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Igor Kurchatov, (1903 - 1960)


Igor Kurchatov, (1903 - 1960) Andrei Sakharov once described Igor Kurchatov as a man whose most pronounced trait was his fascination with "grand" science. The physicist who headed the Soviet nuclear program from 1943 until his death in 1960, was also remembered by the scientists who worked for him as a man with a robust sense of humor; a warm and loyal friend who took great care of his subordinates; and an extremely organized administrator. He was nicknamed "boroda" (the beard) by those who were close to him after he stopped shaving during the war--he said he would only get rid of the beard once the Germans were beaten. In fact, he never did. The shaggy facial hair made him look like an orthodox priest.

Kurchatov was born in the southern Urals in January 1903, the son of a surveyor and a school teacher. In 1920 he entered Tauridian University. He graduated a year early, and wrote his first scientific paper on the radioactivity of snow. In 1925, he received an invitation from the distinguished physicist Abram Ioffe to join the staff of his institute in Leningrad.

For the first few years of his professional life, Kurchatov devoted himself to the physics of dielectrics, a field of research which had immediate applications in industry. But in 1932, he and a number of other Soviet scientists were drawn to the new and exciting field of nuclear physics. An area of study that many mistakenly believed would only have practical uses in the very distant future.

The international physics community in the 1930s was small and very closely connected. In the 1930s there were just a handful of institutions conducting ground-breaking research in nuclear physics. The Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in England was one, Enrico Fermi's team at the University of Rome was another, and Kurchatov's team in Leningrad was a third. Their work was published in scientific journals and they kept track of each other's results.

After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, most nuclear scientists abandoned their research to work on the war effort. Laboratories and scientists were evacuated from Moscow and Leningrad to outlying areas. Kurchatov joined a group that was working on protecting ships from magnetic mines. However, within a year Soviet scientists noticed an alarming silence from the West about nuclear fission. The journals that had been abuzz just a couple of years earlier with the latest discoveries made no mention of nuclear research. Soviet scientists realized U.S. nuclear research had become secret and they concluded that could only mean the U.S. was trying to build an atomic bomb.

In 1943, Kurchatov was chosen to head the Soviet Union's own secret nuclear program, a task he devoted the rest of his life to. Over the years, with the success of the project and greater awareness of the destructiveness of nuclear weapons, Kurchatov grew increasingly alarmed by the possibility of their use. In 1954 after the U.S. tested a 15 megaton bomb in the Pacific, Kurchatov and several other Soviet scientists wrote an article about the dangers of atomic war. "The rate of growth of atomic explosives is such," they warned, "that in just a few years the stockpile will be large enough to create conditions under which the existence of life on earth will be impossible. The explosion of around 100 hydrogen bombs could lead to this result." But it was witnessing the 1955 test of the first Soviet superbomb that was a turning point for Kurchatov. Both he and Sakharov began to feel a deep sense of responsibility for the consequences of their work. And they both began to argue against further testing.

The success of the program did, however, give Kurchatov immense prestige in the Soviet Union especially within the political elite. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs, "Such was our confidence in him that we let him go around by himself in England calling on physicists and visiting laboratories... It should go without saying that so remarkable a man, so great a scientist, and so devoted a patriot would deserve our complete trust and respect."

In his last public appearance Kurchatov declared: "I am glad that I was born in Russia and have dedicated my life to Soviet atomic science. I deeply believe, and am firmly convinced, that our people and our government will use the achievements of that science solely for the good of mankind."
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