Andrei Sakharov was an eminent Soviet Russian nuclear physicist, although he is perhaps better known as a dissident, human rights activist, advocate of civil liberties and reforms in the Soviet Union and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Although much of his early career was spent contributing to the military might of the Soviet Union through the development of the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb, he later became one of the program’s fiercest critics. In later life, he devoted his prodigious intellect to fundamental theoretical physics, particle physics and cosmology, contributing important insights on the matter-antimatter imbalance in the universe, and hypothesizing about singularities linking parallel universes.
Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was born in Moscow, Russia (then the USSR) on 21 May 1921. His father was a physics teacher, an amateur pianist and a vehement atheist, and, despite his pious mother’s insistence on baptizing him, religion did not play an important role in Sakharov’s life. He entered Moscow State University in 1938, although he was evacuated in 1941 during the Great Patriotic War to Ashgabat (in today's Turkmenistan), where he completed his studies and graduated.
After graduating, he was assigned laboratory work in Ulyanovsk, during which period he met and married Klavdia Alekseyevna Vikhireva. They married in 1943 and raised together two daughters and a son. He returned to Moscow in 1945 to study at the Theoretical Department of FIAN (the Physical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences), receiving his PhD in 1947.
After the war, Sakharov spent some time researching cosmic rays, but gradually became involved in weapons research. In 1948, he participated in the Soviet atomic bomb project under Igor Kurchatov, and was present at the testing of the first Soviet atomic device in 1949. After moving to the “closed” (or restricted) town of Sarov in 1950, Sakharov played a key role in the next stage, the development of the thermonuclear hydrogen bomb, which was first tested in 1953, followed by the first megaton-range Soviet hydrogen bomb, which was tested in 1955.
In 1950, in association with Igor Tamm, he also proposed an idea for a controlled nuclear fusion reactor, the tokamak, which is still the basis for the majority of work in the area, based on the premise of confining extremely hot ionized plasma by torus-shaped magnetic fields in order to control the thermonuclear fusion process. He also worked on generating extremely high-power electromagnetic pulses by compressing magnetic flux using high explosive.
In 1953, Sakharov received his DSc degree, was elected a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and was awarded the first of his three Hero of Socialist Labour titles. By the late 1950s, however, Sakharov had become concerned about the moral and political implications of his nuclear weapons work. He became politically active during the 1960s, warning against nuclear proliferation and pushing for an end to atmospheric tests. He played a prominent role in the Partial Test Ban Treaty, signed in Moscow in 1963. In 1967, when anti-ballistic missile defense became a key issue in US-Soviet relations, he argued for a bilateral rejection of such weapons on the grounds that an arms race in this new technology would only increase the likelihood of nuclear war.
After 1965, Sakharov returned to fundamental science and began working on particle physics and cosmology, particularly the search for an explanation for the "baryon asymmetry" of the universe (the huge preponderance of matter, as opposed to antimatter, in the known universe). He was the first scientist to introduce the concept of two universes called “sheets”, which may have been linked at the time of the Big Bang. The “other” universe would exhibit complete “CPT symmetry” (the inversion of charge, parity and time), having an opposite arrow of time and being mainly populated by antimatter. Sakharov called the singularities, where these two sheets could theoretically interact without being separated by space-time, a “collapse” and an “anticollapse”, similar to the black hole and white hole of wormhole theory. He also proposed the idea of induced gravity (or emergent gravity) as an alternative theory of quantum gravity.
After his continued agitation against the deployment of nuclear weapons, he was banned from all military-related research in 1968, and returned to FIAN in Moscow. In 1970 he founded the Moscow Human Rights Committee, together with Valery Chalidze and Andrei Tverdokhlebov, and came under increasing pressure from the regime. He married a fellow human rights activist, Yelena Bonner, in 1972. He was awarded the Prix Mondial Cino Del Duca in 1974 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, although he was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union to collect it (his wife read his speech at the ceremony in Oslo).
Sakharov was arrested in early 1980 after his public protests against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and was sent to internal exile in the city of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), a closed city inaccessible to foreign observers. He remained under tight Soviet police surveillance, subject to repeated searches and heists, until 1986, when he was allowed to return to Moscow under the perestroika and glasnost policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. There, he helped to initiate the first independent legal political organizations, and became prominent in the Soviet Union's growing political opposition. He was elected to the new parliament in 1989, and briefly co-led the democratic opposition.
Sakharov died soon after, however, of a sudden heart attack on 14 December 1989, at the age of 68.