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Ukrainian who played the most crucial role in creating the first US atomic bomb: George Kistiakowsky

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Atomic Heritage Foundation has the following entry: “George Kistiakowsky (1900-1982) was a Ukrainian-American physical chemist.
He joined the Manhattan Project in late January 1944, leaving his role as chief of the National Defense Research Committee’s Explosives Division. He replaced Seth Neddermeyer as head of the X (Explosives) Division and by spring 1945 had over 600 people working on solving the complicated problem of igniting the plutonium core in the atomic bomb. Under Kistiakowsky’s leadership, the complex explosive lenses that would uniformly compress the plutonium sphere to achieve critical mass were developed”.

George Bohdan Kistiakowsky was born November 18, 1900, in Kyiv. His father Bohdan Kistiakowsky was a Professor of Legal Philosophy at the University of Kyiv and a member of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. When the Bolsheviks approached Kyiv in 1918, George Kistiakowsky joined White Army and fought in the infantry and tank corps. After the Bolsheviks’ victory, Kistiakowsky fled to Germany, where he began to study at the University of Berlin in 1921.
“As a woefully unprepared student, I was admitted in 1921 to the University of Berlin after years of soldering in Ukraine and then living by manual labor in the Balkans. Somewhat later I started attending the Physics Colloquium, the like of which probably will never happen again. Led by Einstein and Planck, the whole contingent of senior physicists assembled there”, recalled George Kistiakowsky the events of those days in the 1982 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
He received a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1925, then moved to the United States the next year and taught at Princeton as an International Education Board Fellow. He also taught at Harvard University, where he became a Professor of Chemistry in 1938. It is while teaching at Harvard throughout the 1940s, that Kistiakowsky started to apply his expertise in thermodynamics, spectroscopy, and chemical kinetics to military research.

American journalist and historian Richard Rhodes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, named George Kistiakowsky a key figure in creating the first US atomic bomb. According to Rhodes, it was Kistiakowsky’s judgment that convinced the chairman of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) James B. Conant who was very skeptical in the beginning. 

Conant knew Kistiakowsky well because it was he, already a Harvard President at the age of 40, who had lured the Kyiv-born specialist from Princeton. “My doubts about Briggs’ project evaporated as soon as I heard George Kistiakowsky’s verdict… I had known George for many years … I had asked him to be head of the NDRC division on explosives …. I had complete faith in his judgment. If he was sold on Arthur Compton’s program, who was I to have reservations?” wrote Conant in his memoirs years later.

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