George Michael Volkoff
1914 - 2000

by Elizabeth Bell, Alex Volkoff and Olga Volkoff, May 30 2000 Globe and Mail

Physicist, adventurer, linguist, husband and father.   Born Feb. 23, 1914, in Moscow. Died April 24 in Vancouver, B.C., after several strokes, aged 86.

George always said he was who he was because his great-grandmother crossed herself with two fingers.   As a member of the persecuted "Old Believer" orthodox sect in pre-revolutionary Russia, she had learned the alphabet to read the Bible.   That leap into literacy helped her descendants transcend serfdom.   This eventually led to George becoming a nuclear physicist.

George's formal education was acquired around the globe.   His early schooling occurred in Canada where his family immigrated when he was 10; it continued in a Russian-language high school in Harbin, Manchuria, where his father went to teach at a technical school.   George entered the University of British Columbia at 16, graduating in 1934 at the top of his class with the Governor-General's Gold Medal.   While working on his PhD in the late 1930s at the University of California, Berkeley, he became part of an elite group of physicists.   With J. Robert Oppenheimer, George published his most significant scientific work, postulating the existence of neutron stars, three decades before they were actually observed in nature.

George's inherited passion for education included teaching as well as learning. He was already a full professor at UBC by the age of 32 (after a stint in Montreal helping to design Canada's first nuclear reactor) and subsequently served his alma mater as head of the physics department and dean of science.   His association with UBC spanned 70 years; he died in the hospital on campus.

George was also an adventurer.   He loved nothing more than planning a trip in minute detail. Such care ensured that his family first experienced both the Alhambra in Spain and the Parthenon in Greece by magical moonlight.   At the age of 72, he happily walked with his bags through landslides on the Silk Road on the Pakistan/China border, fully confident of finding transport on the other side.   In his late 70s, he amazed colleagues by taking on a consulting job because it meant visiting part of Siberia he had never seen.

He savoured language and poetry as others might fine food. Totally fluent in Russian and English, he played a major role in facilitating scientific communication between east and west.   At the dinner table, he was as likely to ask for a dictionary to check the etymology of a word as to recite a poem by Pushkin or to correct someone's use of the subjunctive.

Family evenings at the opera were gala events with everyone in evening dress.   At home, chamber music appeared to stimulate his creative thinking.   In the 1960s, he discovered the recordings of the Shostakovich string quartets and spent weeks listening to one quartet per evening, starting again with the first one each time he reached the last.   In the final years of his life, he was pushed in a wheelchair from the hospital to the Chan Centre to hear afternoon concerts.

He was passionately Canadian and very grateful for the opportunities his adopted country offered him. In later years, he welcomed new Canadians at citizenship ceremonies, sharing his own experience of what was possible in this great country.   Being named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1994 was one of his proudest moments.

George never hesitated to strike up conversations with strangers in elevators and made lifelong friends of people he met in airplanes.   His greatest pleasure was to gather friends, and especially family, around a table to share food, drink, animated conversation and laughter.   He leaves his wife Olga (also a Russian immigrant and scientist, whom he met at UBC) -- he died two months short of their 60th wedding anniversary.   He also leaves three daughters and three grandsons.

Elizabeth, Alex and Olga are George's daughters.

From the Globe and Mail, Saturday April 29, 2000:

Helped build Canada's first reactor - UBC professor also established existence of neutron stars before they were discovered


George Michael Volkoff, a UBC professor who helped establish the existence of neutron stars long before they were discovered, and later helped design Canada's first nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ont., died in Vancouver this week.   He was 86.

His friend and colleague, Erich Vogt, professor emeritus of nuclear physics at the University of British Columbia, said Dr. Volkoff suffered a stroke in 1996 that left half of his body paralyzed.   He never fully recovered.   He died at the Purdy Pavilion, an extended-care hospital associated with UBC.  

Dr. Volkoff was a postgraduate student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1930s when he combined with Robert Oppenheimer to write a paper on neutron stars -- collapsed stars made up of almost solid neutrons.   The stars are small -- a few kilometres in diameter -- but they essentially retain all their mass.   "This is a very unusual object," Prof. Vogt said. "It has a density of about a million-billion times that of water."   (Water has a density of 1 kg/litre.)   The paper, On Massive Neutron Cores, was published in 1939.   The first neutron star was discovered about 30 years later.   Since then, hundreds have been observed.   (Dr. Oppenheimer is better known for his leading role in developing the atomic bomb.)

Prof. Vogt said it was "among the most exciting intellectual developments" in science in the 20th century.   It is an important factor in allowing scientists to "read the life history of the universe and the life of the stars.   We all have that human gift for asking what's it all about and that's what really made the last century thrive. . . . This was a very deep fundamental discovery of Oppenheimer and Volkoff."

During the Second World War, the Allies assigned to Canada the problem of building a nuclear reactor.   Dr. Volkoff was head of the theoretical group, the ones that used mathematics rather than experiments at the Montreal Laboratories, the predecessor of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.   He was responsible for the reactor's design.   It eventually became known as the CANDU reactor.

The design was completed in 1945 and the reactor was installed in Chalk River.   It was "the very first nuclear reactor built in Canada," Prof. Vogt said.

Dr. Volkoff was born in Moscow on Feb. 23, 1914.   In 1924, his father, an engineer, decided he would give his family a fresh start in Canada.   The family settled in Vancouver but his father, Michael, could not find work so he again crossed the Pacific to teach at a technical school in the Manchurian city of Harbin, which had a very large Russian population.   Dr. Volkoff returned to Vancouver to register at the University of British Columbia, but his father remained in Manchuria.   His father was told that conditions were improving in the Soviet Union, so in 1936 he went back and was caught up in the Stalin purges.   His father disappeared after he was sent to the coal mines on the Arctic Ocean.

"George had very personal experiences of the harshness of the Soviet regime," Prof. Vogt said.

After earning his BA and MA at UBC, Dr. Volkoff enrolled at Berkeley, earning his PhD in 1940 for his work with Dr. Oppenheimer.   He attended Princeton University before returning to UBC in 1940 as an assistant professor in physics.   That same year, he married Olga Okulitch in Vancouver. After the Chalk River project, Dr. Volkoff again returned to UBC as head of the department of physics.   He was appointed dean of the faculty of science in 1972.

Dr. Volkoff also served as editor of the Canadian Journal of Physics from 1950 to 1956.   He was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 1994.   Besides his wife, he leaves his daughters, Elizabeth, Alexandra and Olga, and three grandchildren.

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