Obituaries

Zhores Alferov, Russian physicist and Nobel Prize winner, dies at 88

Dr. Alferov’s research underpinned an array of important inventions, from solar cells to DVD players to cellphones.
Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press/file 2016
Dr. Alferov’s research underpinned an array of important inventions, from solar cells to DVD players to cellphones.

Zhores I. Alferov, a Russian physicist who won the Nobel Prize for research that underpinned an array of inventions integral to modern life, from solar cells to DVD players to cellphones, died Friday night at a hospital in St. Petersburg. He was 88.

The death was announced by the leader of the Russian Communist Party, according to Tass, the Russian state news agency.

Dr. Alferov shared the Nobel in Physics in 2000 with two American physicists, Herbert Kroemer and Jack S. Kilby, who were attacking similar problems from the opposite side of the Iron Curtain in the 1960s.

Advertisement

Son of a Stalinist industrial apparatchik, Dr. Alferov maintained an ambiguous relationship with the United States throughout his life. He worked closely with American colleagues but rejected market reforms in post-Soviet Russia and served in Parliament as a Communist Party deputy.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The three men separately pioneered the development of the so-called heterostructure semiconductor. Scientists had studied semiconductors — materials that conduct a relatively weak and controllable pulse of electricity — since the 1930s, famously focusing on silicon as the most useful. But the transit of electrons through a silicon wafer, known as a homostructure because it consists of one material, proved ineffective at releasing photons, whose energy can be converted to light in the form of a laser beam.

Dr. Alferov, working at a Leningrad institute whose more practical projects included helping to build the Soviet hydrogen bomb and nuclear submarine fleet, discovered that a “sandwich” of different materials, or heterostructure, could yield a continuous stream of photons without adding so much electrical current that it would heat the materials to extreme temperatures.

He hit upon the optimal combination of gallium arsenide with aluminum, and in 1968 made his first visit to the United States to deliver a paper summarizing his results. The presentation “produced the impression of an exploded bomb,” Dr. Alferov would recall without undue modesty in his Nobel acceptance speech 32 years later.

His research also gave him entree to American colleagues at Bell Labs and IBM, and set off a small-scale laser race that combined comradeship and sharing between individual scientists with dead-serious Cold War rivalry.

Advertisement

Dr. Alferov would recall with pride that in the race to build a prototype of a laser that worked at room temperature, he and his team at Leningrad’s Ioffe Institute beat Bell Labs in New Jersey by a month. Subsequent perfection of heterostructure lasers and heterotransistors based on combined materials made possible the modern living room of LED screens and optically read disks, along with the fiber-optic technology underpinning cellphones.

Zhores Ivanovich Alferov was born on March 15, 1930 in Vitebsk, Belarus, painter Marc Chagall’s hometown. His father, Ivan, was a dockworker who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1917 and later regaled his two sons with reminiscences of meeting Lenin and Trotsky.

Communism lifted the dockworker to the role of itinerant industrial manager, and he moved the family across the Soviet Union as he helped carry out Stalin’s five-year plans. He named his elder son Marx, while Zhores was named after French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès. Marx died at the front during World War II, to be remembered by his younger brother half a century later from the podium in Stockholm.

Zhores moved to Leningrad to study physics after the war, and in 1953, the year Stalin died, joined the institute founded by the father of the Soviet semiconductor field, Abram Ioffe.

The times were turbulent but fertile for science as both superpowers poured money into research that they hoped would keep them ahead of the enemy.

Advertisement

“The sensation I felt then could not be compared to anything,” Dr. Alferov wrote later of his early work at Ioffe.

‘All that was made by human beings, in principle, was made due to science.’

He stuck with his institute all his life, winning the Lenin Prize, Soviet science’s highest honor, in 1972; becoming director of Ioffe in 1987; and heading the Leningrad-St. Petersburg branch of the Academy of Sciences in 1989. In the mid-1990s, he was obliged to accept support from his old rivals in America. The US Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as “Star Wars,” helped finance Ioffe and half a dozen other Russian research centers for several years.

“You could tell it was hard for him to be in this position,” said Michael Stroscio, a University of Illinois physics professor who visited Ioffe to help oversee the Pentagon grant. “He was very professional, but kept his distance.”

He leaves his wife, Tamara Darskaya, their daughter, Olga, and their son, Ivan. A first marriage had produced another daughter, but he rarely spoke of the union.

Dr. Alferov entered politics reluctantly, he told interviewers, his purpose being to revive domestic financing for science. He joined Russia’s state Duma in 1995 as a member of the party supporting the Westernizing policies of President Boris Yeltsin, but he switched in the 1999 election to the opposition Communists, convinced that Yeltsin’s “young reformers” had brought Russia to the brink of economic ruin.

He served as a communist deputy, but seldom attended Duma sessions and maintained his focus on bills affecting science and technology.

“He probably lost a bit of prestige among the intelligentsia for joining the Communists,” said Yuri Korgonyuk, a commentator at the Moscow political think tank Indem. “But everyone could see he wasn’t really a politician.”

Faith in science and its universal benefits remained Dr. Alferov’s true credo.

“All that was made by human beings, in principle, was made due to science,” he said after accepting the Nobel Prize.