George Gamow

In the world of physics, there are tons of notable names that helped shaped theories and question discoveries all in the quest to better understand the world and the universe. One man that deserves attention is Russian cosmologist and theoretical physicist named George Gamow. George Gamow worked on radioactive decay affecting the nucleus of atoms and on stellar nucleosynthesis, as well as star formation. He discovered a theoretical explanation concerning alpha decay by way of quantum tunneling and was one of the earliest advocates of the Big Bang Theory (Lemaitres), and he even conducted some studies on Big Bang nucleosynthesis. He was also known for his work on molecular genetics.

He might have devoted most of his time to science in his early years but during the middle and latter parts of his career, he spent more time teaching and even authored several popular science books including Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom (1939-1967). In fact, he did so well as a writer that some of his books are still in print up until today. That is more than 50 years after they were first published but this is only a testament of how relevant his books are when presenting the fundamental principles of science and math.


His Early Life

It was In Odessa, Russian Empire (now Ukraine) where George Gamow was born on 4 March 1904. He had a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian blood since his parents were Russian-Ukrainian as well. His mother worked as a teacher and taught history and geography at an all-girls school in Odessa while his father taught literature and the Russian language in a local high school. Of course, it is a given that young George Gamow knew how to speak Russian but he learned how to speak French with the help of his mother and learned German from a tutor. Gamow did not learn how to speak English until he was in college but he did become fluent after that. In fact, nearly all of his first publications were written in Russian or German and only later on did he switch to writing in English for his lay audience and his technical papers.

George Gamow went to school at Novorossiya University in Odessa from 1922-1923 then moved on to the University of Leningrad in 1923-1929. He was mentored by Alexander Friedman when he was in Leningrad though later on he had to go to other advisors for his dissertation. While at Leningrad, he made friends with other theoretical physics students: Dmitri Ivanenko, Lev Landau, and Matvey Bronshtein (Matvey was a victim of the Soviet regime; he was arrested in 1937 and a year later, was executed). The three students became close and formed a group they called “The Three Musketeers.” The group met to analyse and talk more about important discoveries on quantum mechanics.

Once he graduated, he moved on to work at Gottingen where he conducted studies on quantum theory. He got his doctorate by way of his work with the atomic nucleus. After he got his Ph.D., he moved on to the University of Copenhagen and worked at the Theoretical Physics Institute from 1928 to 1931. He took a break to move to the Cambridge Cavendish Laboratory where he did some work with the notable Ernest Rutherford. While all this was happening, he still worked with the atomic nucleus and even proposed his “liquid drop” model and made some time to work with Fritz Houtermans and Robert Atkinson on stellar physics.

George Gamow was elected as a member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in 1931; he was just 28 years old at the time. This made him the youngest ever member in the organization’s long history. From 1931-33, Gamow got a job at the Radium Institute in Leningrad where he worked at the Physical Department headed by Vitaly Khlopin. It was during this time when Gamow, together with Lev Mysovskii and Igor Kurchatov, designed the first ever cyclotron in Europe. Gamow and Mysovskii submitted the draft of their design to the Academic Council of the Radium Institute for consideration which the council approved. It was in 1937 that the cyclotron was completed.

Work on Radioactive Decay

During the early parts of the 20th century, radioactive metals were known to have half-lives and at the same time, characteristic energies were known to come from radioactive emissions. Gamow, in 1928, was already able to solve the theory of alpha decay of an atom nucleus by way of tunneling. Of course, he didn’t do it on his own and had some help from Nikolai Cochin who handled the mathematical side. At the same time, Robert Gurney and Edward U. Condon were also able to solve the problem but the results they achieved were nowhere near as quantitative as the ones by Gamow. Some years later, the name Gamow-Sommerfeld factor was given to the probability of incoming nuclear particles tunneling their way through the Coulomb barrier and going through nuclear reactions. Aside from his work with radioactive decay, he also wrote a paper with a certain Ralph Alpher (a student of his) on Cosmogony. With his work in cosmogony and the Big Bang nucleosynthesis, he got introduced to DNA. The structure was discovered by Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, and James D. Watson in 1953 and Gamow attempted to solve the problem of how the four different bases found in chains of DNA could control protein synthesis from amino synthesis.

Defection to the US

George Gamow worked for several Soviet establishments but due to increased oppression, he decided to leave Russia. He was denied permission in 1931 to attend a conference in Italy but it was also the year he married Lyubov Vokhmintseva (a Russian physicist). The first two years together as a married couple were spent trying to leave Russia whether they had permission or not.

He and his wife finally managed to move to America in 1934. He worked as a professor at George Washington University. He was also involved in several high profile projects such as presenting the chemical elements’ periodic table as a continuous tape. He also spent his last teaching years at the University of Colorado Boulder. He died in Colorado on 19 August 1968 due to liver failure.