Interview with Academician A.A. Samarskii

A Cup of Tea at the Academy of Sciences

Literary Gazette, October 2001

It has become a tradition. On the first Wednesday of each month one of the great scientists comes to the old building of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences. And there, in the audience that knew for its centuries-old history the greatest highs of the mind, we begin a leisurely conversation about the fate of the scientist and the science of the past and the future, about the realization of the dream and the remaining hopes. This is a kind of confessions of scientists. And their listeners are not only science journalists, but also students, and even pupils who are invited to these meetings.

Vladimir Gubarev

On June 10, 1948, the Decision of the Council of Ministers of the USSR №1990-774ss/op "On additional work plan of special research for 1948" was issued and was signed by Stalin and stamped "Top Secret (Special Files)". In the 9th paragraph it refers to the provision in "a matter of urgency" of apartments and rooms to several scientists. At that time, the candidate of geophysical sciences A.A. Samarskii and the candidate of physical and mathematical sciences A.D. Sakharov could only claim the rooms that they have received. But most importantly, according to this resolution, they entered the very narrow circle of people who were entrusted to "perform calculations on "PO" for RDS-1, RDS-2, RDS-3, 4-RDS, RDS-5 with different variants of the equation of state ..."

For the uninitiated, I will explain what the abbreviation "RDS" is hiding an atomic bomb, and the "PO" - was the central part of it made of Pu-239 ...

Academician Alexander Andreyevich Samarskii recalls about that time with sadness, saying that the years were young, happy, even though the life was dramatic, and sometimes even tragic.

But resentment is growing for the today, not yesterday.  The jubilee celebrations on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the test of the first Soviet atomic bomb took place with great pomp - with presentations and receptions, solemn meetings and conferences, meetings and banquets. But academician Samarskii was not invited, even memorabilia were not given .... And Academician was offended!

I tried to explain to him that any anniversaries - are vanity, and it is well known about his contributions to science, and the Star of the Hero is on the chest, and the Lenin Prize, and many state awards, and the main thing - honor by the students who multiply the glory of mathematician Samarskii around the world. The mere fact that he created the Institute for Mathematical Modelling of the Russian Academy of Sciences, of which he was the head for many, many years and in which there are fifty Doctors of Science, speaks for itself. However, Alexander Andreyevich, agreeing with all the arguments, could not hide his offense:

– I'm unpleasant with such forgetting. Yes, I understand that in the Academy of Sciences, our laboratory was as if it did not exist, and we were not formally included in the atomic ministry as well - we were very much classified! - But still we can not forget about the people who made the first calculations of the atomic bomb ...

We got to talking. And I provide the recording of this conversation, which though a little bit will uncover the life story of a man whose fate was linked to the epoch-making events of the twentieth century.

– There is a classic journalist's question: What are you? It implies that you have to introduce yourself: where you came from, where and when you were born, how did you start your working career?

– I was born in a village, studied in Donetsk, graduated from the school in Taganrog. By the way, Chekhov school ... It is clear that in this school, there was a big draw to the literature among almost all pupils. I was good at math and physics, but "Chekhov tradition" impacted, I decided to enroll in the Literary Institute, the more that I already wrote plays ... But my teacher in physics and mathematics, "turned against" - they demanded that I entered the Faculty of Physics of the Moscow State University. I colud not disobey my teachers and therefore I followed their advice. I was 18 years old, and it seemed that everything in life was defined ... But the war came, and on July 6, 1941, I submitted an application to the division of the national militia ...

– But you were a student?!

- Yes, I could get a reservation, but for our generation the main thing was the Homeland, its defense.

– And where were you fighting?

– First, where almost all Moscow militia were killed - on the river Ugra. And then the offensive began. On December 12, I was on the scout and got at the land mine. They pulled out more than thirty fragments from me - it was a lot of operations. However, the eight fragments were left in me, the surgeons could not get them out. In September of 1942, I was discharged from the hospital. I came out on crutches ... It was in Khakassia ... I still had relatives in Taganrog and it was occupied by the Germans. The University of Moscow was evacuated and was, if my memory serves me right, in Ashgabat. What should I do? And I was sent as a teacher to the school at a gold mine "Communar". I taught mathematics... There I worked for over a year.

Reflections on science. The world is nonlinear, that is, the basic laws of development of animate and inanimate nature (from the micro to the macro world), including the social and economic structures, are nonlinear. This means in particular that there are several possible ways of evolution of a complex object, that is the future is non-uniquely determined by the preset time (by the initial conditions), and it can not be predicted based only on prior experience. The optimal path of the evolution should be chosen based on the knowledge of the laws of its development, it is necessary to calculate and control it. This is a complex and difficult task, but the life requires its solution.

– Probably you thought that you would stay forever in Siberia?

– So it could happen, but I had a friend in Moscow, with whom I corresponded. He studied at the Military Academy, but still went to the University and arranged that I were requested to study. And in December of 1943 I returned to Moscow. My teacher - Corresponding Member of Academy of Sciences Tikhonov ...

– The future famous mathematician Academician Tikhonov?

– Yes, yes, that's him! .. I have attended many seminars, and as very "hungry" for science, I was active and curious, and because of that many professors had asked me to study with them. But fortunately I chose Tikhonov. He was young, venturesome and extremely talented. At 16 years of age, as an external student he graduated from high school, went to University, quickly achieved success - the theorem of his name entered the world of science, he solved a number of interesting problems. Then he began working in the Geophysical Institute because he was attracted by applied problems ... And I was just looking for a way to go. I have even one published paper on theoretical physics ... Andrey Nikolaevich  suddenly decided that I should try experimental physics as well. The teacher's word is the law! I hobbled on my crutches in the laboratory and immediately hated this field of physics. I returned to the theoretical work. The opponents of my graduation diploma offered to give me at once the candidate degree - the work really turned out to be good ...

– Was it in maths or physics?

– It was in maths but with physical content... I want to make it clear because it was the combination of mathematics and physics that largely determined my future in science... By the way, it was Tikhonov who objected against offering me the candidate degree!

– Why? After all, he as a teacher was flattering, was not he?

– He said: "If we give him the degree, he, being from out of town, will be required to leave Moscow. A postgraduate course will enable him to stay another three years at the University!" It was a wise decision, because when I finished post-graduate school, I already had about twenty published works. I tried myself in various areas, including in the application of numerical problems in chemical physics.

– For normal people, this region is "Terra Incognita" ...

– May be, conversely?!

– In this case, I will specify: for the vast majority of people...

– Now it is possible to agree with this ... And this just can be explained as follows: there are models of different levels, or, as we say, "different ranks." Mathematicians explore fundamental problems ... At first, it was different - we were required to answer a specific question, but because it is not possible to get anything new from specific problems, therefore I, of course, was interested in global issues. It's just fun!

Reflections on science. We should not base on the belief that science will evolve spontaneously to meet its internal needs of self-development and self-organization. Science must perform urgent social order, promoting the scientific and technological progress not in the distant future, but today. We should not use such model (which has a considerable number of supporters): first conduct basic research, and then look for where they can be used. We need to find ways of development of science in a given direction, associated with the solution of certain large problems. Apparently, the methods of resource management (material and human) can be applied to this. It is important to remember that all problems should be resolved quickly and at a high scientific level. The required level of applied research is only possible on the basis of fundamental research, which is oriented in character. In connection with the development and application of computer technology, a special responsibility is on the math. Modern applied mathematics must, performing the social order, to decide "what is necessary" and "how it is necessary".

– How is the search for global challenges made?

– In different ways. For example, I once was looking through old magazines in physics and found an article by Landau and young Ivanenko. It was about the structure of the atom, some features of the processes that were in it ... In general, I was able to prove that their conclusions were wrong.

– Did it cause a sensation?

– This work became my candidate thesis. By the way, it was very small: twenty pages of introduction and twenty pages of text. The reviewer for me was Academician Petrovskii, he wrote a glowing review.

– After defending the dissertation and finishing the post-graduate school, you had to leave Moscow?

– It is how it would happen, but this time a secret decree of the Central Committee came out on the establishment of a mathematical laboratory for solving problems related to the creation of the atomic bomb. It was some meeting, "on the Higher Levels", where Tikhonov proposed a calculation of the atomic bomb ... By the way, the meeting was attended by Landau, who said that "if this can be done, it will be a scientific feat!" Nevertheless, Tikhonov's offer was accepted, and there appeared a tiny laboratory in which there were only a few mathematicians. And about thirty girls-solvers who had graduated from the geodesic institute.

– They were instead of computer?

– Yes... And we were given a task: create a "numerical model of atomic bomb".

– It was then when the Special Committee had given for you and for candidate Sakharov a room for each?

– That's right, because I had nowhere to live ... However, the decision was carried out only at the end of 1950. Since I was single, not very legitimately, I continued to live in the dormitory of the University, and then began to rent an apartment ... However, I spent at work most of the time – the time period for us to make the job was allotted very small: only about a year! And this problem was of the highest level of difficulty, and besides, the physicists had quite inaccurate data... Their models were very rough, approximate... They worked only with such models... And together with Tikhonov, we agreed that I will work with the exact models.

– Apparently, you have come to the finish line at the same time?

– Yes, at the time of the first test of our bombs, we already had the first results... The error was only 30 percent...

– Only?!

– It's a great result! I do not know what it is now, but the Americans had never had errors less than 30 percent. Thus, our calculations were very accurate ... In the future, we have reduced the error to 10 percent...

– How did you manage it?! I think the Americans had always better computer technology?

– Our initial data was taken correctly. We tried to maintain the correct mathematical description of the physical process, and in this, I am convinced, I was helped by the fact that my first education was physical.

– So, math is in the first place after all?

– And that is what has defined our success. While in Los Alamos, the calculations were made by physicists. This is a fundamental difference ... But how to solve the resulting equations? I am proud that I came up with "parallelization". There were 30 girls-solvers. There were several hundred equations. That is about ten equations for each girl ... They calculated as if independently, but passing their data to each other ... Of course, I explain it simplified, but the idea of the method, it seems to me, is clear ... The "parallelization of calculations" enabled us to make the calculations for two months, we have accelerated the process of work by about 15 times ... I consider it was the most important achievement in the first year of work on the atomic bomb.

Reflections on science. Using the benefits of mathematical modeling and the informatics tools that are based on it in the technological applications requires serious intellectual and organizational effort. Symptoms of our backlog in this area from the developed countries, perhaps are more alarming than in the basic sciences. In the West, there has been a move to mass deployment of mathematical modeling and computer simulations in technology. The purchases of supercomputers by automotive companies become typical to calculate the total vehicle design, particularly in the situations of accidents. This is a very profitable business, as "accidents" involve mathematical models and not expensive vehicles. The companies that do not have corresponding calculating techniques become uncompetitive... European consortium "Mathematics in Industry" was created. Its goal - the effective use of mathematical modeling in the industry and the development of corresponding directory of tasks. Against this background, there are almost no use of the accumulated unique mathematical modeling experience of our experts in some of the technologies of microelectronics, instrumentation, laser and thermal processing of materials.

– Wasn't your wife among those girl-solvers?

– No, she's a doctor. By the way, an Uzbek. Her father was an Academician in mechanics, he once graduated from MSU. A grandfather - a revolutionary ... Why you asked?

– I know one Academician, a nuclear scientist. He is a theorist, and his wife was engaged in computations...

– You speak about Academician Avorin?

– That's right!

– Everyone who started working on the bomb, were young, so there were a lot of such "nuclear families" ... That time, of course, comes to mind with good feelings, although it was very difficult, since at the first stage, we worked with primitive computer technology... But it was very interesting, it was a creative work. Numerical methods were improving rapidly: just two years later, I proposed a more accurate mathematical model... Until 1953, we used manual technique and we advanced quite far in this area... I immediately realized that it is necessary to work on the theory of numerical methods, and it was rightly so, as it was possible to promote special calculation methods. By the way, the Americans have lagged behind in this area - they were hoping for the computer equipment and failed.

– They recognized it: they later confirmed that, despite the strong backlog in computers, we have not conceded to them in the main point: in the calculation of complex physical processes that occur in the explosions of atomic and thermonuclear bombs ... You named the date: 1953. Really you were not dealing with arms after that?!

– I deal with it all my life... The Institute of Applied Mathematics was created in 1953 and our laboratory became a department.

– The director was Mstislav Keldysh, wasn't he?

– He was the director, Tikhonov - the deputy director, me - the head of a department. Our department was the largest in the institute. A little later, Okhotsimsky was made the head of another department. That is cosmos...

– The participation of Keldysh in the "atomic project" is known. It was made through your department?

– Yes... The appearance of computers in 1953 – 1954 gave us new possibilities for computational experiments. With our pretty weak computers, we were able to solve all the problems for the defense - in fact, we have developed efficient numerical methods and optimized the triad "model - algorithm - program".

– It sounds unusual and beautiful!

– And it was one of the achievements of which I am proud. If we turn to the same bomb, the scheme looked something like this. There was some separation of work between the calculation groups. First, they calculated the initial compression process - a kind of preparation for the explosion, and then the data and the calculations were passed to our department, where we calculated all the processes associated with the explosion... It is curious that the task was written right in my office. For example, Sakharov came and then on my desk gave us a task... By the way, I passed recently to Sarov, i.e. to Arzamas-16, my notebook in which Sakharov and Zeldovich and Babaev kept records.

– You mean the calculation of a thermonuclear bomb?

– Even before the advent of machines we had a huge number of calculations - because by this time we had already 6 years of calculations.

– And you did not have competitors?

– At various times, at some point or another they appeared, but inevitably our competitors lost ... In the end, Keldysh relied only on us, and as far as I know, he did not address to other groups of mathematicians.

– Did you have information from the Americans?

– I did not even know about the existence of spies in this area!.. I never had any information, any digit - never and from nobody, and on the first stage I had a lot of contact with Tamm, Sakharov and Zeldovich! I stress - never! I immediately add - fortunately, because it allowed to go our own way and in the end to be ahead of the Americans. So that borrowing could only go in a different direction: from us to Americans.

– And how long did you work for the "atomic project"?

– Very actively - up to about 1980. Then we cooperated only sporadically, when there was a need ... In fact, by that time all the fundamental problems were solved.

Reflections on science. Computerization of education itself can not solve the problem of personnel. Its meaning is in the other - to create an educational background and psychological preconditions for a fairly wide release of middle-qualified professionals ("users" of the new methodology). The preparation of highly qualified developers require intensive and concentrated activities. One of them - the creation of centers of mathematical modeling in the largest universities. This step is very promising, and corresponds to the nature of higher education. Multi-purpose nature of mathematical modeling will bring together scientists from different disciplines, working in higher education, will help the synthesis of scientific and educational processes without waste of resources to faculties and departments. It will be a significant growth in the share of research work in universities without attracting of major investments.

– You said: "The problems have been solved"... That is what determined the fact that eminent scientists - Sakharov and Zeldovich - left Arzamas-16. By the way, what is your impression of them?

– Sakharov, no doubt, a remarkable man, devoid of any complexes. He combined talents of visionary physicist and mathematician. But he was credited with the definition of "father of the hydrogen bomb," and this is not true, as it offended many physicists who worked with Sakharov. And there were no need for this, because the Sakharov did not need exaltation - by himself he was an outstanding scientist and a man.

– And what about Zeldovich?

– He was unique in his own way ... "reactive type", he was ready to pounce on any problem, but he lacked a general mathematical culture. He grasped the idea quickly, but he was still scattered in his character... And at the same time, was easier to communicate with him than with Sakharov. I would like to say about the theorist Yuri Romanov. He had long since earned the right to be a member of the Academy, but he was not even elected into corresponding members. It's not fair! .. Unfortunately, this applies to many. For example, to Feoktistov, Shelkin...

– The doctoral dissertation was also short as the candidate one?

– No, there were 800 pages of text! .. Keep in mind that we have created methods, algorithms, and software allowed to proceed to the application of research cycles using the computational experiment methods of many pressing problems in nuclear physics, plasma physics and controlled fusion, autocatalytic processes in chemistry, problems of laser thermochemistry and convection.

– I want to ask you a more "generic" question: what do you think is the most important thing in science in the second half of the twentieth century?

– You hope that I will name the "atomic problem"?

– Honestly, yes.

– And so it is! .. Whatever was said, but we have saved mankind from nuclear war. It is known that the Americans have developed ten scripts of attack on the USSR and a global catastrophe could happen, which would place a critical point in the history of civilization. It were we who were able to prevent it, and the consciousness of this gave us a huge boost. I'm a war veteran and survived the war, but because of that I know its price. And we were working on the prevention of a new war with full dedication, devotion, selfless.

– And because of that it was a shame that they have forgotten about you during the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Soviet atomic bomb?

– It's not forgetfulness ... Once I was elected a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR for just a few "amateur" works, they did not speak about the main ones - everything was top secret. But in total, there were about 500 of them! This already says about the extent of our laboratory participation in the atomic project... The second thing I'm proud of: I'm a kind of a champion in the number of books in the field of computational mathematics. These books are the result of development of major problems both on nuclear topics and laser controlled fusion. As a result of all - the creation of the theory of numerical methods.

Reflections on science. The historic task of transformation of Russian society was much more difficult than it seemed before the real reforms that revealed the true extent of the problems, their complexity and originality, accompanied by an acute lack of resources and lack of time. The price of the errors and incompetence becomes so high that could jeopardize the ultimate success of not only individual areas, but also the fate of the reform as a whole. It is vital to mobilize and activate all intellectual reserves available in the country in the field of methodology of analysis, forecasting and decision-making on major issues of society. The most affordable and effective reserve is a methodology based on the methods of mathematical modeling. It is this that is necessary during the formation of national science, technology and social policy.

– Will we keep the leadership?

– This question is difficult to answer ... I do not know very well what is happening in China. The impression is that they have hidden before the jump.

– Do you have reasons to think so?

– I judge by what they translate. They very skillfully take the necessary literature, closely watch what is happening in the world of science. It seems to me that they are destined to become the leaders in 21st century.

Literary Gazette, 2001