More on Sakharov

In Nature Vol. 344, March 1, 1990 appeared three articles on A.D. Sakharov. The main article, by Soviet physicist E.L. Feinberg, entitled ‘The Physicist and the Soviet Citizen’ gives a biographical sketch, a discourse on Sakharov’s scientific work, notes on his political evolution, and his disarmament and human rights activities.

We learn that Sakharov’s father taught physics at high school and university and published several textbooks. His spiritual development was influenced by father, mother and grandmother, all of whom are said to have ‘belonged to the finest layer of the Russian intelligentsia and imparted its traditions to him’. Sakharov was born in Moscow in 1921. Sakharov attended Moscow University and after the war he joined a group headed by the physicist I.E. Tamm to work on the development of high tech weapons. As is well known, he made very important contributions in this field and was ‘generously rewarded by the government — with three Golden Stars of the Hero of Soviet Labour, among other orders and prizes — and in 1953 was elected a full member of the USSR Academy of Sciences.’ Over the period from 1948 to 1968 about 20 years of Sakharov’s life were devoted mainly to perfecting the hydrogen bomb, plus work on the peaceful use of nuclear fusion. But by 1961 he was already coming into conflict with Krushchev over further testing of the bomb. He lost his position when he published abroad ‘Meditations on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom’. He received the Nobel peace prize in 1975 but was sent to Gor’kii to live under constant surveillance following his protests over the invasion of Afghanistan. As everyone knows, he was released by Gorbachev in 1986.

In his scientific work and thought, Sakharov ranged from nuclear fusion to strong magnetic fields, elementary particles, field theory and cosmology. According to Feinberg,

The very trend of his thought was unusual. Moreover, when expressing his ideas he often used to omit some intermediate elements which seemed obvious to himself. Accordingly, at times his arguments at first seemed inconceivable and even plain wrong. Only after further, sometimes rather lengthy reasoning would it become clear that he was right.

Feinberg’s memoir becomes most compelling when he turns to Sakharov’s political evolution and views on disarmament. Pointing out that Sakharov was neither a member of the communist youth organization or the party, he notes that, nevertheless ‘his political views were in accordance with official ideology until almost 1956, the year Khruschev revealed Stalin’s ferocious crimes’. Then, and this is of the greatest interest,

It is absolutely wrong to think (as many people do) that Sakharov’s political activity was a kind of repentance for the ‘sin’ of participation in the bomb making. At that time, as well as later, most physicists believed that the world would not be safe if one power had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. Even in 1944, Neils Bohr was greatly troubled by this, as later were Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell. I remember Landau (who himself has been jailed under Stalin, but who nevertheless took some part in the thermonuclear project) saying to me many times in the 1960s: ‘Good for physicists — they saved the world from war.’

Sakharov was of the same opinion. And then,

I heard at second hand that during his meeting with Edward Teller about one year ago he said to him something of the kind: ‘Essentially, you and I were solving a common problem.’ On another occasion I myself heard him say, ‘Teller is a tragic figure’.

Sakharov’s belief was that one should struggle for non-proliferation, and for reduction of nuclear arsenals as well as of conventional armaments. But he saw this as being possible only in the open world with human rights truly secured. In sum, I am sure that his political activities would have followed the same course even if he had not been involved in the making of the bomb.

V.N. Soyfer in a brief article (‘Against Lysenko’) in the same number of Nalure, notes that as early as 1959 Sakharov was producing calculations of the genetic threat from nuclear test explosions that contradicted the soothing claims of Edward Teller and, as a development of this thinking, he went on to attack Lysenkoism. Soyfer adds that ‘By this time Tamm and Sakharov had become legendary figures in biological circles.’

The third article by M. Frank-Kamenetskii only barely touches on Sakharov the man, but describes the physical environment — ‘an old Russian town that had been stripped of its name and was impersonally referred to (as it still is) as the “facility” or the “mail box”! This high security, defended town was, if you like, a Soviet equivalent of Los Alamos — a community of people working, under tolerably comfortable conditions, on a state-run atomic energy project; the time was 1951 or 1952. The author amusingly describes how scientists forbidden under security regulations from discussing their work when away from their immediate work place, invented a vocabulary of substitution terms so that they could talk of scientific work unimpeded by state security officers. Sakharov was one of the scientists who inhabited this ‘mail box’.