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George Gamow
Born March 4, 1904(1904-03-04)
Odessa, Russian Empire
Died August 19, 1968 (aged 64)
Boulder, Colorado, US
Nationality United States, Russia
Fields Physicist, Science writer
Institutions University of Göttingen
Niels Bohr Institute
Cavendish Laboratory
The George Washington University
University of California, Berkeley
University of Colorado at Boulder
Doctoral advisor Alexander Friedmann
Known for Cosmic microwave background radiation, Quantum tunnelling, Big Bang
Notable awards Kalinga Prize (1956)

George Gamow (Russian pronunciation: [ˈɡaməf]; March 4, 1904 – August 19, 1968) , born Georgiy Antonovich Gamov (Георгий Антонович Гамов), was a Russian Empire-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He discovered alpha decay via quantum tunneling and worked on radioactive decay of the atomic nucleus, star formation, stellar nucleosynthesis, big bang nucleosynthesis, Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, nucleocosmogenesis and genetics.


Life and early career

Gamow was born in the city of Odessa, Russian Empire (now in Ukraine) to mixed Russian-Ukrainian parents. He was educated at the Novorossiya University in Odessa (1922–23) and at the University of Leningrad (1923–1929). Gamow studied under Alexander Friedmann for some time in Leningrad, though Friedmann died in 1925. At the University Gamow made friends with two other students of theoretical physics, Lev Landau and Dmitri Ivanenko. The three formed a group known as the Three Musketeers which met to discuss and analyze the ground-breaking papers on quantum mechanics published during those years.

On graduation, he worked on quantum theory in Göttingen, where his research into the atomic nucleus provided the basis for his doctorate. He then worked at the Theoretical Physics Institute of the University of Copenhagen, from 1928 to 1931, with a break to work with Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. He continued to study the atomic nucleus (proposing the "liquid drop" model), but also worked on stellar physics with Robert Atkinson and Fritz Houtermans.

In the early 1900s, radioactive materials were known to have characteristic exponential decay rates or half lives. At the same time, radiation emissions were known to have certain characteristic energies. By 1928, Gamow had solved the theory of the alpha decay of a nucleus via tunnelling, with mathematical help from Kochin[1]. Classically, the particle is confined to the nucleus because of the high energy requirement to escape the very strong potential. Also classically, it takes an enormous amount of energy to pull apart the nucleus. In quantum mechanics, however, there is a probability the particle can tunnel through the potential and escape. Gamow solved a model potential for the nucleus and derived from first principles a relationship between the half-life of the alpha-decay event process and the energy of the emission, which had been previously discovered empirically, and was known as the Geiger-Nuttall law. (For Gamow's derivation of this law, see [1].)

Gamow then worked at a number of Soviet establishments before deciding to flee Russia because of increased oppression. His first two attempts to defect with his wife, Lyubov Vokhminzeva, were in 1932 and involved attempting to kayak: first a 250 kilometer paddle over the Black Sea to Turkey and then from Murmansk to Norway. Poor weather foiled both attempts. In 1933, the two tried a less dramatic approach—Gamow managed to obtain permission for himself and his wife (who was also a physicist) to attend the Solvay Conference for physicists in Brussels. The two attended and promptly defected. In 1934, they moved to the United States. He began working at The George Washington University in 1934, where he published articles with Edward Teller, Mario Schenberg and Ralph Alpher. Gamow became a naturalized American in 1940.

Big bang theory work

Gamow produced an important cosmogony paper with his student Ralph Alpher, which was published as "The Origin of Chemical Elements" (Physical Review, April 1, 1948). This paper became known as the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow theory. Gamow had the name of Hans Bethe listed on the article as "H. Bethe, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York" to make a pun on the first three letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha, beta and gamma. Bethe had not had any other role in the α-β-γ paper.

The paper outlined how the present levels of hydrogen and helium in the universe (which are thought to make up over 99% of all matter) could be largely explained by reactions that occurred during the "big bang". This lent theoretical support to the big bang theory, although it did not explain the presence of elements heavier than helium (this was done later by Fred Hoyle).

In this paper, no estimate of the strength of the present day residual cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) was made. Shortly thereafter, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman predicted that the afterglow of the big bang would have cooled down after billions of years, filling the universe with a radiation five degrees above absolute zero.

Gamow published another paper in the British journal Nature later in 1948, in which he developed equations for the mass and radius of a primordial galaxy (which typically contains about one hundred billion stars, each with a mass comparable with that of the sun).

Astronomers and scientists did not make any effort to detect this background radiation at that time, due to both a lack of interest and the immaturity of microwave observation. Consequently, Gamow's prediction in support of the big bang was not substantiated until 1964, when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson made the accidental discovery for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1978. Their work determined that the universe's background radiation was 2.7 degrees above absolute zero, just 2.3 degrees lower than Gamow's 1948 prediction.

DNA and later career

Grave of George Gamow in Green Mountain Cemetery, Boulder, Colorado, USA

After the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson, Gamow attempted to solve 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.[2] Crick has said[3] that Gamow's suggestions helped him in his own thinking about the problem. As related by Crick,[4] Gamow suggested that the twenty combinations of four DNA bases taken three at a time correspond to twenty amino acids used to form proteins. This led Crick and Watson to enumerate the twenty amino acids which are common to most proteins.

However the specific system proposed by Gamow (known as "Gamow's diamonds") was incorrect, as the triplets were supposed to be overlapping (so that in the sequence GGAC (for example), GGA could produce one amino acid and GAC another) and non-degenerate (meaning that each amino acid would correspond to one combination of three bases - in any order). Later protein sequencing work proved that this could not be the case; the true genetic code is non-overlapping and degenerate, and changing the order of a combination of bases does change the amino acid.

Gamow remained at George Washington University until 1954, then worked at University of California, Berkeley (1954), and University of Colorado at Boulder (1956–1968).

On August 19, 1968, George Gamow died at age 64 in Boulder, Colorado, and was buried there in Green Mountain Cemetery. The University of Colorado at Boulder Physics department tower is named after him.

The George Gamow Tower at the University of Colorado at Boulder


Gamow was a highly successful science writer, with several of his books still in print. He conveyed the excitement of the revolution in physics and other scientific topics of interest to the common reader. Gamow himself prepared the illustrations for his books, which added a new dimension to and complemented what Gamow intended to convey in the text. Wherever it was essential, he used mathematics.

In 1956, he was awarded the Kalinga Prize by UNESCO for his work in popularizing science with his Mr. Tompkins... series of books (1939–1967), One Two Three ... Infinity, and other works.

Gamow was working on a textbook entitled Basic Theories in Modern Physics, with Richard Blade, but it was not completed before he died. He wrote a book entitled My World Line: An Informal Autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1970.



  • The Birth and Death of the Sun (1940)
  • The Biography of the Earth (1941)
  • One, Two, Three...Infinity (1947), Viking Press (copyright renewed by Barbara Gamow, 1974), Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-25664-2, illustrated by the author. Dedicated to his son, Igor Gamow ("who wanted to be a cowboy") The book winds from mathematics to biology, through physics, crystallography, and more.
  • The Moon (1953)
  • Gamow, George; Stern, Marvin (1958), Puzzle-Math, Viking Press, ISBN 978-0-333-08637-7  
  • Biography of Physics (1961)
  • Gravity (1962) Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-42563-0. Profiles of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein
  • A Planet Called Earth (1963)
  • A Star Called the Sun (1964)
  • Thirty Years That Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory, 1966, Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-24895-X. Illustrated by the author and with period photographs, Gamow describes an insider's view of the development of quantum theory. Having worked with Niels Bohr and Ernest Rutherford, he not only can expound the theory, he supplies candid photos of Edward Teller on skis, Bohr on a motorcycle, Werner Heisenberg having a swim, and Enrico Fermi playing tennis. The finale is a dramatic playscript (also illustrated) of the history of atomic physics with the scientists cast in roles after the model of Goethe's Faust.
  • My World Line: An Informal Autobiography (1970) Viking Press, ISBN 0-670-50376-2

Mr. Tompkins series

  • Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland (1940) Originally published in serial form in Discovery magazine (UK) in 1938.
  • Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom (1945)
  • Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life (1953), about biology
  • Mr. Tompkins in Paperback (1965), combines Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland with Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom, Cambridge University Press, 1993 Canto edition with foreword by Roger Penrose, ISBN 0-521-44771-2. Creatively illustrated by the author, and complete with a scored musical composition ("The Cosmic Opera"), the book explains the principles of relativity and quantum theory in a fashion that is entertaining to young people and adults.
  • Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself (1967), A rewritten version of Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life gives a broader view of biology, including recent developments in molecular biology. It was coauthored by M. Ycas.

Throughout these books, Tompkins is introduced as "C. G. H. Tompkins" to emphasize the notion of cGħ physics.

Science textbooks

  • 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 (1949) coauthor C. L. Critchfield
  • The Creation of the Universe (1952)
  • Matter, Earth and Sky (1958)
  • Physics: Foundations & Frontiers (1960) coauthor John M. Cleveland
  • The Atom and its Nucleus (1961)
  • Mr. Tompkins Gets Serious: The Essential George Gamow (2005) Pi Press, ISBN 0-13-187291-5. Incorporates material from Matter, Earth, and Sky and The Atom and Its Nucleus. Notwithstanding the title, this book is not part of the Mr. Tompkins series.

See also


  1. ^ Interview with George Gamow by Charles Weiner at Professor Gamow's home in Boulder, Colorado, April 25, 1968. (In the transcript Kochin is spelled Kotshchin.)
  2. ^ Segrè, Gino (2000-03-30), "The Big Bang and the genetic code", Nature 404 (6777): 437, doi:10.1038/35006517,  
  3. ^ "DNA: An "Amateur" Makes a Real Contribution". Retrieved 2007-07-11.  
  4. ^ Crick, Francis "What Mad Pursuit" (Basic Books 1998), Chap.8 The Genetic Code

External links

Gamow 25 April 1968, American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library and Archives]


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

George Gamow [pronounced "GAM-off"] (1904-03-041968-08-19) was a Ukrainian born physicist and cosmologist. He developed the Big Bang theory of cosmology, using it to predict the existence of Cosmic background radiation, and his insight that DNA nucleotides probably formed a "a triplet code of four symbols" was influential on very important research and discoveries in genetics. His birth name was Георгий Антонович Гамов (Georgiy, [or Gyorgy] Antonovich Gamov).


  • It was a bank holiday, and Mr Tompkins, the little clerk of a big city bank, slept late and had a leisurely breakfast. Trying to plan his day, he first thought about going to some afternoon movie and, opening the morning paper, turned to the entertainment page. But none of the films looked attractive to him. He detested all this Hollywood stuff, with infinite romances between popular stars.
    If only there were at least one film with some real adventure, something unusual and maybe even fantastic about it. But there was none. Unexpectedly, his eye fell on a little notice in the corner of the page. The local university was announcing a series of lectures on the problems of modern physics, and this afternoon's lecture was to be about Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Well, that might be something!
    • Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland. (1939) First lines
  • There was a young fellow from Trinity,
    Who took the square root of infinity.
    But the number of digits, Gave him the fidgets;
    He dropped Math and took up Divinity.
    • One, Two, Three... Infinity (1947)
  • I decided to get Ph.D. in experimental physics because experimental physicists have their own room in the Institute where they can hang their coat, whereas theoretical physicists have to hang their coat at the entrance.
    • Interview with George Gamow, by Charles Weiner at Professor Gamow's home in Boulder, Colorado, April 25, 1968[1].
  • I feel that matter has properties which physics tells you.
    • Interview with George Gamow, by Charles Weiner at Professor Gamow's home in Boulder, Colorado, April 25, 1968[2].

About George Gamow

  • If contribution in life is measured by the influence of a person's best ideas, then George Gamow's contribution has been immense. He explained radioactive decay, described reaction mechanisms and rates in the interior of stars, proposed how the elements were made, and suggested how DNA might provide the code for protein synthesis. Those topics have evolved into major fields of science...
    • Professor William C. Parke, George Washington University, in GW Magazine (Spring, 2000)
  • Gamow was fantastic in his ideas. He was right, he was wrong. More often wrong than right. Always interesting; ... and when his idea was not wrong it was not only right, it was new.
  • 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 a cosmic background radiation, which we now know to be one of the greatest discoveries of 20th-century physics.
  • The physicist George Gamow was also an entertaining popularizer. He once told the story of how with his wife and their baby daughter he visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa. As they climbed the steps, they noticed an increasingly musty smell, which they first attributed to the ancient walls of the building. Then, however, they began to sspect their little girl, and by the time they reached the top it was clear that she needed immediate attention. “And from the very place,” explained Gamow, raising his arm and his voice dramatically, “where Galileo launched his experimental objects, we also propelled…”
    • Rudolf Arnheim in Ballast Quarterly Review Vol 9 No 2 (Winter 1993), p. 2.

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