Ordinary Geniuses: Max Delbruck, George Gamow, and the Origins of Genomics andBig Bang Cosmology

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A biography of two maverick scientists whose intellectual wanderlust kick-started modern genomics and cosmology.

Max Delbruck and George Gamow, the so-called ordinary geniuses of Segre's third book, were not as famous or as decorated as some of their colleagues in midtwentieth-century physics, yet these two friends had a profound influence on how we now see the world, both on its largest scale (the universe) and its smallest (genetic code). ...

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Ordinary Geniuses: How Two Mavericks Shaped Modern Science

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Overview


A biography of two maverick scientists whose intellectual wanderlust kick-started modern genomics and cosmology.

Max Delbruck and George Gamow, the so-called ordinary geniuses of Segre's third book, were not as famous or as decorated as some of their colleagues in midtwentieth-century physics, yet these two friends had a profound influence on how we now see the world, both on its largest scale (the universe) and its smallest (genetic code). Their maverick approach to research resulted in truly pioneering science.

Wherever these men ventured, they were catalysts for great discoveries. Here Segre honors them in his typically inviting and elegant style and shows readers how they were far from "ordinary". While portraying their personal lives Segre, a scientist himself, gives readers an inside look at how science is done--collaboration, competition, the influence of politics, the role of intuition and luck, and the sense of wonder and curiosity that fuels these extraordinary minds.

Ordinary Geniuses will appeal to the readers of Simon Singh, Amir Aczel, and other writers exploring the history of scientific ideas and the people behind them.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Extraordinary geniuses, like Einstein, turn our scientific worldview inside out. "Ordinary geniuses," according to University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus Segrè (Faust in Copenhagen), "are more imaginative than you and me, but not qualitatively different." Two such men were George Gamow and Max Delbrück, whose groundbreaking work inspired scientific revolutions. As students together at university in Göttingen, Germany, in the late 1920s, Geo (pronounced "Joe") and Max were fascinated by quantum mechanics. Geo quickly gained notoriety for calculating the decay probability of an unstable nucleus, a problem Ernest Rutherford had failed to solve. Later he worked out how stars burn by nuclear fusion, and the Big Bang theory of cosmology. Max itched to do "the pioneering thing," but couldn't settle on one field. Curious about connections between physics and biology, he studied genetics, where he was first to explain mutation with physics. Both men found entertainment as well as intellectual stimulation in gathering diverse minds to explore interdisciplinary connections. Segrè spins a rousing tale of scientific thought and adventure. And like his subjects, he makes a convincing case for approaching new problems with a sense of wonder. (Aug.)
Kirkus Reviews

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670022762
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/18/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.16 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Gino Segrè is professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania. An internationally renowned expert in high-energy elementary-particle theoretical physics, Segrè has served as director of Theoretical Physics at the National Science Foundation and received awards from the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. This is his first book.

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Table of Contents

Introduction xv

1 When Max and Geo First Met 1

2 Max Grows Up 4

3 Geo Grows Up 12

4 Göttingen and Copenhagen 19

5 Particle or Wave? 24

6 Max's and Geo's Early Careers 32

7 Copenhagen, 1931 38

8 Zurich, 1931 44

9 Max, Bohr, and Biology 49

10 Max, Berlin, and Biology 57

11 Geo Escapes from Russia 63

12 The Russia Geo Left Behind 69

13 Geo Comes to America 74

14 The Sun's Mysteries Revealed 79

15 Max Leaves Germany 87

16 Max in the New World 96

17 Fission 103

18 Supernovae and Neutron Stars 111

19 Max Meets Manny and Sal 117

20 Hitting the Jackpot 125

21 What Is Life? 131

22 The Phage Group Grows 136

23 Geo and the Universe 144

24 Gamow's Game 152

25 Bohr, Geo, and Max 159

26 Back to Germany 166

27 The New Manchester 172

28 Alpha, Beta, Gamma 177

29 Big Bang Versus Steady State 185

30 DNA 192

31 The Double Helix 199

32 Geo and DNA 209

33 Geo Begins Again 219

34 Max Begins Again 224

35 The Molecular Biology That Was 228

36 The Phage Church Trinity Goes to Stockholm 234

37 The Triumph of the Big Bang 238

38 The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation 243

39 Cosmology's New Age 247

40 Einstein's Biggest Blunder 253

41 Duckling or Swan? 259

42 After the Golden Age 264

43 The Unavoidable and the Unfashionable 270

44 Mr. Tompkins Arrives 277

45 Geo's and Max's Final Messages 282

Acknowledgments 289

Notes 293

Bibliography 309

Index 319

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