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Science past and present

Tom Siegfried



5 decades after his death, George Gamow’s contributions to science survive

This irreverent physicist and prolific popularizer investigated life, the universe and the atom

George Gamow

HOLDING COURT  George Gamow captivates young scientists-to-be at George Washington University in 1952.

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Half a century ago, if you asked any teenage science fan to name the best popular science writers, you’d get two names: Isaac Asimov and George Gamow.

Asimov was prominent not only for his nonfiction science books, but also for his science fiction. Gamow was known not only for writing popular science, but was also a prominent scientist who had made important contributions both to physics and biology.

Fifty years ago this month, Gamow’s career ended when he died at the age of 64. His books and scientific papers survive him, leaving plenty of science and science writing worth celebrating. Nuclear physics, astrophysics, modern cosmology and molecular biology all benefited from Gamow’s fertile intellect.

Like Asimov, Gamow was born in Russia (Odessa). But while Asimov came to the United States as a child, Gamow grew up in Russia, went to college first in Odessa (studying math) and then to the university in Petrograd (soon to become Leningrad), where he became a physicist. At Leningrad he attended lectures by the mathematician Alexander Friedmann. Friedmann was the first to fully realize that Einstein’s new general theory of relativity implied a dynamic universe — one that would expand or contract — rather than the static never-changing cosmos that most experts (including Einstein) believed in at the time.

Gamow planned to pursue a career in relativity under Friedmann’s direction. But Friedmann died young, in 1925. So Gamow fell in with a group of students more interested in quantum physics than relativity. “We spent all our time following the new [quantum] publications and trying to understand them,” Gamow wrote in his autobiography.

While a visitor at one of Europe’s top centers for quantum theory — the University of Göttingen in Germany — he solved a mystery about radioactive decay by identifying one of the quantum world’s most important phenomena: tunneling. In one form of radioactive decay, an atomic nucleus emits alpha particles that are moving too slowly to have overcome an energy “barrier” supposedly preventing their escape. (The analogy is a hill too steep for a slow-moving ball to reach the top without rolling back down.) Gamow showed that the wave mechanics version of quantum physics permitted the alpha particle to “tunnel” through the energy-barrier hill. Quantum tunneling turned out to be important for many other features of nature, such as how the sun shines, how many chemical reactions proceed and maybe even how the universe began.

His work on tunneling impressed Niels Bohr, the leading quantum physicist in the world, earning Gamow a fellowship for study at Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. During time there and at Cambridge University, Gamow became one of the world’s leading experts on nuclear physics theory. He also became well-known for his humor and irreverence, including a “relentless mockery of science’s solemnity,” as one biographical account put it.

Returning to the Soviet Union in 1929, Gamow found the political atmosphere for continuing his work unfavorable. He eventually managed to emigrate to the United States, where he obtained a position at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in 1934. There he studied the evolution and energy production of stars, producing fruitful insights into the stellar explosions known as supernovas. Later, he turned his attention to the universe at large, developing early versions of what became the Big Bang theory (Gamow didn’t like the name) of the origin and evolution of the universe. In 1942, the historian Helge Kragh wrote, “Gamow clearly endorsed a big-bang picture and suggested that the gross material of the present world is the result of what happened some two billion years ago in a highly compressed primeval state.” Gamow’s timing was off (it was nearly 14 billion years ago), but his basic idea was right.

After World War II, Gamow found new fun with the “physics of biology.” He wondered, for instance, about the physical processes allowing cells to make proteins. Inspired by Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper on the structure of DNA — the molecule that makes genes — Gamow speculated that some sort of code could be translated from DNA to build the long chains of amino acids that constituted proteins. Nature provided merely 20 such amino acids for constructing thousands of distinct proteins.

Gamow realized that DNA’s four subcomponent “bases” could be thought of as numbers that could be translated into “words” specifying a chain of amino acids, linked in a specific order, chosen from their 20-letter “alphabet.” He saw that if you chose three DNA bases at a time, there were about 20 possible combinations, indicating that each three-base “triplet” might correspond to an amino acid. He couldn’t crack the code for which base combinations went with which amino acids, though, even with help from some U.S. Navy cryptologists. But Gamow had more or less the right idea, although he didn’t recognize at first that an intermediate molecule, RNA, had to “read” the DNA code first before transferring the information to the cell’s protein-making apparatus.

Throughout his career, Gamow desired to share his enthusiasm for the science he investigated, not only with fellow scientists but with people in general. Today, it is fairly common for prominent scientists to write popular books. But it was not that way in the 1930s, when Gamow first tried to explain relativity and quantum physics through the eyes of his fictional character, Mr. Tompkins. Mr. Tompkins lived in worlds where the speed of light was small or Planck’s constant was large, allowing Gamow to illustrate the strangeness of the new physics in an entertaining and intuitively accessible way. To learn about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, for instance, Mr. Tompkins visited a billiard parlor where a professor placed a ball inside a wooden triangle. The ball began to move rapidly at varying speeds within the triangle, because restricting its position to the triangular space increased the uncertainty about its velocity. (And then the ball escaped the triangle, not by jumping over its wooden wall, but by “leaking” through it. Tunneling.)

After many rejections, Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland appeared in 1940, followed by Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom in 1944. Later Gamow produced other more straightforward accounts of the frontiers of physics, and science more generally, in such books as One Two Three … Infinity and Matter Earth and Sky.

Gamow moved to the University of Colorado in 1956, focusing on his popular books as his prominence in science diminished. His nonconformity and irreverent attitude, along with his emphasis on popularization, did not play well with many of his peers. And he was a heavy drinker, impairing his ability to engage with other physicists and possibly contributing to his death.

Still, his science was substantial. And even if it hadn’t been, his writing contributed to the scientific enterprise via another important avenue — by opening the wonders of the world of science to a great many teenagers who are scientists, or science writers, today.

Follow me on Twitter: @tom_siegfried

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