One Hundred Years of Zel’dovich

Lovely weather today, but it’s also been an extremely busy day with meetings and teachings. I did realize yesterday however that I had forgotten to mark a very important centenary at the weekend. If I hadn’t been such a slacker that I took last Saturday off work I would probably have been reminded…

zeldovichThe great Russian physicist Yakov Borisovich Zel’dovich (left) was born on March 8th 1914, so had he lived he would have been 100 years old last Saturday. To us cosmologists Zel’dovich  is best known for his work on the large-scale structure of the Universe, but he only started to work on that subject relatively late in his career during the 1960s.  He in fact began his life in research as a physical chemist and arguably his greatest contribution to science was that he developed the first completely physically based theory of flame propagation (together with Frank-Kamenetskii). No doubt he also used insights gained from this work, together with his studies of detonation and shock waves, in the Soviet nuclear bomb programme in which he was a central figure, and which no doubt led to the chestful of medals he’s wearing in the photograph.

My own connection with Zel’dovich is primarily through his scientific descendants, principally his former student Sergei Shandarin, who has a faculty position at the University of Kansas. For example, I visited Kansas back in 1992 and worked on a project with Sergei and Adrian Melott which led to a paper published in 1993, the abstract of which makes it clear the debt it owed to the work of Ze’dovich.

The accuracy of various analytic approximations for following the evolution of cosmological density fluctuations into the nonlinear regime is investigated. The Zel’dovich approximation is found to be consistently the best approximation scheme. It is extremely accurate for power spectra characterized by n = -1 or less; when the approximation is ‘enhanced’ by truncating highly nonlinear Fourier modes the approximation is excellent even for n = +1. The performance of linear theory is less spectrum-dependent, but this approximation is less accurate than the Zel’dovich one for all cases because of the failure to treat dynamics. The lognormal approximation generally provides a very poor fit to the spatial pattern.

The Zel’dovich Approximation referred to in this abstract is based on an extremely simple idea but which, as we showed in the above paper, turns out to be extremely accurate at reproducing the morphology of the “cosmic web” of large-scale structure.

Zel’dovich passed away in 1987. I was a graduate student at that time and had never had the opportunity to meet him. If I had done so I’m sure I would have found him fascinating and intimidating in equal measure, as I admired his work enormously as did everyone I knew in the field of cosmology.  Anyway, a couple of years after his death a review paper written by himself and Sergei Shandarin was published, along with the note:

The Russian version of this review was finished in the summer of 1987. By the tragic death of Ya. B.Zeldovich on December 2, 1987, about four-fifths of the paper had been translated into English. Professor Zeldovich would have been 75 years old on March 8, 1989 and was vivid and creative until his last day. The theory of the structure of the universe was one of his favorite subjects, to which he made many note-worthy contributions over the last 20 years.

As one does if one is vain I looked down the reference list to see if any of my papers were cited. I’d only published one paper before Zel’dovich died so my hopes weren’t high. As it happens, though, my very first paper (Coles 1986) was there in the list. That’s still the proudest moment of my life!


Anyway, this post gives me the opportunity to advertise that there is a special meeting called The Zel’dovich Universe coming up this summer in Tallinn, Estonia. It looks a really interesting conference and I really hope I can find the time to fit it into my schedule. I’ve never been to Estonia…

One Response to “One Hundred Years of Zel’dovich”

  1. I went to Tallinn last autumn. Highly recommended. We only saw the old town (just about walking distance from the cruise terminal). Beautiful – mediaeval squares, cobbled streets, retaurants and bars. Well worth a vist.

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