The Personal and Professional Life of George Gamow

A documentary about George Gamow's Life is now available on Youtube.

1904   Born, March 4, Odessa, Russia
    Portrait - George Gamow with MotherPortrait - George Gamow with ParentsPortrait - George Gamow as young child  
    In his school days Gamow became very much interested in astronomy, examining the starry sky through a little telescope, his father's present on the thirteenth birthday of his son. Gamow then decided to become a scientist and began his study of mathematics, physics, and astronomy.
1922 -1923 Student at Novorossia University, Odessa
1923 -1929 Student at University of Leningrad
    After graduation from the University of Leningrad in 1926, he attended summer school in Gottingen and decided to see if the newly-formulated quantum theory, so successful in explaining the structure of the atom, could also be applied to the atomic nucleus. Through research he was able to explain the then-mysterious phenomenon of natural radioactivity as well as the experiments of Lord Rutherford on the induced transformation of light elements. On the basis of this research, Gamow received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Leningrad.
1928 -1929 Fellow of Theoretical Physics Institute of the University of Copenhagen

Portrait - George Gamow as studentPortrait - George Gamow as student - 2Later, in Copenhagen, when he told Niels Bohr of his work, Bohr offered him a year at the Institute of Theoretical Physics on a stipend from the Royal Danish Academy. There Gamow proposed a hypothesis that atomic nuclei can be treated as little droplets of so-called "nuclear fluid." These views led ultimately to the present theory of nuclear fission and fusion.

At this period Gamow also collaborated with F. Houtermans and R. Atkinson in attempts to apply his formula for calculating the rate of induced nuclear transformations to the so-called thermonuclear reaction in the interior of the Sun and other stars. This formula, originally applied only to astronomical topics, is now successfully used for designing H-bombs, as well as for studying the possibility of controlled thermonuclear reactions.

1929 -1930 Rockefeller Fellow, Cambridge University
1930 -1931 Fellow of Theoretical Physics Institute of the University of Copenhagen
1931   Portrait - Lyubov VokhminzevaPortrait - Lyubov VokhminzevaMarried Lyubov Vokhminzeva; divorced 1956  
1931 -1933 Professor, University of Leningrad
    Gamow spent a year working with Lord Rutherford at Cambridge, a second year in Copenhagen, and later became a professor at the University of Leningrad.
1933 -1934 Fellow of Pierre Curie Institute, Paris
Visiting Professor, University of London
  1934 Lecturer, University of Michigan
    While attending the International Solvay Congress in Brussels, he was invited, in the summer of 1934, to lecture at the University of Michigan.
1934 -1956 Professor, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

During the early years in Washington he collaboratedwith Edward Teller on the theory of beta-decay, and formulated the so-called "Gamow-Teller Selection Rule for Beta Emission."

While Gamow was in Washington he developed the theory of the internal structure of red giant stars. With Mario Schoenberg he developed the theory of the so-called Urca process; and, with Ralph Alpher, the theory of the origin of chemical elements by the process of successive neutron capture.

  1935 Portrait - Gamow ReadingSon, Rustem Igor, born
  1954 Visiting Professor, University of California, Berkeley
    Portrait - George Gamow at CU BoulderIn 1954 Gamow developed an interest in biological phenomena and published papers on the information storage and transfer in a living cell. In these papers he proposed the so-called "genetic code," an idea later completely confirmed by experimental studies in laboratories.
1956 -1968 Professor, University Of Colorado
    Portrait - George Gamow Circa 1956
  1956 George Gamow Winning UNESCO PrizeAwarded Kalinga Prize by UNESCO for popularization of science
  1958 Portrait - Barbara PerkinsMarried Barbara Perkins ("Perky")
  1965 Overseas Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge University
  1968 George Gamow Passed Away at Age 64
    The George Gamow Memorial Lectures were initiated by the Department of Physics and Mrs. Barbara Gamow after the death of her husband. The lecture series began in 1971 and is now maintained by a bequest to the Regents of the University of Colorado from the Will of Mrs. Barbara Gamow, who died in December 1975.

The Distinguished Career of George Gamow

George Gamow's fame as a physicist began with his theory that explained the radioactive alpha particle decay of atomic nuclei. In his cosmological studies, he is known for the "big bang" theory of the origin of the universe, and in 1954 his studies in biology led him to suggest that the genetic code was a triplet code. This concept is fundamental to modern biology. He was perhaps most widely known for his popular writings on science that introduced millions of readers to the concepts of relativity and atomic and nuclear physics. These writings have been translated into several dozen languages. In recognition of the global impact of his popular scientific writings, the United National awarded him with the Kalinga Prize in 1956.

Career Highlights

1928 Explained nuclear alpha decay by quantum mechanical tunneling;
1928 Pioneered the liquid-drop model in nuclear physics;
1936 Described, with Edward Teller, spin-induced nuclear beta decay;
1938 Introduced the "Gamow" factor in stellar reaction rates and element formation;
1939 Modeled red giants, supernovae, and neutron stars;
Developed the "Big Bang Theory" of the universe;
1954 First suggested how the genetic code might be transcribed;
Wrote the popular science fiction series, the "Adventures of Mr. Tompkins"
(most recently reprinted in 2001).

George Gamow's Writing

"It was a bank holiday, and Mr. Tompkins, the little clerk of a big city bank, slept late and had a leisurely breakfast. Trying to plan his day, he first thought about going to some afternoon movie and, opening the morning paper, turned to the entertainment page. But none of the films looked attractive to him. He detested all this Hollywood stuff, with infinite romances between popular stars.

"If only there were at least one film with some real adventure, something unusual and maybe even fantastic about it. But there was none. Unexpectedly, his eye fell on a little notice in the corner of the page. The local university was announcing a series of lectures on the problems of modern physics, and this afternoon's lecture was to be about Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Well, that might be something!"

So begins the first chapter of "Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland."

George Gamow was perhaps most widely known for his popular writings on science that introduced millions of readers to concepts of relativity and atomic and nuclear physics. These writings have been translated into several dozen languages. In recognition of the global impact of his popular scientific writings, he was awarded the Kalinga Prize by the United Nations in 1956.

The Mr. Tompkins Series

1939   Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland
1944   Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom
1953   Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life
1967   Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself

Other Popular Writing

1940   The Birth and Death of the Sun
1941   Biography of the Earth
1947   One, Two, Three. . . Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science
1953   The Moon
1958   Puzzle-Math
1961   Biography of Physics
1962   Gravity
1963   A Planet Called Earth
1964   A Star Called the Sun
1966   Thirty Years that Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory

Science Text Books

1931   The Constitution of Atomic Nuclei and Radioactivity
1937   Structure of Atomic Nuclei and Nuclear Transformations
1947   Atomic Energy in Cosmic and Human Life
1949   Theory of Atomic Nucleus and Nuclear Energy Sources, with C.L. Critchfield
1952   The Creation of the Universe
1958   Matter, Earth & Sky, with John M. Cleveland
1960   Physics: Foundations & Frontiers
1961   The Atom and its Nucleus