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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About the Author
Table of Contents
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
What People are Saying About This
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.
An exuberant dual biography that integrates developments in quantum physics, cosmology and genetics since the 1920s with the lives of these two scientists.
Gino Segrè’s fascinating dual biography of George Gamow and Max Delbrück, “Ordinary Geniuses.” Gamow was a theoretical physicist who made an interesting foray into the biology of protein synthesis, while Delbrück was a theoretical physicist who became a biologist and then won the Nobel Prize for his work in genetics.
--Wall Street Journal
In parallel chapters Segrè has sensitively and insightfully narrated chronologically Delbrück and Gamow’s personal and professional lives. And while doing so, he has clearly presented and explained their scientific contributions; the prior works on which they were based; and their present day importance and relevance.
Segrè convincingly shows how the pair’s maverick personalities led to their discoveries, while their restlessness often stopped them seeing their ideas to maturity.
“Ordinary Geniuses makes me wistfully wonder if the world will ever again witness the coming together of such fun-loving intellectual brilliance.”
—James D. Watson, author of The Double Helix
“George Gamow and Max Delbrück were free spirits and practical jokers. They broke away from the mainstream of science in the 1930s and found new ways of thinking that opened the way to new sciences in the 1950s. George invented Big Bang cosmology, and Max invented molecular biology. This book brings them magnificently to life. It gives us a fresh view of the way new sciences are born.”
—Dr. Freeman Dyson, Princeton Institute for Advanced Study
“Ordinary Geniuses is no ordinary book. Gino Segrè, a masterly storyteller, takes us off the beaten path to view two revolutions in twentieth-century science from a novel perspective. By chronicling the lives of two renegade scientists, Max Delbrück and George Gamow, Segrè puts the birth of both molecular biology and modern cosmology in a whole new light. An engaging read.”
—Marcia Bartusiak, author of The Day We Found the Universe
“Gino Segrè is an accomplished scientist, a gifted writer, and a meticulous scholar. His talents come together in this wonderful book, the story of the intertwining careers of two quite amazing scientists. But it is more. It is a loving ode to twentieth-century science and will enthrall as it instructs.”
—Kenneth W. Ford, author of 101 Quantum Questions: What You Need to Know About the World You Can't See; former director, American Institute of Physics
“A marvelous book. Segre describes vividly how Delbruck helped to establish the new science of molecular biology while Gamow went into cosmology and originated our current view of the Big Bang. They both left major impressions on science as might be expected from “ordinary geniuses.””
—Alex Rich, Sedgwick Professor of Biophysics at M.I.T.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Interesting and well written portrayals of Delbruck and Gamov- only 'ordinary geniuses', as Segre calls them, yet far from ordinary scientists and human beings. Max Delbruck is best known for his work on macrophages (how bacteria become resistant to viruses through mutation) which paved the road for genetics and genetic code discovery, and for which he got a Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine. Gamov is a flamboyant Russian physicist who is the father of the Big Bang theory. Both of them were proteges of Niels Bohr, knew each other and lived roughly at the same time. Both came from countries that became oppressive for freethinking scientists in the thirties of the twentieth century and both of them found asylum in the States during the Second World War. They both had the audacity to propose extraordinary theses and spur research that would become big areas in science and then abandon it if they were becoming too comfortable in it.
An inspired choice to do a paired biography of George Gamow and Max Max Delbrück. They were both born at the turn of the century, one in Russia and one in Germany, both started in quantum mechanics and then branched out -- Gamow to nuclear physics and cosmology and Delbrück much further afield to biology. And hovering over both of them from the beginning to nearly the end of the book is Niels Bohr and the "spirit of Copenhagen".One of the things this book conveys most beautifully is how Gamow and Delbrück in their different ways created new circles of scientists in their adopted country of the United States, bringing together different disciplines that rarely worked together and pushing them forward onto new questions that had never been asked before. The results were breakthroughs in the nuclear physics of the creation of atoms in the big bang (in Gamow's case) and the forerunners of DNA theory (in Delbrück's case).What is particularly interesting about focusing on Gamow and Delbrück, as opposed to say Einstein or Heisenberg or Watson, is how much they got wrong. But they got it wrong in interesting ways that led to new discoveries and theories that were right.Gino Segre does a good job of shifting between the two and shifting between biography, historical context, and science. Highly recommended -- although not as good as Segre's earlier book Faust in Copenhagen, which also portrays the way scientists think and work together, in that case in producing the ensemble production we know as quantum mechanics.