Igor "The Beard" Kurchatov

Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov (И́горь Васи́льевич Курча́тов) (January 8, 1903 – February 7, 1960), Soviet/Russian physicist. He was the leader of the Soviet atomic bomb project. Kurchatov was born in Simsky zavod, Ufa Guberniya (now city of Sim, Chelyabinsk Oblast). He studied physics at Crimea State University and ship building at the Polytechnical Institute in Petrograd. In 1925 he moved to the Physico-Technical Institute, where he worked (under Abram Fedorovich Ioffe) on various problems connected with radioactivity. In 1932 he received funding for his own nuclear science research team, which built the Soviet Union's first cyclotron.

Kurchatov at around age 20.

When, in 1941, war broke out between Germany and the USSR, Kurchatov switched his researches first to protecting shipping from magnetic mines, and later to tank armour. In 1943 the NKVD obtained a copy of a secret British report concerning the feasibility of atomic weapons, which led Stalin to order the commencement of a Soviet programme (albeit with very limited resources). Ioffe recommended Kurchatov to Molotov, and Kurchatov was appointed director of the nascent programme later that year. The Soviet atomic bomb project remained a relatively low priority until information from spy Klaus Fuchs and later the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki goaded Stalin into action. Stalin ordered Kurchatov to produce a bomb by 1948, and put the ruthless Lavrenty Beria in direct command of the project. The project took over the town of Sarov in the Gorki Oblast (now Nizhny Novgorod Oblast) on the Volga, and renamed it Arzamas-16. The team (which included other prominent Soviet nuclear scientists such as Julii Borisovich Khariton and Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich) was assisted both by public disclosures made by the US government and by further information supplied by Fuchs, but Kurchatov and Beria (fearing the intelligence was misinformation) insisted his scientists retest everything themselves. Beria in particular would use the intelligence as a third-party check on the conclusions of the teams of scientists.

On August 29, 1949 the team detonated First Lightning, its initial test device (a plutonium implosion bomb) at the Semipalatinsk Test Site; Kurchatov later remarked that his main feeling at the time was one of relief, as he was confident that had the weapon failed, Stalin would have had him shot.

Kurchatov subsequently worked on the Soviet hydrogen bomb program (1953), but later worked for the peaceful use of nuclear technology, and advocated against nuclear bomb tests.

During the A-bomb programme, Kurchatov swore he wouldn't cut his beard until the program succeeded, and he continued to wear a large beard (often cut into eccentric styles) for the remainder of his life, earning him the nickname "The Beard". Kurchatov died in Moscow in 1960 of a blood clot in his brain.

Kurchatov Medal


Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes (ISBN 0684824140)

PBS documentary Citizen Kurchatov


Biography of Igor Kurchatov (in Russian)

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