Today, 118 ago, a man was born who would become one of the most accomplished (and notorious) nuclear physicists of the 20th century. Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov became the lead physicist who developed the USSR’s first atomic bomb, which detonated in 1949. He guided the research and development of the first nuclear reactor. Indeed, he is most well-known for his many contributions to science and the Russian nuclear program.
His career was launched when he earned his first degree in physics from Simferopol State University in 1923. He then moved on to A.F. Ioffe’s Physico-Technical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, where he mostly concentrated on studies in ferroelectricity (a property that certain materials carry, causing them to have a spontaneous electric polarization) but gradually shifted towards nuclear physics, a period during which he would direct and supervise the construction of some of the USSR’s first cyclotrons, a particle accelerator invented by Ernest O. Lawrence in 1930.
Contributions to the Soviets’ nuclear project
In 1938, news of the discovery of nuclear fission was spreading like wildfire. Naturally, this sparked concern within the superpowers as, in the context of the Cold War, the knowledge in nuclear technologies and processes was closely correlated with the demonstration of military capacities. Within Kurchatov’s circle, this triggered great excitement and catalyzed the rate of research and breakthroughs. He and his colleagues conducted thorough research and experiments on spontaneous fission, uranium-235, and chain reactions. As nuclear physics grew more and more significant within the military realm, and the USSR became increasingly wary of Anglo-American atomic cooperation, Stalin authorized the creation of a Soviet nuclear program which the Soviet Academy of Sciences appointed Kurchatov to direct.
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Atom bomb project
The Soviets’ nuclear program took on a new course as the American’s dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Stalin issued an order to concentrate on accelerating the development of their own Soviet bomb and gave Kurchatov the task of developing it by 1948. The Soviets successfully tested “First Lightning” in 1949, their first plutonium implosion bomb. His work did not stop there, and he furthered his contribution to the USSR by developing the Soviet hydrogen bomb. However, the practical implication of nuclear weapons he had noticed after the “First Lightning” test made him grow increasingly aware of such weapons’ destructive power and preferred to develop nuclear technology aimed at peaceful collaboration rather than militaristic confrontation.
Further than simply directing the atom bomb project, Kurchatov also oversaw the construction of the first nuclear reactor in Europe and directed the thermonuclear bomb research and development.
The technologies developed under Kurchatov also widely served purposes that did not touch on the demonstration of military prowess. Furthermore, he explored the realms of fusion reactors by studying the physics behind the initiation and sustainment of fusion processes. Kurchatov also developed the icebreaker Lenin, the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship, and the first nuclear-powered civilian vessel.
In the USSR, Kurchatov was treated and remembered as a hero. Indeed, he was elected to the Academy of Sciences in 1943 and received the Hero of Socialist Labor award in 1949, 1951, and 1954. Two towns bear his name. Russia’s leading research institute in nuclear energy, the Kurchatov Institute, is named after him. His legacy extends beyond our planet as a lunar crater, and an asteroid is also named after him.
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