Quote of the Day: George Gamow

 

“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.

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There are 8 comments.

  1. Vectorman Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    The Quote of the Day series is the easiest way to start a fun conversation on Ricochet. There are 3 open days on the August Signup Sheet. We even include tips for finding great quotes, so choose your favorite quote and sign up today!

    • #1
    • August 21, 2019, at 1:04 PM PDT
    • Like
  2. Seawriter Member

    Another example of Gamow’s whimsy was the Alpher–Bethe–Gamow paper.

    • #2
    • August 21, 2019, at 1:24 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  3. Gossamer Cat Coolidge

    Vectorman: In 1953, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, and James D. Watson described the structure of DNA.

    I just finished the “Dark Lady of DNA” about Rosalind Franklin. An excellent book and a remarkable woman. However, I don’t think you can say that she described the structure of DNA and I don’t think she would have said so either. Franklin took the definitive picture that led Watson and Crick to propose the correct model for DNA. She also provided a lot of other data. But she had never “made the inductive leap” according to one science historian, regarding base pairings in the structure of DNA. She might have within a couple of months if she had kept at it, but we’ll never know.

    But an excellent post! Who says scientists can’t be fun?

    • #3
    • August 21, 2019, at 3:36 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  4. KentForrester Coolidge

    I think it more likely that his reputation was undermined, not by his writing of children’s books, but instead by his frivolous experimentation in the application of makeup on the faces of young women.

    • #4
    • August 21, 2019, at 3:46 PM PDT
    • Like
  5. Vectorman Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):
    Franklin took the definitive picture that led Watson and Crick to propose the correct model for DNA. She also provided a lot of other data. But she had never “made the inductive leap” according to one science historian, regarding base pairings in the structure of DNA.

    I’m not surprised, as I was taught that it was Watson and Crick. Unfortunately, the modern need to credit non-male colleagues, such as described by @richardeaston with GPS, continues unabated.

    • #5
    • August 21, 2019, at 3:47 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  6. Doctor Robert Member

    I remember as a teen reading “One two three… infinity”, about numbers. The title refers to a tribe that allegedly did not count before three, despite having all those fingers and toes to use. To learn about Gamow’s escape from the USSR is interesting, thanks.

    • #6
    • August 22, 2019, at 3:36 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Titus Techera Contributor

    This is very good–would enjoy reading more about Gamow!

    • #7
    • August 22, 2019, at 5:25 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. Vectorman Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    This is very good–would enjoy reading more about Gamow!

    He really was impressive – obviously as brilliant as Richard Feynman. Finding alpha decay parameters via tunneling was a Nobel in itself, in addition to his astrophysics work.

    • #8
    • August 22, 2019, at 5:50 AM PDT
    • 2 likes