The year 2004 is the birth centenary of George
Gamow, a highly creative scientist and who by his superb popular
writings made abstract concepts of science accessible to millions
of laypersons or the uninitiated ones. Gamow was a first class physicist.
However, Gamow’s attitude to physics was larger than life.
He was particularly known for finding the right scientific problems
for research and introducing conceptual simplicity to them. Gamow
was a pioneer in theoretical investigations of atomic nuclei. He
proposed a so-called nuclear fluid model of the nucleus. Gamow’s
model of alpha decay (a form of radioactive decay) represented the
first application of quantum mechanics to the study of nuclear structure.
He also described beta decay (another form of radioactive decay).
Gamow’s interests were not confined within the bounds of physics.
His ideas influenced research in a variety of topics. Gamow made
important advances in both cosmology and molecular biology. He studied
the structure and evolution of stars and creation of elements. He
showed how the collision of nuclei in the interior of the Sun could
produce the nuclear reactions that produce the energy. Gamow was
a major expounder of the ‘Big Bang’ theory of the origin
of the universe. He suggested how DNA might provide the code for
protein synthesis. Gamow is regarded as one of the greatest science
popularisers of all time.
George Gamow (his original name in Russian was
George Antonovich Gamow) was born on March 04, 1904 in Odessa, Russia
(now in Ukrain). His father was a school teacher. Astronomy fascinated
Gamow since his early school years. He used to patiently examine
the starry sky through a little telescope presented by his father.
During 1923-29 he studied optics and cosmology at the University
of Leningrad (St Petersburg). Before joining the University of Leningrad,
Gamow had spent a year (1922-23) at the Novorossia University in
his hometown, Odessa. In 1926 Gamow attended summer-school in Gottingen
in Germany. During his PhD work Gamow explained the then mysterious
phenomenon of natural radioactivity as well as Rutherford’s
experiments on the induced transformation of light elements by applying
the newly developed quantum theory.
In 1928 he received his PhD degree from the University
of Leningrad. After receiving his PhD Gamow went to work at the
Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, where Niels Bohr
(1885-1962) became very interested in his work. Bohr offered Gamow
a one-year scholarship (1929-30) from the Royal Danish Academy.
While working there Gamow proposed a hypothesis that the atomic
nuclei can be treated as little droplets of so-called nuclear fluid.
In this model, called the liquid drop model of the nucleus, neutrons
and protons behave like the molecules in a drop of liquid. John
Archibald Wheeler (1911- ) and Niels Bohr adopted this model for
explaining the process of nuclear fission. Wheeler and Bohr proposed
that the spherical nucleus may get distorted into dumb-bell shape
and when sufficient energy is acquired by the nucleus, say, by absorption
of a neutron, the nucleus splits into two fragments. And in this
process energy is released. These discoveries led to today’s
theory of fusion and fission. During 1929-30 Gamow worked in Cambridge
University with Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) as Rockefeller Fellow.
In 1931 Gamow was asked to return to the erstwhile
Soviet Union to join as Master of Research at the Academy of Science
in Leningrad. In those days Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) was in power.
Gamow and his wife wanted to leave USSR. In their first attempt
to escape from Russia, they planned to go to Turkey by crossing
the Black Sea. They undertook this journey of 270 km on a small
boat (kayak). After continuing their journey for 36 hours they had
to abandon it because of bad weather. They came back. Gamow somehow
could convince that they were carrying out some experiments on the
boat. After making a few more unsuccessful attempts they finally
got a chance to realize their goal. In 1933 Gamow was permitted
by the authorities to attend the Solvay Congress in Brussels. Gamow’s
wife Lyubov Vokhminzeva was also allowed to go as his Secretary.
They did not return to the Soviet Union. After getting an invitation
for lecturing at the University of Michigan, Gamow and his wife
left for USA in 1934. While in USA, he was offered a professorship
at the George Washington University. For excepting the offer he
put forward three conditions; His first condition was that the university
also appoint a colleague of his choice to work with him in the physics
department. His choice was Edward Teller (1908- ), who was then
working at Birbeck College in London. His second condition was the
support of Cloyd Heck Marvin, the president of the university, and
Merle Antony Tuve (1901-82), Director of the accelerator laboratory
at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, in organizing a conference
on theoretical physics to be held annually in Washington under the
joint auspices of the university and the Carnegie Institution. The
third condition was that his initially appointment in the George
Washington University be described as Visiting Professor. The conditions
were accepted by the University authorities. In his early years
at the George Washington University, Gamow’s collaboration
with Edward Teller on the theory of beta decay (that is emission
of electrons from the nucleus) led to the formulation of the so-called
“Gamow-Teller Selection Rule for Beta Emission”. Among
his other research works carried out while working at the George
Washington University were: the theory of the internal structure
of red giant stars, the theory of so-called Urca process (jointly
with Mario Schoenberg) and the theory of the origin of chemical
elements by the process of successive neutron capture, jointly with
Ralph Asher Alpher (1921- ). The beta decay or the emission of an
electron from the nucleus is accompanied by the emission of a neutrino.
When a nucleus captures an electron an antineutrino is emitted.
Gamow proposed that when these processes take place in the interior
of stars the resulting neutrinos and antinutrinos escape, and matter
in the stellar interior can rapidly loose energy. Gamow called this
process `Urca process’ after a casino in Rio de Jeneiro where
the customers lose money easily.
In 1948 Gamow and his colleague Ralph Alpher wrote
a paper about the Big Bang theory and how matter originated. Gamow
proposed that the matter of the universe originally existed in a
primordial state called the “Ylem”. Helium and perhaps
other elements formed from the “Ylem” shortly after
the Big Bang had started the Univers’s exapansion. The Big
Bang theory was originally proposed by Absbe Georges Edouard Lemaitre
In his last years Gamow started working in biology.
He made a major contribution to the problem of how the order of
the four different kinds of bases (adenine, cytosine, thymine and
guanine) in DNA chains could control the synthesis of proteins from
amino acids. He proposed that short sequences of the bases could
form a ‘code’ capable of carrying necessary information
for the synthesis of proteins. As there are only twenty amino acids
that make up all the proteins, the code must consist of blocks of
three bases because then only it will have a vocabulary of sufficient
instructions. It cannot be one base for one amino acid because then
there will be only four amino acids. If two bases code for one amino
acid then they could produce only 4x4 = 16 amino acids. So it would
therefore need a sequence of three bases to code for one amino acid,
with a capacity of 4x4x4 =64 words, which was more than adequate
for the construction of all proteins. Gamow’s coding scheme
generated a great deal of interest among scientists working in the
concerned fields. His great innovation was the introduction of mathematical
reasoning to the coding problem without going into much biochemical
details. For regular exchange of ideas on the coding problem Gamow
formed the so-called RNA Tie Club consisting of 20 hand-picked scientists
corresponding to the 20 amino acids. Each member of the Tie club
was given the nickname of an amino acid , and all were presented
with a diagrammed tie and tiepin made to Gamow’s specifications.
Though the members were located in different parts of the world,
the Tie Club brought physical scientists and biologists together
to work on one of the most challenging problems in modern science.
The concept of code for transferring genetic information was casually
mentioned by Watson and Crick in a 1953 article. However, this was
first publicly articulated in an article published in late 1954
by Gamow, Martynas Ycas and Alexander Rich. By 1960 it was shown
that Gamow’s central idea was correct.
In 1956 Gamow joined the University of Colorado
as Professor and stayed there till his death.
Besides his excellent research contributions in
physics, cosmology and biology, Gamow wrote a number of important
- The Constitution of Atomic Nuclei and Radioactivity (1931)
- Structure of Atomic Nuclei and Nuclear Transformations (1937)
- Atomic Energy in Cosmic and Human Life (1947)
- Theory of Atomic Nucleus and Nuclear Energy Sources (with C.
L. Critchfield, 1949)
- The Creation of the Universe (1952)
- Matter, Earth and Sky (1958)
- Physics: Foundations & Frontiers (with John M. Cleveland,
- The Atom and its Nucleus (1961)
Perhaps to many Gamow is known only as a popular
science writer. His popular science writings have influenced millions
in all parts of the world. His keen sense of humour is very much
evident in his popular science writings. His books will remain as
classics in the history of science popularization. Gamow is regarded
as one of the most successful writers of all time. He wrote many
books and most of these are still in print. Through these beautiful
written books Gamow successfully conveyed much of the excitement
of the revolution in physics that he lived through and other scientific
topics of interest. Gamow himself prepared the illustrations for
his books. Thus the illustrations added a new dimension. They complemented
what he intended to convey in text. Wherever it was essential he
used mathematics. The popular science books written by Gamow are
- Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland (1939, it was on relativity)
- The Birth and Death of the Sun (1940)
- The Biography of the Earth (1941)
- Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom (1944, it was on quantum physics).
- One, Two, Three…Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science
(1947, according to Gamow, the book is “...of atoms, stars,
and nebulae, of entropy and genes; and whether we can bend space,
and why the rockets shrinks”).
- The Moon (1953)
- Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life (1953, it was on biology)
- Puzzle-Math (1958)
- Biography of Physics (1961)
- Gravity (1962)
- A Planet Called Earth (1963)
- A Star Called the Sun (1964)
- Thirty Years that Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory
- Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself (1967, This book, which is rewritten
version of the Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life, gives broader
view of biology, including recent developments in molecular biology.
It was rewritten with M Ycas)
His books have been translated into many languages.
In 1956 Gamow was awarded the Kalinga Prize by UNESCO—the
only international award given for science popularization.
Commenting on Gamow’s writings C.S.Yoganand
wrote: “There have been many great scientists – I don’t
need to give examples! – and many popular science writers
– Isaac Asimov’s is perhaps one of the names that comes
to mind immediately. But Gamow belong to that rare species of first
class scientists who are also first class science communicators.
It is hard to name another from the same species... A distinguishing
feature of Gamow’s writings, indeed of his life itself, is
universality. They represent science as a whole. Importantly, he
does not avoid mathematics if and when necessary unlike most of
the ‘popular science writers”.
Gamow died on August 19, 1968. After his death, his wife and the
Physics Department of the University of Colorado started the George
Gamow Lecture series.
- The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists (2nd Edition) Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- A Dictionary of Scientists Oxford. Oxford University Press,
- George Gamow — A Biographical Sketch. Biman Nath, Resonance
(A Journal of Science Education of India Academy of Sciences,
Bangalore) July 2004 pp. 35
- George Gamow and the Genetic Code. Vidyanand Nanjundiah, Resonance,
July 2004 pp. 44-50.
- Gamow said, Let there be a Hot Universe. Somak Raychaudhury,
Resonance, July 2004. pp 32-43.
- Books by George Gamow. C.S. Yoganand. Resonance, July, 2004,
- www.colorado, edu/physics/web/Gamow/