Zhores I. Alferov Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Scientific Discovery and the Information Age: Conversation with Zhores I. Alferov, 2000 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Vice President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences; April 11, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Professor Alferov, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Where were you born?

I have been born in Byelorussia, in Vitebsk. It's the second city in Byelorussia after the capital, Minsk. Vedipsk is very famous because there was born, grow up, and working Marc Chagall.

Dolsa -- a friend of mine about whom I talked to you the day that I got the very bad news that he died, Academician of Heartshania -- we sometimes joked that Vitebsk is place of the birth of very good people, in many different areas.

How do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

I had very nice parents. My mother played a very important role in my life, and my father also. They both were born in Byelorussia, grew up there, in sufficiently poor families, but they both were noticed by a local teacher who [nominated] them to go to a relatively high-level school compared to very low level, so they got, according to their position of their families, a good education.

But they were from very poor families, and my father, in 1912, left Byelorussia for Petersburg, not just to get a job there. Then he participated in World War I. In 1917, he became a member of the Communist Party. Then it was very small. Then he participated in the civil war.

He graduated after that from the industrial academy. He got a high education, became an engineer, and we traveled around the country because before the war there was a custom that you must come to the factory to do something, in order for the factory to be better, and then if you are a good worker they send you to another place.

In our family we had only two children, me and my older brother. The name of my older brother was Marx, in honor of Karl Marx, and my name -- in order to right pronounce it, it's Zho-ress. It's in honor of Jean Jaurès, the founder of the French Socialist Party and Humanité newspaper.

My older brother had very strong influence on me. He graduated from the school in June, 1941, and then at the age of seventeen volunteered to go to the Red Army and fight against the fascists at the front, in the most heavy battles in Stalingrad, in Kursk battle. He was killed in battle at the beginning of 1944, in the Ukraine, near Korsun-Shevchenko. I visited this place frequently and among my different titles, I'm very proud that I'm an honorary citizen of the village of Hilkie, which was freed by my brother. He was buried in the cemetery there.

What led you into science? Was it the influence of both your father and your brother?

No. You see, my father considered physics, and especially electronics, not as very important, and he always told me when I decided to go to study to Leningrad, to the Faculty of Electronics in the Electrotechnical Institute, "I understand if, for instance, you would be an energy engineer in an electric power station, but electrons, who saw it?"

My school teacher in physics was Yakov Borisovich Meltserson, in Minsk. I graduated from high school in Minsk because just after the war, my father was appointed in Minsk, the capital of Byelorussia, with the responsibility for paper industry in Byelorussia.

[He] was a brilliant physics teacher. I think for young boys and girls, the influence of the teacher is great. It was just after the war, so we didn't have any physics laboratory at the school, and he just delivered lectures. But it was so exciting! I was very excited by his lecture about radar and cathode oscilloscope. When I graduated from the school, I graduated with a gold medal, so I had the right to get [into a higher institution] without exams. He advised me to go to study to Leningrad, to the Electrotechnical Institute, to the Electronics Department.

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