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The universe is filled with gigantic nuclear bombs — everything from the hearts of stars to catastrophic stellar explosions. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the people who study nuclear weapons sometimes also study the physics of stars. An example is a Soviet scientist who was born 100 years ago today.
Yakov Borisovich Zel’dovich was born in Minsk, which today is part of Belarus. Zel’dovich began his scientific career at age 17. He quickly worked his way up from lab assistant to scientist, and eventually earned his doctorate.
After World War II, he was a leading scientist for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons programs. Later, he turned to problems in nuclear physics, and eventually to astrophysics — the physics of the universe.
Among other things, Zel’dovich studied the final stages of life of the heaviest stars. Such stars blast their outer layers into space in titanic explosions known as supernovae. Their cores collapse to form either ultra-dense neutron stars or even-denser black holes — objects with such powerful gravity that not even light can escape from them.
Zel’dovich also studied the aftermath of the Big Bang, which fills the universe with a faint glow of microwaves. And he and a colleague devised a technique that helps measure the rate at which the universe is expanding as a result of the Big Bang — applying some of the knowledge he developed while creating smaller bangs right here on Earth.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014
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