Theoretical physicist Yakov Borisovich Zel’dovich was born on March 8, 1914, in Minsk, Belarus. Though he received the highest academic position and honors a scientist could attain in the Soviet Union, Zel’dovich, who played a key role in the development of the USSR’s nuclear-weapons program, was in fact largely self-taught, and never attended university.
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Zel’dovich grew up in a Jewish family, although later in life, he declared himself atheist. He began his scientific career as a lab assistant at the Institute of Chemical Physics – situated first in Leningrad, later in Moscow -- at age 17. He remained associated with the Institute, part of the USSR Academy of Sciences, throughout his life.
By the time he was 22, in 1936, he had achieved the equivalent of a PhD for the work he did there, and the following year, he began doing research on the subjects of ignition, combustion and detonation. In 1939-40, together with Yuli Khariton, Zel’dovich studied the basic characteristics of fission chain reactions.
By December of 1942, Joseph Stalin had become convinced of the need for an accelerated program to build a bomb, and gave the order to make it a priority. Zel’dovich was a natural candidate for the team, joining such researchers as Igor Kurchatov, the lead scientist of the Soviet program, and Andrei Sakharov, the principal designer of the hydrogen bomb. By August 1949, the Soviets had tested their first bomb.
Zel’dovich was the first head of the theoretical department at Arzamas-16, the Soviet equivalent of the Los Alamos laboratory for the United States. There he began examining the possibility of inducing a fusion reaction – a far more powerful process than fission, and the basis for the hydrogen bomb.
By the 1950s, Zel’dovich had moved on to particle physics, and in the 1960s, he worked on question in astrophysics and cosmology. His theoretical work on the radiation of black holes and quasars was later confirmed by empirical studies, and he did important research on the formation of galaxies.
Zel’dovich received most every award presented in the Soviet Union, including the Hero of Socialist Labor – three times. He also received the prestigious Bruce Medal (presented by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific) in 1983.
Yakov Zel’dovich died suddenly on December 2, 1987, at age 73.