Hambardzumyan was born in Tiflis (Tbilisi), the capital of Georgia. His father Hamazasp (1880-1965) was a lawyer, graduated from the University of St. Petersburg (1908), a writer, and a scholar of Classical philology; he would later teach classical literature at Yerevan State University, become a Ph.D. at the age of 73, and publish his translation of Homer’s Iliad into Armenian in 1956.
Young Victor went to study to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1924, where he attended the department of Physics and Mathematics of Leningrad State Pedagogical Institute and then of Leningrad State University. He published his first scientific article at the age of 18, in 1926, and another article published in 1929, coauthored with physicist Dmitri Ivanenko (1904-1994), brought his work into prominence; it demonstrated that atomic nuclei could not be made from protons and electrons. Three years later, the discovery of neutrons (the other component of atoms, together with protons) confirmed the theory.
Hambardzumyan married in 1930 and taught at his alma mater, Leningrad University, since his graduation in 1931. He founded and headed the first astrophysics chair in 1934, and directed the astronomic observatory from 1939-1941. During the war, the scientific laboratories were evacuated in 1941 to the autonomous republic of Tatarstan, where Hambardzumyan (a correspondent member of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union at the age of 31, in 1939) directed them for the next four years. In 1943 the Armenian Academy of Sciences was founded, and Hambardzumyan was appointed vice president. He became its president in 1947 and was re-elected successively until 1993, when he became honorary president.
By the 1950s, Hambardzumyan had already become one of the founders of theoretical astrophysics. He made several important contributions to science throughout his career, such as quantum field theory, the idea of active galactic nuclei, stellar evolution, and many others.
The astrophysical observatory of Byurakan
A member of the Communist Party since 1940, the astronomer was a member of the Central Committee of the Armenian party and a delegate to the Soviet Supreme of the USSR for almost fifty years. In 1989 he was elected to the USSR Congress of the People’s Deputies, which existed between 1989 and 1991. In September 1990, together with several Armenian intellectuals, he was on a hunger strike for two weeks to support the claims in the Karabagh movement.
A worldwide known personality of science, Hambardzumyan was also deeply attached to his national roots. In the last years of his life, he wrote as a testament of sorts (August 29, 1994):
“My will to the following generations, to my grandchildren and great grandchildren, is to master the Armenian language. Everyone has to make his/her duty to study the Armenian language and be proficient in it. We don’t transmit blood to the generations, but ideas, and the most valuable among those ideas is the Armenian language for me. Each generation has the obligation of teaching the Armenian language to the next one.”
Hambardzumyan passed away on August 12, 1996, in Byurakan and is buried next to the Grand Telescope Tower. The astronomic observatory has been named after him, as was an asteroid discovered in 1972.
Victor Hambardzumyan is featured on the 100 dram bill of the Republic of Armenia