Today, it’s the 117th anniversary of the birth of a genius named George Gamow, a Russian-born American nuclear physicist and cosmologist who didn’t make significant contributions to just one or two fields. Rather he made a remarkable impact in a plethora of different fields. In addition to being one of the former advocates in the development of the big bang theory, Gamow made enormous advancements concerning the understanding of the nucleus of the atom, the activity of stars, the creation of the elements in our universe, and even the theory concerning the genetic code of life.

George Gamow (Image: APS Physics)
George Gamow (Image: APS Physics)

Early life and education:

George Gamow was born in Odessa, Russian Empire, to parents who served as teachers. His father taught the Russian language and literature in high school, while his mother taught geography and history at a girls’ school. During his school days, Gamow became extensively interested in astronomy. He used to examine the starry night sky through a little telescope that his father bought for him as a present on his son’s thirteenth birthday. After this, Gamow decided to become a scientist in the future and eventually began his study of mathematics, physics, and astronomy.

After completing his school, Gamow was educated at the Institute of Physics and Mathematics in Odessa from 1922–23 and later remained at the University of Leningrad from 1923–1929. At Leningrad, Gamow had enrolled for a Ph.D. under a renowned physicist and mathematician, Alexander Friedmann. However, he had to change his dissertation advisors after Friedmann’s unfortunate and early death in 1925.

Scientific contributions made by George Gamow:

  • Nuclear Physics and Quantum Mechanics:

In 1928, George Gamow got an opportunity to attend a summer school in Göttingen, Germany. At that time, Göttingen was like a hotbed for the new quantum theory, and Gamow didn’t shy away in contributing his part to this booming field. While there, George successfully explained nuclear radioactivity as a quantum-mechanical phenomenon, which further explained the experimental findings by a team of scientists led by Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England.

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Not only this, but George Gamow also went on to apply quantum mechanics to a general theory of low-energy nuclear reactions, thereby sowing the seeds a unique field of study. Gamow’s work was quite significant for Neils Bohr. Impressed by his genius, Bohr offered Gamow a fellowship at the Theoretical Physics Institute of the University of Copenhagen for a year. There, Gamow worked in the direction of inventing the liquid-drop model of the nucleus. Later, this model was used by Bohr and John A. Wheeler to explain the phenomenon of nuclear fission. Gamow also collaborated with Edward Teller in developing a theory of beta decay.

Participants at the 1930 Copenhagen conference; the central five in the front row are, from left, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, George Gamow, and Lev Landau (
George Gamow during the 1930 Copenhagen conference; the central five in the front row are, from left, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, George Gamow, and Lev Landau (
  • Stellar Nucleosynthesis and Cosmology:

Gamow also focused on studying the relationship between small-scale nuclear processes and cosmology. Doing so, Gamow employed his knowledge of nuclear reactions to understand and interpret the process of stellar evolution in detail. Along with Teller, he worked out on a theory of red giant stars’ internal structures and further postulated that the Sun’s energy results from thermonuclear processes. Moreover, George Gamow also collaborated with F. Houtermans and R. Atkinson to develop a theory involving the rates of thermonuclear reactions inside stars

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Although George’s former dissertation guide Alexander Friedmann had done a lot of work supporting a theory of the expanding universe. But, Gamow was initially not very convinced with his supervisor’s ideas of the expanding universe. However, he later became one of the former advocates of the big band theory. Gamow, along with Ralph Alpher and Hans Bethe, modified the theory and later published it in a paper called “The Origin of Chemical Elements” in 1948. The paper is famously called the Alpha-Beta-Gamma paper.

Their paper specifically aimed to explain the distribution of chemical elements throughout the universe, putting forward the primeval thermonuclear explosion concept, the big bang, that ultimately began the universe. This paper is also known as the αβγ [alpha-beta-gamma] paper in a play on words on the first three letters of the three Greek alphabets.

Artistic representation of the Big Bang ( Image:
Artistic representation of the Big Bang ( Image:
  • Biochemistry and Genetic Theory:

In 1954, George Gamow shifted his focus towards biochemistry. He proposed a genetic code and stood by the fact that the code was determined by the order of recurring triplets of the basic components of DNA, the nucleotides. This further contributed to the establishment of modern genetic theory. Who says a physicist cannot work in the field of Biology? Gamow Teller has successfully shattered this assumption about physicists!

George Gamow has held several prestigious positions throughout his academic career and has also received several honors, including the Kalinga Prize in 1956. Gamow not only carved a niche for himself in research and teaching but was also a prolific written science communicator. George Gamow wrote numerous popular books on science. His books, especially the One Two Three… Infinity and Mr. Tompkins are still in print, even more than a half-century after their original publication. Undoubtedly, George Gamow is one of the finest examples of pure intellect to have knocked at our planet!

Learn Astrophysics at Home:

Did you always want to learn how the universe works? Read our 30-article Basics of Astrophysics series absolutely free of cost. From the popular topics such as stars, galaxies, and black holes to the detailed concepts of the subject like the concept of magnitude, the Hertzsprung Russell diagram, redshift, etc., there is something for everyone in this series. All the articles are given here. Happy reading!

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