Popularizers III: George Gamow

What? Why was I reading without my eyeglasses?

That’s easy. This photo, my semi-official portrait at age 11, was taken just before I got glasses. And that was all because of a substitute teacher! My regular teacher always had always put me in the front row, but one day we had a sub who sat me in the back of the room. And I couldn’t see the board! Until that point I had no idea that I needed glasses; I just thought that the way I saw was the way everybody saw. It was quite a revelation a week or two later when I got glasses and discovered that it’s possible to see individual leaves and blades of glass!

But I digress.

As I wrote on August 25, the photographer had asked me what I liked to do; I said that I liked to read, so he then asked me what I was currently reading, which turned out to be One Two Three Infinity by George Gamow. And the rest is history.

If you’re not a science buff, you may wonder who George Gamow was. Well, he was born Georgiy Antonovich Gamov, but that doesn’t help you much except that you will probably guess that he was Russian.

Close, but not quite. If you look more closely at that “iy” ending, you will revise your guess and conclude that he was Ukrainian.

This time you would be correct. He was Ukrainian.

Anyway, Gamow was an unusual physicist, one who wrote not only for his fellow scientists but also for the general public — the “general public” including my 11-year-old self. In this regard he had a lot in common with Isaac Asimov, one of the other popularizers I’ve been writing about: both came to America from the former Soviet Union, both were practicing scientists with doctorates in scientific fields, both wrote many books for non-professional audiences. But the similarities stop there, as Asimov is best known for his fiction whereas Gamow is best known for his physics.

Anyone who loves ancient Greek is charmed by the story of the paper that Gamow co-authored about the Big Bang. Originally written in collaboration with his student Ralph Alpher, Gamow added a third co-author, his friend the famous physicist Hans Bethe (pronounced “Beta” in the standard German way); the paper has forever afterwards been known as the “Alpher Bethe Gamow paper.”


Categories: Books, Math