What led you into science and your chosen area of research?
I took part in physics and mathematics olympiads for pupils of school age, won prizes there for physics and mathematics, sat for graduation exams on an individual program at 16 years of age and in 1947 was accepted as freshman at the physics department of Moscow University on the strength of an admission interview. In my last student year I worked on quantum field theory and wrote a large paper under the supervision of Dmitrii Ivanovich Blokhintsev that was accepted for publication by ZhETP. On graduation (1953) I began to work with Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg on the Ginzburg-Landau theory of superconductivity and on comparing it with the experimental data obtained by N.V. Zavaritsky. In 1954 I was able to find a position at IZMIRAN with Yakov Lvovich Alpert who supervised my work on nonlinear phenomena in the ionosphere; I still continue working on it. The first significant step forward in this field was a review paper by myself and V.L. Ginzburg for Uspekhi in 1960; nowadays I can regard my 2007 paper, also for Uspekhi, as a sum total of my work for the last 30 years. After that review, I worked in many fields: the kinetic theory of gas flow around a sputnik, kinetics and nonlinear dynamics of low-density plasma, dynamics of dark matter (large-scale structure of the Universe), problems of controlled thermonuclear fusion, physics of pulsars, theory of propagation of radio waves, and many others. All the same, nonlinear phenomena remain to be one of my “favorite” fields!
Can you describe the results in your paper and their importance for your field?
The prediction of runaway breakdown was made in 1991 while in the United States during my month’s stay at Los Alamos (at the Albuquerque airport, to be precise); with my coauthors G.M. Milikh and R. Roussel-Dupree I published it in Physics Letters A in 1992. In this paper we predicted for the first time a new and fascinating physical phenomenon: electric breakdown by runaway electrons (RB). Electric breakdown by runaway electrons is accompanied by a powerful gamma-ray flash. In 1994 Compton Gamma Ray Observatory detected for the first time powerful gamma-ray flashes from the Earth that were identified as produced by discharges of high-altitude lightning. This theory and the experiment were later widely recognized; the problem still deserves attention and continues to be researched vigorously (see e.g. Physics Today 2005 or Scientific of American 2005 and 2008).
What research projects are you working on at the moment?
As a rule, I am busy with several topics simultaneously. At the moment I try to initiate work on setting new RB experiments in a natural environment (at the FIAN high-altitude research station in the Tyan-Shan mountains), on the dedicated satellite Chibis to be launched in collaboration with the Space Research Institute, and on setting a large-scale laboratory experiment at the FIAN. Furthermore, I work with Ya.N. Istomin and V.S. Beskin on an explanation of a new phenomenon in the physics of pulsars: a quasiperiodical “switching off” of pulsars radio emission discovered in 2007. However, the project of maximum interest for me at the moment is our effort together with K.P. Zybin, V.A. Sirota and A.S. Ilyin to tackle the problem of long standing in the theory of developed (Kolmogorov) turbulence (see ZhETP 2007 and 2008 and also Phys. Rev. Lett. 2008). We were able to make a decisive step towards solving this important problem and I wish to emphasize the contribution that K.P. Zybin made to solving it.
What do you think will be the next big breakthrough in your field?
I work in various areas of physics but in my opinion, a “breakthrough” is precisely something that CANNOT BE PREDICTED NOW! Otherwise it would not classify as “breakthrough”!
What book are you reading right now?
I can only afford to read fiction either during vacations or when I am slightly ill. Recently, having a bit of flu, I read an excellent novel “French leutenant’s woman” by John Fowles and A.S. Pushkin’s notes on the history of Peter the First.
If you could have dinner with any 3 people, past or present, who would they be and why?
The world was and is full of interesting personalities. In my very concrete life I deal with aspects of science and daily life and discuss them with my closest colleagues who surround me. I have my dinners with them, cannot even imagine a different sort of dinner! I could not choose three people from the past history – I am interested in many more people than three.
What has been the most exciting moment in your career so
am constantly immersed in my research. The completion of a project – i.e. preparation of the final paper – creates a special sort of excitement and tension. However, once a paper is published, it leaves no emotional trace: I live in the problems of the current day, in new programs, new projects, in specific research work. Various personal impressions, team trekking vacations, sports (e.g. alpine skiing) have more profound emotional impact and stay in memory longer. Alas, they too fade with time.
What would you like to say in connection with the 90th anniversary of “Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk” journal?
I am very fond of the journal Uspehi fizicheskikh nauk, and published at least 15 review papers in it; I hope to continue this tradition!