In August 1934 there appeared on the GW campus a 6-foot-3-inch, 30-year-old, flaxen-haired, Ukrainian émigré scientist. His startlingly blue eyes twinkled myopically behind lenses that resembled the bottoms of cider bottles. He conversed with a cosmopolitan circle of friends in a variety of European languages, with a fractured but poetic delivery that was animated and usually high-pitched. His name: George Gamow [pronounced GAM-off].
Gamow had already made quite a name for himself among physicists in Europe, but not many in the United States knew much about him in 1934. Few could have predicted that he would achieve worldwide renown as an astrophysicist and as the chief proponent of a bizarre theory of cosmic evolution called the "big bang," a schema that today is the subject of intense theoretical and observational research. Over the next 22 years, the ebullient and charismatic Gamow-"Geo" to most of his colleagues-left an ineradicable impression, both at the University and throughout the nation. Soon after his arrival in Washington, he instituted a series of conferences in theoretical physics and related areas. Conference topics ranged from nuclear physics to cosmology to biological genetics. Some of the greatest minds of the time-including Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and John von Neumann-were frequent participants. Never had GW witnessed such a concentration of intellect as during the balmy mid-April days when Gamow usually scheduled his annual "witches Sabbath" in the nation's capital.
In addition to developing the big bang theory of the expanding universe, Gamow made enormous contributions to the understanding of the nucleus of the atom, the activity of stars, the creation of the elements, and the genetic code of life.
He also laid the foundation for the theory of thermonuclear reactions, and his formula describing the temperature dependence of fusion reactions has been a cornerstone of thermonuclear bomb and reactor work. One of the observing scientists at the "Mike" H-bomb test on Bikini atoll in the Pacific in 1949, he was described by the United Press International reporter covering the event as "the only scientist in America with a real sense of humor." The Associated Press man on the scene said, "I get a kick out of calling him. He can always take the most technical information and make it simple."
He delighted lay readers with several books featuring the timid but inquisitive fictional bank clerk C. G. H. Tompkins. Many now-famous scientists (Nobel laureates Francis Crick and Robert Wilson come to mind) have cited the Tompkins series, or other of Gamow's popular gems (such as One, Two, Three ... Infinity), as having stimulated their youthful fascination with science. In 1956, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization awarded him the Kalinga Prize for the popularization of science.
Gyorgy Antonovich Gamow was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1904. His love of science manifested itself early. Astronomy, for example, captivated him after his father gave him a small telescope for his 13th birthday.