Lev V. Altshuler (1913-2003)

Lev Vladimirovich Altshuler

On December 23, 2003 Professor Lev Altshuler, reknowned scientist and one of the founders of the study of condensed matter under extremely high pressures and temperatures achieved with shock compression, died at the age of 90. Altshuler was a pioneer of the Soviet Atomic Bomb Project, a laureate of three State Prizes of the Soviet Union (1946, 1949, 1953), winner of the Lenin Prize in 1962, and the Prize of the Government of Russia in 1999. He attended several AIRAPT conferences in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1991 Altshuler received the Shock Compression Science Award of the American Physical Society "in recognition of seminal and major contributions in the development of the field of shock wave compression of condensed matter." Altshuler believed strongly that research for national defense should be firmly based on scientific research. As he himself put it in his recent memoirs, "At Arzamas-16, science not only served defense, but defense served science as well". As demonstration of this point, he is an author of over 60 publications in the scientific literature. In the 1950s he began publishing papers on equations of state at pressures up to 1 TPa (10 Mbar) obtained with impactor velocities up to 15 km/s, twice the velocity obtained with a two-stage gun and three times the velocity obtained with plane-wave explosive systems, which are used in the United States. Altshuler’s data remains today a standard of excellence, as much as 50 years after the experiments were performed.

For almost half a century American researchers were not sure how such a large impact velocity was achieved. Finally in 1996 the experimental design was declassified and published. High impact velocities were generated by convergence in hemispherical systems driven by high explosives. This method was used to generate unique equation-of-state data for a wide variety of materials, which essentially became the new scientific discipline called the physics of high energy density.

In addition to measuring equation-of state data for many elements and compounds over a very wide range of pressures and temperatures, Altshuler demonstrated that shock compression could be used as a tool for other physical research as well. Altshuler and his colleagues obtained high-temperature boiling-point curves; produced strongly nonideal plasmas, discovered previously unknown changes in electronic structures of metals, investigated shock-induced phase transformations and studied a number of other phenomena that occur at extremely high pressures.

Altshuler was born in Moscow in 1913. He began his career in 1932 when he began to work in the X-ray Laboratory of the Machine Building Institute in Moscow. His life-long friends Veniamin Tsukerman and Vitalyi Ginzburg also worked in this institute. Ginzburg won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2003. Altshuler entered Moscow State University in 1934 and graduated in 1936. In 1940 he was summoned to the Soviet Army as an aviation mechanic and participated in the war up to 1942 when he was called back from the front to
work in the Academy of Sciences. At that time he became acquainted with Yulii Khariton and Yakov Zel’dovich. Together with Tsukerman he developed pulsed X-radiography which provided a real-time diagnostic of the strong effects of a shaped-charge jet striking tank armor. For this work they both were awarded their first State Prize in 1946. That same year Yulii Khariton, Scientific Director of Arzamas-16, invited them to join the Soviet Atomic Project and asked them to diagnose experimentally what happens to metal placed inside an explosive system. From 1946-1969 Altshuler worked in the Russian Nuclear Center
Arzamas-16 located in the city of Sarov. Today this Institute is called the All-Russia Research Institute of Experimental Physics (VNIIEF). His experimental work at VNIIEF was carried out in close cooperation with Yakov Zel’dovich, Andrei Sakharov and other prominent scientists.

In 1969 he became Head of a Laboratory in the Institute of Optical-Physical Measurements in Moscow. In 1989 he became a Chief Scientific Researcher in the Institute for High Energy Densities of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He felt responsible for the development of shock compression research, contributed much to the education of students, and was always ready and willing to help his successors. Altshuler is a coeditor of the book Shock Waves and Extremal States of Matter published in 2000.

In recent years Altshuler wrote about the history of the Soviet Atomic Project, including articles entitled "The Lost World of Khariton" and "Next to Sakharov". He published an article entitled "To restore historical fairness" in the September 20, 2003 issue of the newspaper “Izvestia", which is an appeal to mark the approaching 100th anniversary of the birth of Yulii Khariton by naming the Russian Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov after Khariton who was its Scientific Director for almost 5 decades.

Altshuler always had his own independent positions on questions in political and public life and he was not bashful about expressing them. In 1951 during Stalin's regime he told an important government commission that he disagreed with the Communist Party’s political position on biology, that Lysenko, a protege of Stalin, was illiterate, and that real biological science is represented by genetics not Lysenko. Dire consequences would normally follow such public statements. However, Tsukerman, Sakharov, Khariton, and Zababakhin interceded on Altshuler’s behalf and prevented his banishment from Arzamas. At meetings of his Department, Altshuler did not hesitate to express his disagreement with the official Communist Government position with regards to events in Hungary in 1956, to the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, etc. In 1969 the resentment of the Arzamas-16 Communist Party chiefs resulted in their refusal to support Altshuler’s nomination to the Academy of Sciences. Their support was required even though Altshuler had never been a member of the Communist party. Altshuler then left Arzamas-16 for Moscow and never returned.

(Contributed by Boris L. Altshuler, Vladimir E. Fortov, William J. Nellis)

altshuler.pdf26.97 KB