Astronomy Bio...Yakov Zel'dovich

Jay Bitterman

Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich was born in Minsk Russia, now the capitol of Belarus, on March 8, 1914. He essentially educated himself and from age seventeen he worked at the Institute of Chemical Physics of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Leningrad and later in Moscow. In 1931 he graduated from the University of Leningrad and began his work at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the Institute of Chemical Physics. During the 1930s he participated in a research program to discover the mechanism of oxidation of nitrogen that resulted in an explosion. In 1947 he and his colleagues published a book reporting the results. During the 1940s he continued to have an interest in the chemical reactions of explosions, the resulting generation of shock waves and on the subjects of gas dynamics and on the generation of flames. In the late 1930s he and Y.B. Khariton engaged in the early and most significant research on the mechanism of fission during the radioactive decay of uranium. In 1939 and 1940 they published their calculations on the chain reaction in uranium fission.

Furthermore, Zel'dovich had an interest in the role that slow neutrons had in the fission process. In 1946 he became a corresponding Member of the Academy of Science and in 1958 he was made a full Academician. In 1943, during World War II I he was awarded the Stalin Prize for his research that contributed towards the war effort. In the 1950s he focused on nuclear physics and the theory of elementary particles.

In the 1960s he began to develop an interest in cosmology, astrophysics and explored such diverse subjects as quark annihilation, neutrino detection and the applicability of relativistic versus Newtonian theories to the study of the expanding and evolving Universe. In 1967, in collaboration with C.W. Misher, A.G. Doroshkevich and I.D. Novikov, he proposed that the initial stages the universe were highly isotropic, and as it expanded it's isotropy diminished. His cosmological theories have led to a more accurate measurement of the abundance of helium in older stars. He delved into the dynamics of neutron emission when black holes were being formed, the creation of galaxies and clusters, and the large-scale structure of the universe. Zel'dovich worked with Rashid Sunyaev and proposed what is known as the Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effect. It was an important method for determining the Hubble constant from the influence that gases in galactic clusters had on the microwave background radiation. He was at the forefront in attempts to relate particle physics to cosmology and to develop a quantum theory of gravity.

In his later years he was a professor at Moscow State University and head of the division of relativistic astrophysics at the Sternberg Astronomical Institute. He received the following awards: In 1986 the Bruce Metal, 1977 the Dirac Metal, 1977, the I.V. Kurchatov Gold Metal and in 1962 and 1974 the Soviet Government Order of Lenin. He died on December 2, 1987. Minor planet #11438 is named Zel'dovich, after him.