The nuclear shield in the ’thirty-year war’ of physicists against ignorant criticism of modern physical theories
S.I. Vavilov Institute of History of Natural Sciences and Technology, Russian Academy of Sciences, ul. Obrucheva 30A, korp. B, Moscow, 117861, Russian Federation
This article deals with the almost ’thirty-year war’ led by physicists against the authorities’ incompetent philosophical and ideological interference with science. The ’war’ is shown to have been related to the history of Soviet nuclear weapons. Theoretical milestones of 20th century physics, to wit, theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, suffered endless ’attacks on philosophical grounds’. The theories were proclaimed idealistic as well as unduly abstract and out of touch with practice; their authors and followers were labelled ’physical idealists’, and later, in the 1940s and 1950s, even ’cosmopolitans without kith or kin’. Meanwhile, quantum and relativistic theories, as is widely known, had become the basis of nuclear physics and of the means of studying the atomic nucleus (charged particle accelerators, for instance). The two theories thus served, to a great extent, as a basis for both peaceful and military uses of nuclear energy, made possible by the discovery of uranium nuclear fission under the action of neutrons. In the first part, the article recounts how prominent physicists led the way to resisting philosophical and ideological pressure and standing up for relativity, quantum theories and nuclear physics, thus enabling the launch of the atomic project. The second part contains extensive material proving the point that physicists effectively used the ’nuclear shield’ in the 1940s and 1950s against the ’philosophical-cosmopolitan’ pressure, indeed saving physics from a tragic fate as that of biology at the Academy of Agricultural Sciences (VASKhNIL) session in 1948.