ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Guest Blog

Guest Blog


Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American
Guest Blog HomeAboutContact

The Riddle of the Third Idea: How Did the Soviets Build a Thermonuclear Bomb So Suspiciously Fast?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



Sakharov-Zeldovich's joint memo dated January 14, 1954 (16 pp., handwritten), "On the use of device for compression of the super-device" was a turning point in H-bomb research, but the key idea of radiation implosion was not still in sight.

The famous Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov left a rich heritage. He outlined an explanation for the disparity between matter and antimatter in the universe. His idea of gravitation as the quantum elasticity of the spacetime continues to inspire the search for a unified theory. He was a pure theorist who invented the Soviet H-bomb and, 20 years later, transformed into the foremost human-rights advocate and opponent of the Soviet regime, for which he received a Nobel peace prize. He put forward a powerful political principle: “Never trust a government that doesn’t trust its own people.”

Sakharov left also quite a few riddles. Most of them were solved with help of archival documents declassified after his death, encouraged by Gorbachev glasnost and Yeltsin openness. In March 1999 I was happy to explain to Scientific American readers what made the secret father of the Soviet H-bomb transform into an open human-rights advocate in 1968.

But one riddle stays unsolved. More than one solution has been suggested, but we lack declassified information that would lead to an unambiguous solution. All we have is circumstantial evidence. I’ll lay out this fascinating detective story here, and you can cast your vote in our online poll.

You can find this riddle in Sakharov’s memoirs, written during his inner exile from 1980 to 1986. At the time, information on the history of Soviet nuclear weapon development was severely restricted. Even the fact that Sakharov had played a vital role in making the Soviet H-bomb was not officially acknowledged until his death in 1989. Sakharov himself, despite his political dissent, observed his commitment not to reveal state secrets. In his memoirs he used only very general descriptions, such as the “First and Second Ideas” that led to the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb test in 1953, and the “Third Idea” that led to the full-blown bomb in 1955. Here what he wrote about the emergence of the unspecified Third Idea:

Apparently, several people in our two theoretical departments came up with the “Third Idea” simultaneously. I was one of them. I think that I understood the basic aspects of the “Third Idea” at a very early stage. As a result, and also due to the respect I had earned by then, my role in the acceptance and implementation of the “Third Idea” was perhaps a decisive one. But the role of Zeldovich, Trutnev, and several others was undoubtedly very great and perhaps they understood and foresaw the prospects and difficulties of the “Third Idea” as well as I. At the time, we (I at any rate) had not time to think about questions of author’s priority, especially since that would be “dividing up the skin of a bear we had yet to kill,” and restoring all the details of our discussion in hindsight is impossible, and perhaps unnecessary.

The American H-bomb project had a Third Idea of its own. Hans Bethe characterized it as “a very brilliant discovery made by Dr. Teller” in 1951, “a stroke of genius, which does not occur in the normal development of ideas.” The idea was radiation implosion, which uses a fission bomb to set off a much more powerful fusion bomb. But if this discovery was so brilliant and so rare, how did it occur to several Russian physicists simultaneously — three years after Teller’s stroke of genius? Did Sakharov truly come up with the idea on his own? If so, why did he use such strange wording? Hence the riddle of the Third Idea.

Andrei Sakharov in 1950, 1981, 1989

It is well-established fact that the Soviet nuclear program received enormous input from espionage. The first Soviet A-bomb (a fission device) was a copy of the U.S. A-bomb. This fact was acknowledged by Yuly Khariton, the scientific head of the nuclear weaponry project from its very beginning. But he insisted that the H-bomb was indigenous. There is no serious doubt that the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb, the one tested in 1953, was an original Soviet invention based on ideas of Sakharov and Vitaly Ginzburg. But the second Soviet H-bomb, based on the Third Idea, remains puzzling.

There are three quite different solutions to this riddle. Their authors are:

  1. a Russian H-bomb veteran turned historian, German Goncharov, who worked in Sakharov’s group in the spring of 1954
  2. an American H-bomb veteran turned historian, Thomas Reed, who used to work under Teller
  3. a Russian-American historian of science, who is writing this blog post

Yakov Zeldovich

All three of us met in 1996 in Russia at a big international conference on the history of the Soviet nuclear project. A year later we took part in a semi-closed conference at the Livermore Lab. In my biography of Sakharov, I thanked both Goncharov and Reed for their knowledge and insights they shared with me. But as to the riddle of the Third Idea, we disagreed with one another. So I leave it up to you to evaluate such evidence as there is.

The Soviet H-bomb project began with the first bits of intelligence on American H-bomb research that came to the Soviet Union in 1945. It spurred a small-scale H-bomb research project under renowned theorist Yakov Zeldovich. The Soviet version of the American design (Classical Super) was named Tube (Truba) because of its cylindrical shape. But Zeldovich was still mainly focused on the A-bomb, which would be tested in August 1949. In the spring of 1948, the main Soviet atomic spy, Klaus Fuchs, provided still more intelligence on the H-bomb. The most surprising feature of this report was the idea of radiation compression, or implosion, which eventually made possible the first American thermonuclear explosion in 1952.

Vitaly Ginzburg

Fuchs’s information seemed so elaborate that the Soviet leaders perceived it as proof of an intensive American H-bomb effort. The order came down to strengthen the H-bomb project by establishing an additional theoretical team to assist Zeldovich’s.

That new team included Sakharov. Within a few months, he invented a brand-new design for a thermonuclear bomb that employed a special way of compressing a spherically layered configuration, dubbed Sloyka (Layercake). Ginzburg then added his idea of a specific thermonuclear explosive, LiD, dubbed Lidochka (a Russian female pet name). Soviet leaders decided to pursue both designs separately in two theoretical groups.

Sakharov, in his memoirs, straightforwardly asserted his and Ginzburg’s authorships of the First and Second Ideas. So his ambiguous description of the emergence of the Third Idea is really puzzling.

Klaus Fuchs (courtesy of Klaus Fuchs-Kittowski), and a sketch of a design for the H-bomb in Fuchs's 1948 intelligence report (as presented at the International Symposium "History of the Soviet Atomic Project," Dubna, Russia, 1996)

The very fact that Fuchs was somehow related to H-bomb project was no big surprise for historians, but declassified Soviet documents made clear how strong his relation was. It made also more understandable why Bethe, after Fuchs’s arrest, described him “as extremely brilliant and as one of the top men in the world on atomic energy” and why Teller was so concerned that Fuchs’s information might have given the Soviet Union a head start. But Teller’s “stroke of genius” came after Fuchs’s arrest. Bethe was sure that Fuchs’s information could not have helped the Soviets to reproduce it. Teller worried it might well have, since, to his mind, the principle of radiation implosion “was a relatively slight modification of ideas generally known in 1946.”

One Soviet document seems to support Bethe. Evidently, Zeldovich studied Fuchs’s report in the spring of 1948, but failed to appreciate its idea of radiation as a tool of compression. But another document seems to support Teller. In January 1949, Sakharov — within his report on Layercake — proposed the “use of an additional plutonium charge [i.e. A-bomb] for a preliminary compression of Layercake.” The problem, however, was how to make atomic compression highly symmetrical. If Sakharov had had access to Fuchs’s report, he would surely have appreciated its idea of radiation implosion.

For the next five years, Zeldovich’s team pursued the Tube, while Sakharov’s team developed Layercake. The latter’s test in August 1953 was a great triumph for Sakharov, at the age of 32. However, according to a document dated January 14, 1954, by that time the Tube hit a dead end, the Layercake turned to be unimprovable, and Sakharov and Zeldovich returned to the old idea of atomic compression. It took a further few months for them to discover the Third Idea.

There are no documents shedding light on this crucial period. There are only three fragments of oral history:

  1. Sakharov’s close associate Yury Romanov says: “The Third Idea emerged in the spring of 1954. It began when Sakharov brought the theorists together and set forth his idea about the high coefficient of reflection of impulse radiation from the walls made of heavy material.”
  2. An associate of Zeldovich, Viktor Adamskii, recollects that one day Zeldovich burst into his study and joyously exclaimed: “We should do it differently, we’ll release radiation from a spherical device!”
  3. The most intriguing is the testimony of another associate of Zeldovich, Lev Feoktistov, who questioned the Soviet originality of the Third Idea. To him the Third Idea was too sudden to be truly indigenous. He says there were “neither drawings nor accurate data from the outside,” but that Sakharov and Zeldovich were bright and experienced enough to be enlightened by just a few words’ hint from a well-placed spy.

Goncharov, the key figure in the project to declassify and publish the Soviet nuclear archives, believed that the clue to the riddle of the Third Idea was in the Fuchs’s report of 1948. His problem was how this clue could reemerge six years later. Goncharov decided the triggering fact was the 40-fold gap in yields of Layercake (~400 kilotons) and the U.S. H-bomb tested on March 1, 1954 (~15 megatons). But there is no single evidence that this gap was realized by anybody in the Soviet nuclear project in 1954.

Reed pointed out that Fuchs’s knowledge didn’t inspire American physicists until Teller’s discovery of 1951, so why would it have helped the Soviets? Reed argued there was an additional act of espionage in 1954. But this, too, is undocumented.

My own reading of Sakharov’s writings suggests that he never had access to Fuchs’s report of 1948. Consider the following words in Sakharov’s memoirs, with a note he added toward the end of life:

Now I think that the main idea of the H-bomb design developed by the Zeldovich group was based on intelligence information. However, I can’t prove this conjecture. It occurred to me quite recently, but at the time I just gave it no thought. (Note added July 1987. David Holloway writes in “Soviet Thermonuclear Development,” International Security 4:3 (1979/80), p. 193: “The Soviet Union had been informed by Klaus Fuchs of the studies of thermonuclear weapons at Los Alamos up to 1946. … His information would have been misleading rather than helpful, because the early ideas were later shown not to work.” Therefore my conjecture is confirmed!)

I think the following happened. In January 1954, Sakharov was thinking about how to realize the idea of atomic compression. By May, he had realized that the flash of light from an exploding A-bomb — as opposed to the neutrons and other material products — would be the best tool to compress the thermonuclear charge. He realized that the flash of light could be confined within a metal casing for a microsecond or so, long enough to compress the charge symmetrically. He discussed this idea with Zeldovich, who recognized this as the idea he had failed to appreciate in Fuchs’s report six years earlier. As soon as he grasped Sakharov’s arguments, he (with his close associate Trutnev) brought in some details from Fuchs’s report, but never mentioned the actual report to Sakharov, since the latter was not granted access to it. So, Sakharov drew the conclusion that Zeldovich and Trutnev had also been very close to the Third Idea.

After the conference on the history of H-bomb at Livermore Lab, 1997. Heroes of Socialist labor German Goncharov (fist from the left) and Lev Feoktistov (third), virtual heroes of capitalist labor Thomas Reed (fouth) and John Nuckolls, former director, LLNL (5th), and non-heroic historian of science Gennady Gorelik (second). Courtesy of Thomas C. Reed

In other words, Sakharov had the same stroke of genius as Teller. Both men were faced with the same problem and possessed the same level of scientific expertise, so it is entirely plausible they arrived at the same solution independently. Teller himself said that his colleagues, such as Bethe or Enrico Fermi, were eminently capable of coming up with the idea themselves, had they applied themselves to the problem.

Of course, my argument relies on circumstantial evidence. So riddle of the Third Idea remains open. Did it come from:

  • Fuchs report of 1948, which reemerged in the spring of 1954
  • a Soviet sleeper agent reactivated by the KGB in the spring of 1954
  • Andrei Sakharov’s head
  • none of the above

Cast your vote here.

For more details, see the following publications:

Gennady Gorelik About the Author: Gennady Gorelik is a historian of science at Boston University, author of a biography of Andrei Sakharov, and a web-exhibit at American Institute of Physics: Sakharov: Soviet Physics, Nuclear Weapons & Human Rights

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 4 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Quantumburrito 1:45 pm 08/21/2011

    Interesting article about a fascinating piece of history, but I find it troubling that you leave out any mention of Stan Ulam’s crucial contribution, especially in the sixth paragraph.

    Also, there is another way to interpret Bethe’s statement about the Teller-Ulam design being a “stroke of genius”. Bethe himself said that after this stroke of genius, he felt that the United States should now go ahead with a thermonuclear program because it was more obvious to him that the Soviets would think of the same mechanism. Considered in this light, it’s actually not surprising then that the Soviets figured it out.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ggorelik 5:07 pm 08/22/2011

    Ulam’s crucial contribution was his calculations that initiated the termination of the Classical Super design in 1950. Its Soviet version – the Tube – was terminated in late 1953 in a more collective enterprise that involved the top Soviet theorist Lev Landau. (This, btw, is a straightforward evidence that there was no Soviet H-bomb espionage after 1950).
    Ulam’s contribution into the H-bomb design tested in 1952 is debatable. In Bethe’s view, “the crucial invention was made in 1951, by Teller” . Comparison of the Soviet and American histories of the H-bomb supports Bethe’s view. Sakharov conceived “atomic compression” (analogous to Ulam’s “hydrodynamic lenses”) five years before he came to an analog of Teller’s “Radiation Mirrors”.

    Link to this
  3. 3. lermanmi 9:36 pm 08/22/2011

    It is well documented (see memoirs by S. Ulam and J. von Neumann) that the so called “third idea” was invented not by E. Teller but by Stanislav Ulam.

    Link to this
  4. 4. ennui 1:30 am 08/26/2011

    Do not forget that many scientists working on the American Atom Bomb were communists.
    On top of all that There was an article in one of the American Popular Magazines like Mechanix Illustrated or Popular Science, that described exactly how to make the
    H Bomb.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Dinosaurs

Get Total Access to our Digital Anthology

1,200 Articles

Order Now - Just $39! >

X

Email this Article

X