Vitaly Ginzburg, who was one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century, died on Sunday 8 November at the age of 93. Ginzburg shared the 2003 Nobel Prize for Physics with Alexei Abrikosov and Tony Leggett for their work on the theory of superconductors and superfluids. He had been ill for some time and had been in hospital since 5 October.

Ginzburg was born in Moscow on 4 October 1916 into a Jewish family. He had a relatively short primary education, only starting school at age 11 and leaving four years later in 1931 to work as a technician in an X-ray laboratory at a local higher-education technical institute. It was here that his interest in physics first began, sparked by popular-science books such as Physics in Our Day by the Russian physicist Orest Danilovich Hvolson.

Ginzburg joined Moscow State University in 1933, graduating five years later with a degree in physics. He then began a PhD, which he completed in 1940, taking just two years instead of the usual three. Ginzburg immediately joined the P N Lebedev Physical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, which, the following year, after the Soviet Union entered the Second World War, was moved to the city of Kazan in central Russia. Ginzburg obtained a DSc in 1942.

Enter the H-bomb

After the war, Ginzburg returned to the Lebedev, where he worked in the institute's theory department as a deputy to Igor Tamm. In 1948 Ginzburg became part of the team that developed the Soviet Union's hydrogen bomb after Tamm was asked to suggest people who could contribute to the effort. Ginzburg's key contribution was to suggest using lithium-6 as a nuclear fuel – an idea that made it possible to build a practical H-bomb. In 1951 Ginzburg was removed from the H-bomb team for reasons that were never made explicit but that were undoubtedly due to his Jewish background and the fact that his wife was a former political prisoner.

Although Ginzburg started out as an experimental physicist in the field of optics, he quickly realised that his talents were as a theorist and went on to work in many different areas of physics and astrophysics. In 1950, for example, he developed with Lev Landau a partially phenomenological theory of superconductivity. He also studied how electromagnetic waves propagate through plasmas, such as the ionosphere, developed a theory of the origin of cosmic radiation, and worked on the superfluidity of helium II.

Ginzburg's Nobel prize centred on his work on "type-II" superconductors – materials in which superconductivity and magnetism can co-exist. They differ from "type-I" superconductors, which completely repel magnetic fields. In 1950 Ginzburg, together with Lev Landau, introduced a parameter to describe the interaction between the superconductor and the magnetic field, and went on to show that superconductiivty and magnetism could only co-exist if this parameter is greater than 0.71.

However all superconductors at the time had much lower values and the pair did not pursure the theory in this regime. It was in 1952 that Abrikosov, building on Ginzburg and Landau's work, who predicted the existence of type-II superconductors for the first time.

"To me, the special charm and specific feature of theoretical physics is that you can quickly change what you are studying," said Ginzburg in an interview with physicsworld.com published only last week. "Typically, you do not need many years to build new equipment, as experimentalists often do. Having said all that, I think that my biggest achievement in physics is connected with the theory of superconductivity."

Staunch atheist

In 1971, after Tamm's death, Ginzburg was appointed head of the theoretical department at the Lebedev before officially retiring in 1988, although he continued giving his famous weekly seminars, which he had begun in the 1950s, for many more years. In 1998 Ginzburg took over as editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk – a position he held until his death.

Ginzburg married twice – first to fellow student Olga Zamsha in 1937, whom he divorced in 1946, and then in the same year to Nina Ermakova. The couple did not have any children although Ginzburg had a daughter from his first marriage. His second wife survives him.

A staunch atheist, Ginzburg was critical in later years of the growing influence of the church in Russian secular education. He particularly disliked the church pushing creationism as the foundation of science, although he always maintained that to be – or not be – religious was a fundamental human right. "But I am convinced that the bright future of mankind is connected with the progress of science," he said in his interview with physicsworld.com, "and I believe it is inevitable that one day religions (at least those existing now) will drop in status to no higher than that of astrology."