Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2096th Meeting

Speaker: G. David Anderson, George Washington University
Topic: “The Life and Works of George Gamow: Theoretical Physicist, Cosmologist, and Popular Science Writer”

President-Elect Garavelli called the 2096th meeting to order at 8:20 p.m. on November 20, 1998. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2095th meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2096th meeting was G. David Anderson of the George Washington University. The title of his presentation was, “The Life and Works of George Gamow: Theoretical Physicist, Cosmologist, and Popular Science Writer.”

Mr. Anderson is the University Archivist or as the British would refer to him, the “Keeper of the History,” at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In that role, Mr. Anderson developed a research interest in the life and works of the Russian born American physicist, George Gamow.

As the title of his talks indicates, George Gamow was a famous theoretical physicist. However, he was also a cosmologist and a popular science writer. He spent a large portion of his career at George Washington University until moving on to the University of Colorado in 1956 where he died in 1968. His departure from GW may have been in part due to his espoused atheism that struck some raw nerves on the campus. His departure was certainly augmented by the fact that it coincided with the infamous McCarthy era. In addition, J. Edgar Hoover was on GW's board of directors.

One of Gamow's very special characteristics was his wonderful capability to popularize science with his “Mr. Tompkins” series of books, acting as the Carl Sagan of the 1950's. An example of one of his book titles is, “What the World Would Look Like if the Speed of Light was 100 MPH.” However, this idea of popularizing science was often looked down on by his contemporary scientific community. This added to the controversy surrounding this remarkable person. Nonetheless, time has tested Gamow and he is esteemed by generations of both scientists and lay-people for helping to make science “user-friendly.” This was aptly demonstrated when Gamow was awarded UNESCO's Kalinga Prize in 1956 for his works.

Gamow arrived at GW in 1934, and with Edward Teller and Merle Tuve of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, immediately began an annual series of theoretical physics symposia held each April on the GW campus. The symposia ran for 12 years, from 1935 to 1947, and influenced modern physics by combining interest in nuclear physics and astrophysics. During the 1939 conference, Niels Bohr announced that Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman had successfully split the atom.

Although not directly participating in the production of the atomic bomb, Gamow did contribute to the hydrogen bomb development in the early 1950's. As a consultant to the U.S. Navy, he tutored Admirals Chester Nimitz and Ernest King in nuclear physics.

George Gamow also made fundamental contributions to the fields of nuclear physics, cosmology and biophysics. During the late 1940's, Gamow, with Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman, proposed that space initially expanded through extreme heat and pressure then cooled down which predicted the existence of a cosmic background radiation. Such a theory was unprecedented and, tongue in cheek, other scientists labeled Gamow's idea the “Big Bang” theory. However, Gamow was shown to be quite correct. Twenty years later, in 1965, black cosmic background radiation was discovered — and Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson won the 1967 Nobel Prize for that discovery.

Mr. Anderson closed his presentation and kindly answered questions from the floor. President-Elect Garavelli thereupon thanked Mr. Anderson for the society, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. He then adjourned the 2096th meeting to the Social Hour at 9:47 p.m.

Attendance: 67
Temperature: 11.1°C
Weather: clear

Respectfully submitted,
Bill Spargo
Recording Secretary

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