Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
The Nobel laureate 2003 Vitaliy Ginzburg
                     From an 04.02.04 broadcast on the Russian TV channel from the "Avtoritet [Authority]" 
                     series with Dmitriy Kiselev. The text was rewritten from a tape recording and supplied
                     with explanations received from V.L. Ginzburg by the website editor.

Kiselev. Jewish, married to a victim of repression, he became a creator of a hydrogen bomb. In 2003 Academician Vitaliy Ginzburg received the Nobel Prize for work in superconductivity and superfluidity. He does not believe in God but believes in Russian science. And he is an authority in it.
Vitaliy Lazarevich, you're not ashamed to say that that you spent 4 indifferent years in school until you wrote with mistakes1. You're not embarrassed that with such statements you give arguments to schoolchildren who don't want to study, skip their lessons, and tell their parents: "Ginzburg became a Nobel laureate, and I'll be one too".

Ginzburg. That is, can you nothing and become a laureate? No, such an expression never even entered my head. I'm saying this and I stress the opposite: to point out how damaging and impermissible it is to neglect education. In my case this was not my fault. My parents made some oversight and send me only to grade 4. One needs to study all the time and a good education is a guarantee of the success of our country. If there is no good education - primary, secondary, and higher - then there will not be a good future for our country. That's my point of view.

K. And so your legacy to youth is to study, study, study?

G. Yes, absolutely.

K. Now the term, "A Knowledge-Based Society", has appeared. This is an international term. How do you interpret it? Do we actually have a society based on knowledge and not on something else?

G. Although it's no secret that I am 88 (I was born in 1916), I remember how, I believe, I first heard a radio broadcast using a crystal receiver in 1924. I stuck in some crystal and something was audible. Radio broadcasting was at a rudimentary stage and no one was thinking about television. But look what we have now. All this is the fruit of science and the development of knowledge. So in this sense the formula "study, study, study" is unquestionably correct. And I think that only ungrateful and incompetent people, and there are such [people], can shout that science is bad and impedes human society.

K. I want to quote to you the words of Deputy Minister of Education of Russia, Leonid Grebnev. He stated at a recent practical science conference, "The Study of Orthodox Culture in Secular Schools": "The search for the meaning of life is a religious search. When a child thinks of the meaning of life it's necessary for the school tell him: science will never give you an answer; don't look for the answer in textbooks. There are other, sacred texts and people who lived by them long ago".

G. This is ridiculous, of course. Right now we have a deep misunderstanding of the role of religion, and its place and importance in society. Religion arose in ancient times. I am not a theologian and do not claim deep knowledge in this sphere but I understand that this is the result of fear and Man's defenselessness in the face of what is done in nature and society. Times are quite different now but man is afraid all the same. I also experience fear toward my not so bright future inasmuch as I am an old man. But I cannot believe in God. It is absolutely clear that Man's future is in the development of science. That is another matter....I'll tell you something interesting, if you want. Some days ago I heard on the radio that the Americans were asked, "Would you for an atheist for president?" And a majority said that they would not. And why? Because somehow a believer is more reliable and there is less chance that he will turn out to be a swindler and a scoundrel.

K. But is that not so?

G. In some sense, yes. I remembered a story which happened to me long ago. They once made an exception and let me go to England for a conference on the theory of relativity. I was a Soviet person brought up in atheism and thought that everyone in the world was an atheist and somehow underestimated the role of religion in the Western world, which is also strong now. And walking with one well-known specialist in the theory of relativity I blurted out something anti-religious. This person got upset and said: [in English] "I am a Roman Catholic". I apologized, of course and then said that I was actually thinking: "If I were Robinson Crusoe and they offered me the choice of two Fridays, an atheist and a believer, I would choose the believer because there was less chance that he would kill me at night with an ax"2. But the words of Dostoevsky "If there is no God, then everything is permitted" are absurd. Does a person who does not believe in God really have to be a scoundrel, a murderer? No, of course not.

K. Vasiliy Rozanov replied to Dostoevsky. At the beginning of the 20th century he proposed this version of an answer: "If there is no God then everything is still not permitted because then the Lord God is not responsible for everything, but you yourself".

G. A brilliant answer.

K. By the way, the concept of non-religious ethics appeared recently. Until then we spoke of religion as the basis of ethics. Globalization, lumping representatives of various religions together or joining them in one office, proposes the creation of a certain non-religious ethic. People ought to agree with one another and understand that this is good and that is evil, beyond the bounds of their cultures and religions. One can assume that people of science have advanced further in a non-religious ethic and possible before others. If this is so, then can you formulate the precepts of non-religious ethics?

G. In a certain sense the precepts of religious ethics also reflect non-religious ethics to one degree or another. It is clear that it is not necessary to kill people. I don't remember all the precepts by heart but it is clear that religious people have essentially accumulated something of common human value and taken this on themselves. If you reject the religious component you will have this all the same. It is clear that any cultured person has these norms. It is absurd, as Rozanov correctly said, that this is closely tied to religion.

K. But what about love? Does it have a divine origin all the same?

G. I don't know what this means. Where is God in this? I don't see any role for God in this matter.

K. They say that "marriages are made in heaven".

G. This is nonsense.

K. Well then what is love for you without God?

G. Love for a person, love for a woman....It's understood what this love is. Some I love, others I don't. This is what human society is. I don't see any component here that is connected to religion. I simply absolutely don't understand this.

K. But if we return to Leonid Grebnev, then he insists that the subject of "The Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture" be introduced in Russian schools.

G. That's out of the question. I am no specialist but in my opinion they are confusing entirely different things. Religion has played an enormous role in the life of human society. For example, all old art cannot be understood as it ought to be without knowing the Bible. Therefore no normal person would argue against children becoming familiar with both the content of the Bible and various legends. But I suspect that they want to teach that what is in the Bible is the truth so that children believe all this. But this is incompatible with a scientific education and world view. Children will think that Man arose 5,000-10,000 years ago, although in fact homo sapiens has been around 100,000 years and life began on Earth billions of years ago. And the Universe has been developing for billions of years. It is impermissible for children not to receive scientific information, but it is obvious that they should get knowledge about the cultures of past ages. It is absurd to deny the role of the Bible and religious faiths in the past. I want to show this to you with the example of astrology. I have been fighting astrology as a pseudoscience but I understand that it was not a pseudoscience 400-500 years ago because the concept of the influence of the positions of the planets on human life then did not conflict with known science. Therefore it was natural that they understood this way, but now we know that this is absurd. An experiment was conducted and I believe it was called "time twins". It seems that they took several thousand (I don't remember the number) people in the entire world who were born simultaneously to the minute and second and followed their subsequent lives. From the point of view of astrology since they were born at the same moment it meant that their fates should have been the same. But in reality there turned out to be no correlation. And there are a mass of such experiments. So it is nonsense, it has been proven that, first, with the aid of physics and, second, with such statistics.

K. Well, this is one of the versions of pseudoscience. Russia and the Soviet Union suffered from it. One can cite the most vivid examples.

G. Many are shouting now about Nobel prizes. The impression exists that we have been treated badly, you see. But in the first place we have treated ourselves badly.

K. We ourselves are guilty that we were not given these prizes?

G. How can they be given? Take Nikolay Vavilov, for example. The brilliant geneticist died in prison in 1943. Incidentally, although this is not relevant to the matter, [he died] in the same cell and at the same time as my father-in-law3. And so many scientists were persecuted, and science was crushed. Why? Because of the obscurantist Lysenko and his crooks like Prezent who supported him. Stalin and Khrushchev thought they understood what genetics was and shut its mouth. But why is our physics in good condition? Because I am talking with you right now and my bones are not lying somewhere in the ground.

K. The bomb?

G. Yes, only thanks to it. Otherwise I would unquestionably not be here.

K. But you loved Stalin?

G. You know, this is not about love, of course. But I am sorry and regret that for a long time I did not understand his role. He managed to mask himself. My wife was in prison until I married her. She was exiled. I know from her first-hand what the NKVD and all that was. And I thought that Stalin himself was good but that someone was committing all the outages behind his back. It was an enormous blindness.


K. What was then patriotism for you.

G. And what I have now, patriotism. I was born in this country, my native language is Russian. And naturally I want the country where I live to be good so that people are satisfied and content.

K. On one hand, you consider freedom and democracy a condition for effective scientific exploration but, on the other, you once said that if not for the Soviet Union with its restrictions then probably you would have not reached such scientific heights. Then there was nothing else in which to engage, nothing to distract [us], and we engaged in science.

G. We really worked with enormous enthusiasm. It was the Cold War, they didn't let us go abroad, it was impossible to be published in English or to send articles abroad, journals were destroyed, etc. After Stalin's death and especially after the 20th [CPSU] Congress they began to gradually restore all this. And right in about 1957 a large group of foreign physicists came to us. And we "danced" around them and were overjoyed although we didn't lag behind them yet. So one of them, a famous person, I won't name him, returned to the US and wrote: "I don't understand. They live badly, and in their place we Americans, I don't know what we would do, but they work with enthusiasm. Why? They don't have anything more". For a long time I thought that this was more or less accurate. We actually lived badly. But, in the first place, physicists were...The prestige was great and generally everything went to this. And I understood that this is not completely right, for example now. How do the same physicists and other scientific workers live in our country now? There are a mass of shortcomings, low wages, and all such things. But we live incomparably better than we lived in those times. This is obvious. When we lived in Kazan' after evacuation our water began to freeze in the room. But I worked day and night because there was enthusiasm. Then the prestige of science and love for it played a great role. In some sense you felt yourself on the leading edge4.

K. And now? You say that you know the prescription for overcoming the brain drain. What is it?

G. The prescription is extraordinarily simple. We need to increase the pay of scientific workers with a sufficiently good selection. And it is impermissible for a person in our country to study completely without restrictions and then be able to quietly leave to go abroad. This [is done] nowhere, and in America, too. There they need to either pay a lot of money for education, especially in the most prestigious universities, or...they understand that in America not everyone has the money, not everyone is rich. Then they only give you a chance at an education but you must either return the money which was spent on you or work it off for a period of time. We need to do the same thing. But conditions are needed. If you want him to remain then you have to offer him an apartment. But not to own, an official one, as we have always lived. You have to give him a salary so that he can start a family. Of course, if he is hungry and poor he has the right to leave. If all this is organized then there will be no brain drain.

K. Everyone knows that a current traveling along a conductor without resistance at room temperature is the dream of Academician Vitaliy Ginzburg.

G. But it still has not yet been realized.

K. Yes, but you believe that this will happen some day?

G. The word "believe" is not appropriate here. I know and do not see the obstacles to this but I don't know how to do it. There was the same situation with high-temperature superconductivity until 1986. But it turned out that we found it. Right now we can cool with liquid nitrogen. If we managed to cool with water then there would be a colossal revolution in electrical technology.

K. And what will happen to our life?

G. Enormous savings. For right now energy goes into heat, into the atmosphere. It would be much more efficient.

K. Does the entire economy have to be restructured and replaced?

G. In some sense, it will have to gradually change. What kind of fool would transmit electrical energy with losses if it were possible without loss?

K. It seems to me that earlier scientists were more in demand in the public arena. Both in our country and in America. A well-known example: one of the founding fathers of the US, Benjamin Franklin, the author of the Declaration of Independence5, was interested in physics and lightning, and even invented the lightning rod. But now they come to politics from other fields6. Reagan came from the acting profession. What, scientists have become less in demand?

G. It is hard for me to answer that question. But there is one element which is being understood incorrectly. Of the two systems of education and scientific work, ours and the American, ours is much worse. How is scientific work conducted in the US, especially in the fundamental, more abstract fields? It is mainly concentrated in universities. There a professor (and it is hard to become one, as in the good universities the competition is fierce, of course) has teaching responsibilities, although it is true with not so great a workload since if you work the whole day then you won't do any science. He does useful work and receives some kind of grant. In addition, there are a certain number of national laboratories. With us, historically from the time of Peter the Great and the Soviet period things have developed so that everything fundamental has been mainly concentrated in the Academy of Sciences, which has been turned into a sort of Ministry of Science. Such a system is undoubtedly worse than the American system. But incompetent people, and there are many such people, wanted to simply destroy the Academy when the Soviet Union collapsed. It was supposedly reactionary, it was better in America, let's move science to the universities. This reminds me of the words of the Internationale: "We will destroy to the foundations, and then..." But then we will get nothing. It's impossible to act this way.

K. But did we didn't get nothing?

G. Yes, because they kept the Academy. This was a great service. I have worked in the Academy since 1940. But I am alone, so to speak, of its recognized critics. I have spoken at scientific meetings and talked about many of the shortcomings of the Academy of Sciences. They need to be corrected. But to destroy is not to build. If everything is obediently destroyed nothing good will come of it. What needs to be done (and it is already being done, I am hardly an oracle here)? It's necessary to gradually join the Academy with education and optimize. And if, as certain clever people demand, academic institutions are to be closed and everything sent to industry, then in a couple of years there will be nothing because industry is not prepared for this.

K. This is a very vital subject for Russia.

G. Very vital. Russia has every chance of remaining the great scientific power which it was and has been up to now. But more money is needed to do this. It can't be helped, in other countries they spend a large percentage of the budget for this since you don't get anything for free. And young people need to be provided for so that they don't leave.

K. Professor Abrikosov, who lives in the US and who shared the Nobel Prize with you, recently said that after such an award he had nothing more about which to dream. Is there anything about which Academician Ginzburg, who lives in Russia, dreams?

G. You know, I am of course very glad that they gave me the prize, but this does not need to be overvalued too much and to give this Prize very great importance, for they don't give it posthumously and many people who were quite deserving of it have already died. I have been lucky that I have remained so long-lived. Well what of it?

K. What do you dream about?

G. I dream first of all that my relatives are healthy, this is the main thing for me: my wife, daughter, two granddaughters, great-grandson, and great-granddaughter. And I want to be healthy myself. Up to now I have worked actively and, of course, do not want to be sick. That's all, I do not need any other special blessings. I have an apartment. No palaces, but if I were given enough money I would not move to the Cote d'Azur. My dacha, which I built with the Stalin Prize First Degree, is now the poorest in Novo-Dar'in, but it completely satisfies me. I don't need palaces.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

1 V. L.'s explanation: They sent me right to the 4th grade, but in 1931 when I had graduated the 7-year school, they just eliminated the complete secondary school (that is, grades 8 through 10). I studied in school normally, but not "indifferently". You can acquaint yourself with my biography at http://www.ufn.ru. My Nobel autobiography is there, written (together with the Nobel lecture) in accordance with a request of the Nobel committee".

2 From a letter from the editor of the site to V. L. Ginzburg:
"Allow me to share with you an idea connected with your following words in the conversation with D. Kiselev: "I apologized, of course and then said that I was actually thinking: "If I were Robinson Crusoe and they offered me the choice of two Fridays, an atheist and a believer, I would choose the believer because there was less chance that he would kill me at night with an ax". I of course understand that this what said with a bit of humor but...I am afraid that our clerical opponents will like your words, which you as an atheist obviously would not like. And ordinary believers will see in them your highly authoritative approval of their faith: "Even such a convinced atheist would prefer the company of our brother believer". In order to preclude the possibility of interpreting your words that way I propose to give the following explanation in a footnote (in your name or mine): The mention of Friday is no accident for he is a person with primitive thinking, almost primordial. Of two primitive people the person who fears divine punishment is the less dangerous. It is another matter if the candidates for Friday are civilized people who have received a good upbringing, but one's is clerical and the other's is religious. Which of them would be more of a friend to an atheist in Robinson's place? Hardly the believer".
Since there were no objections to this footnote from V. L. we provide it here.

3 V. L.'s explanation: "My father-in-law died in Saratov prison at exactly the same time as N. I. Vavilov and, it seems, in the same cell".

4 V. L.'s explanation: "I am not generalizing about everyone but it is a fact that there are fewer enthusiasts now. In Stalin's time and later the active work of physicists (and probably, many others) was undoubtedly connected with the prestige of science to a considerable degree".

5 Translator's comment: in fact, Thomas Jefferson was the author.

6 Translator's comment: however, by profession, Franklin was a printer, not a scientist.

Translated by Gary Goldberg

top