Top 10 Fun Facts about George Gamow

Some are well-known; others are surprising

From FLASHES OF CREATION

  1. George Gamow’s father Anton, a schoolteacher, taught the young Leon Trotsky, then known as Lev Bronstein. Trotsky tried to stir up trouble in the classroom by getting all the students to sign a petition to have Anton dismissed. Luckily for the Gamow family the petition wasn’t effective and Anton kept his job. Trotsky would grow up to be a Bolshevik revolutionary and the arch-enemy of Joseph Stalin.

2. At the age of 5, Gamow witnessed Halley’s Comet in the skies above Odessa. That and his readings of popular science books stirred up a passion for astronomy.

3. Gamow studied physics at the University of Leningrad, including a course in general relativity with Alexander Friedmann, one of the original proposers of the mathematical idea of an expanding universe. Gamow wanted to work with Friedmann in the field of cosmology, but sadly he died of typhoid at the age of only 37.

4. During research visits to Niels Bohr’s Institute, Gamow was challenged to learn three new languages: Danish, German, and English. To communicate his ebullient sense of humor, he took up cartooning, starting with a hilarious Mickey Mouse parody of Bohr, and later drawings to accompany a parody of Faust based on institute members.

5. Gamow loved cowboy movies. He and Bohr staged a toy pistol fight to decide whether or not the hero (played by Bohr) or villain is most likely to draw first and win the battle. Bohr was right — it was the hero. Gamow liked to be called Geo, pronounced “Joe,” as in “Cowboy Joe.”

6. After Stalinist ideology began to make science nearly impossible, George Gamow and his young wife Rho tried to escape from the Soviet Union by using a rubber kayak and crossing the Black Sea to Turkey. They stocked it with food and brandy, preparing for a long trip. Unfortunately, after a day of smooth sailing, stormy weather thwarted their plans, and they were forced back to the coast of the Soviet Union.

7. The Gamows finally left the Soviet Union through an invitation to the Solvay Conference of 1933 (in Belgium), where George was the Soviet representative. It took him a long time to obtain permission for Rho to travel with him, but he finally was able to. Marie Curie helped enable his defection to the West by offering him a position at her lab in Paris

8. After travelling to the US and being offered a job at George Washington University in Washington, DC, he promptly bought a ticket for Seattle, Washington instead, before realizing his mistake.

9. Gamow loved puns. For his paper on Big Bang nucleosynthesis with Ralph Alpher, he added Hans Bethe to the authors list, even though Bethe did not contribute. That way the authors list sounded like the first three letters in the Greek alphabet: alpha, beta, gamma.

10. Gamow made a major contribution to the understanding of how nuclei acids form amino acids (and those form proteins) by proposing a method of combinatorics. Along with James Watson, he founded the RNA Tie Club to promote the discussion of that field.

Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of seventeen popular science books, including Flashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate.

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Paul Halpern

Physicist and science writer. Author of Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect