Early life and education
Yakov Zel'dovich was born into an ethnic Belarussian Jewish family in his grandfather's house in Minsk, Belarusian region in Russia, on 8 March 1914. However, in mid-1941, the Zel'dovich family moved to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). They resided there until August 1941, when the family was evacuated together with the faculty of the Institute of Chemical Physics to Kazan to avoid the Axis Invasion of the Soviet Union.:301 They remained in Kazan until the summer of 1943, when Zel'dovich moved to Moscow.
His father, Boris Naumanovich Zel'dovich, was a lawyer; his mother, Anna Petronova Zel'dovich (née Kiveliovich), a translator from French to Russian, was a member of the Writer's Union. Despite being born into a devoted and religious Jewish family, Zel'dovich was an "absolute atheist".
Zel'dovich was an autodidact. He did not earn a college degree or even attend college, but he was regarded as having a remarkably versatile intellect, and during his life he explored and made major contributions to a wide range of scientific endeavors. From a given opportunity in May 1931, he secured an appointment as a laboratory assistant at the Institute of Chemical Physics of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and remained associated with the institute for the remainder of his life.:301 As a laboratory assistant, he received preliminary instructions on the topics involved in the physical chemistry and built up his reputation among his seniors at the Institute of Chemical Physics.:301 Without having earned an undergraduate degree, he was allowed to attend the post graduate coursework at the Saint Petersburg State University due to upheavals that took place in educational infrastructure in Russia.:301
In 1936, he was successful in his candidacy for the Candidate of Science degree (a Soviet equivalent of PhD), having successfully defended his dissertation on the topic of the "adsorption and catalysis on heterogeneous surfaces".:301 The centrality of his thesis focused towards the research on the Freundlich (or classical) adsorption isotherm, and Zel'dovich discovered the theoretical foundation of this empirical observation.
From 1932 to 1934, Zel'dovich attended the undergraduate courses on physics and mathematics at the Leningrad State University (now St. Petersburg State University), and later attended the technical lectures on introductory physics at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute (now Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University).:2–5
In 1939, Zel'dovich prepared his dissertation based on the mathematical theory of the physical interpretation of nitrogen oxidation, and successfully received the Doctor of Science on Physmatics when it was reviewed by Aleksandr A. Freiman.:39–40 Zel'dovich discovered its mechanism, known in physical chemistry as the thermal NOx mechanism or Zel'dovich mechanism.
Soviet atomic bomb program
Zel'dovich is regarded as one of the secret principals of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons project, and his travels abroad were highly restricted to the Eastern Europe under close security by the Soviet Union.:198–199 Soon after the discovery of nuclear fission by German chemist Otto Hahn in 1939, Russian physicists began investigating the spectrum of physics of fission and began hosting the seminars on that topic, extending the invitation to Igor Kurchatov and Yulii Khariton in 1940.:79–80
In May 1941, Zel'dovich worked with Yulii Khariton in achieving the constructed theory on theory of the kinetics of nuclear reactions in the presence of the critical conditions.:81 The work of Khariton and Zel'dovich was extended towards the theories of ignition, combustion and detonation, that accounted for features not previously explained or correctly predicted features that had not yet been observed.:82 The modern theory of detonation accordingly is called ZND theory (Zel'dovich-von Neumann-Dohring), and engaged the tedious work on fast neutron calculations but the work had delayed due to the German invasion of Soviet Union that disrupted the findings which were marked as classified in June 1941.:82 In 1942, Zel'dovich was relocated to Kazan where he was tasked by the People's Commissariat of Munitions to carry out the work on the conventional gun powders to be supplied to the Soviet Army while Khariton was asked to design the new types of conventional weaponry.:87–88
In 1943, Joseph Stalin decided to launch the arms build-up of nuclear weapons, having given the charge to Igor Kurchatov who requested Stalin to relocate Zel'dovich and Khariton to Moscow for nuclear weapons program.:87–88 Zel'dovich joined Igor Kurchatov's small team at the secretive laboratory in Moscow to launch the work on the nuclear combustion theory and became a head of the theoretical department at the Arzamas-16 in 1946.
Zel'dovich developed a scientific report with Isaak Gurevich, Isaak Pomeranchuk, and Khariton on the feasibility of releasing energy through nuclear fusion triggered by an atomic explosion and presented it to Igor Kurchatov. Zel'dovich had benefitted from physical and technical knowledge provided by German physicist Klaus Fuchs and American physicist Theodore Hall, who had worked on the American Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons.:89–90
In 1949, Zel'dovich led a team of physicists that conducted the first nuclear test, the RDS-1, based roughly on the American design obtained through the atomic spies in the United States, though he continued his fundamental work on explosive theory.:89–90 Zel'dovich then began working on modernizing the successive designs of the nuclear weapon and initially conceived the idea of hydrogen bomb to Andrei Sakharov and others.:89–90 In the course of his work on nuclear weapons, Zel'dovich did ground-breaking work in radiation hydrodynamics, and the physics of matter at high pressure.
Between 1950 and 1953, Zel'dovich performed calculations necessary for the feasibility of the hydrogen bomb that were verified by Andrei Sakharov, although the two groups worked in parallel on the development of the thermonuclear fusion. However, it was Sakharov that radically changed the approach to thermonuclear fusion, aided by Vitaly Ginzburg in 1952.:56–57 He remained associated with the nuclear testings while heading the experimental laboratories at Arzamas-16 until October 1963, when he left for the academia.:38–40