Andrei Sakharov: Theoretical Physics and Practical Humanics

Gennady Gorelik
Center for Philosophy and History of Science, Boston University

Commemorative Ceremony on the Occasion of the 10th Anniversary of the Death of Andrei Sakharov,
14 December 1999, European Parliament, Strasbourg


physics ---the science treating of the properties of matter and energy
humanics --- rare. irreg. The subject or study of human affairs.
Oxford English Dictionary
1948-1955: First and second H-bombs, and Tokamak *
1958: The moral and political conclusions drawn from the figures *
1967: ABM and the "metamorphosis" of Andrei Sakharov *
1968: Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom *
1968-75: Peace, Progress, and Human Rights. Nobel Peace Prize *
ABM and personal responsibility in 1968 and 1999 *
Strasbourg is quite an appropriate place to talk about Andrei Sakharov the physicist. He was born to Moscow physics, but it was Strasbourg that served as the cradle for Moscow physics. The two founding fathers of Moscow physics graduated from Strasbourg University and took their doctorates here.

The experimenter Petr Lebedev (1866-1912) became a professor at Moscow University in 1900 and became the first Russian physicist of world stature. His main achievement was the measurement of the minute pressure that light exerts on any illuminated surface.

The theorist Leonid Mandelshtam (1879-1944) taught at Strasbourg University for 10 years and returned to Russia on the eve of WWI. He became a professor at Moscow University in 1925 and created the Moscow School of theoretical physics.

What is most remarkable is that both physicists manifested high moral standards and served as role models for Sakharov’s milieu.

There are many reasons to think that Andrei Sakharov was a lucky person, and this milieu was only one piece of his luck.

Another piece of the luck was the family he was born into. It belonged to Moscow intelligentsia with personal connections to Leo Tolstoy and the whole world of Russian culture.

Andrei’s parents happened to survive the Civil War and Stalin’s Terror, although there were good reasons to arrest them: one of Andrei’s grandfathers was a general in the Czar’s army, while the other was an active member of the Constitutional Democratic party banned by the Bolsheviks in the very first months of their rule.

Andrei was the beloved first-born. His parents provided him with an unusual amount of home education – he did not enter public school until the age of 13. Sakharov thought that it might have diminished his ability to communicate with people but, on the other hand, his family environment protected his inner freedom from early intrusions of Soviet public life.

Andrei’s father taught physics in college and wrote popular science books. He was Andrei’s first science teacher and a key figure in the process of his intellectual and moral growing up.

Another key figure for Sakharov’s maturing was Igor Tamm, who guided his graduate study in the theoretical department of the Lebedev Physical Institute, a place where Mandelshtam’s traditions in science and ethics prevailed.

Sakharov plunged into pure physics in 1945, after three years of work for an ammunition factory during the war time. By that time Igor Tamm was one of the most prominent theoretical physicists in Russia. His accomplishments included the theory of Cherenkov radiation that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1958.

Tamm’s way of teaching combined a passion for fundamental physics, a gentleness towards his students and the old-fashioned morals of "pre-Revolutionary" descent. Tamm’s socialist ideals were of this same pre-Revolutionary descent. All those elements shaped Sakharov’s world view.

1948-1955: First and second H-bombs, and Tokamak

Twice, in 1946 and 1947, Sakharov declined invitations to join the Soviet nuclear project -- he was unwilling to leave his beloved mentor and the pure physics he began to enjoy in the Lebedev Physical Institute. But in 1948 he had no choice: the Project came to the Institute and drafted Tamm and his team into H-bomb research.

Sakharov turned out to be adept at the combination of theoretical astrophysics and engineering inventions that was at the core of the thermonuclear project. The state of matter at the center of Hiroshima mushroom had more in common with the stars than with the Earth.

Sakharov was entirely absorbed by his professionally fascinating business for ten years. Those were the prime years of the Soviet thermonuclear project, when the first H-bomb, the idea of TOKAMAK reactor for controlled fusion, and the full-fledged H-bomb of 1955 were born.

His creativity was bolstered by his sincere belief that the terrifying "gadgets" he developed, were a vital necessity. He felt committed to the goal of making his socialist country strong enough to ensure peace after the devastating war of so recent past. He did not even need a conceptual justification such as "strategic parity" or "mutual nuclear deterrence". As he put it: "Back then we sensed it mainly at an emotional level."

Later on he was tough to himself by admitting that he "had subconsciously <> created an illusory world to justify" himself. In the first phase of the Cold War, Sakharov, like most of his colleagues on the both sides of the Iron Curtain, was "possessed by a true war psychology". Totalitarian control over information enabled the Soviet propaganda to succeed in brainwashing too many people. But there was some "ideological" soap for this brainwashing. It was in 1949 that Bertrand Russell, the world-famous philosopher and mathematician, who had nothing to do with military-industrial complex, wrote:

"If <> only [world] war can prevent the universal victory of communism, then I, for my part, would accept war in spite of all the destruction that it must involve."

The Iron Curtain was difficult to see through from each side of it.

The death of Stalin and the birth of the H-bomb changed the world. In 1955, the Einstein-Russell Manifesto urged governments of the world to realize "that their purposes cannot be furthered by a world war", and urged them "to find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them."

1958: The moral and political conclusions drawn from the figures

As to Sakharov, he started his practical thinking about world war and peace in 1958. It realized in his article on the radiocarbon from nuclear explosions. He wrote about the so-called ‘clean bomb’ promoted in the U.S., a nearly pure fusion bomb that produced almost no radioactive fallout. However, any atmospheric explosion of an H-bomb produces radiocarbon from atmospheric nitrogen. And Sakharov calculated, on the basis of available biological data, that radiocarbon produced by a one-megaton clean bomb would result in 6, 600 deaths worldwide over a period of 8,000 years. So, his scientific conclusion was quite definite.

Sakharov, however, went beyond science to ask: "What moral and political conclusions should be drawn from these figures?"

The figures meant that the atmospheric testing of any hydrogen bomb—"clean" or not—is harmful to humans.

The moral and political conclusion – that the testing should be stopped – was evident to Sakharov but not to the majority of his colleagues in H-bomb science. They measured the harmful effect in percents, and thought those percents were negligible. For Sakharov, the appropriate unit of measurement was one human life, and that was much more difficult to neglect.

For him the death toll from atmospheric nuclear testing – however small compared to deaths from other causes – was a scientifically proven fact. In that, he was a self-confident physicist. But he was a humanitarian when he wrote in 1958:

"The remote effect of radiocarbon does not reduce the moral responsibility for future lives. Only an extreme deficiency of imagination can allow one to ignore suffering that occurs out of sight."

Since then Sakharov measured each atmospheric test in 6600 deaths per each megaton, 6600 dead men, women, and children all over the globe for generations to come. Since then he regarded "nuclear testing in the atmosphere as a crime against humanity, no different from secretly pouring disease-producing microbes into a city's water supply."

Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov renounced a world harmony that would cost the death of a single child. Sakharov’s position was rooted in a sense of personal and professional responsibility rather than a general contemplation of world harmony.

That was why he held himself responsible for the failure to prevent a pointless test in the fall of 1962. He remembered:

"I was overwhelmed by my inability, unbearable bitterness, shame, and humiliation. I put my face down on my desk and wept. That was probably the most terrible lesson of my life: you can't sit on two chairs at once!"

And that was why Sakharov was proud of his contribution to the Limited Test Ban Treaty signed in Moscow in 1963, for it saved the lives of people who would have perished had testing continued in the atmosphere.

1967: ABM and the "metamorphosis" of Andrei Sakharov

Sakharov was quite serious about maintaining strategic parity as long as it prevented world war.

Unlike his American colleague Robert Oppenheimer, he did not feel that physicists had "known sin" by working on nuclear weapons. Nor was he like Edward Teller, proud to have persuaded political leaders of the necessity of building the hydrogen bomb.

The two American physicists were considered as antagonists. In Sakharov’s opinion, both men deserved respect, and he did see parallels between his own fate and those of both American physicists. One could say, though, that the three life lines were perpendicular to each other -- that’s how "non-Euclidean" the geometry of the nuclear age was. And the way to prevent world war was equally non-Euclidean: Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD.

Sakharov’s life line turned "perpendicular" to itself in 1967-68. At that time progress in technology was about to destabilize the mad strategic balance and therefore make war much more probable.

A new variable emerged in the strategic equation -- the antiballistic missile defense, or ABM. And this new element made the secret father of the Soviet H-bomb to emerge as a public figure to advocate peace and human rights.

As a top expert in strategic weaponry Sakharov was involved in professional discussions of military strategy of potential enemies armed with deep distrust together with ballistic as well as antiballistic missiles. A detailed investigation revealed that the unthinkable -- a strategic nuclear strike – was about to transform into something possible.

However Soviet political leaders proved to be insensitive to this possibility. They seemed to believe that because of the very notion of "defense", ABM defense was to ensure peace.

In July 1967 Sakharov sent an official classified memorandum to the Soviet leadership to argue that the moratorium proposed by the U. S. on ABM defense would benefit the Soviet Union and that otherwise the arms race in this new technology would increase the likelihood of nuclear war enormously.

Sakharov substantiated this point in detail and also sought permission to publish an accompanying article in a Soviet newspaper to explain to the public how the new "defensive weapon" could be more dangerous than the offensive one. Sakharov suggested that such an unofficial article would support the "groups of the Western scientific intelligentsia <> that under favorable conditions can curb their ‘hawks’. These groups played an important role in the preparing of the Moscow test ban treaty."

The government ignored the twenty-page memorandum of the technical expert and refused to let him initiate a public discussion of the ABM issue in the Soviet press. The rejection was a solid confirmation to the scientist that the Soviet leaders were oblivious to the danger to which they were subjecting the world. Such a government was as much a menace to peaceful coexistence as the "Western hawks".

1968: Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom

In February of 1968 Sakharov started writing his essay "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom". His point of departure was the threat of thermonuclear war, the threat that had increased with the impending ABM race. If he expanded the scope of his considerations to the social and political realms it was only because the very nature of the problem required such an extension. It was his professional competence that was expanding, rather than that he leaped beyond the bounds of his second profession of strategic-weapon designer.

In this endeavor he relied on his professional experience in the area of vital importance for international security. He relied on his personal experience of the inner mechanics of the Soviet regime. He relied on his sense of personal responsibility. And he was to destroy his illusory world of the Soviet state, and to expose his understanding of the real world to the public. The key element of his understanding was the interdependence of global international security and human rights of individuals. In 1968 the intellectual freedom was paramount for him.

In fact, it was the "freedom of thought, opinion and expression" granted in Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration proclaimed, by ironic coincidence, in 1948, the year Sakharov invented the first Soviet H-bomb. Twenty years later he discovered that those Universal Human Rights were not merely noble ideals, but the only basis for humanity to survive the H-bombs of both super-powers.

Sakharov released his essay to Samizdat -- homemade publishing and hand-to-hand distribution of literature, ignoring censorship. It was his first Samizdat paper. By courtesy of the KGB, it reached the Politburo in May and might have been more effective than his previous official letter. A few weeks later the Soviet government agreed to begin negotiation on ABM.

After Sakharov’s essay had reached the West and had been published there in July 1968, he was immediately dismissed from the military-scientific complex. An unexpected reward for his courage was the opportunity to return full-time to his primary profession of theoretical physicist.

He started his part-time return in the early 1960s when he was in his forties - too old for original creativity in fundamental theoretical physics. So he felt very lucky since he originated two bright ideas in 1966 and 1967, on the eve of his humanitarian idea of 1968. He was fascinated with cosmology and theory of elementary particles. His most successful idea in pure physics treated the disparity of matter and anti-matter in the Universe.

He restored his self-confidence in the theoretical physics, and it may have bolstered his confidence in the realm of humanics as well. The starting point of Sakharov’s reflections on peaceful coexistence was the lack of intellectual freedom. He enjoyed such freedom in physics and it was the greatest freedom possible in Soviet life.

1968-75: Peace, Progress, and Human Rights. Nobel Peace Prize

The government’s response to his social creativity made him focus on social agenda much more than he had expected. He met the challenge and started to develop a philosophy based on real social experimentation. He elevated intellectual freedom to the level of a human rights issue, viewing it as the only real basis of international security.

On his path from theoretical physics to practical humanics , he acquired new friends involved in the defense of the human rights of concrete individuals. In this community he met Elena Bonner, and again felt lucky to find a sweetheart a friend, a comrade-in-arms, and … personal security service.

In 1975 when the Soviet authorities would not allow Sakharov to go abroad to accept the Nobel Prize recognizing his "fearless personal commitment in upholding the fundamental principles for peace between men," she had to be his spokesperson at the award ceremony. Sakharov titled his Nobel lecture «Peace, Progress, and Human Rights», three goals which, as he had discovered seven years earlier, were inextricably linked.

Five years later the same commitment was rewarded by the Soviet exile, and Elena Bonner had to cope with the KGB to keep Sakharov’s contacts with the outside world.

One of the most important of these contacts was his article "Danger of Thermonuclear War" written in the forth year of his exile. Sakharov continued to feel a responsibility as a professional expert in the MAD strategic balance.

Upon his return from exile Sakharov enjoyed three years of freedom and seven months of professional politics as a member of the Soviet parliament. Those were the last seven months of his life.

ABM and personal responsibility in 1968 and 1999

Many features of Sakharov’s life were too unique for others to follow suit. However, one of those features is quite reproducible – his feeling of personal responsibility. That feeling urged him to break the rules in 1968.

The contemporary situation in international security has an element that urges us to revisit his feat of 1968.

In Sakharov’s view, the strategic ABM was the major threat to the bipolar political world of his time. That is why, even while in exile, Sakharov opposed Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative of 1984 (nicknamed Star Wars) even though the American president supported Sakharov more than any other political leader. Sakharov was still a responsible technical expert.

However, he made quite a clear distinction between all-out ABM defense and defense against one or several rogue missiles. As he wrote in 1967:

"Although an effective defense against a massive attack by a powerful enemy is impossible, entirely possible and necessary is a more modest objective, which is important for saving lives, -- defense against a surprise thermonuclear attack on a smaller scale (one having the aim of provocation, for example)."

Much has changed in the worlds of politics and weapons technology since Sakharov wrote those words and the ABM treaty was signed in 1972. Nowadays, when a rogue state is able to get a ballistic missile even if at the cost of the starvation of its own population, the second part of Sakharov’s conclusion becomes quite relevant. Whether or not Sakharov’s conclusion remains valid is another question.

However, the current debate on revising the ABM treaty of 1972 is dominated by politicians and military officers rather than hi-tech experts capable of explaining the difference between strategic ABM defense and defense against small-scale missile attack.

It takes both scientific expertise and personal responsibility of a technical expert to do the job similar to the one done by Andrei Sakharov in 1967 – to explain whether in 1999 there is still a critical difference between the "Star Wars" program and "saving human lives".

Strasbourg is quite an appropriate place to talk about Andrei Sakharov the humanitarian. It is the ironic reality of the history of science that the fruitful Strasbourg physics was a by-product of the Franco-German War. Likewise, Andrei Sakharov the humanitarian physicist was a by-product of the Soviet totalitarian civilization. Many colleagues of Sakharov thought that the prevention of World War III was a by-product of military technology based on advanced science. And many of them are thinking that controlled thermonuclear reactor, a by-product of uncontrolled fusion research, is the only sustainable source of energy for sustainable world.

Sakharov thought highly of the ability of science to improve human life. "Science and Freedom" was the title of one of his last lectures given in Lyon in September, 1989. He spoke about an appropriate epithet for the 20th century and contemplated a few nominees: "The Century Of World Wars", "The Century Of Genocide", "The Century Of Terror". He opted, however, for the name "The Century Of Science".

Nevertheless, that uncontrolled scientist came to realize that it takes humanitarian efforts to control the progress of science for the better of humanity, and that human rights are the only real base for such efforts.