"Modern physics extends its horizons far beyond the everyday experience upon which all the commonsense ideas of classical physics were based. We are thus bound to find striking deviations from our conventional way of thinking and must be prepared to encounter facts that sound quite paradoxical to our ordinary common sense."
"Gamow never talks down to the reader, nor does he sidestep difficult issues. Rather, his lucid writing, careful explanations, and vivid imagery make the most abstruse topics accessible."
"My father delighted in telling people that his book, along with Lady Chatterley's Lover, and James Joyce's Ulysses, had been banned in Boston."
—R. Igor Gamow
Here are the classic writings by the theorist behind the Big Bang and the cracking of DNA—one of twentieth-century science's most brilliant minds and charismatic characters. From what happens inside the atom to how things work on larger scales in the universe, readers can rely on George Gamow's authority and be delighted by his sheer joy of physics.
Gamow's breadth of knowledge was astounding—he made major contributions to advances in both cosmology and molecular biology. His elucidation of radioactivity and the Big Bang theory, and his groundbreaking work on deciphering the genetic code make him one of the twentieth century's greatest scientists. He was also the creator of the highly popular Mr. Tompkins series of books. Here he offers his thoughts on how the atom works; radioactivity; electromagnetism; the nature of light; and how scientists understand space, time, and motion. These writings were collected from his exhaustive volume on the physical sciences Matter, Earth, and Sky and The Atom and Its Nucleus—neither of which are now available.
Lovers of the Feynman Lectures will recognize a similar kind of scientific brilliance made accessible in a way that only those with the highest understanding can provide. Great science deserves the eloquence and passion of George Gamow, and this volume has the added virtue of Robert Oerter's editorial skill, as well as a rare insight into Gamow the man in the Foreword by his son. This Masterpiece Science Edition delivers another outstanding work of science writing to a new generation of readers.
© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Memories of My Father
I've heard that Scott Carpenter was the last astronaut to fly a human spacecraft "by the seat of his pants." I believe that Father was one of the last great scientists to do science by the seat of his pants. Big science today, and particularly big physics, is done with large groups of people using magnificent and expensive machines. Nobody flies by the seat of their pants anymore.
But Father was first and foremost a storyteller. His scientific stories have been shared for more than a generation, including the one about the "Big Bang of the Universe," but I would like to share some stories that he told and retold—ones that reveal another, lighter side.
Banned In Boston!
I have been asked why I enjoy being so controversial. My typical response is that it is probably genetic.
In 1958, Father published his first popular undergraduate physics textbook , Matter, Earth, and Sky, which the material in this volume is taken from. I have the first printing of the first edition of this book on my shelf—even though my German shepherd Kim chewed it up. It contains a picture of a famous work of art not found in other printings of the book.
Matter, Earth, and Sky was banned in Boston to my father's delight. One of the universities in Boston had ordered about 300 copies of the book. While the potential buyers were paging through it they came to page 521, where Father discusses the origin of our Milky Way. But instead of using a real photograph of the Milky Way, which of course we can all see just by looking up at the night sky, Father wanted a painting by Tintoretto showing little Hercules sucking on the nipple of Hera. Hercules sucked so hard that the milk from her nipple spread throughout the sky and formed the Milky Way. The caption read, "Figure 20-15, The Origin of the Milky Way by Tintoretto, representing a Greek Cosmological Myth. The baby Hercules was brought in to be fed by Hera the Goddess of home life. Being very strong even at this tender age, Hercules applies too much pressure spraying milk out of both nipples and forming the stars of the Milky Way. The meaning of the eagle and the two peacocks is not clear." The powers that be at the university took one look at this and said, "No." Prentice Hall lost the sale of the books. In the second edition, they substituted a very unimaginative but accurate telescopic view of the Milky Way.
So, along with Lady Chatterley's Lover, and James Joyce's Ulysses, Father was pleased to report that his book had been banned in Boston.
Father Makes Playboy
One day one of Father's physics students told him that he was in Playboy, he went down to the local newsstand and bought 25 copies!
Playboy used to have a column called "The Playboy Advisor," written for young men who presumably could ask the advisor personal questions, usually of a sexual nature. A young man wrote that he and another couple had gone to a mountain lodge for a day of skiing and dinner. One student couple was from a liberal arts background, and the other couple had a physics background. After a day of skiing they headed to a ski lodge for some warm slog in front of a warm fire. One of the liberal-arts students said to his girlfriend, "Oh be a fine girl kiss me right now sweetheart." The science students laughed out loud. Embarrassed, the liberal-arts student said, "What are you laughing about?" The physics couple replied, "If you knew a little bit more physics you would know."
So the embarrassed student asked the Playboy Advisor why the other couple was laughing. The Advisor explained: in the old days when there weren't very good telescopes you saw some stars were bright and some not so bright. Early astronomers made an a, b, c, d, e, f, etc., scale of brightness assuming that the stars that were the brightest were the closest and the stars that were the dimmest were the furthest. Later research determined that a star could appear quite dim because it was absolutely dim and not necessarily far away. So, the luminosity scale had to be reorganized. The absolute brightness of a star is called the luminosity of the star—more formally known as the stellar spectroscopic magnitude. Since the star's absolute distances are now known, the a, b, c, d, etc., scale changed to o, b, a, f, g, k, m, r, n, s. Father used the mnemonic "Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me Right Now Sweetheart" when he was teaching astronomy. I'm not sure who originally devised the mnemonic but the Playboy Advisor informed the student that a professor at the University of Colorado, Professor George Gamow, had used the mnemonic when teaching an astronomy class. Knowing him, it is a wonder he bought only 25 copies.
The Golden Crown Experiment Goes Awry
I started at the University of Colorado in 1958 and registered as a freshman to take my father's new course called "Matter, Earth, and Sky." He taught this undergraduate physics course for non-majors using the textbook by the same name. This was the first time I had been in a classroom with Father. There were about a hundred students in that course and I bet that all of them remember it.
Father was convinced that the better you are as a theoretical physicist the worse you are as an applied physicist. He loved to tell a story about a huge explosion in Germany that leveled an entire factory. Nobody could figure out why the factory exploded. Finally somebody discovered that Wolfgang Pauli—who was probably the world's greatest theoretical physicist at the time—was in a train passing through the city when the factory exploded. Thus, the reason for the accident was attributed to the "Pauli Effect"—the great theoretical presence of Pauli caused a momentary deficit in practical application, things went awry, and the factory went up in flames.
In the freshman course, Father decided for the first time to demonstrate his own experiments to the class. He was an uninspired experimentalist when he was a graduate student at the University of Leningrad. Perhaps he thought he would give experimenting another try. He wanted to show the Archimedes experiment. Allegedly, Archimedes was asked to determine whether a gold crown that the king had worn was really pure gold. Archimedes couldn't scratch it or deface it, so he submerged it in water and measured the volume of water displaced, which allowed him to determine its density. He found that the crown was, in fact, pure gold.
The University of Colorado, of course, didn't make a real gold crown for the demonstration. The CU machine shop constructed one out of bronze instead. Professor Gamow came in to the lecture with his "gold" crown and explained how he was going to measure the volume of water displaced when he immersed the crown into a beaker of water. So far, so good.
He had a ring stand with the crown hung by a string and a 5000 cc glass beaker full of water beneath the crown. His idea was pretty simple—he would lower the crown into the beaker of water and measure how much water was displaced. He explained the principle and then he said, "Now I will lower the crown into the water." He turned the thumb screw, and the crown came crashing down. It smashed the beaker—glass shards and water went everywhere.
He stood wet from the waist down. The students in the front row got wet. They, of course, were laughing. Father meekly said, "Well, this is an experiment in dynamics, not in density." Father was always very persistent. He wondered what he could do to save his experiment. All the water was gone. But there was a sink built into the lecture table. He triumphantly announced, "The day is saved. We will submerge it into the water in the sink." He reached down and turned the faucet. It turned out to be steam instead of the water. A cloud of steam rose from the basin. His glasses were now completely fogged up. His hands frantically searched for the faucet without luck. Finally he got a hold of the nozzle and turned it off.
A girl next to me laughed so hard that she started to heave. I sat in the front row trying to make myself as small as possible. People were stomping. There was a tremendous amount of commotion. Father came out of the steam, and said, "Oh, wrong faucet." He looked down again, and said, "Ah, water." He turned on the water. But the water faucet had a long rubber hose attached. The hose came out of the sink and sprayed water everywhere. Father tried furiously to catch the hose. The students yelled, "Turn off the water! Turn off the water!" By this time the physics department secretaries and people out in the hall came pouring in. Father's assistant, Dalton, came to the rescue. He took Father by the elbows, moved him aside, took a mop and broom and cleaned up the glass. He grabbed together a ream of wet notes, and announced that the experiment was over.
Father persisted throughout the course to do his own demonstrations and occasionally they kind of worked.
The Cowboy Experiment
Father's nickname was Joe. Niels Bohr and my father were addicted to western movies while they were in Copenhagen together. All the cowboys in these movies—Gary Cooper types—were called Joe. That's how Father's nickname came about—he was named after a typical cowboy movie hero.
Bohr had some difficulty with cowboy movies. Being a great physicist he took things very literally. After seeing one of the many films in which there was a shootout between a good guy in a white hat and a bad guy in a black hat, Bohr asked Father, "How is it possible that the man in the black hat always reaches...
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