Igor Tamm Biography

(Soviet Physicist Who Won the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physics)

Birthday: July 8, 1895 (Cancer)

Born In: Vladivostok, Russia

Igor Yevgenyevich Tamm was a Soviet physicist and mathematician who was jointly awarded ‘Nobel Prize in Physics’ in 1958 with fellow physicists Pavel Alekseyevich Cherenkov and Ilya Frank, for elucidating along with Frank the science behind the Cherenkov radiation or the ‘Cherenkov effect’. It is a unique form of electromagnetic radiation, a phenomenon discovered by Cherenkov, which says, when charged particles like electrons travel with high velocity, faster than light, through a particular medium, a slight bluish light is emitted. Tamm was also reputed for his initial research work on specific types of electron bonding on the surfaces of crystalline solids, the concept of Tamm states. This work of Tamm was later significantly applied in the development of solid-state semiconductor devices. He held the chair of theoretical physics at the ‘Moscow State University’ following a stint as a lecturer in its physics department. He also served for decades as the head of the theoretical division of the ‘Lebedev Physical Institute’ (commonly abbreviated as ‘FIAN’), of the ‘Russian Academy of Sciences’, Moscow, one of the oldest research institutes in Russia. He also contributed towards devising the first thermonuclear bomb of the Soviet Union when he and his team from ‘FIAN’ worked under physicist Yuly Khariton’s direction on the project in a secret installation known as Arzamas-16. He was conferred the title ‘Hero of Socialist Labour’ in 1953.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Igor Yevgenyevich Tamm

Died At Age: 75


Spouse/Ex-: Nataliya Shuyskaya

father: Evgenij Tamm

mother: Olga Davydova

children: Evgeny, Irina

Born Country: Russia

Physicists Russian Men

Died on: April 12, 1971

place of death: Moscow, Russia

Notable Alumni: Edinburgh University

Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Physics

More Facts

education: Moscow State University, Edinburgh University

awards: 1967 Lomonosov Gold Medal
1958 Nobel Prize in Physics
1954 Order of the Hero of Socialist Labour
Stalin Prize

Childhood & Early Life
He was born on July 8, 1895, in Vladivostok, Russian Empire to Evgenij Tamm and his wife Olga Davydova. His father was an electrical engineer who worked in Yelizavetgrad (presently Kirovohrad, Ukraine), designated to build and manage water systems and electric power stations.
He attended a gymnasium in Yelizavetgrad and thereafter went to the United Kingdom where he studied at the ‘University of Edinburg’ in 1913-14 along with his school friend Boris Hessen who became philosopher, physicist and historian of science.
In 1914, at the very outset of the First World War, he offered volunteer service as a field medical person in the army.
He was a very strong willed person from a young age and was staunchly against participation of Russia in the World War I. In this pursuit he got associated with the ongoing Revolutionary movement in 1917 and remained an active campaigner against the war. Following the March Revolution that year he served the revolutionary committees. He never took up weapons, but faced incarceration several times.
In 1918 he completed his BS in physics from the ‘Moscow State University’.
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Tamm completed his first scientific paper in 1923, entitled ‘Electrodynamics of the Anisotropic Medium in the Special Theory of Relativity’.
He joined the ‘Moscow State University’ in 1924, as a lecturer in its physics department. He went on to hold the chair of theoretical physics at the university succeeding his mentor Leonid I. Mandelstam.
He was one of the foreign scientists who worked with famous Austrian and Dutch theoretical physicist Paul Ehrenfest for few months in 1928 in the latter’s laboratory at the ‘Leiden University’ (LEI), the oldest university in Netherlands.
He published his paper conceptualising surface states, the electronic states found at the surface of materials, in 1932, which became a significant concept for ‘MOSFET (metal–oxide–semiconductor field-effect transistor) physics. The surface states which are calculated on the basis of a tight-binding model are frequently called amm states. That year he also introduced the concept of phonon.
The Russian Academy of Sciences elected him as a corresponding member in 1933.
In 1934 he joined the ‘Lebedev Physical Institute’ (‘FIAN’) in Moscow. He became head of the theoretical department of ‘FIAN’ there and held the position till he was alive. That year he along with Semen Altshuller proposed that neutron has a magnetic moment which was contrary to the then perception that neutron, an elementary particle, has zero charge, hence cannot have a magnetic moment.
In 1934 he suggested another concept that interaction of proton and neutron can be elucidated as an exchange force transferred by a huge particle that was not yet identified. The concept was later developed by Japanese theoretical physicist Hideki Yukawa into a hypothesis of meson forces.
Cherenkov’s observation and discovery of the unique form of electromagnetic radiation, better known as ‘Cherenkov radiation’, where blue light is emitted when charged particles like electrons travel with high velocity, faster than light, through a particular medium, led Tamm and Frank elucidate the real cause of such phenomenon in 1937. Such scientific contributions led the trio win the ‘Nobel Prize in Physics’.
An approximate procedure for many-body physics was developed by Tamm in 1945, which was also independently developed by another American theoretical physicist Sidney Dancoff in 1950. The procedure came to be known as Tamm–Dancoff approximation method.
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Even though he was a distinguished theoretician, Tamm was not delegated to work on the atomic bomb project following the Second World War, presumably due to political reasons.
However when physicist Igor V. Kurchatov wanted to examine feasibility of developing a thermonuclear bomb and in that pursuit required a strong group, Tamm was inducted to organise FIAN’s theoretical division in Moscow in June 1948.
Tamm’s group of physicists included Vitaly L. Ginzburg, Andrey D. Sakharov, Vladimir Y. Fainberg and Yakov B. Zeldovich among others.
Sometime during March-April 1950, he and many of his group members were sent to a secret installation ‘Arzamas-16’, where they worked on one of the thermonuclear bomb project under the supervision of physicist Yuly Khariton. He along with Vitaly L. Ginzburg and Andrei Sakharov disapproved work of other scientists and suggested the ‘Layer Cake’ design that consisted of alternating layers of thermonuclear fuel and uranium.
A tokamak system for realising Controlled thermonuclear fusion (CTF) based on toroidal magnetic thermonuclear reactor was suggested by him and Andrei Sakharov in 1951 and subsequently the INF developed the first such tool.
On August 12, 1953, the bomb with ‘Layer Cake’ design, known as ‘Sloika’ was successfully tested. Following the test he took retirement from the project and went back to Moscow to resume his work at ‘FIAN’.
In October 1953, he was elected as a full member or academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
He also served as Professor of ‘J. M. Sverdlov Communist University’ and ‘Crimea State Medical University’.
His notable books include ‘Relativistic Interaction of Elementary Particles’ (1935), ‘On the Magnetic Moment of the Neutron’ (1938), ‘Theory of Electronics’ (1949) and ‘Selected Papers’ (1990).

He remained foreign member of ‘American Academy of Arts and Sciences’, ‘Swedish Physical Society’ and ‘Polish Academy of Sciences’.
Awards & Achievements
He received the ‘Nobel Prize in Physics’ in 1958 jointly with Pavel Alekseyevich Cherenkov and Ilya Frank, for explaining the real cause behind the Cherenkov radiation.
Personal Life & Legacy
In September 1917 he married Nataliya Shuyskaya. The couple was blessed with two children - a daughter Irina, born in 1921 and a son, Evgeny, born in 1926. Irina was a chemist and Evgeny was a physicist also renowned as a mountain climber. In 1982 Evgeny led the Soviet Everest expedition.
Tamm was an atheist.
On April 12, 1971, he passed away in Moscow at the age of 75 years.
The shallow lunar impact crater, situated to the west-northwest of the large and much more prominent crater called ‘Chaplygin’, is named after him as ‘Tamm’.

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