Lev Landau: ‘Beware, he bites!’

A name known to few outside of Academic circles, Lev Landau has slipped under the radar of popular science, in an age where Physics has had its poster-boys (and girls): Einstein, Feynmann, Curie et al. Yet, among his peers he was held in such high esteem that after being hospitalised by a car accident in 1962, 87 of his former colleagues and students banded together to deliver a round-the-clock watch over him bedside. It is said that at any given time, one would find at least 8-10 cars parked waiting outside the hospital, urgently awaiting news of how ‘Dau’ was. The injuries sustained from this same car accident would later prevent Landau from  accepting the Nobel prize in Physics that same year, for ‘his pioneering theories for Condensed Matter, especially liquid helium’.

Lev Landau (year taken unknown)

Lev Davidovich Landau was born to Jewish parents in Baku, Azerbaijan (then apart of the Russian Empire) in 1908. From a young age he displayed potential beyond his years, undertaking studies in Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry at the local university at the tender age of 14! Through his early adult years he found himself at some of the most prestigious academic institutes for the Physical sciences in the world including Cambridge, Göttingen and the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.

His reputation proceeded him, often described as being as fierce and fiery as he was gifted as a Physicist and Mathematician. Whilst teaching at Kharkov State University in Ukraine, he devised an exam entitled ‘The Theoretical Minimum’; a set of questions he considered the bare minimum for someone to become a student under him. Over the course of 27 years, only 43 people passed this test, a testimony to the high standard to which he held scientific work. It was during his time at another Ukrainian institution that the sign on the door of his office [in]famously read ‘L. Landau: Beware, he bites!’.

Landau famously ranked Physicists on a logarithmic scale; based on ‘productivity’; from 0-5, highest to lowest respectively. Isaac Newton headed the list with a firm ‘0’. Einstein earned a ‘0.5’, with a ‘1’ being awarded to those considered the founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics (Dirac, Heisenberg, Bohr and Schrödinger). First ranking himself humbly as a 2.5, he later awarded himself so kindly a ‘2’…


A cartoon of Lev Landau with students, by A. A. Yuzefovich. (Taken from ‘Course of Theoretical Physics Vol. 1’ by L. Landau, E. M. Lifshitz, Pub. Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann)

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