Nikolai Gennadievich Basov died of heart failure in Moscow on 1 July 2001. A Nobel Prize winner, he was one of three founders, together with Aleksander Prokhorov and Charles Townes, of a new branch of science and technology known as quantum electronics, or laser physics.

Basov was born on 14 December 1922 in Usman’, a small Russian town in the Lipetsk region. During his last years in school, the Soviet Union entered World War II, and he served in the military as a student of the Military Medical Academy (1941–43) and as an officer of a chemical defense battalion in the First Ukrainian Front (1944–45). In 1946, he enrolled at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute and graduated in 1950 as an engineer–physicist. He completed his PhD thesis in 1959 under the guidance of Michael Leontovich and Aleksander Prokhorov and received his Candidate of Science degree from the P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute. He eventually worked his way up from junior scientist to director of the Lebedev Institute, maintaining an affiliation there until the last day of his life.

In 1952, Basov and Prokhorov were the first to demonstrate, based on a theoretical analysis, the feasibility of constructing generators and amplifiers of electromagnetic waves using the phenomenon of stimulated transition in quantum systems with population inversion of levels. As early as 1955, they proposed a highly effective principle for achieving population inversion by pumping a three-level system, a technique that is now widely used in various lasers and spectral ranges. Others applied this novel principle to fundamentally new devices such as low-noise microwave amplifiers and generators (masers).

In 1956, Basov received his DSc degree for his thesis entitled “A Molecular Oscillator.” His thesis was a notable accomplishment in the scientific life of the Lebedev Institute: His fundamental findings were so brilliant and unexpected that the most authoritative scientists were invited as reviewers. Symbolically, Il’ya Frank, a winner of the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physics, played the decisive role with his positive review. In 1964, Basov, Prokhorov, and Townes won the Nobel Prize in Physics for fundamental investigations in the field of quantum electronics, which led to the discovery of masers and lasers.

In his thinking, Basov apparently followed a logic that contrasted with thinking based on the most simple procedure, that is, moving from basic physics, as outlined in textbooks, to more complex concepts. Sometimes it seemed that he followed the opposite direction in his reasoning! For example, during the 1950s, while addressing the linewidth of a maser radiation, Basov posited that the stimulated-radiation line might be narrower than the natural linewidth because of regeneration in the cavity. It was recounted that Lev Landau (recipient of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physics), to whom Basov came for advice, initially rejected this possibility. Landau’s rejection seemingly followed from the uncertainty principle. However, later on, the phenomenon was explained reasonably well by using the principle of indistinguishability of molecules entering the cavity and those leaving it in a certain quantum state.

Basov and his coworkers performed extensive series of investigations that led to the construction of a broad family of new lasers: photodissociation (atomic iodine) based on the pumping by a strong shock wave, electron-beam–controlled, excimer, chemical, and other lasers. Basov was the first scientist in the world to propose the use of semiconductors as the active medium of lasers excited by a variety of methods, including injection across a p–n junction. That method has led to the advent of injection diode lasers that are widely used in both science and technology.

In 1962, Basov, who was concerned with global problems, put forward the idea of achieving a thermonuclear fusion reaction by laser irradiation of a small target. At that time, laser output energies were so small that, initially, the idea seemed unrealistic. However, because of his scientific courage, inexhaustible energy, stubbornness, persistence, and faith in the correctness of the scientific idea, Basov achieved the seemingly impossible: The first thermonuclear laser neutrons were generated at the Lebedev Institute in 1968 by laser irradiation of a lithium deuteride target. Those results provided a powerful stimulus for the study of laser thermonuclear fusion throughout the world. At present, many regard laser fusion as one of the promising approaches to the peaceful use of thermonuclear energy.

Apparently, Basov thought it essential to construct the model of a phenomenon in his own specific way, different from (and probably more complex) than that of his colleagues. This unique thinking was the source of the best ideas that were characteristic of his creativity. Usually it is believed that if a single idea from 10 ideas gives rise to a practical implementation, the effort is a great success. But for Basov, the percentage of ideas that were implemented was much higher. There are three levels of cognition: At the first stage, one observes a new phenomenon; at the second stage, one explains this phenomenon; and, at the third stage, one uses the obtained knowledge as a research and application instrument. Many experimentalists restrict themselves to the first stage; theoreticians, to the second; and only a few outstanding scientists reach the third stage. Basov belonged to the third group.

Basov was persistently attached to science, without which he apparently thought life was empty. Physics as science or physics as technology occupied his mind whether he was at home, in a car, on holiday, or ill. He was a scientist who devoted all his strength, knowledge, and enormous talent to the development of science in Russia.

Basov was frank and straightforward in judgment, a characteristic that was not always appreciated by his associates. Some believed that he underestimated their work and accomplishments, but in actuality, he was strongly devoted to laser physics, which, for him, left little room for other realms of knowledge. He was, though, an outstanding proponent of other people’s ideas and accomplishments. He had a surprising intuition and was a generous, hard-working, and friendly person. These traits attracted and held scientists and students around him.

Basov depended on the people who surrounded him—friends with whom he had studied at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, and colleagues and disciples with whom he worked at the Lebedev Institute. He and his wife Ksenia were hospitable hosts for whom no holiday or family event would pass without numerous guests.

The international reputation of the Lebedev Institute and its scientists is the result of the long and distinguished activity of Basov. With his death, the physics community has lost one of its brightest and most admired members.

Nikolai Gennadievich Basov

Nikolai Gennadievich Basov

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