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Igor Y. Tamm, (1895 - 1971)


In an essay on Igor Tamm, a Russian writer claims that the theoretical physicist belonged to an intelligentsia "convinced that the most important thing is to build something, to do something useful." He went on to add that, "Perhaps most important of all was [Tamm's] independent spirit in matters large and small, in life and in science."

In many ways Tamm was an iconoclast. He was born in Vladivostok in 1895, the son of a city engineer. In 1913 his parents sent him to university in Scotland, hoping that this would keep him out of revolutionary politics. But the following year he returned to Russia and began studying at the University of Moscow. He joined the Menshevik party, opposed Russia's continued participation in World War I and in the turbulent years following the 1917 Russian Revolution, he was imprisoned both by the Bolsheviks and by the anti-Bolshevik forces.

Despite the pressure to do so, Tamm never joined the Communist Party and after his brother was arrested and executed, he apparently kept a packed bag ready in case the secret police came for him, too. Physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov says that throughout his life Tamm remained faithful to his youthful conviction that "a pure, undistorted socialism [is] the only means of resolving mankind's problems and ensuring general happiness."

Tamm joined the faculty at Moscow University in 1922 and from 1930 to 1941 he headed the department of theoretical physics. In 1934, he set up the theoretical division of the Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences, which he headed until he died in 1971. In 1948, Igor Kurchatov, the head of the Soviet nuclear program, asked Tamm to put together a team of scientists to check calculations that other scientists had already completed on the feasibility of a hydrogen bomb. Tamm selected his most talented students, including Sakharov and Vitalii Ginzburg to work on the project. Sakharov rejected the existing H-bomb design, coming up with a new concept that he dubbed the "Layer Cake."

Shortly afterwards, Tamm, Sakharov and other members of the team were sent to continue their work at Arzamas, the secret weapons laboratory. It was during those years that Sakharov and Tamm developed a very close professional and personal relationship. Sakharov would later say that "Igor Tamm played the largest role in my life," adding that Tamm was the only scientist to influence his opinions on social issues. Following the successful test of the "Layer Cake" in 1953, Tamm was awarded a Hero of Socialist Labor star and the Stalin Prize. Shortly afterwards, he asked to be sent back to Moscow.

In 1958, Tamm was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics for the discovery of what is called the Cherenkov effect. He continued working in theoretical physics into the late '60s even as his health declined rapidly. At the end of his life he was granted the Academy of Sciences top honor, the Lomonosov medal. He was too sick to give the traditional lecture at the award ceremony, so an emotional Sakharov read it for him.
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