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In another question here I asked for help in finding old Russian papers in physics and as an example I gave the founding papers on the laser by Basov and Prokhorov (from 1945 and 1954). In an answer @voix was so kind as to post this link with a collection of some of the founding papers that have shaped the area of quantum electronics and, in particular, the idea of the laser. In this collection I found with astonishment that it was not Basov and Prokhorov, neither was it Townes who discovered the laser but the discovery of reverse absorption which is at the basis of the laser action is in fact due to V. A. Fabrikant in 1939, years before the ones I have always known to be the discoverers and who got the Nobel prize for it. Fabrikant even has a 1951 patent and a diploma No. 12 for a discovery in USSR regarding the phenomenon of reverse absorption.The astonishing fact is that Basov and Prokhorov do not even cite Fabrikant in their 1954 paper. Neither do Townes et al in their 1954 paper. What phenomenon, different from what Fabrikant has discovered did Basov, Prokhorov and Townes find to deserve all the credit for the discovery of the laser and have Fabrikant sent to obscurity?

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because in soviet russia, laser discovers you! –  Colin K Sep 17 '11 at 23:28
Does anyone have H. Kopfermann and R. Ladenburg Experimental Proof of ‘Negative Dispersion’, Nature Volume 122, 438-439 (22 September 1928) –  ganzewoort Sep 18 '11 at 0:56

4 Answers 4

Actually V. A. Fabricant was given credit for his laser idea by both Dr. Charles Townes, scientist/inventor of the first working maser and by Dr. Ted Maiman, scientist/inventor of the first working laser. I happen to be writing a book about Maiman, hence my interest in addressing myself to this question. On Pg 61 of Townes autobiography, "How the Laser Happened", he mentions Fabrikant's "rather obscure thesis (his doctoral) . . . however, he was not able to achieve any amplification (coherent or stimulated), and his work was quickly forgotten. After our own maser idea was revealed, Fabrikant claimed a patentable version, dated June 18, 1951. That patent claim was published in 1959, but I learned that Soviet law allowed patents to be rewritten and backdated. Fabrikant was definitely working on relevant concepts as early as 1939, but unfortunately he did not get very far and no one picked up his work as being particularly interesting."

Maiman in his autobio, "The Laser Odyssey", Pg. 57, is less critical and kinder that his rival Townes: "Although Fabricant was not successful in achieving coherent light, his analytical and experimental work preceded the demonstration of any other stimulated emission device." -Rod Waters

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Thanks for this enlightening quote from Townes. But obviously Basov and Prokhorov could not use such nasty words against Soviet patent system to explain their relationships with Fabrikant.

Little earlier in that quotation Townes calls Fabricant "a Russian". It is not true, Fabrikant was not Russian - he was "a Jew". It is important because right in 1953 there was a culmination of anti-Semitic campaign in USSR (see "Doctor's plot").

Its connection to Fabricant affair was partially disclosed (as a rumour) in Andrey Sakharov memoirs. Wording is quite equivocal, so I give the quote below in Russian. The trouble is that Sakharov also made an amazing career in 1953 outmaneuvering his numerous Jewish colleagues in thermonuclear project. Furthermore, during his dissident years Sakharov formally still worked at FIAN where Basov was a director. So it is very sensitive topic for Sakharov and even such cautious disclosure looks almost heroic.

Sakharov worked as invited lecturer in 1947-48 at the physical department (headed by Fabrikant) of Moscow Power Engeneering Institute. And in 1965 (next year after laser Nobel prize). Sakharov was a member of commission which awarded Fabrikant some meaningless consolation medal from academy of sciences.

В МЭИ заведующим кафедрой физики был проф. В. А. Фабрикант. Он очень опасался моей педагогической неопытности и давал мне разные полезные наставления. Его собственная научная судьба драматична. Примерно в те же годы, когда мы общались, он (вместе со своей сотрудницей Бутаевой) предложил принцип лазера и мазера (использование эффекта индуцированного излучения, на существование которого в 1919 году впервые указал Эйнштейн). Но радость осуществления этой замечательной идеи – и известность – достались другим. Говорят, что какую-то роль сыграло то трудное положение, в котором оказались в годы "борьбы с космополитизмом" многие евреи. Впрочем, я не имею тут информации из первых рук. Может, просто сказалась общая трудность проведения научной работы в условиях вуза – перегрузка учебной и административной работой, крайняя бедность в отношении материалов и оборудования. Через 20 лет Фабриканту была присуждена премия имени Вавилова (я был в числе членов комиссии). Явилась ли эта запоздалая премия хоть каким-то утешением уже старому и больному человеку, стоявшему у истоков одного из самых удивительных открытий нашего времени?

Prof. Fabrikant was the head of MPEI department of physics. He was very afraid of my teaching inexperience and gave me useful advices. His own scientific career was dramatic. Approximately at the same time as we acquainted, he (and his co-worker Butaeva) proposed the principle of laser and maser (the use of stimulated emission, the existence of which in 1919 first pointed out by Einstein). But the joy from the realization of this wonderful idea - and fame - went to other people. It is said that some role was played by the difficult situation in which many Jews were during the "struggle against cosmopolitanism". However, I do not have first-hand information here. Probably, it was just general difficulty of conducting scientific research in a university - overloading with teaching and administrative duties, extreme poverty in terms of materials and equipment. In 20 years Fabrikant was awarded the Vavilov prize (I was one of the members of the Commission.) Whether this belated prize was any consolation for an old and sick man, who stood at the origins of one of the most amazing discoveries of our time?

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It appears that what you have written is not a translation of the quote. Can you please translate the quote for the benefit of those of us who don't read Russian. –  ChrisF Jun 16 '13 at 10:23

This is not a detailed answer, but western scientists who were number two, were often given sole credit when the Soviet discoveries were prior. I know this happened with the pomeron ( Gribov vs. Chew-Frautchi), inflation (Starobinski-Mukhanov vs. Guth), period-3 theorem (Sharkovshii vs. Li-Yorke), even cold fusion (Steponovich vs. Pons-Fleischmann).

Part of the problem was the Soviet system tended to prevent scientists from properly advertising their work, by travel restrictions and official problems with international communications, but I think the major factor is that western academics just had a stronger incentive to publicize and advertise their work, and this made their work better known.

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The first problem was American scientits inability to read any foreign language paper. Second problem was that some fields in Soviet science was more fantasy than hard results. I'm not aware where the borderline was within physics, as an example take chemistry, there inorganic, especially silicon was good, whereas organic chemistry was not woth reading. Third problem was/is the chauvinism of Americans and Soviet/Russians when it comes to who was first at inventions. –  Georg Sep 18 '11 at 11:44
@Georg-- JETP was translated to English immediately, so the language barrier shouldn't be a major problem. I agree that Chauvinism was a factor. –  Ron Maimon Sep 18 '11 at 18:55
@Georg: while true, the question specifically mentions the Nobel Price, and that's pretty much neutral territory (Royal Swedish Academy). Ron of course has a point; Sweden may have been neutral but Soviet travel restrictions were not limited to the USA. –  MSalters Sep 19 '11 at 13:04

Thanks again for this thread. It prompted me to start my own work to look little further into this puzzling controversy surrounding Fabricant laser patent. It is very far from completed, current version is here (sorry its in Russian)

Briefly several findings:

  1. Fabrikant's laser patent application received negative review and classified. And then his group was not allowed to work on their invention without security clearance. It's interesting that the same algorithm of suppression was later applied in USA against Gordon Gould.

  2. Recently (2010) nice overview of Fabricant's works was published here It completely avoids any explanation or even mention of the theme of relationships between Fabricant and Prokhorov/Basov. Derivatives from Prokhorov/Basov project are now important people in Russian physics, so its little wonder that there is still a strict censorship on this theme.

    • I got short note from B.Veklenko - Fabricant's successor as head of MPEI phys. dept. written for 100-th Fabrikant anniversary (2007). Actually he said that Prokhorov/Basov were NOT involved in suppressing Fabrikant's invention. Nevertheless this note was rejected by MPEI organizers - just mention of this theme did suffice.
    • I also received a funny letter from current MPEI "opinion leader" on Fabricant scientific legacy claiming that laser patent controversy: 1. Does not exist 2. it was "settled" during celebrations of 50-th anniversary of first working laser (in 2010).
  3. Prevailing interpretation of Fabrikant works in the West is something like that "Even in Russia his colleagues probably did not take him very seriously and therefore he did not stimulate anybody even there" [M. Bertolotti The History of the Laser]

    • In Russia itself the more popular view is something like that Fabricant patent "does not signify" because:
    • soviet patent bureaucrats processed patent application for a too long period of time (8 years)
    • patent application is somehow not valid without regular academic publications
    • invention of light amplification by Fabrikant does not signify without invention of generator.
    • The last idea seems to be most popular and apparently it belongs personally to Prokhorov (suggested to be inventor of adding positive back feed). Veklenko writes that he even asked Fabrikant to support this rhetoric - Fabrikant objected by saying that every student knows that amplifier is converted to generator by adding positive back feed.:

      "Ко мне, в основном во время заведования мною кафедрой, неоднократно приставали всевозможные корреспонденты с вопросом: кто зарезал заявку на изобретение. Бытовало мнение, да и бытует по сей день, что это мог быть кто-нибудь из Нобелевских Лауреатов, изготовивших мазер, или кто-нибудь из их команды. Это не так. Нобелевские Лауреаты академик Н.Г.Басов и академик А.М.Прохоров никакого отношения к этому не имеют. Правда лишь в том, что с ними у В.А. были натянутые отношения. Однажды А.М.Прохоров предложил «В.А. давайте разделим, Вы предложили усилитель, мы –генератор света». На это В.А. возразил «Но ведь любой студент знает, что усилитель превращается в генератор путем введения положительной обратной связи». Разговор оборвался."

  4. From the cited above review I've learned that there is one other intriguing work by Fabrikant and Butaeva (published in 1959) pretending to be the first experimental demonstration of negative adsorption in optical wavelengths. Review above tells that it was an error.

  5. MPEI physics department (lead by Fabricant for over 30 years) actively worked on high school physics education in USSR. It led to peculiar attempts by his colleagues to oppose ignoring Fabrikant's laser patent by telling truth about his contribution in school physics handbooks (not always quite correctly). By the way, that is perhaps why I am so enthusiastic about this topic now - I am acquainted with this theme since my early teen years - approximately in the same form of dark rumors like Sakharov retells it.

  6. I don't believe that Fabrikant was just "out of luck". In my view the expropriation of Fabrikant's work in favor of Prokhorov/Basov was a cold-hearted and practically effective administrative move. Indeed, it was in line with anti-Semitic campaign of that time, then there was another relevant trend of transferring serious physics into very few central Moscow institutes - in late 1930-ies this process was dubbed "fianization" (FIAN is physical inst of acad.sci where all these laser events happened).

It appears that it was I.E.Tamm who was the real commander of Fabricant's invention fate - in 1947-49 they closely collaborated with Fabricant on educational projects in MEPHI and 9-th dept. of MPEI - they merged in 1951. (That's where Sakharov emerged in this story - he was an inexperienced lecturer so Tamm sent him to Fabrikant's established physics chair in MPEI while Tamm's own project of theor.physics chair in MEPHI been created from scrap ) Then Tamm became one of top scientific decision makers in H-bomb project - and therefore most influential person in soviet physics and FIAN. And he did participate in several other episodes of "fianizations".

I have a strange idea that it was a sort of "friendly" expropriation. Both Fabricant and Tamm were most widely admired persons in soviet physics, and it seems they had close and friendly relations for a long time. Probably it gives an explanation why Fabricant got significant share in revenues from laser invention. He was finally forgotten by soviet powers only by late 60-ies - coinciding with the time of Tamm terminal illness.

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