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Khariton, Iulii Borisovich

(1904–1996), physicist; one of the creators of the Soviet atom bomb and scientific director of the hydrogen bomb project. Iulii Khariton was born into a middle-class Jewish family. Both of his parents left Russia before he completed his education. His mother lived in Berlin from 1910 and moved to Tel Aviv in 1933. His father, a journalist who was expelled from Soviet Russia in 1922 with many Russian intellectuals, lived in Riga and perished during World War II.

Iulii Khariton, who belonged to the physics school founded by Abram Ioffe, graduated from the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute in 1925, but his scientific career had already begun in 1921, when Nikolai Semenov (1956 Nobel laureate in chemistry) invited him to his newly founded laboratory at the Leningrad Physical-Technical Institute. In his first experimental study, Khariton proved the existence of branched chemical reaction (phosphorus oxidation). He later spent two years at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge (1926–1928) and obtained his doctorate working in Ernest Rutherford’s laboratory there under the supervision of James Chadwick, the Nobel laureate (1935) who discovered the neutron.

After returning to the USSR in 1928, Khariton continued his collaboration with Semenov at the Institute of Chemical Physics and initiated studies of explosion processes. In 1936, he developed the general theory of the centrifugal separation of gas mixtures, which was applicable to the problem of uranium isotope separation. He also established the criterion of detonation, which came to be known as the Khariton Principle. From 1939 to 1941, Khariton did pioneering work with Iakov Borisovich Zel’dovich on criteria for developing nuclear chain reactions, and subsequently became involved in the Soviet nuclear project to develop the atom bomb under the leadership of Igor’ Kurchatov. In 1946 Khariton became scientific director of the first Soviet nuclear bomb center in Sarov (the Soviet analogue of Los Alamos National Laboratory, commonly known as Arzamas-16). Practically all tests of thermonuclear weapons in the USSR were carried out under his supervision, from the first explosion in 1953 until the last one in 1990.

Khariton became a member of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1953. Although he had begun his career as a brilliant experimentalist and then performed several seminal theoretical investigations, in the second half of his life he turned from his own research in favor of the realization of a massive state military program, which was crowned by the original construction of several new super weapons.

Suggested Reading

Iulii Khariton and Iurii Smirnov, “The Khariton Version,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 49.4 (1993): 20–31; Iulii Borisovich Khariton, Put’ dlinoiu v vek, ed. Vitalii Iosifovich Gol’danskii (Moscow, 1999).