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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Physicist, 87, Takes Nobel in Stride

APVitaly Ginzburg
In his office on Leninsky Prospekt, 87-year-old physicist Vitaly Ginzburg was preparing for a weekly staff seminar Tuesday morning when a call came through from Stockholm.

When the voice at the other end of the line said in English that he had won the Nobel Prize for Physics, Ginzburg thought it was a joke at first.

But later Ginzburg realized that it was true, as colleagues at the Academy of Sciences' Lebedev Physics Institute, who'd seen the news on the Internet, rushed in to offer congratulations.

He had indeed won the $1.3 million award for work on superconductivity and superfluidity, jointly with fellow Russian Alexei Abrikosov, who now works at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, and British scientist Anthony Leggett also from the University of Illinois, who are both now U.S. citizens.

The award came more than 50 years after Ginzburg first started researching superconductivity, the ability of some materials to conduct electricity without resistance when chilled to very low temperatures.

The invention of magnetic imaging scanners, which built on the pioneering work of Ginzburg, Abrikosov and Leggett, also won the Nobel Prize for Medicine awarded by the 264-year-old Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Monday.

For Ginzburg, the award was quite a surprise.

"They have been nominating me for about 30 years, so in that sense it didn't come out of a blue sky," Ginzburg was quoted by The Associated Press as saying Tuesday. "But I thought, 'Well, they're not giving it to me, I guess that's it.' I had long ago forgotten to think about this."

Colleagues said that Ginzburg took the news in stride. "Of course, he was glad," said Yuly Bruk, the institute's scientific secretary. "But he was very quiet about it. He didn't seem to expect it or hope for it."

Another colleague said that Ginzburg, who turned 87 on Saturday, had thought the prize "would be a lot more beneficial to younger people."

Ginzburg graduated Moscow State University in 1938 and first began work at the prestigious Lebedev Physical Institute, which can now boast seven Nobel laureates, in 1940.

The last Russian citizen to win a Nobel Prize for Physics was Zhores Alfyorov, head of the Physical-Technical Institute. Before him, it was Pyotr Kapitsa, who won in 1978.

Ginzburg's main scientific breakthrough came in 1950, at the age of 34, when he devised a "theory of superconductivity," which he worked on with another Russian scientist, Lev Landau. Their work became known as the Ginzburg-Landau theory.

"In his 63 years at the institute, Ginzburg has also worked on theoretical subjects as diverse as radioastronomy, universe, radiation, optics and astrophysics. But superconductivity and superfluidity were always his favorite subjects," Bruk said.

Ginzburg's work has been described as the starting point for the work of Abrikosov and Leggett.

Stephen J. Carrera / AP

Alexei Abrikosov

Abrikosov, 75, also began his work over half a century ago as a Soviet scientist. Leggett, meanwhile, applied ideas about superconductivity to explain how atoms behave in one kind of "superfluid" in the 1970s.

"All three of us have something in common: our discoveries ... were done many years ago. We are pretty old people," Abrikosov told Reuters from Lemont, Illinois, on learning of the award.

Leggett, the youngest of the trio at 65, said he was very surprised by the pre-dawn telephone call informing him of the award, and said he knew his co-winners quite well. "I guess it had occurred to me that it was a possibility I might get the Nobel Prize, but I didn't think it was particularly probable," he said.

"I'm pleased to be sharing the prize with them."

This year the Nobel committee notified Abrikosov, who had been nominated several times before, that he was a candidate. "And since this had never happened before, I saw this as a good sign," he said. "I now feel relief."

The $1.3 million prize money will be shared equally among the three winners. A self-deprecating Ginzburg said his share of the $1.3 million prize money, a fortune to him, would be spent on his family.

"I have great-grandchildren and at least I can give it to them," Reuters quoted him as saying. "A tennis player can earn this amount for just one game.

For me, of course, it's a huge amount of money, as it is for anyone in Russia who isn't a crook or a business tycoon."