Gennady Gorelik. Book review. Zeldovich: Reminiscences. Edited by R. A. Sunyaev. Chapman & Hall/CRC,
A physicist who had a
chance to attend Yakov Zeldovich’s weekly seminars on astrophysics at
Zeldovich: Reminiscences, edited by Rashid A. Sunyaev, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, presents a plethora of anecdotal firsthand accounts of the physicist in “Astrophysics and Cosmology,” the book’s largest and best part. Most interesting is the mosaic of recollections by Andrei Doroshkevich and Igor Novikov, Zeldovich’s first associates after he left the world of top-secret H-bomb physics for the wide-open secrets of the universe. Kip Thorne’s vivid portrait of Zeldovich against the backdrop of blackhole radiation is surpassed only by the one presented in Thorne’s own book, Black Holes and Time Warps (W. W. Norton, 1994).
However, beyond the
pure astrophysics, I am afraid the book is more likely to generate puzzling
questions about the Russian scientist. In czarist
The original Russian contributions for Zeldovich were written during the time of glasnost, and the memorial seems to be the first one from postSoviet Russia that was not overwhelmed by the old dictum “Say nothing but good about the dead.” Some contributors dared to touch on difficult and controversial questions about Zeldovich. No wonder it was hard to answer them—that is, if the reader keeps in mind how relevant the notion of the event horizon was to Soviet space-time, and especially to the closed subjects of nuclear weaponry and the Communist Party’s control over science.
But it is a pity that more than 10 years after the original 1993 Russian edition, the contributions were just translated rather than elaborated in order to assimilate newly declassified and disclosed information. For example, Semyon Gershtein, with his richly detailed and warmly personal recollection, challenged Andrei Sakharov’s surmise that the idea of Zeldovich’s Tube project for the hydrogen bomb was based on intelligence information. Today, Sakharov’s guess is a wellestablished fact: A piece of material evidence—Zeldovich’s handwriting on an intelligence report in January 1946 and signed by the infamous KGB physicist Yakov Terletsky—is presented in my book The World of Andrei Sakharov: A Russian Physicist’s Path to Freedom (Oxford U. Press, 2005), translated by Antonina W. Bouis.
Another contributor is
the late Lev Feoktistov, who worked under Zeldovich during the time of the
Third Idea (the Soviet equivalent of the Teller–Ulam design). A few years after
the Russian edition of Zeldovich was released, Feoktistov, in his article “The
Hydrogen Bomb: Who Betrayed Its Secret?,” expressed the view that the Soviet
designers were not independent. I disagree with his view, but I do believe the
controversy reveals important things about the relationship between Sakharov
and Zeldovich. Zeldovich played an enormous role in Sakharov’s scientific life.
Even some time after Sakharov’s dismissal from “special physics,” the codename
used in the
Another unclear issue in the book is the Zeldovich–Landau relationship. Even though Landau had written a reference letter (which is included in the book) to nominate Zeldovich for election to the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and Zeldovich greatly revered his sponsor, Landau broke off the friendship in the early 1950s because of Zeldovich’s effort to involve him in special physics more than he wanted. What was behind this insensitivity of Zeldovich’s? The book does not provide a clue. And what was behind the nonelection of Zeldovich to full academician rank in 1953, after Joseph Stalin had died and the alltoopowerful Igor Kurchatov, the scientific head of the Soviet nuclear project, had written a reference letter (also included in the book) for Zeldovich? Again, the book reveals no clues.
I regret that the title of the original 1993 Russian edition, which translates into Familiar Unfamiliar Zeldovich, was replaced by a less colorful English one. While Zeldovich’s science is a great joy for readers to familiarize themselves with, his social personality is still mysteriously unfamiliar.
Gennady Gorelik is a research fellow at the
Center for Philosophy and History of Science at