Yuri Orlov 1924–2020

10 October 2020
Yuri Orlov

Yuri Orlov, a world-renowned accelerator physicist and a leading figure in the worldwide campaign for human rights in Soviet Russia, passed away at the end of September at the age of 96.

Yuri was born in Moscow in 1924. He studied and worked there until 1956, when a critical pro-democracy speech he gave at the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics resulted in him being fired and banned from scientific work. He then moved to the Yerevan Physics Institute in Armenia where he earned his first doctorate (“Nonlinear theory of betatron oscillations in the strong-focusing synchrotron”) in 1958, followed by the award of a second doctorate in 1963. While in Yerevan, he designed the 6 GeV electron synchrotron, became head of the electromagnetic interaction laboratory, and was elected to the Armenian Academy of Sciences.

In 1972 Yuri returned to Moscow and joined the influential dissident movement that included Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When the final documents of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe were signed in 1975, Yuri founded the Moscow Helsinki Group with the aim of having all human rights guaranteed in the Helsinki documents accorded to all citizens of the Soviet Union. As was to be expected, Yuri was arrested in 1977, tried in a political mock trial in 1978 and convicted to seven years in a labour camp in Perm.

As soon as Yuri Orlov’s ordeal became known in Europe and North America, physicists began to protest against the treatment of their colleague. At CERN, where several physicists had had personal contacts with Yuri, the Yuri Orlov Committee was founded with Georges Charpak as one of its founding members. The long-standing fruitful scientific collaboration with the Soviet Union was challenged and the support of eminent political leaders of the CERN member states was solicited.

Surviving a total of seven years of labour camp under extreme conditions, Yuri was deported to Siberia for a period of five years. Because of continuing international pressure, he was then deported to the US in 1986, where he was offered a position at Cornell University. Soon after his forced emigration, Yuri visited CERN and he spent a sabbatical there in 1988/1989 working in the accelerator division to develop the idea of ion “shaking”. He joined the muon g-2 experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory and worked on Brookhaven proposals to measure the electric dipole moments of protons, electrons and deuterons. At Cornell he pursued this work as well as an alternative design for the proposed B-factory, and wrote on the foundations of quantum mechanics. In 2008 he was named a professor of physics and professor of government, and taught physics and human rights until his retirement in 2015.

Yuri authored or co-authored more than 240 scientific papers and technical reports, and wrote a memoir, Dangerous Thoughts: Memoirs of a Russian Life (William Morrow & Co, 1991). Among the many honours Yuri received are the American Physical Society’s 2006 Sakharov prize “For his distinction as a creative physicist and as a life-long, ardent leader in the defence and development of international human rights, justice and the freedom of expression for scientists”, and the APS 2021 Wilson Prize for outstanding achievements in the physics of particle accelerators, of which he was notified shortly before his death.

Yuri’s example as a scientist committed to the freedom of science, its cultural dimension in world affairs and his defence of the human right of expression of one’s convictions is an example and inspiration to all of us.

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