This week in science history: Big Bang theorist George Gamow dies

Russian émigré Gamow revolutionised cosmology, enlivened genetics, and wrote pop-science books. Jeff Glorfeld reports.

Geroge Gamow, pictured in 1962.
Geroge Gamow, pictured in 1962.
Denver Post via Getty Images

George Gamow, born Georgy Antonovich Gamov on March 4, 1904, in Odessa, part of the Russian empire, now in Ukraine, took a big view of the universe, as one of the principal expounders of the Big Bang theory of an expanding universe. He also conceived of the world on a minuscule level, writing influential mathematical equations regarding the structure of DNA.

Gamow’s listing in the Encyclopaedia Britannica says he attended Leningrad University and briefly studied under mathematician and cosmologist A.A. Friedmann, who suggested the universe should be expanding.

In 1928 he moved to the University of Gottingen, in Germany, where he developed his quantum theory of radioactivity, “the first successful explanation of the behaviour of radioactive elements, some of which decay in seconds while others decay over thousands of years”.

His next stop was a fellowship at the Copenhagen Institute of Theoretical Physics, in 1928 to 1929, where he worked in theoretical nuclear physics. There he proposed his “liquid drop” model of atomic nuclei, “which served as the basis for the modern theories of nuclear fission and fusion”.

In 1934 Gamow migrated to the United States (he died on August 19, 1968, in Boulder, Colorado), taking a position at George Washington University in Washington, DC, where he worked with renowned physicist Edward Teller.

An article about Gamow originally published in the university’s magazine, GW, and written by physicist Eamon Harper, says he is best remembered for his work on nucleocosmogenesis – the process by which elements are created out of more fundamental components – and the development of the physical theory of the Big Bang model of the universe, as well as for his part in the prediction of the existence of cosmic background radiation (CMB).

Harper says Gamow and colleagues Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman were the first to systematically develop the physical aspects of the cosmological theories conceived by Gamow’s old teacher Friedmann and Belgian cosmologist George Lemaitre.

They placed the conception of the universe on a material, and thus physically observable, foundation.

Friedmann and Lemaitre independently had originated the idea that the universe might have had a beginning, which could be represented mathematically as a singularity of Einstein's equations of general relativity.

Gamow, Alpher and Herman announced their Big Bang theory in a letter to the journal Physical Review on April 1, 1948, which Harper calls “one of the most celebrated papers in modem scientific literature”.

In 1953, having read the paper by Francis Crick and James Watson describing the double helical structure of DNA, Gamow sent Crick a letter, in which he outlined a mathematical code connecting the structure of DNA with the existence of 20 amino acids.

Harper says Gamow's coding proposal hit the biological genetics community “like a thunderbolt”.

“His great innovation,” Harper writes, “was the introduction of mathematical reasoning to the coding problem without dwelling too much on biochemical details. Soon the biological world roiled with feverish activity directed toward abstract mathematical attempts to unravel the genetic code. Gamow and Crick were in the van of the enterprise.”

Gamow’s “astounding insight into the nature of the question to be posed played a significant part in stimulating the enormous advances that have occurred in biological genetics and in the understanding of the essentials of genetic coding since 1953”, Harper adds.

Also a prolific writer, Gamow published books with intriguing titles such as One, Two, Three ... Infinity, and a science series featuring a fictional character, Mr Tompkins.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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