Andrei Dimitrievich Sakharov (1921 – 1989)

  December 20, 2021   Read time 3 min
Andrei Dimitrievich Sakharov (1921 – 1989)
The Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov not only developed the Soviet hydrogen bomb, but he also was recognized internationally as a political dissident who brought about major changes in the Soviet Union. Andrei Dimitrievich Sakharov was born on May 21, 1921, in Moscow.

His father was a college-level physics professor who encouraged his son to pursue a career in science. In 1938, just prior to the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Sakharov enrolled as a physics student at Moscow State University. Unfortunately, brutal purges led by Joseph Stalin and internal faculty conflicts had depleted that academic institution of some of its finest instructors. While Sakharov was pursuing his undergraduate degree, Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union caused a major disturbance throughout that country. Declared unfit for military duty, the intellectually gifted Sakharov evacuated Moscow along with other students and faculty members for the city of Ashkhabad in central Asia. During World War II, Ashkhabad served as an area of refuge within the vast interior of the Soviet Union because it was sufficiently distant from the turmoil created by the advancing German armies.

Sakharov graduated with honors in 1942 but then declined an opportunity to attend graduate school because he felt obligated to assist the Soviet war effort in any way possible. He was assigned to work in the laboratory of a munitions factory in Ulyanovsk, on the Volga River. There he met his first wife, Klavdia Vikkhireva, who was working in the same factory as a laboratory technician. They were married in 1943 and remained together until her death in March 1969. Sakharov remained in the laboratory at Ulyanovsk for three years, patenting several inventions. Despite wartime pressures, he managed to write several interesting papers on theoretical physics. He submitted these to Igor E. Tamm (1895–1971), head of the theoretical physics department at the Physical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (FIAN).

As the war with Germany neared an end, Sakharov accepted Tamm’s invitation to return to Moscow as his graduate student. Tamm (who would go on to share the 1958 Nobel Prize in physics) proved to be an excellent mentor for Sakharov, allowing the young scientist to mature professionally and socially. The United States’ successful use of atomic bombs against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki galvanized much of Soviet postwar science into one primary objective: the production of an atomic bomb using the principle of nuclear fission. Stalin directed the physicist Igor Kurchatov (1903–1960) to develop a nuclear fission weapon as quickly as possible. The Soviet atomic bomb program became an all-out national research and industrial effort.

While he was a graduate student, Sakharov received invitations in 1946 and 1947 to join the Soviet atomic bomb project. Both times, he declined because he wanted to remain in fundamental science and continue working with Tamm. In November 1947, Sakharov successfully defended his dissertation research on particle physics and received his Ph.D. In June 1948, Tamm and several of his students formed a special theoretical group at FIAN. Their job was to perform the preliminary concepts and design for a Soviet hydrogen bomb. At the time, most of the Soviet nuclear research effort was devoted to Kurchatov’s push to build a nuclear bomb based on fission. Kurchatov succeeded on August 29, 1949, and the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear detonation in a remote desert.

With the U.S. nuclear monopoly now broken and cold war tensions heating up, Russian nuclear weapons designers began to give their attention to the development of a much more powerful, so-called super bomb based on thermonuclear fusion. Of the few Soviet physicists thinking about hydrogen bombs, the majority favored using some type of cylindrical or tube configuration (the truba, or “tube” concept). They were undoubtedly influenced by intelligence reports from Soviet atomic spies who described some of the concepts emerging in the United States. However, the brilliant young Sakharov recognized the limitations of the truba approach and introduced a radically new thermonuclear weapon scheme, called the sloyka after the Russian word for an inexpensive layer cake.

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