Who was the last of the polymaths? By which we mean someone who is so clever and erudite that they may leap over the walls of specialisation and make a meaningful contribution in more than one field of learning? Some say it was Thomas Young (1773-1829). Others make the case for John von Neuman(1903-1957). Today our candidate is George Gamow (1904-1968)  whose awesome intellect ran the gamut of physics, cosmology and biology. With successful excursions into teaching and writing along the way. That’s quite a guy.
Gamow was born in Odessa, then part of the Russian Empire. He was well educated in science, after which his career and CV reads like a resume of the absolute top gun institutes and minds of the twentieth century. Gottingen, Rutherford, the Cavendish at Cambridge, this rising star was making waves in quantum theory and nuclear physics before he was thirty. But seeing which way the wind was blowing(anyone intelligent in Russia ends up being imprisoned or murdered sooner or later) he fled to the freer atmosphere of the west in 1933. After completing his work on nuclear modelling, his attention shifted to cosmology. He it was who proffered the Big Bang theory, in the course of his studies on planetary and galactic formation.
But this wasn’t enough for Brainy George, as the lads down the pub used to call him. For his next trick, he palled up with Watson and Crick as they unpicked the mysteries of the DNA molecule. Which was surely they key advance of the last century, at least down here on Earth. And all the while he kept up a busy schedule of teaching and writing popular books. For George believed that everyone had the right and the ability to know about science and learning. It’s nostalgic now to reflect how nearly that became our prevailing philosophy, until people like Rupert Murdoch came along.
It’s probably impossible now to be a polymath. The depth of learning required in each field is too great, and the time needed for the work too long. But the qualities that he epitomises-intelligence, reasoning and learning- are needed more than ever. And in that sense, the work of George Gamow continues.
#george gamow #physics #big bang #quantum theory #nucleus #dna #watson and crick