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Profile Scientist and Russian Jewish Atheist, Vitaly Ginzburg, Shares Nobel in Physics

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Vitaly Ginzburg, the Russian Jewish scientist who received the Nobel Prize in physics this week, is among a handful of older academics who have been involved in rebuilding Russian Jewish life since the collapse of communism.

Ginzburg, 87, has been a member of the board of directors of the Russian Jewish Congress since the organization was started in 1996. He’s the oldest member of the group’s Public Advisory Council, which is made up of prominent figures in arts, science and sports.

The scientist is well known for his passionate stand against anti-Semitism and his support of secular Jewish identity and the State of Israel. RJC leaders described Ginzburg as one of the most active and passionate men among the group’s lay leadership.

“He is one of those Jewish leaders who is extremely active in propagating the idea of a secular Jewry,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, the RJC’s president.

Ginzburg was given the prize “for pioneering contributions to the theory of superconductors and superfluids,” according to a release by the Nobel Prize committee. He will share the prize with another Russian scientist, Alexei Abrikosov, now working in the United States, and a British-born American researcher, Anthony Leggett.

A physicist and astrophysicist, Ginzburg has worked at the Moscow-based Lebedev Physical Institute since 1940. He also taught at Gorky State University.

His academic work has included research into superconductivity, theories of radio-wave propagation, radio astronomy and the origin of cosmic rays.

Early in his career, Ginzburg was an ardent believer in science and a critic of religious worldviews. To his credit, Jewish leaders say, such views did not preclude a deep devotion to the Jewish people.

Ginzburg never shunned his Jewish background, even though in recent years he has become especially active in his atheism, publishing several articles on the subject.

Ginzburg doesn’t like to compromise when it comes to atheism, Satanovsky said.

Satanovsky recalled that when the RJC board voted last year on a statement of solidarity with Israel, Ginzburg argued strenuously against a line in which Jewish leaders offered a prayer for the well-being of the Jewish state.

Ginzburg is co-chairman of the Society for Solidarity With the People of Israel, a pro-Israel advocacy group of Russian Jews created in 2002 to enlist Russian public support for Israel.

Last year, Ginzburg got involved in a heated argument with another Nobel Prize winner, Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, after Solzhenitsyn published a book devoted to Russian Jewish history. Many in the Jewish community found the book, “Two Hundred Years Together,” to be biased against Jews.

Ginzburg raised the issue at an RJC board meetings, Satanovsky said, and later persuaded the group to allocate funds toward the publication of a book challenging anti-Jewish statements in Solzhenitsyn’s writings.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday evening, hours after his share of the $1.3 million prize was announced, Ginzburg said he would give the money to his young great-grandsons.

The sum appeared like a lot to him, as it would “to any Russian who is not a crook or a business magnate,” he said.

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