Pyotr Kapitsa Biography

(Soviet Physicist and Winner of 1978 Nobel Prize for His Basic Inventions and Discoveries in Low-Temperature Physics)

Birthday: July 8, 1894 (Cancer)

Born In: Kronstadt, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Pyotr Kapitsa was a leading Soviet physicist who was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1978. Known for his notable contributions to knowledge of atomic structures and understanding of strong magnetic fields at extremely low temperatures, he also conducted a series of experiments to study liquid helium, leading to the discovery of its superfluidity. Born in the Russian Empire during the late 19th century, he grew up in a politically tumultuous environment. He was a meritorious student but his studies were interrupted when the World War I broke out and the boy was forced to work as an ambulance driver for two years on the Polish front. He returned to his studies and graduated from the Petrograd Polytechnical Institute following which he moved to Britain for his higher studies and scientific career. He spent over a decade working in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, England, where he focused on experiments in nuclear physics and constructed a microradiometer. After he returned to Russia on a visit in the mid-1930s, he was forbidden by Stalin's government to travel back to Great Britain. Thus he spent the rest of his career in Russia and continued his groundbreaking work which eventually earned him a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics 1978.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Pyotr Leonidovich Kapitsa

Died At Age: 89


Spouse/Ex-: Anna Alekseevna Krylova

father: Leonid Petrovich Kapitsa

mother: Olga Ieronimovna Kapitsa

Engineers Physicists

Died on: April 8, 1984

place of death: Moscow, Russia

Notable Alumni: Peter The Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University

City: Saint Petersburg, Russia

More Facts

education: Trinity College, Cambridge, Peter The Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University

awards: FRS (1929)
Faraday Medal (1942)
Franklin Medal (1944)

Lomonosov Gold Medal (1959)
Rutherford Medal and Prize (1966)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1978)

Childhood & Early Life
Pyotr Leonidovich Kapitsa was born on 8 July 1894 in Kronstadt, Russian Empire to parents Leonid Petrovich Kapitsa and Olga Ieronimovna Kapitsa. His father was a military engineer who constructed fortifications while his mother worked in high education and folklore research.
He was studying at A.F. Ioffe's section of the Electromechanics Department of the Petrograd Polytechnical Institute when the World War I broke out and interrupted his studies. He served as an ambulance driver for two years on the Polish front before resuming his studies and graduated in 1918.
Soon he became a lecturer at the Polytechnic Institute where he published several papers. He left the country in 1921 and went to Britain as a member of a scientific mission representing the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
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In Britain he met Ernest Rutherford who invited Kapitsa to work in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, England. The two men formed a productive partnership, marked by mutual respect and admiration for each other. Kapitsa’s initial experiments were in nuclear physics and he developed techniques for creating ultrastrong magnetic fields by injecting high current for brief periods into specially constructed air-core electromagnets.
He served as Assistant Director of Magnetic Research at Cavendish Laboratory from 1924 to 1932. In 1928 he discovered the linear dependence of resistivity on magnetic field for various metals in very strong magnetic fields. He also served as Director of the Royal Society Mond Laboratory from 1930 to 1934.
His final years at Cavendish were dedicated to low temperature research and he developed a new and original apparatus for the liquefaction of helium based on the adiabatic principle in 1934. The same year he went on a regular visit to Russia but Stalin’s government forbade him from returning to Britain and asked him to continue his work in the Soviet Union.
The scientist protested at being forcibly retained in Russia, but he was appointed director of the specially established Institute of Physical Problems in Moscow in 1935 in an attempt to pacify him. He resumed his work and in the late 1930s he discovered the fact that helium II (the stable form of liquid helium below 2.174 K, or −270.976 °C) has almost no viscosity (i.e., resistance to flow)—a phenomenon known as “superfluidity.’
During the World War II Kapitsa was assigned to head the Department of Oxygen Industry attached to the USSR Council of Ministers. In 1939 he developed a new method for liquefaction of air with a low-pressure cycle using a special high-efficiency expansion turbine.
He was appointed to the special committee entrusted with the construction of the Soviet atomic bomb in 1945. However problems arose between Kapitsa and the committee’s political chairman, Lavrenty Beria, which in turn led to tensions between the scientist and Stalin. As a result Kapitsa was dismissed from all of his official appointments, except membership in the Academy of Sciences.
Stalin died in 1953 following which Beria was ousted by Nikita Khrushchev, who gradually restored Kapitsa’s academic (but not government) positions. Kapitsa reclaimed the directorship of the Institute of Physical Problems and retained it until his death.
Over the course of his career Kapitsa taught for several years at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. He was also a member of the presidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences from 1957 until his death.
Major Works
Pyotr Kapitsa discovered superfluidity in liquid helium in 1937. His works in this field ultimately won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978. He also developed a new method for liquefaction of air with a low-pressure cycle using a special high-efficiency expansion turbine.
Awards & Achievements
He was recipient of Medal for Merits in Science and to Mankind of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (1964), International Niels Bohr Medal of Dansk Ingeniørvorening (1964), and Rutherford Medal of the Institute of Physics and Physical Society (1966).
Pyotr Kapitsa was awarded one half of the Nobel Prize in Physics 1978 "for his basic inventions and discoveries in the area of low-temperature physics." The other half jointly went to Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson "for their discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation."
Personal Life & Legacy
Pyotr Kapitsa married twice in his life. His first wife and two small children died in the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918–19. He remarried Anna Alekseevna Krylova, daughter of applied mathematician A.N. Krylov, in 1927. The couple had two sons.
He died on 8 April 1984 at Moscow, Soviet Union. He was 89 at the time of his death.

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