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Kikoin, Isaak Konstantinovich

(1908–1984), physicist; one of the creators of the Soviet atomic bomb. Isaak Konstantinovich (patronymic originally Kushelevich) Kikoin was born into the family of a teacher. His father had both an excellent traditional Jewish education and secular training in languages and mathematics. At the beginning of World War I, the family was evacuated from the Pale of Jewish Settlement to Pskov. After graduating from high school in 1923, Kikoin studied at a specialized land surveying school and then entered the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute (1925). He soon joined Abram Ioffe’s famous team in the neighboring Physical-Technical Institute.

Kikoin began his scientific career with studies of magnetism. In 1930, Ioffe sent him to major physics laboratories in Germany and the Netherlands, where he met leading physicists Peter Debye, Otto Stern, Walter Gerlach, and Walther de Haas. In the early 1930s, Kikoin performed pioneering measurements of the Hall effect in liquid metals and discovered the photomagnetic effect in semiconductors, now known as the Kikoin-Noskov effect. He continued his experimental work at a new physics center in Sverdlovsk, discovering the anomalous Hall effect in ferromagnets and measuring the gyromagnetic ratios of superconductors.

These facets of Kikoin’s career were interrupted in 1941 after the German invasion of the USSR. On Igor’ Kurchatov’s initiative, Kikoin became involved in the Soviet atom bomb project, supervising the uranium isotope separation program and, from 1943 serving as one of vice directors of the Institute of Atomic Energy (Moscow), the leading institute in the project. Under his scientific direction, the isotope separation industry was created in the USSR in the course of the 1940s and 1950s. Kikoin became a member of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1953. He was able to return to academic research only in the mid-1950s, and subsequently performed measurements of the electrical properties of mercury in gas-to-liquid transition and continued his studies of the photomagnetic effect.

Kikoin made significant contributions to the modern system of physics education in the postwar Soviet Union. With his brother, Abram Kikoin, he reformed the school program of teaching physics and wrote physics curricula for high schools and universities. He also edited Kvant (Quantum), the first popular journal on physics and mathematics, with mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov.

Isaak Kikoin combined his work as scientific director of a huge branch of the military industry and experimental studies in his laboratory with deep knowledge of Jewish tradition, which he inherited from his father. The basic Jewish education he had received from his family allowed him to read in Hebrew and comment on the Dead Sea Scrolls (a facsimile edition of which he kept in a bookcase in his office).

Suggested Reading

Isaak Konstantinovich Kikoin, Encounters with Physicists and Physics, Science for Everyone (Moscow, 1989); Nikolai Nikolaevich Ponomarev-Stepnoi, ed., Isaak Konstantinovich Kikoin: Vospominaniia sovremennikov, 2nd ed. (Moscow, 1998).