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Citizen Kurchatov: Stalin's Bomb Maker


Nuclear Secrets

Nuclear physics was in a golden age during the first three decades of the 20th century . Physicists in Europe, the United States, and Japan were making breakthrough discoveries almost daily. Experiments revealed the secrets of the atom and subatomic particles, and theoretical physicists developed mathematics to describe the peculiar way these atoms and particles behaved.

By 1930, the fundamentals of quantum mechanics had been developed by Heisenberg, Dirac, Schoedinger, Born, and others. Their counterintuitive theories were controversial to many physicists and incomprehensible to most of the public. It was difficult to explain or understand how these theories could be used for any practical purpose.

While the Soviets invested heavily in technology and science, they demanded practical results. Physicists were expected to produce work that was useful to the state. Stalin was now in power, and he showed little tolerance for those who didn't contribute to his five-year plans.

In spite of this, near the end of 1932 Kurchatov decided to shift his field of research from ferroelectricity to nuclear physics. It was a risky change. The threat of purges loomed over all scientists, and those working on industrial applications felt a little safer. Nuclear physics had only vague and distant hopes of producing practical applications.



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