A Problem From Hell: Russian G.U.L.A.G & the Extermination of Jewish Nuclear Intellectuals After Red October 1917
This book tells captivating stories of misadventures of two renowned theoretical physicists in the Soviet Union.
The first part is devoted to Friedrich (Fritz) Houtermans, an outstanding Dutch–Austrian–German physicist who was the first to suggest that the source of stars' energy is thermonuclear fusion, and also made a number of other important contributions to cosmo-chemistry and geochemistry.
In 1935, Houtermans, a German communist, in an attempt to save his life from Hilter's Gestapo, fled to the Soviet Union. He took up an appointment at the Kharkov Physico-Technical Institute, working there for two years with the Russian physicist Valentin P Fomin.
In the Great Purge of 1937, Houtermans was arrested in December by the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police, KGB's predecessor). He was tortured, and confessed to being a Trotskyist plotter and German spy, out of fear of threats against his wife Charlotte. However, Charlotte had already escaped from the Soviet Union to Denmark, after which she went to England and finally the USA. As a result of the Hilter–Stalin Pact of 1939, Houtermans was turned over to the Gestapo in May 1940 and imprisoned in Berlin.
The second part consists of two essays that narrate the life story of Yuri Golfand, one of the co-discoverers of supersymmetry, a major discovery in theoretical physics in the 20th century. In 1973, just two years after the publication of his seminal paper, he was fired from the Lebedev Physics Institute in Moscow. Because of his Jewish origin he could find no job. Under such circumstances, he applied for an exit visa to Israel, but his application was denied. Yuri Golfand became a refusnik and joined the Human rights movement, along with two other prominent physicists, Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov.
To earn his living, he had to do manual work, repeatedly being intimidated by KGB. Only 18 years later, shortly before the demise of the Soviet Union, did he obtain permission to leave the country, emigrating to Israel in 1990.
These personal life stories of two outstanding theorists are intertwined with the tragedies of the 20th century and make for compelling reading.
Book excerpt on physical, psychological torture given to GULAG inmates to break them into false confessions, consequently the excerpt below led to the discovery of plutonium:
"I entered the cell which contained a single piece of furniture a wooden bunk-bed. Immediately I was shocked. On the top bed laid a corpse. The man’s face was grey and the skin was so thin that one could see every bone under it. I was terrified. “Is it possible that they’ve become so cruel? That the degree of their mockery has reached the point of putting the dead and the living together?” That was my first thought after I saw his face.
After a while he opened his eyes. He stared at me with a look of expectation, hopeful I would bring him all kinds of news, which he needed so desperately.
“Are you new? I can tell by the way you walk, you move and you look,” he said in his broken Russian. He lifted himself up and offered his thin hand for a handshake. “My name is Fritz Houtermans, a German…a physicist…a former member of the communist party…former emigrant from Nazi Germany…former professor at the Institute of Physics in Kharkov…former human being—and who are you?”
He kept himself sane by doing number theory in his head. He found a proof that the equation a3+b3=c3 has no solution for non-vanishing integers. This is not trivial. The great eighteenth-century mathematician Leonhard Euler found a proof that was somewhat faulty. Houtermans describes his attempt.
First he tried to use matches to write on soap, but that did not work. He writes:
When I found on August 6th an elementary proof for Fermat’s famous problem for n=3, which I have learned since is essentially the same as Euler’s, by “descent infinite,” I got very excited about it, because I did not know Euler’s elementary proof to exist, and I applied to the People’s Commissar of the Ukraine to get paper and pencil. (I said I wanted to work out an idea of mine on a method of radioactivity which might be of economic importance.)
When my petition was not granted, I went on a hunger strike (only declining food, not water). I was alone in the cell then and succeeded in getting pencil and paper after 8 days of hunger strike, by which time I was very much weakened since I had been in a bad state when I started. I wrote a number of theorems."
Fritz's wife would escape to the United States and teach physics at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie New York. She died in 1993.
His companion Andrei Sakharov won the Nobel Peace Prize, his acceptance speech here.