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Interview Transcript

Sergei Kapitsa

SERGEI PETROVICH KAPITSA is a professor of physics and chairman of the Physics Dept at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Professor Kapitsa has been active in the Soviet, Russian and international science circles and is currently vice president of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Russia and president of the Eurasian Physical Society. Professor Kapitsa is also the host of a weekly science program for Russian television.

The following interview was made for the Russian-American Center archives in the summer of 1998:

Mr.  Kapitsa:  I was born in Cambridge in 1928.  My father was a professor at the University of Cambridge.  And there I spent the first seven years of my life, went to school.  And finally in '35, I came to Russia with my brother--my father was already here--and my mother.  Well, it took about a year to break in.  I knew Russian right from the beginning of course, because we always spoke Russian in our family.  In fact, we were, when we were, we did something naughty and things were running into deep water, my mother switched over to English.  That means we were in trouble.  But, what happened next was that I went to school here, and I went to a rather peculiar school.  In fact, my wife went to the same school, although I didn't know her then.  She was older than me, and she knew that I was there, but I didn't know that she was there.  Well, .  .  .

Interviewer:  And which school was that?  

Mr.  Kapitsa:  It was a school not far from this new cathedral that they just built in the center of Moscow, where mainly children from rather high government party families studied.  It was terribly hit during the '37 and '38 purges.  I can only say that the director of this school, he did a very noble and, I think, a very brave thing in those days, and did everything in his power to somehow let these poor boys and girls from the families that were hit by the purges feel they were still decent citizens and could carry on.  I think that was really one of the remarkable facts of that life.

 The year before the war, I left and went to another school, much more democratic, not far from the place where we now live, a school that, later, my children went to.  And it was quite uneventful.  Then I developed an interest for science, and mainly for mineralogy.  The school was just next door to one of the best museums of mineralogy we had in the country at that time.

 And, then the war happened.  Oh, the first month, I spent in Moscow with my father.  My brother left rather soon for Kazan, down on the water about 1000 kilometers to the east of Moscow.  And we left on the 17th of October, during the great flight from Moscow, and the Germans were attacking Moscow.  Things were desperate.  We spent two days and nights in the underground tunnels of the Grusinsky railway station waiting to be bombed, captured, exiled.  Finally we boarded the train, left for Nizhni Novgorod for working.  The train that was before us, the train that came after us, was striked by German planes.  We were lucky.  We reached Nizhni Novgorod, spent a few days there waiting for a ship, a boat that would carry us down the water to Kazan, and I remember that trip rather well, overhearing a conversation between two elderly gentlemen staying on the deck of the ship, and saying that it would be three days or four days for Moscow to be taken over by the Germans.  That never happened.

 Finally we reached Kazan, and I spent two years there studying very intensely.  I had yet four years of high school to study, but there was a rather nice system.  You could go to a special school that offered consultancy courses, rather than systematic studies at a school.  And there I managed to complete my studies at high school with rather good results, at an age of fifteen instead of seventeen.

 And, by that time, Moscow was beginning to operate as usual, and in '43, I came back to Moscow.  Over the summers of '42 and '43, I spent in a very exciting way.  I--there were two alternatives:  I could go to a farm or I could go and help to load coal on the railway station.  I had to do something socially useful.  But I was attached to a expedition, and here perhaps that hobby of mine of mineralogy helped, that was prospecting for oil in the region between the Volga and the Ural mountains.

 And I spent two summers, very exciting, there.  I learned many things, from handling horses to operating rather sophisticated, by those days, physical measuring apparatus, to measure the radioactivity of water.  There is a strange connection between the radioactivity of natural water, very slight changes in this radioactivity and the presence of oil.  And this is what I did.  It was a very exciting time.  I remember once I was looking, I had a cart full of our apparatus, and I had to cross a small brook, and in the middle of this brook, the horse stopped.  I couldn't get moving forwards or backwards.  I was standing there absolutely hopeless.  I tried to pull her out; she wouldn't go.  I felt she was cold because she pulled out her leg out of this cold water.  The brook was quite shallow.  Finally, a woman came along and said that I was stupid boy, the horses want to drink.  Undo her harness, and let the horse drink.  I immediately did that, the horses drank, and off we went.  These are the things you learn.


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