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Max Delbrück, George Gamow, and the Origins of Genomics and Big Bang Cosmology

by Gino Segrè

Pub Date: Aug. 22nd, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-670-02276-2
Publisher: Viking

Segrè (Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics, 2007, etc.) explores the extraordinary lives and scientific accomplishments of two far-from-ordinary men, Max Delbrück and George Gamow.

The author explains why he calls them “ordinary” geniuses, despite the fact that they “led two of the most important science revolutions of the twentieth century.” Both were big-picture scientists, quantum physicists unwilling to rest on their laurels and unafraid of mistakes. Just as Kepler's discovery of the elliptical orbit of planets awaited Newton's gravitational theory for its realization and Bohr's model of the atom, despite being in error, was the inspiration for quantum mechanics, so it was Delbrück's research into the origins of life that inspired the work of Crick and Watson and Gamow's effort to explain the origin of atoms that earned him the title of the father of modern cosmology. In fact, Segrè’s title appears to be ironic. He explains that their genius was ordinary only in comparison with the towering greats such as Einstein and Heisenberg. The author writes extensively about how Bohr supported and encouraged their work and organized fellowships for them so that they could participate in the stimulating atmosphere of his Copenhagen Institute in the formative stage of their careers, and how they sought to replicate that environment as teachers in America, where they immigrated on the eve of World War II. In the author's opinion, their “ordinary genius” was the result of qualities that we all can share—judgment, character, perseverance and willingness to think outside of the box—although he deplores the short-term practical goals that have come to dominate the scientific establishment in recent years.

An exuberant dual biography that integrates developments in quantum physics, cosmology and genetics since the 1920s with the lives of these two scientists.