Wednesday, February 25, 2009

February 25: Lev Andreevich Artsimovich

Lev Andreevich Artsimovich
February 25, 1909 – March 1, 1973

Lev Artsimovich was a Soviet physicist, academician of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (1953), member of the Presidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (since 1957), and Hero of Socialist Labor (1969). Artsimovich worked on the field of nuclear fusion and plasma physics. He was known as "the father of the Tokamak", a special concept for a fusion reactor.

Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, member of the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences and Academician-Secretary of its Division of General Physics and Astronomy, President of the National Committee of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, delegate on the Council of the European Physical Society, President of the National Committee of Soviet Physicists, member of the Commission on disarmament problems of the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and member of the International Continuing Committee of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs - Artsimovich had for more than a decade played a pivotal role in the internal development of Soviet science and its growing international involvement.

Artsimovich's interests spanned many branches of physics including x-rays, slow neutron physics, interactions of fast electrons, positron annihilation, magnetic bremsstrahlung, ion and electron optics, electromagnetic isotope separation and gas discharges. For the last 20 years of his life, his main scientific interest was in the physics of high temperature plasmas. He invented the tokamak, the device that has come closest to demonstrating the feasibility of controlled thermonuclear (fusion) energy production. In 1955 an international collaboration started constructing the first Tokamak, but by 1970 only the Soviets were actively researching the concept. Nevertheless, although he often stated publicly that he was certain that the conditions for controlled thermonuclear reactions could be attained in the laboratory, he was equally certain that this would not happen in his lifetime - that it was still 10 to 20 years away - because the solution of a problem of such great technological difficulty could not be achieved without a better understanding of the basic physics of the processes involved.

But his interests in science far transcended the field of plasma physics. He was a major driving force in the Soviet Academy in support of research in high energy nuclear and particle physics and in various branches of modern astronomy and astro-physics, believing that only through deep and effective involvement in these frontier fields would Soviet science be able to achieve a position in the forefront of modern world science. He was a conscientious and devoted teacher, as proud of the popularity of his courses in plasma physics and ion optics as of his scientific achievements. As a science administrator, he fought a vigorous and continuing battle to break down the traditional system of control over science by the authoritarian "herr professor," insisting on mandatory early retirement of laboratory heads and the establishment of direct mechanisms for bringing young scientists into positions of authority as early as possible. Although still at the peak of his intellectual powers, he was preparing to step down as the director of his Institute when he died. In this respect he was scrupulously consistent with his own principles.

Lev Artsimovich was a kind and gentle man, but with a sharp, acerbic wit that could not tolerate fools, let alone knaves. He believed in the future, despite a short-range pessimism that was easily mistaken for cynicism on first encounter. He distrusted most politicians but believed that, in the long run, men of intelligence and good will everywhere would converge to bring sanity into the affairs of states. He was a loyal citizen of his country, but believed that it could learn a great deal from observing the rest of the world. He advocated open international contacts of all kinds as a basic good, not only because of the positive effect on international understanding and relations, but also because he could not conceive that others would not enjoy travel and variety as much as he did.

He is perhaps most famous in the field of fusion research for his quote responding to the question of when commercial fusion power would become available; he said "Fusion will be ready when society needs it."

The crater Artsimovich on the Moon is named after him.


  1. Ah yes. The tokamak. If it ever gets big enough to generate net power it will be uneconomical. Here is a fusion project whose economics and time scale (5 years to the first net power design) are more favorable:

    Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained
    Why hasn't Polywell Fusion been funded by the Obama administration?

  2. Thanks, M. Simon,

    I was not aware of Polywell Fusion. I like to see the link from older discoveries to current - and future - technologies.