In the world of physics, there are many notable names that have 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 George Gamow.
George Gamow worked on radioactive decay affecting the nucleus of atoms, on stellar nucleosynthesis and 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, which he revised and extended. He was also known for his work on molecular biology.
He devoted most of his time to science research in his early years but during the middle and latter parts of his career, he spent more time teaching and authored several popular science books, starting with “Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland” in 1939. Some of his books are still in print up until today, more than 50 years after they were first published – a testament of how relevant his books are in presenting the fundamental principles of science and mathematics.
His Early Life
It was In Odessa, Russian Empire (now Ukraine) where George Gamow was born on 4 March 1904. His parents were ethnic Russians. His mother worked as a teacher and taught history and geography at an all-girls school in Odessa. She died when George was nine years old. His father taught literature and the Russian language in a local high school. Naturally, young George spoke Russian and he also learned French and German. Gamow did not learn English until he was in college, becoming a fluent speaker. As a child, George loved astronomy and he was given a telescope for his thirteenth birthday.
George attended Novorossiya University in Odessa from 1922-1923 moving to the University of Leningrad in 1923, where his studies included optics and cosmology. In Leningrad, he was mentored initially by cosmologist Alexander Friedman, who proposed that the universe was expanding. Gamow 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 called “The Three Musketeers.” The group met to analyze and talk about important discoveries in quantum mechanics.
Obtaining his degree in 1926, Gamow studied at Göttingen University in Germany where he researched quantum theory. He obtained his doctorate through his work with the atomic nucleus in 1929.
Copenhagen and Leningrad
After receiving his doctorate, he was invited to work at the Theoretical Physics Institute of the University of Copenhagen, where he remained until 1931. Gamow spent a short time in 1929 at the Cambridge Cavendish Laboratory where he researched with the notable Ernest Rutherford. He continued working with his atomic nucleus theories and proposed his “liquid drop” model (a model to help explain the binding energy of a nucleus). This concept ultimately led to the theories of nuclear fission and fusion. Gamow also collaborated with Fritz Houtermans and Robert Atkinson on stellar physics, attempting to calculate the thermonuclear reaction in the interior of the Sun and other stars.
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 was employed at the Radium Institute in Leningrad where he worked at the Physical Department headed by Vitaly Khlopin. Together with Lev Mysovskii and Igor Kurchatov, he designed the first ever cyclotron, one of the earliest types of particle accelerators, in Europe and it was constructed in 1937.
Work on Radioactive Decay
During the early parts of the 20th century, radioactive metals were known to have half-lives and characteristic energies (alpha, beta and gamma) were known to come from radioactive emissions. In 1928, while at Göttingen, Gamow, with the mathematical help of Nikolai Cochin, solved the theory of alpha decay of an atom nucleus by way of the concept of quantum tunneling.
The Gamow-Sommerfeld factor is the probability of incoming nuclear particles ‘tunneling’ or overcoming the Coulomb barrier in order to undergo nuclear reactions.
Defection to the US
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. That 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. They had a son, Rustem Igor born in 1935 and were divorced in 1956.
He and his wife finally managed to move to America in 1934, becoming professor at George Washington University. He collaborated with Edward Teller in the theory of beta decay and formulated the “Gamow-Teller Transition for Beta Emission” in 1936.
Gamow became an American citizen in 1940 and in 1942 he published a theory on the internal structure of red stars.
His paper “The Origin of Chemical Elements” was published in 1948 in collaboration with Ralph Alpher and Hans Bethe. It proposed to explain the distribution of the chemical elements in the universe after the ‘big bang’ and also estimated the strength of residual cosmic microwave background radiation.
By 1954 Gamow had become interested in DNA research. The structure of on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was first discovered by Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, and James D. Watson they year before in 1953, and this revelation fascinated him. Gamow attempted to resolve how the four different bases (adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine) found in chains of DNA could control protein synthesis from amino synthesis and he proposed the idea of a ‘genetic code’ requiring a sequence of three bases to produce one amino acid.
In 1956 Gamow accepted a position a professor of physics at The University of Colorado, Boulder a position that he held until his death. He married Barbara Perkins in 1958.
In addition to his research he wrote popular science books that introduced common readers to concepts such as relativity and atomic and nuclear physics. His first book “Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland” was published in 1939, giving rise to a series of four Mr. Tompkins books.
Other popular writing included “One, Two, Three. . . Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science” in 1947 and “A Star Called the Sun” in 1964.
He also authored many science text books.
He died in Colorado on 19 August 1968 due to liver failure, aged 64.