mandelshtam.  "He was a romantic by his striving to share his conjectures, by his love of teaching, by the power of his word," said Alexander Alexandrovich Andronov, one of the most talented of his disciples. 2  I remember how flexibly Mandelshtam entered into and understood any problems discussed with him.  At present, having just completed a long study of the electromagnetic oscillating nature of the background of the magnetospheric plasma, I often think about Mandelshtam.  Were I to tell him the results of that study, he would like my new approach, which is to consider the magnetosphere as a resonance system.  Resonances are one of the most typical characteristics of the international language of oscillations.  Mandelshtam could strengthen my confidence in those conclusions or point out their weak peculiarities.

What also stimulated me to write this tribute was the rare harmony of Mandelshtam as a human being.  He was a theoretician and an experimenter, a physicist par excellence, and a good mathematician.  At the same time he was a man of exceptional high principles and nobility.  He was full of indignation against people who put their own interests above everything.  Mandelshtam combined goodness and sensitivity with rigor on matters of principle and intolerance of moral compromise.  The distinguished Russian mathematician and naval engineer Alexey Krylov said about Mandelshtam, "He was a righteous man."  Mandelshtam's scientific and human qualities attracted to him talented and noble people, both students and accomplished physicists. Among them were Grigoriy Landsberg, Igor Tamm, Alexander Andronov, and Mikhail Leontovich.

An expert in optics, Grigoriy Landsberg became a professor at the Moscow State University in 1923.  It was mainly owing to his efforts that Leonid Isaakovich Mandelshtam was invited to join the faculty in 1925.  Twenty years later Landsberg wrote, "I was not a young boy (35 years old) when I met for the first time L.I.  Now I am already an elderly man. . . . And yet it is not a shame for me to say . . . During two decades of my friendship with L.I. . . . I always ask myself what would be L.I.'s reaction to any of my or other's actions . . .  I have never doubted the moral judgment of L.I. . . . , and for all my last years the recollections of L.I. will be the source of my moral power."

The theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Igor Tamm met Mandelshtam when Tamm was twenty-five years old, teaching physics at the Polytechnic Institute in Odessa. Mandelshtam was the chair of the faculty.  From their first acquaintance, Mandelshtam exerted a wide influence on the scientific evolution of Tamm, who did his first theoretical studies in classical electrodynamics under Mandelshtam's guidance.

It is also appropriate to emphasize that the extremely distinguished radio physicist Nikolai Papalexi, a man of high devotion to his duties and high morality, worked together with Mandelshtam and in his sphere for about forty years.  They met in Strasbourg, where they began their common research under Brown's guidance.  From that time on, their deep friendship and scientific collaboration, let us say their fates, were linked.  They went together from Strasbourg to St. Petersburg in 1914, and they continued to collaborate until Mandelshtam died in 1944, predeceasing Papalexi by only three years.  Their fates were even connected after their deaths, as we will see.

It was remarkable that most of the scientists who gathered around Mandelshtam and formed his scientific school were not only notable physicists but also people of great honesty with a high sense of civic responsibility.  I shall illustrate that here by a few distinctive events when the moral temper of some of those people was tested and made manifest.

In 1936, in the midst of Stalin's terror, when hundreds of thousands of people, among them thousands of scientists and engineers, were arrested and lost in the Gulag, one of the victims was the physicist and historian Boris Gessen, a professor of Moscow State University, a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences, and the vice-director of PhIAN.  Gessen was arrested in August and shot in December of that year.  One of Igor Tamm's most talented pupils, the physicist Semyon Shubin (see Chapter 9), and his brother, the chemical engineer Leonid Tamm, were also arrested that year.  They, too, died shortly thereafter in prison.  In 1956 Leonid Tamm and Boris Gessen were rehabilitated, according to the Soviet fashion.  But twenty years before that the Soviet authorities, and specifically the KGB, falsely condemned them as political enemies of the Soviet land, as traitors and saboteurs.  And the Soviet regime demanded that PhIAN endorse this barbarism by publicly repudiating Leonid Tamm and Boris Gessen.

For that purpose, in April 1937 a general meeting took place at PhIAN to discuss Gessen's case.3  Many people at that meeting voiced the official line, condemning Gessen and harshly criticizing the decision to name him vice-director of the institute.  Saying nothing against Gessen, Sergei Vavilov, the director of PhIAN, quietly took the blame for this decision and allowed that perhaps it was a mistaken one.  At this Grigoriy Landsberg spoke up and said that the blame for nominating Gessen as vice-director lay with him, and that he in no way regretted this because Gessen deserved the post.  He further said he did not believe in Gessen's guilt, that he had no evidence of such guilt, that anyone who said he possessed such knowledge was lying, and that he would not himself add to that lie.  "To try to pass over in silence any accusations against me constitutes a lie," he said. Repudiating his opponents' tactics of character assassination, he declared, "It is impossible to prove that you don't know anything".

For his part, Igor Tamm, who was a close friend of Gessen for many years, stoutly insisted, "I vouch for my brother.  I trust my brother.  I trust Gessen."  The honesty and bravery of Landsberg and Tamn were very perilous.  The Soviet regime considered such statements to be themselves tantamount to treason and might well have acted on that basis.  It also has to be appreciated what a critical time this was for the whole institute.  As director, Sergel Vavilov had to strive to defuse the incident and protect the institute from being totally hijacked by political decision-making.  By their actions these three men saved the institute and their own self-respect from a dangerously destructive attack.

Beginning in the late 1940s, Soviet attacks on "cosmopolitanism," as I discussed in Chapter 1, were mainly screens for the regime's anti-Semitism.  Jewish scientists were the biggest targets.  In 1948 the Minister of Higher Education organized a special committee for a forthcoming all-union (that is, all-USSR) conference of physicists to discuss how "Soviet patriotism" could defeat idealism, cosmopolitanism, and "non-Party science."  Idealism referred to the quantum mechanics of Schrödinger and the gravity theory of Einstein, which were criticized as not being matter-based theories and therefore as not being grounded in dialectical materialism, that is, in Marxism-Leninism.  Therefore, those theories of physics had to be wrong, and anyone who espoused them had to be against the Soviet system.  But most physicists, including those labeled as cosmopolites, doubted the applicability of dialectical materialism to theories in physics.

The reader can clearly see the absurdity of the regime's demands and statements.  But this was again a dangerous situation for physics research in the Academy of Sciences.  The physicists of Moscow State University zealously voiced the party line and attacked the physicists of the academy as idealists and cosmopolites.  Had the all-union conference taken place as scheduled, physics research in the Soviet Union might have suffered devastating damage.  Trofim Lysenko used an all-union conference of biologists to gain a stranglehold on biological research and to attack scientists who disagreed with his harebrained ideas.  Remember that Sergei Vavilov's brother Nikolai was one of Lysenko's victims.  Biological research in the USSR was derailed for a dozen years or more.  Even without an all-union conference, the "war" of physicists brought dreadful results. Let me tell about some of them connected with Mandelshtam, who was Jewish.

In 1949, in one such session of that special committee, physicists from Moscow State University accused Mandelshtam and Papalexi of being German spies.  The distinguished physicist Alexander Andronov said at that session, "There can be nothing but disgust toward that speech.  It was a dirty, trouble-making speech. The accusation of Papalexi and Mandelshtam of being German spies . . . is an unsubstantiated, slanderous accusation". During another session of the committee concerning cosmopolitanism, Landsberg spoke only about the necessity of good education in physics and about the significance of physics in general.  Andronov also spoke only about the lack of good teaching in physics and about the importance of good teachers, saying, "My teacher, the Russian physicist Mandelshtam, was a brilliant lecturer and teacher . . . [and] a great scientist."  He continued, "I did not make a slip when I said that Mandelshtam – he was a Jew – is a Russian physicist.  It seems that we have to consider it as the following. Composer Anton Rubinstein – a Jew – is a Russian musician.  Painter Levitan – a Jew – is a Russian artist, and Mandelshtam is a Russian physicist.  If any Jew tells me that Mandelshtam is a Jewish physicist, I shall reply to him that he, himself, is a Jewish nationalist.  If any Russian tells me that Mandelshtam is a Jewish physicist, I shall tell that Russian, that he is a Russian nationalist and chauvinist".    It was a clever and ironic speech against the origin of cosmopolitanism.

Fortunately, the all-union conference did not take place.  How it was canceled is not known.  Perhaps someone convinced Stalin that the meeting could be fatal for the atom bomb project.  It was said that Stalin's chief overseer on the atom bomb project, the KGB leader Lavrentiy Beriya, once asked the manager of that project, the academician Igor Kurchatov, "Is it true that relativity theory and quantum mechanics are idealism and they should be rejected?"  Kurchatov's reply was, "If we produce the atom bomb, its action will be based on both relativity theory and quantum mechanics.  If we reject them, we could reject the bomb". .  Perhaps Beriya told that to Stalin, who canceled the all-union conference.  In any case the horrible event did not take place.  But the campaign against cosmopolitanism continued.

That campaign included more attacks on the idealism of Mandelshtam, in particular, against volume 5 of his Collected Works, which contained lectures on quantum mechanics and relativity theory.  After a terrible scandal, that volume appeared in 1950  only because Sergei Vavilov rescued it.  But on 28 January 1952, roughly a year after Vavilov's early death, a session of physicists titled "On the subjective idealism of Mandelshtam" was convened.  And in 1953 a paper, "The philosophical mistakes of Mandelshtam," appeared in the journal Uspekbi Phizicheskikh Nauk. Furthermore, The Course of Physics, edited by Papalexi, Mechanics, by Semyon Khaikin, and some papers of other disciples of Mandelshtam were criticized as based on Mandelshtam's mistakes.

The board of directors of PhIAN and some of its senior members condemned the mistakes of Mandelshtam and organized a commission to examine the methodological problems of his works.  Igor Tamm gave a very hard speech against the philosophical accusation against Mandelshtam.  He and Grigoriy Landsberg said that the charges against Mandelshtam were in contradiction with many parts of his book.  In 1953, however, the commission duly condemned Mandelshtam at a session of PhIAN's scientific council.  Mikhail Leontovich immediately denounced the conclusions of the commission.  Among other things he said, "Well, Mandelshtam's opinions are not consistent from the point of view of dialectical materialism.  However, even more, they cannot be of that kind, and nobody gave them out to be so.  As for the problems connected with the basis of the relativity theory and quantum mechanics, I think that such a canonical point of view does not and cannot exist at present."  Regarding that commission he said, "It follows that the serious physicists of that commission are dealing with general philosophical problems and involuntarily gave way to the fetishism of words which characterizes many of the comrades who are philosophizing about physical problems. . . . I continue to think that it was to my credit to publish the fifth volume of Mandelshtam . . . some comrades of that commission were against it . . . the late Sergei Vavilov solidly supported it".  The statements of Leontovich were firm and brave indeed. The members of the commission simply denounced Leontovich's speech and published their conclusions against Mandelshtam.

With this I finish my brief remarks about the scientific school of Mandelshtam and some of the attacks on it.  Those physicists were both distinguished scientists and people of high moral and civic responsibility.  Above I spoke of my dismay at the behavior of some other notable Soviet physicists both in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when it was necessary to manifest civic courage to defend freedom and truth, and at this crucial time for Russia, a time of transition when it is no longer dangerous to manifest human self-respect and civic responsibility.  Nobody will now be arrested and sent to the Gulag for that.

To speak again about such disappointing events is, in a sense, to force an open door.  In the end, the different civic and moral behaviors of people reveal basic differences in human temperament and character.  Unfortunately, during recent years more than a few physicists, particularly those who fled Russia after collapse of the USSR, have shown that they do not care about their civil duties.  They put their own interests above everything. What is unforgivable is that in public talks and publications these physicists misrepresent the sad pages of history of Soviet physics.  Such people exasperated Mandelshtam.


The text above is chapter 16 in Making Waves: stories from my life, the autobiography of Yakov Al'pert. 

1 – L. I. Mandelshtam, Complete Works (Moscow: Publishing House of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1948-1955); S. M. Rytov and M. A. Lcontovich, eds., Academician L. I. Mandelshtam: The Centenary of His Birth (Moscow: Nauka, 1979); N. D. Papalexi, Complete Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Publishing House of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., 1948).  Back to text

2 – The quotations from Mandelshtam's colleagues are taken from the volumes published in his and Papalexi's honor, Bulletin de L'Académie des Sciences de L'UR.S.S., Série Physique 9, nos. 1 and 2 (1945), 12., no. 1 (1948).  Back to text

3 – The quotations used in connection with this episode are from A. S. Sosin, Physical Idealism (Moscow: Publishing House of Physical-Mathematical Literature, 1994).  Page references appear in the text.  Back to text