From Physics Today: “Vadim Gorsky, a forgotten physics pioneer”

Physics Today bloc

Physics Today

13 Jul 2017
Olivier Hardouin Duparc, École Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France
Alexander Krajnikov, Mational Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kiev

The brilliant Soviet physicist was executed by Stalin’s secret police after resigning in protest over the dismissal of a prominent colleague.


Vadim Gorsky is at right in this photograph of staff at the Leningrad Physics and Technology Institute. Ivan Obreimov, who ran the lab at which Gorsky worked, is at center; George Gamow is seated next to him. Credit: Peter Kapitza Memorial Museum

Joseph Stalin’s “Great Terror” cost the lives of many innocent people, including physicists. One often overlooked victim is Vadim Sergeevich Gorsky, who in 1937 was arrested and subsequently executed by Stalin’s People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or the NKVD. Gorsky was a pioneer in the field of phase transition who laid the foundation for the Gorsky-Bragg-Williams approximation. He also proposed what’s now known as the Gorsky effect to describe diffusion under stress.

Gorsky (or Gorskiĭ, according to the rather arbitrary transliteration of Вадим Горский) was born on 1 May 1905 in Gatchina, 45 km south of St Petersburg, which was renamed Petrograd in 1914 and Leningrad in 1924. In 1922 Gorsky began working in a lab run by Ivan Obreimov at Petrograd’s Polytechnic Institute (later renamed the Leningrad Physics and Technology Institute). Six years later Gorsky published a paper in German on an x-ray investigation of transformations in a copper–gold alloy. It is there that the atomic mean-field analysis of order–disorder transformation in metallic alloys appeared for the first time. In the approximation, the potential energy of an individual atom is assumed to depend only on the average degree of chemical order throughout the entire system, rather than on the actual chemical configuration of its neighboring atoms. Statistical thermal analysis is then applied to estimate the evolution of the average degree of chemical order as a function of temperature. Gorsky only considered the CuAu stoichiometry with equal atomic concentration; Lawrence Bragg and Evan James Williams broadened the scope in 1934–35, and the Gorsky-Bragg-Williams approximation was born. Bragg and Williams recognized Gorsky’s 1928 paper in 1935 but claimed that “the formula he obtains is incorrect.” That statement was rebutted in 1939 by Ralph Fowler and Edward Guggenheim, who in their book Statistical Thermodynamics wrote of the “approximation of Gorsky, and of Bragg and Williams.”

In 1930 Gorsky was appointed to lead x-ray structure analysis at a new physics and technology institute that was established in Kharkov, Ukraine, under the lead of Obreimov. Lev Shubnikov (profiled in Physics Today, December 1997, page 95) became head of the cryogenics department. Gorsky produced three more papers on the structure of ordered and partially ordered CuAu solid solutions. In 1935 he published a theory regarding disordered solid solutions that’s now known as the Gorsky effect. The phenomenon is best illustrated using Gorsky’s own words: “Let us consider a substitutional solid solution of two kinds of atoms with different atomic radii. If we bend such a crystal, it is very natural that the large atoms will diffuse into the stretched layers, and the small atoms into the compressed layers until an equilibrium implying a concentration gradient is reached.”

The Kharkov institute’s theoretical-physics department was led by Lev Landau, who along with many of his colleagues also taught at Kharkov State University. A first-rank theoretician, Landau was also a very good professor—his colleagues called him “The Teacher” (see the article by I. M. Khalatnikov, Physics Today, May 1989, page 34). But he was uncompromising with his students when it came to grading them. Some of them complained, and in late 1936, the chancellor of the university asked Landau to lower his grading standards. When Landau refused, he was “invited” to resign his professorship. Within the next two days, some of Landau’s colleagues, Gorsky among them, wrote applications for termination of their own contracts in solidarity.

The Soviet government, which had put a lot of money into the creation of the institute in Kharkov, immediately triggered repressions against those requesting termination. Several people from the institute were arrested, including Obreimov, Shubnikov, and Gorsky. Two of the arrested scientists agreed to present evidence that Landau was an unnecessarily tough professor, but Gorsky did not. He was promptly executed. He might have been shot on 8 November 1937, according to official documents released decades later, but there are rumors that he was killed later while being tortured in prison. He was 32 years old. No burial site is known. Shubnikov was shot very soon after Gorsky, as were Lev Rosenkevich and others. Obreimov was imprisoned but released in 1941.

Landau ended up moving to Moscow, where he was invited by Peter Kapitza to be head of the theoretical-physics department at the Institute for Physical Problems. The case of the NKVD against Gorsky, Shubnikov, and Rosenkevich was dismissed in 1956, during Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union. Landau wrote to the military prosecutor, “Gorsky was one of the brightest theoreticians in x-ray crystallography, and 20 years later we still have no equivalent to him.”

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