Obituary: Professor Alexei Anselm

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The Independent Culture
ALEXEI ANSELM was one of the leading theoretical physicists in the Soviet Union. He was Director-General of the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute from 1992 until 1994 and Head of its Theory Division for 14 years. He had many British friends and colleagues.

Born in Leningrad in 1934, he was the only child of Andrei Anselm, Professor of Physics at Leningrad State University, and Irina Mochan, also a physicist. During the siege of Leningrad, the university was evacuated to Elabuga, 200 miles from Kazan along the Volga in the Tatar Republic, and Anselm was taken there with his mother by boat from Lake Ladoga. He recalled spending several weeks on the open deck of the boat: his mother refused to allow him to go to the disease-ridden decks below. Two boats travelled together but one was sunk. He survived both cholera and enemy action.

After the Second World War he returned to Leningrad, graduated in physics in 1956 and obtained his Candidate degree (the equivalent of a PhD) in theoretical physics in 1961. He took up a staff position at the prestigious Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in 1963 and then transferred to the Leningrad Nuclear Physics Institute (as it was then - Leningrad reverted to its former name St Petersburg in 1991), where he remained for the rest of his life. There, he and his colleagues built up a world-famous group in the quantum theory of elementary particles, a theory which deals with the fundamental properties of matter at the smallest (sub-nuclear) length scales. Anselm became Professor of Theoretical Physics at Leningrad State University in 1974.

Even before Anselm obtained his PhD it was obvious that he had exceptional talent. The leading figure in Soviet theoretical physics in the 1950s was Lev Landau, head of theoretical physics at Kapitsa's Institute of Physical Problems in Moscow. Landau considered that the constraints of quantum theory meant that the electric charge of the electron must vanish if probed at small enough distances since it was a particle with zero radius. Anselm in 1959 showed that this was not necessarily the case: quantum theories could exist for such point particles even when the coupling was not zero. Unfortunately this paper is not well known outside Russia and it took another 15 years before similar results were rediscovered in the West.

During the 1960s and early 1970s Anselm, together with his friend and collaborator Vladimir Gribov, established the Leningrad Nuclear Physics Institute as a major international centre for work on the high energy scattering of particles, using the complex angular momentum approach of the Italian Tullio Regge. Since it was impossible for most of that time for either Anselm or Gribov to leave the Soviet Union (Gribov was a Jew and Anselm was a half-Jew) many Western physicists visited Leningrad.

In 1980 Gribov left Leningrad for Moscow and soon after, Anselm replaced him as head of the Theory Division of the institute. He then worked on many topics within the "standard model of elementary particles" which generalises the electro-magnetic force to include both weak interactions (i.e. beta-decays) and the theory of quarks and gluons.

He worked especially on the properties of the Higgs particles predicted by Peter Higgs of Edinburgh, and on the violation of the symmetry between particles and anti- particles and left- and right- handedness, known as CP violation. Anselm also established the Winter School for theoretical physicists organised by his institute, an annual event which rapidly became one of the major high energy physics meetings in Russia.

In 1968 Anselm visited Britain for the first time, at the invitation of Elliott Leader of Birkbeck College, London. He was allowed to go, somewhat surprisingly, on account of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which had caused many invitations to official Soviet visitors to be cancelled. When it was clear that Leader had not cancelled Anselm's invitation, he was given his passport for foreign travel. He was then called in by the KGB and asked what he would say if he was questioned in Britain about the invasion. Anselm replied cautiously, "And what would you recommend me to say?" It turned out that the Party line for intellectuals was to have reservations about the invasion.

Anselm's visit to Britain was a great success. He and his wife Mila enjoyed London; the theatre, the pubs; the countryside; the books. Unfortunately he was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union again until perestroika, 20 years later, when in 1989 Leader invited both Anselm and Gribov to Birkbeck. I met Anselm that summer when he came with Gribov to Sussex University for Andrei Sakharov's honorary degree ceremony.

From then on Anselm travelled widely. He often visited the United States, where his daughter and granddaughter had settled, and also visited colleagues and lectured in France and Italy. He developed an interest in cosmology and the periodicity in the distribution of the galaxies and developed a theory of a very light particle which could in principle explain it. He visited Birkbeck and Sussex on several occasions, the last being in 1997 when he spent some months courtesy of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council at both institutions. When in Britain, he would often talk about physics on the Russian Service of the BBC, where his clear exposition of fundamental concepts was much appreciated. But in 1995 he was diagnosed as having liver cancer and, although he thought he had overcome the disease and continued to travel and lecture, it finally overcame him last month.

He was a man of wide interests. At the Winter School for theoretical physicists which he established, 200 or so Soviet physicists gathered near Leningrad for two weeks to talk about physics. But Anselm invited non-physicists to contribute too. Writers, artists, philosophers, historians came also to discuss their work, even (and especially) when it did not meet with official approval. The abstract artist E. Mikhnov, the playwright A. Volodin, the popular author F. Iskander, the poets B. Okudzhava, B. Akhmadulina and A. Kushner,and the actor S. Yurskii were among those who participated. When Anselm became Director-General of the Institute in 1992 he was able to continue this tradition by sponsoring local artists.

He married Ludmila Busigina in 1956. Their daughter Ira was born in 1960 and now works in Boston Children's Hospital as a child neurologist.

Alexei Andreevich Anselm, theoretical physicist: born Leningrad, Soviet Union 1 July 1934; Director-General, Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute 1992-94; married 1956 Ludmila Busigina (one daughter); died Boston, Massachusetts 23 August 1998.