Physics World, August 2002

Gennady Gorelik

Sakharov, science and freedom

Review: Sakharov: A Biography, by Richard Lourie. 2002 Brandeis University Press 465pp 

If anyone deserves more than one biography then surely that honour should go to Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), the physicist who produced the most powerful explosion in the history of the world and 14 years later was awarded the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize for his support of human rights. It is for this reason that I was delighted to review this new biography of Sakharov by the American writer Richard Lourie.

But how essential to Sakharov's life story is the fact that he was a physicist? Lourie does not seem to think that it was important at all. After all, Sakharov's most glorious accomplishments were humanitarian. However, I think that Sakharov's physics background was relevant to his humanitarian activities. In 1989 - by which point he had become an accredited political figure as an elected member of the Soviet Congress and a leader of its democratic faction - Sakharov gave a talk entitled "Science and freedom". In that speech, Sakharov made it clear how deep his love for physics went.

For Sakharov, science and freedom were one and the same thing. Physics was the major - if not the only - arena in which one could feel freedom in the Soviet Union. It is unfortunate therefore that Lourie seems to have relied on the opinion of a historian who sees no real difference in the degrees of autonomy that were given to Soviet physicists and to biologists. The difference was, in fact, huge. Soviet biology was devastated, while physics survived - brilliantly so, under the circumstances.

There was no equivalent in physics of Lysenko - the self-taught biologist whose home-grown theories were supported by Stalin and wrecked the hopes of generations of Soviet bioscientists. Indeed, physicists in the Soviet Union even managed to provide shelter for some biologists. The reason for the pre-eminence of physics is clear: Stalin wanted the bomb. And Lavrentii Beria - the Communist head of the Soviet bomb project - wanted it even more. His life literally depended on the successful creation of a bomb and he knew that physicists - and physicists alone - could deliver it.

The fact that his life was at stake explains why Beria helped physicists to defend Einstein and his theory of relativity against Marxist demagoguery and ignorance. And it is also why Sakharov and other physicists were able to exercise freedom, honesty and personal responsibility, and to act in a democratic fashion. True, those freedoms extended only to their science but that meant a lot for people who had devoted their lives to the scientific cause.

Sakharov eventually realized that life outside the confines of physics was effectively a grand social experiment, in which total control over information was essential. Soviet propaganda was, for a while, able to brainwash even the brightest and best people. The turning point for Sakharov came in the spring of 1968, when he wrote an essay entitled "On progress, peaceful coexistence, and intellectual freedom". Initially circulated covertly by hand from one person to the next, it eventually appeared in the New York Times. Sakharov - the top-secret nuclear expert - was suddenly transformed into a public figure and an advocate of human rights.

Lourie sees no specific reason for the unusual transformation in Sakharov's profile that took place at this time. He believes, instead, that it was a long, drawn-out process. He seems to place too much faith in Sakharov's Memoirs (1990 Knopf), where no particular explanation for the change was put forward. In fact, the trigger was Sakharov's encounter in 1967 with the Soviet government over anti-ballistic-missile defence. Sakharov had written a detailed secret letter to the Soviet leadership arguing for a moratorium on strategic anti-ballistic-missile systems. He felt that an arms race based on this new technology would increase the chances of all-out global nuclear war.

The Soviet leaders, however, ignored the problem, which told Sakharov a lot about the regime. The question of nuclear arms was, after all, well within his professional competence. He had not based his proposal on wishy-washy humanitarianism but on the real threat of geopolitical instability. He felt that he had to go public, and his famous 1968 essay pointed to an anti-ballistic arms race as being a major contributor to the threat of nuclear war.

Sakharov never mentioned his 1967 letter, thereby fulfilling his commitment never to divulge secret information. Although the letter was declassified a few years after Sakharov's death, Lourie has somehow failed to appreciate the significance of this crucial document and other information declassified in the post-Soviet era. This material would have helped fill in the blanks in Sakharov's Memoirs. It would also have shed new light on the most troublesome issues of Sakharov's life, such as the H-bomb espionage and his seemingly discreditable involvement in the 50 megatonne Czar-bomb of 1961, which later evolved into the super-torpedo that Sakharov dubbed "cannibal".

Basically what Lourie has done is to retell Sakharov's Memoirs, which he himself translated into English 12 years ago. Lourie is, however, an excellent writer and tells the story in a much slicker fashion than Sakharov did. But I feel that the interplay between Sakharov's physics and humanitarian thinking is too important to be ignored. It was hardly a coincidence that Sakharov's two best ideas in pure physics - his explanation of baryon asymmetry in the universe and the idea of induced gravity - emerged shortly before his 1968 revolt. Sakharov perceived these ideas as an extraordinary gift of fate - after a two-decade hiatus, he realized that his creativity in physics was still alive. It re-established his self-confidence in science, and far beyond as it turned out.

Lourie also tends to stereotype Sakharov as the clichéd, absent-minded theorist who wore mismatched shoes and donned galoshes even in good weather. But if he was so unreasonable, why should we have trusted his advice on arms control? Why should the gadgets he devised in his parallel vocation as an engineer and inventor have worked?

I also searched in vain for this American author to comment on Sakharov's conflicts with his US colleagues. In particular, in the late 1950s Sakharov disagreed with Edward Teller on the question of nuclear testing in the atmosphere. He also opposed Teller's stance on America's Star Wars plan in the 1980s. However, Sakharov did believe that American physicists had been "unfair and even ignoble" in their attitude toward Teller following his clash with Robert Oppenheimer. In Sakharov's view, both men deserved equal respect since each had acted according to his own understanding of what was morally right.

Was Sakharov naively wrong or was his dissent - based on his first-hand experiences with Soviet leaders and strategic weapons - reasonable? Lourie's biography does not address this difficult question. But I am not too sorry because I have quite a few intriguing questions left to answer in the forthcoming English version of my book on Sakharov.

Gennady Gorelik is a research fellow in the Center for Philosophy and History of Science, Boston University, US, email An English version of his Russian-language book Andrei Sakharov: Science and Freedom (2000 Moscow-Izhevsk), co-written with Antonina W Bouis, is due to be published by Oxford University Press.