George Gamow

George Gamow was born on March 4, 1904, in the town of Odessa, in what is now the Ukraine, to Anthony M Gamow, a teacher, and Alexandra Lebedinzeva. As a youngster he was fascinated with the stars, and used a telescope that had been a gift from his parents to gaze at the night sky. This would prove to be a prophetic preoccupation, as he later studied physics and was one of the first to propose a viable scientific explanation for the origins of the universe.   Gamow spent the first year of his college life in his hometown, attending Novorossia University from 1922-23. Afterwards, from 1923-1929, he studied at the University of Leningrad, where he became friends with Lev Landau and Dimitri Dmitrievich. The three friends formed a club called “The Three Musketeers,” whose purpose was to discuss and analyze papers published in the field of quantum mechanics. It would not be the first time he would work in concert with other scientists, using a tongue-in-cheek approach to physics. In fact, he had a unique approach to his field, which enabled him to make the science he studied and developed accessible to laypersons and children.   After he graduated, Gamow attended summer school in Gottingen, researching the atomic nucleus, thus providing the groundwork for his doctoral thesis. From there, he moved on to the Theoretical Physics Institute at the University of Copenhagen, and during that time, he also studied with Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. Gamow proposed, during this period, the “liquid drop” model, which theorized that, in nuclear physics, the nucleus is a drop of nuclear fluid, made up of nucleons (protons and neutrons), held together by nuclear force. John Archibald Wheeler and Niels Bohr later adopted this model in order to explain the process of nuclear fission.   In 1931, Gamow married his first wife, Loubov Wochminzewa. Gamow was then a Master of Research at the Academy of Science in Stalin-era Leningrad. The couple attempted to escape the political oppression on more than one occasion, the first of which took them part of the way across the Black Sea toward Turkey on a kayak. In his autobiography, My World Line, he offered the following account of the endeavor.   "The first day was a complete success... I'll never forget the sight of a porpoise seen through a wave illuminated by the sun sinking below the horizon." In less than 36 hours, however, the weather turned: "The force of the wind pressing against my chest was moving the boat backward, stem first." Amazingly, the couple managed to make it back to shore, and after a couple of days recouperation in the hospital, Gamow managed to convince Soviet authorities that the pair had been performing experiments in the boat.    Subsequent attempts to escape were also unsuccessful. The couple were surprised, then, when in 1933, George was appointed to represent the Soviet Union at the Solvay theoretical physics conference in Brussels. He used his connections within the government to acquire permission for his wife to accompany him, and the pair then extended their European stay. They spent the next year or so visiting the Institute de Pierre Curie. Simultaneously, Gamow was a visiting professor at the University of London.   In 1934, Gamow received an invitation to lecture at the University of Michigan. During that same summer, he was invited to conduct research at Carnegie, and to join the physics department at George Washington University. Since his passport only allowed him to remain outside the Soviet Union for a year, he was brought on as a visiting professor so that suspicion of his plans to defect would not be aroused. He managed to extend the stay, and five years later, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He would remain at GW until 1956.   During his tenure at George Washington University, Gamow worked closely with Edward Teller on the theory of beta decay, which involves the emission of electrons from the nucleus of an atom. This resulted in the “Gamow-Teller Selection Rule for Beta Emission.” He also performed work concerning the internal structure of red giant stars, which resulted in the theory of the Urca process, about which he published a paper along with his colleague, Mario Schoenberg. During WWII, Gamow worked on the Manhattan project, contributing to the development of the atomic bomb. He and several other prominent physicists performed research at Los Alamos, leading to the invention of the Hydrogen bomb.   Perhaps the most vexing part of his career came with his research into the origin of the universe. At the time, Gamow was at odds with Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold, and Fred Hoyle, who postulated that everything in the universe is composed of the same kind of special matter. Their theory, called the Steady State theory, held that the universe had always been there, and was neither expanding nor contracting. Gamow, on the other hand, was working on the early incarnations of the Big Bang Theory, which hinged on the idea that the universe was created through an explosion, the conclusion of which is that it is constantly expanding. The two theories were at odds with one-another, and the two camps of scientists were quite contentious. Gamow, who was known for his wry sense of humor, wrote the following poem about the conflict:   "Your years of toil" Said Ryle to Hoyle "Are wasted years, believe me The steady state is out of date unless my eyes deceive me My telescope has dashed your hope; Your tenest are refuted Let me be terse: Our Universe Grows daily more diluted!" Said Hoyle, "You quote Lemaître, I note And Gamow, well, forgett them! That errant gang And their Big bang Why aid them and able them? You see, my friend It has no end And there was no beginning As Bondi, Gold and I will hold Until your hair is thinning!" "Not so!" cried Ryle With rising bile And straining at the tether; "Far galaxies Are, as one sees, More tightly packed together!" "You make me boil!" Exploded Hoyle, His statement rearranging "New matter is born Each night and morn. The picture is unchanging!" "Come off it, Hoyle! I aim to foil you yet" "And in a while" Continued Ryle "I'll bring you to your senses!   In 1948, Gamow and Ralph Alpher published a paper on the Big Bang theory. The proposition was that matter existed in a primordial state, which Gamow named Ylem. After the explosion that began the universe, helium and hydrogen, which make up 99% of all matter, were formed. Gamow invited his friend Hans Bethe to lend his name to the paper, though he had no part in it, so that it could be titled the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow Theory, a pun on the first three letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha, beta, gamma. In the paper, he estimated that the universe would have cooled over billions of years, and that the resultant background radiation would be about five degrees above absolute zero. The scientific and astronomical communities hadn’t the technology nor the interest to attempt to detect such a background radiation, and so Gamow’s theory was unsubstantiated until 1964. At that time, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the existence of the radiation, and determined it to be 2.7 degrees above absolute zero, a mere 2.3 degrees off from Gamow’s prediction in 1948. Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman spent about a decade writing letters, attempting to obtain their due recognition. In an interview in 1999 for Discover magazine, he is quoted as saying, “Was I hurt? Yes! How the hell did they think I’d feel? I was miffed at the time that they’d never even invited us down to see the damned radio telescope. It was silly to be annoyed, but I was.” Subsequently, Penzias and Wilson were awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. Penzias credited Gamow and Alpher in his Nobel laureate speech, but it is clear that Gamow and Alpher were not given adequate recognition for laying the groundwork for this important work, which is still at the heart of much debate today.   In the 1950’s, Gamow began to perform research and experimentation in the field of biology, and in 1954 he proposed a theory concerning the structure of DNA. He was the first to suggest that the nucleotide groups in the structure of DNA were coded information for the production of proteins. There was a great deal of enthusiasm over his work among other scientists, so Gamow decided to hand-pick a group of 20 scientists, corresponding to the 20 amino acids, to share notes and manuscripts on the coding theory. He named the group the RNA Tie Club because each member received a tie and tiepin, which were diagrammed to his specifications. Again, his sense of humor was central to his work.   From the 1930’s on, Gamow published books aimed at making science understandable to the common reader. He illustrated his own books, and used mathematics only where it was essential. Most popular of his works were the Mr. Tompkins… series, and One, Two, Three…Infinity, for which, in 1956, he was awarded the Kalinga Prize by UNESCO for his work in popularizing science. Some of his popular titles include The Birth and Death of the Sun (1940), The Biography of the Earth (1941), The Moon (1953), A Planet Called Earth (1963), and A Star Called the Sun (1964). One that particularly shows his creativity is Thirty Years That Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory (1966), in which he gives an insider’s account of the development of quantum theory. Since Gamow was closely associated with the prominent physicists of that era, he was able to discuss the theory in detail, as well as provide anecdotal information about his colleagues. He ended it with an illustrated script of the history of atomic physics, putting scientists in the roles of the characters in Goethe’s Faust.    Gamow worked at University of California, Berkeley from 1954-56, and at the University of Colorado at Boulder from 1956-68. He divorsed Lyubov 1956. Gamow married Barbara Perkins (“Perky”) in 1958. He died at the age of 64, on August 19, 1968, in Boulder, Colorado, and was buried at the Green Mountain Cemetery.    George Gamow is certainly a character whose role in our current understanding of science and physics was under-appreciated during his lifetime. It is fortunate that the record is being corrected now, and that his contributions can be understood by future generations and ours.