Magazine article American Scientist

Two Mavericks

Magazine article American Scientist

Two Mavericks

Article excerpt

BIOGRAPHY Two Mavericks ORDINARY GENIUSES: Max Delbrück, George Gamow, and the Origins of Genomics and Big Bang Cosmology. Gino Segrè. xxii + 330 pp. Viking, 2011. $27.95.

George Gamow, in the epigraph to the preface of his 1947 book One Two Three . . . Infinity, quotes the walrus in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and declares that for him, too, the time has come to talk of many things: "of atoms, stars, and nebulae, of entropy and genes." Gino Segrè, who, like Gamow, is a distinguished theoretical physicist and a fine writer (as evidenced by his Faust in Copenhagen), has emulated him by writing about many things in Ordinary Geniuses. The book is a stimulating, authoritative, highly relevant and very accessible account of the origins of Big Bang cosmology and of genomics. It is told through the parallel lives of Max Delbrück (1906-1981) and George Gamow (1904-1968), whose lifelong friendship began in the early 1930s when both were postdoctoral fellows at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.

Delbrück, by virtue of his pioneering and seminal studies of the replication of bacterial viruses in their host cells, his charismatic leadership, and the enormous influence he had on those who worked with him, is considered the founder of molecular biology. For his contributions to this field, he and his colleagues Salvador Luria and Alfred Hershey were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1969.

Gamow, by virtue of his pioneering and seminal contributions to nuclear theory after the introduction of wave mechanics in the 1920s, his early advocacy of the Big Bang theory in cosmology, his generative efforts in deciphering the genetic code, and the deep influence of his popular scientific writings, is remembered as an unconventional, highly original and creative scientist.

In parallel chapters, Segrè sensitively and insightfully narrates chronologically Delbrück's and Gamow's personal and professional lives. While doing so, he presents and explains their scientific contributions, the prior works on which they were based, and their present-day importance and relevance.

Delbrück was the youngest of seven children in a very distinguished academic family. His father was a professor of history at Berlin University. He grew up in the Grunewald suburb of Berlin with the families of Max Planck, theologian Adolf von Harnack, and psychiatrist /neurologist Karl Bonhoeffer as close neighbors. While he attended Göttingen University from 1926 to 1929, Delbrück's early interest in astronomy and mathematics became transformed into a commitment to theoretical physics. He there wrote a doctoral thesis under Walter Heitler on the binding energy of the IÌ2 molecule and thereafter spent some time in Bristol working with John Lennard-Jones on quantum chemistry.

The award of a Rockefeller fellowship in 1931 became a transformative experience for Delbrück. In February 1931 he went to Copenhagen, where he spent six months working under the influence of Niels Bohr. While there, he roomed with Gamow, and the two of them collaborated on a nuclear physics project. Delbrück then went to Zurich, where he spent the final six months of his fellowship working with Wolfgang Pauli. Bohr and Pauli profoundly influenced him. He incorporated Pauli's deep sense of integrity, his unflagging dedication to the highest standards of scientific investigation, his intolerance of intellectual pretense and his unsettling frankness. Pauli's "Not even wrong" became translated into Delbrück's "I don't believe a word of it" - his frequent response when told of some new experimental result or theoretical model. Bohr's complementarity principle and his attempts to extend its applicability beyond the atomic domain - in particular, to biology and consciousness - led Delbrück to study the relation of atomic physics and biology. His interaction with Bohr, and his lack of creativity in comparison with Hans Bethe, Felix Bloch, Gamow, Lev Landau, Rudolf Peierls, Victor Weisskopf and other off-the-scale theorists of his generation, eventually made him decide to become a biologist. …

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