Gennady Gorelik. Book review. Zeldovich: Reminiscences. Edited by R. A. Sunyaev. Chapman & Hall/CRC, Boca Raton, FL, 2004. //    PHYSICS TODAY, August 2005

 

 

A physicist who had a chance to attend Yakov Zeldovich’s weekly seminars on astrophysics at Moscow University’s Sternberg Astronomical Institute could hardly forget their wonderful atmosphere of truth seeking and their blend of passion, honesty, bravery, ingenuity, and generosity. The seminars set an excellent stage for the new sciences of relativistic astrophysics and physical cosmology that emerged in the 1960s. Before the new astrophysical era began, Lev Landau said “Astrophysicists are often in error, but never in doubt.” While Zeldovich introduced the aphorism into international scientific lore, he did a lot to invalidate his own statement that “the science about the past of the universe is infinitely more interesting than the past of the science about the universe.”

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 Russia, Westernizers clashed with Slavophiles around poet Fyodor Tyutchev’s lines: “You can’t access Russia by reason and measure it with a common yardstick. Russia is so special that you can only take it on faith.” Those lines were much more relevant for Soviet Russia, a country sometimes referred to as a riddle wrapped in a mystery. Apparently, the Russian contributors were writing for their colleagues and did not care much about explaining Soviet realities. Although the translator tried, in short footnotes, to explain some aspects of Soviet lifestyle, much more detail is needed to understand the real human (or inhuman) impact of Soviet peculiarities, such as the “propiska,” an official permit required to work, get married, gain access to education, and so forth—a tangible vestige of serfdom in Soviet socialism. A better guide to the Soviet world would be the novel The Master and Margarita, by the great Mikhail Bulgakov, in which Mr. Woland (better known as Satan) comments on the Soviet Muscovites as being “ordinary people. . .only the housing problem has corrupted them.” What was extraordinary is that despite such corruption, some Soviet people were doing excellent science.

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 USSR for weaponry physics, he considered Zeldovich his only friend. Sakharov’s human­rights activity eventually broke up their friendship. Although the book contains some material on that matter, it is very far from a clear picture.

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 Boston University. In addition to his many writings on Russian science, he is also the author of the updated Web exhibit, “Andrei Sakharov: Soviet Physics, Nuclear Weapons and Human Rights” (http://www.aip.org/history/sakharov), which is sponsored by AIP’s the Center for History of Physics.