Physics in Perspective

, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp 335-372

First online:

George Gamow: Scientific Amateur and Polymath

  • Eamon HarperAffiliated withThe George Washington University, Department of Physics, 317 Samson Hall, 725 21st Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20052, USA, e-mail:


George Gamow (1904–1968) was among the first of the many brilliant scientists who forsook Europe for the United States in the early 1930s. Although most were fleeing the fascist imperium of Hitler and Mussolini, Gamow was one of a few who managed to escape the burgeoning despotism of Stalin in the Soviet Union. His early application of quantum mechanics to the atomic nucleus and his subsequent insight into the role played by the physics of the atom and its nucleus in stars, galaxies, and the universe identifies him as a scientist of unusual genius. Gamow displayed a boisterous, infectious – almost Rutherfordian – interest in all aspects of pure science. His interests were broad and his industry prodigious. His scientific output covered areas as diverse as nuclear physics, astrophysics, cosmology, biological genetics, and the fascinating question of the relationship of the large-scale structure and development of the universe to the properties of elementary particles and fields. He also was an immensely imaginative and prolific author of popular expositions on scientific subjects. One who is as well-known for his authorship of the Mr. Tompkins series of science popularizations as for his contributions to the development of the physical consequences of the big-bang theory of the expanding universe and the prediction of the cosmic background radiation must be unique in the scientific pantheon.

Key words. Nuclear physics, Lev Landau, alpha decay, liquid-drop model, Cavendish Laboratory, Rutherford, Bohr, Cockcroft and Walton, nuclear and thermonuclear reactions, Edward Teller, The George Washington University, Urca process and supernovae, big-bang, cosmic background radiation, Alpher, Bethe, Gamow, Herman, genetic code, Mr. Tompkins, Paul Dirac, variation of gravitational constant.