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“Take a look at George Gamow, who is now recognized as one of the great cosmologists of the last hundred years. I speculate that he probably didn’t win the Nobel Prize because people could not take him seriously. He wrote children’s books. His colleagues have publicly stated his writing children’s books on science had an adverse effect on his scientific reputation, and people could not take him seriously when he and his colleagues proposed that there should be cosmic background radiation, which we now know to be one of the greatest discoveries of 20th-century physics.” – Michio Kaku
George Gamow (March 4, 1904 – August 19, 1968) was a Russian-born American theoretical physicist and cosmologist. By 1928, Gamow explained radioactive alpha particle decay using quantum tunneling. He and his wife tried twice to defect from the Soviet Union using a kayak in 1932, first on the Black Sea to Turkey, and then from Murmansk to Norway. Both attempts failed, but by 1933 they were allowed to attend a physics conference in Brussels.
The next year, he became a professor at George Washington University in the US. He recruited physicist Edward Teller (later of hydrogen bomb fame) to join him at GWU and they published the “Gamow–Teller selection rule” for beta decay in 1936. But in 1939, he published his first general readership book, Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland, making him a “children’s book author.”
His interests turned towards astrophysics and cosmology. In 1945, he co-authored a paper on the planetary formation in the early Solar System. He published another paper in the British journal Nature in 1948, in which he developed equations for the mass and radius of a primordial galaxy, which typically contains about one hundred billion stars. Finally, he was ready for the ultimate question of the universe.
That same year, he predicted that the universe rotates about some distant center. He also postulated that before the “big bang,” there existed a primordial state of matter (neutrons, protons, electrons) mixed together in a sea of high-energy radiation. As the universe expanded, the light elements (Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium) came out of this “soup.” This work led to the prediction of background radiation corresponding to 7 degrees Kelvin, about twice the measured value. In 1965, the Microwave Cosmic Background radiation was detected by A.A. Penzias and R.W. Wilson, who won the Nobel prize in 1978. Gamow and his coauthors felt that they did not receive credit for their prediction of this radiation and its source.
In 1953, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, and James D. Watson described the structure of DNA. Gamow tried to show how the four different bases (adenine, cytosine, thymine, and guanine) found in DNA chains could control protein synthesis. In 1954, Gamow and Watson co-founded the RNA Tie Club, a discussion group of leading scientists concerned with the genetic code. Watson described Gamow as a “zany,” card-trick playing, limerick-singing, booze-swilling, practical–joking “giant imp.” Also in the club were physicists Edward Teller and Richard Feynman, the latter as zany as Gamow.
As a science writer, several of Gamow’s books are still in print today. He emphasized fundamental principles that are unlikely to become obsolete. He used mathematics as needed, but avoided using too many equations that obscured the essential points. In 1956, Gamow received the Kalinga Prize for popularizing science with his Mr. Tompkins series of books (1939–1967), his book One, Two, Three … Infinity, and other works. Like C.S. Lewis, Gamow had a rare talent – publishing serious subject matter along with excellent young reader’s books.