SOBOLEV AND THE A-BOMB

Well-Decorated Sobolev

Homo Sapiens reveals himself as Homo Creatoris. The power of man is his capability of creating and transferring intangible valuables. Mathematics saves the ancient technologies of impeccable intellectual conjurations. The art and science of provable calculuses, mathematics resides at the epicenter of culture. The freedom of reasoning is the sine qua non of the personal liberty of a human being. Mathematics in the foundations of mentality becomes the guarantee of freedom. The creative contributions of Euler as well as his best descendants exhibit uncountably many supreme examples. The fate of Sobolev made no exclusion.

In the twentieth century mankind came to the edge of the frontiers of its safe and serene existence, exhibiting the inability of halting the instigators of the First and Second World Wars. The weapon of deterrence arose as a warrant of freedom. The invention and production of the A-bomb in the USA and Russia demonstrate the tremendous power of science, the last resort of the survival of mankind. Mathematicians may be proud of the valor of their colleagues in these exploits. Von Neumann and Ulam participated in the Manhattan project. Sobolev and Kantorovich were involved in the Soviet project “Enormous.”

The start of the atomic project in this country is traditionally marked with Directive No. 2352ss of the State Defence Committee of the USSR which was entitled “Organization of the Works on Uranium” and dated September 24, 1942. A few months later on February 1943, the SDC decided to organize Laboratory No. 2 of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR for studying nuclear energy. I. V. Kurchatov was entrusted with the supervision of the Laboratory as well as the management of all works related to the atomic problem. Sobolev was soon appointed one of the deputies of Kurchatov and joined the group of I. K. Kikoin which studied the problem of enriching uranium with cascades of diffusive membranes for isotope separation.

It was already in 1946 that the first gaseous compressors were produced and put into the serial production. The tests began of enriching uranium hexafluoride. The work required solving incredibly many versatile scientific, technological, and managerial problems which became the main busyness of Sobolev for many years. It suffices to give the list of problems from a memo for L. P. Beriya as of August 15, 1946: choice of the general scheme of the technological process of the industrial separation plant; raw materials; the problem of filters; compressors; the problem of the pressurization (hermetic sealing) of compressors and lubrication; the problem of corrosive materials in uranium hexafluoride; analysis of the enrichment of the light isotope; and the problem of control and automation.

Sobolev joined the group for plutonium-239 and the group for uranium-235. He organized and coordinated the work of the staff of calculators, solved the problem of control of the industrial isotope separation, and was responsible for minimizing the losses of production. His role in the atomic project became more important. In February of 1947 Kurchatov wrote to Beriya: “By now Academician S. L. Sobolev was acquainted only with the documents of Bureau No. 2 which are related to the diffusion method. In regard of his appointment to the position of the Deputy Principal of Laboratory No. 2 of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, I ask your permission to acquaint Academician Sobolev S. L. with the documents of Bureau No. 2 concerning all aspects of the problem.” This top secret document was handwritten in a sole copy and bears the resolution by Beriya: “Agreed. L. Beriya. 21/II 47.”

The test of the Joe-1 took place near Semipalatinsk at 8 a.m. local time on August 29, 1949. Exactly two months later more than eight hundred staff members of the atomic project were decorated with various state orders. Sobolev was awarded with the Order of Lenin. It was in the mid 1949 that Laboratory No. 2 was renamed to become the Laboratory of Measuring Tools of the Academy of Sciences, abbreviated as LIPAN in Russian. The efforts of Kikoin and Sobolev were focused on the manufacturing program of the diffusion plant. One of the items of Decree No. 5472-2086ss/op of the Council of Ministers of the USSR as of December 1, 1949 reads: “Entrust Comrade Sobolev S. L. (Deputy Principal of Laboratory No. 2 of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR) with the management of the theoretical calculation section of the Central Laboratory of Combine No. 813, on requesting that he be on duty at the combine in at least 50% of the whole working hours (on consent of Comrade Kurchatov I. V.).”

In the LIPAN Sobolev wrote the main book of his life, Some Applications of Functional Analysis in Mathematical Physics. The atomic project enriched the scientific and personal potential of Sobolev. Computational mathematics occupied a prominent place in his creative activities up to his last days. The work in the LIPAN added many bright colors to Sobolev’s views of mathematics. Those years brought to him the understanding that of importance in many cases is the actual presentation of a reasonable solution on the appointed time rather than the abstract problem of existence of a solution.

The outstanding importance for the history of science in this country must be allotted to the Sobolev talks at the All-Union Conference on the Philosophical Problems of Natural Sciences in October 1958. Elaborating and maintaining the theses of a joint report with A. A. Lyapunov, Sobolev guarded science from the interference of the prevalent ideology and defended the ideas of cybernetics and genetics, sharply criticizing the rigmarole of neolamarkism by T. D. Lysenko and his gang. The report claimed in particular that “no scientist would ever propound the thesis of the adaptive heredity or directed evolution independent of selection.” In his closing talk, Sobolev said: “ cybernetics is not an idealistic science since it studies facts, and the facts are neither materialistic nor idealistic\dots. It is impossible to divide physics into materialistic physics and idealistic physics. It is impossible to declare that this A-bomb is idealistic whereas that A-bomb is materialistic, or this particle accelerator is idealistic whereas that one is materialistic. None of these ever exists. The main road of physics is the road of a rigorous science. There might exist various philosophical views, but we must not classify as materialism or idealism the facts and theories that led to the greatest achievements of the modern physics which we observe. Exactly the same applies to cybernetics....”

The proceedings of the conference were endorsed for printing on October 10, 1959. It is worth recalling that N. S. Khrushchëv made a speech at the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR on June 29, 1959 in which he praised Lysenko, rebuked N. P. Dubinin for the lack of scientific contribution, and reprimanded the leadership of the Siberian Division for appointing Dubinin as the director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. The book was printed in many copies, demonstrating to the academic community of this country that the defence of science can be conducted not only in the submissive form of personal or collective letters to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR.

The civic courage of Sobolev in safeguarding the new ideas of genetics, cybernetics, and mathematical economics in the postwar years of the offensive of the obscurantists of “Marxism” ranks alongside his participation in the “Enormous” project and cultivation of the scientifically virgin lands of Siberia. The contribution of Sobolev to the making of nuclear weapons is acknowledged and marked with not only the title of the Hero of the Socialist Labor but also the eternal gratitude of the people of this country to the famous and anonymous saviors of the freedom of the homeland.

S. Kutateladze

February 17, 2008

«Science in Siberia» No. 9, February 2008, p. 6


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