Founding fathers: Václav Votruba

News, 19 December 2022

On 19 December, the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research pays tribute to the memory of an outstanding Czechoslovak theoretical physicist Václav Votruba, one of the two first Vice-Directors of JINR (19.12.1909 – 11.09.1990).

He is considered the first Czechoslovak scientist engaged in quantum physics and systematics of elementary particles, as well as the founder of the theory of elementary particles in the country. Professor Votruba also became famous as the founder of the school of Czech theoretical physicists. Despite his achievements in science, it was the education of the younger generation of scientists that he considered his vocation.

After graduating from Charles University in Prague in 1933, he simultaneously worked as a teacher of mathematics and physics at Prague schools and as a research assistant at the Institute of Theoretical Physics of the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Charles University. During the Second World War, in 1941 – 1943, he was an official at the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute in Prague. In 1943 – 1944 he was a teacher at a gymnasium. Later, he was mobilised as a laborer to construct a railway tunnel in Prague.

In May 1945, he became a docent at the Institute of Theoretical Physics. In the 1946 – 1947 academic year, he had his training at the University of Zurich under the guidance of Professor Friedrich Wenzel and Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli. In 1952-56, he delivered lectures on theoretical physics and quantum mechanics at Comenius University in Bratislava, Charles University, and the Czech Technical University.

Václav Votruba held the post of a JINR Vice-Director from March 1956 until the summer of 1959. At the first session of the Scientific Council on 24 – 26 September 1956, Professor Votruba presented two reports on the directions he was responsible for: consideration of the contingent of employees from the JINR Member States, in addition to the USSR countries, and a plan of research work of the Laboratory of Theoretical Physics. During the first two years of the Institute’s work, the number of employees from states outside the USSR increased from 44 to 122, many of them were world-renowned; the problem of attracting physicists-experimentalists was solved.

Václav Yuzefovich Votruba was actively engaged in the formation of the structure of the Institute’s scientific directions, the international team, as well as the instrumental support of research. Votruba made a significant contribution to the organization of cooperation between JINR and CERN.

While working at JINR, he rescued his student Milos Lokaichek, a Czechoslovak physicist, from prison. During the visit of President of Czechoslovakia Antonín Zápotocký to Dubna, Votruba asked him to let the physicist convicted for his religious views go.

In 1959-67 he headed the Department of Theoretical Physics at the Czech Technical University in Prague. Moreover, on his return to Czechoslovakia, he continued his teaching career as a Professor.

Václav Votruba was fluent in several languages: German, Russian, English, and French. He was Chief Editor of the Czechoslovak Physical Journal and its English-language version. He also wrote a number of textbooks for universities. All his scientific papers, especially university textbooks, were distinguished by an exceptional clarity of interpretation of even the most difficult things to understand.

Václav Votruba devoted his research to nuclear physics, quantum field theory, elementary particle physics, symmetry in elementary particle theory, and quantum electrodynamics. He was the first one in the world who solved the problem of an electron-positron pair production in the collision of a photon with an electron. He suggested the idea that pi-mesons could be interpreted as a three-charged state of elementary particles with isotopic spin 1. He used the isotopic spin algebra to order the system of elementary particles.

Laureate of the State Prize of Czechoslovakia “For Merit to Society”, Honorary Member of the Union of Czech Mathematicians and Physicists, Academician of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, Václav Votruba is considered the founder of the theory of elementary particles in this country.

In 2003, the Doppler Institute of the Faculty of Nuclear Physics and Physical Engineering of the Czech Technical University established the Václav Votruba Prize for the best doctoral thesis in the fields of theoretical physics.