George Gamow

George Gamow (1904 – 1968)

Russian

George Gamow (March 4 1904 – August 19, 1968), Born Georgiy Antonovich Gamov was a theoretical physicist and cosmologist.

He was an early advocate and developer of Lemaître's Big Bang theory.

He discovered a theoretical explanation of alpha decay via quantum tunneling, and worked on radioactive decay of the atomic nucleus, star formation, stellar nucleosynthesis and Big Bang nucleosynthesis, and molecular genetics.

In his middle and late career, Gamow focused more on teaching and wrote popular books on science, including One Two Three ... Infinity and the Mr Tompkins ... series of books (1939–1967).

Some of his books are still in print, more than a half-century after their original publication.

Gamow was born in Odessa, Russian Empire. His father taught Russian language and literature in high school, and his mother taught geography and history at a school for girls.

In addition to Russian, Gamow learned to speak some French from his mother and German from a tutor. Gamow learned fluent English in his college years and later.

Most of his early publications were in German or Russian, but he later switched to writing in English for both technical papers and for the lay audience.

He was educated at the Institute of Physics and Mathematics in Odessa (1922–23) and at the University of Leningrad (1923–1929).

Gamow studied under Alexander Friedmann for some time in Leningrad, until Friedmann's early death in 1925.

At the University, Gamow made friends with three other students of theoretical physics, Lev Landau, Dmitri Ivanenko, and Matvey Bronshtein.

The four 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 1931 Gamow was elected a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR at age 28 – one of the youngest in the history of this organization.

In 1932, Gamow and Lev Mysovskii submitted a draft design for consideration by the Academic Council of the Radium Institute, which approved it. The cyclotron was not completed until 1937.

By 1928, Gamow had solved the theory of the alpha decay of a nucleus via tunnelling, with mathematical help from Nikolai Kochin.

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.

Some years later, the name Gamow factor or Gamow–Sommerfeld factor was applied to the probability of incoming nuclear particles tunnelling through the electrostatic Coulomb barrier and undergoing nuclear reactions.

Gamow worked at a number of Soviet establishments before deciding to flee the Soviet Union because of increased oppression. 

In 1931, he was officially denied permission to attend a scientific conference in Italy.

Also in 1931, he married Lyubov Vokhmintseva, another physicist in Soviet Union, whom he nicknamed "Rho" after the Greek letter.

Gamow and his new wife spent much of the next two years trying to leave the Soviet Union, with or without official permission.

Gamow later said that his first two attempts to defect with his wife were in 1932 and involved trying to kayak: first a planned 250-kilometer paddle over the Black Sea to Turkey, and another attempt from Murmansk to Norway.

In 1933 Gamow was suddenly granted permission to attend the 7th Solvay Conference on physics, in Brussels.

Over the next year, Gamow obtained temporary work at the Curie Institute, University of London, and University of Michigan.

In 1934, Gamow and his wife moved to the United States. He became a professor at George Washington University (GWU) in 1934 and recruited physicist Edward Teller from London to join him at GWU.

In 1936, Gamow and Teller published what became known as the "Gamow–Teller selection rule" for beta decay.

By the late 1930s, Gamow's interests had turned towards astrophysics and cosmology.

In 1935, Gamow's son, Igor Gamow was born. George Gamow became a naturalized American in 1940. He retained his formal association with GWU until 1956.

During World War II, Gamow did not work directly on the Manhattan Project producing the atomic bomb, in spite of his knowledge of radioactivity and nuclear fusion. He continued to teach physics at GWU and consulted for the US Navy.

Gamow was interested in the processes of stellar evolution and the early history of the Solar System.

In 1945, he co-authored a paper supporting work by German theoretical physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker on planetary formation in the early Solar System.

Gamow led the development of the hot "big bang" theory of the expanding universe.

He was the earliest to employ Alexander Friedmann's and Georges Lemaître's non-static solutions of Einstein's gravitational equations describing a universe of uniform matter density and constant spatial curvature.

Gamow published another paper in the British journal Nature in 1948, in which he developed equations for the mass and radius of a primordial galaxy.

In 1948 he published a paper dealing with an attenuated version of the coupled set of equations describing the production of the proton and the deuteron from thermal neutrons. 

After the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Francis Crick, James Watson, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, Gamow attempted to solve the problem of how the order of the four different kinds of bases in DNA chains could control the synthesis of proteins from amino acids.

In 1954, Gamow and Watson co-founded the RNA Tie Club, a discussion group of leading scientists concerned with the problem of the genetic code.

Gamow worked at George Washington University from 1934 until 1954, when he became a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1956, he moved to the University of Colorado Boulder, where he remained for the rest of his career.

In 1956, Gamow became one of the founding members of the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC), which later reformed teaching of high-school physics in the post-Sputnik years.

In his 1961 book The Atom and its Nucleus, Gamow proposed representing the periodic system of the chemical elements as a continuous tape, with the elements in order of atomic number wound round in a three-dimensional helix whose diameter increased stepwise.

Gamow continued his teaching at the University of Colorado Boulder and focused increasingly on writing textbooks and books on science for the general public.

On August 19, 1968, Gamow died at age 64 in Boulder, Colorado and was buried there in Green Mountain Cemetery.

Gamow was a highly successful science writer, with several of his books still in print more than a half-century after their initial publication.

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), his book One, Two, Three...Infinity, and other works.

A collection of Gamow's writings was donated to The George Washington University in 1996.

Gamow was also writing My World Line: An Informal Autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1970.

George Gamow was the inspiration for Professor Gamma in the Professor Gamma series of science fiction books by Geoffrey Hoyle and his father astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle.

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