The educational project “Personalities of the Russian Community Abroad. 1920-1945”

George Gamow

George Gamow

George Gamow


A theoretical physicist and astrophysicist. He discovered the explanation for alpha decay and was one of creators of “The Hot Universe” theory. He was the first to give a clear definition for the problem of genetic code.

He was born into a noble family. In 1922 Gamow entered the faculty of physics and mathematics at the Petrograd University, which was the center of the emerging Soviet physical science. In order to obtain more means for living he worked as an observer at the Meteorology Station of the Forestry Institute where he read the indicators three times a day.

Gamow graduated from the university in 1926 and entered a PhD program. The same year he was recommended for an internship trip to Germany and went there in 1928. In Germany Gamow worked under the guidance of Max Born. When a theoretical problem came up, Gamow managed to prove that particles, even with limited energy, were capable of leaving the nucleus. That was the first successful explanation for behavior of radioactive elements based on quantum theory.

In spring 1929 Gamow came to Leningrad and later, in autumn, he left for Copenhagen. In spring 1931 he returned to Leningrad and immediately got involved in work on nuclear physics at the Radium Institute, at the Institute of Physics and Mathematics and the Leningrad University. In March 1932 Gamow was elected a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences for his merits. He was 28 years old then and became (and remained at least up to 2010s) the youngest physicist ever elected by the Academy. 

In autumn 1933 Gamow was chosen as a Soviet representative at the 7th Solvay Congress in Brussels. When the term of the official visit was over Gamow decided not to come back and started negotiations about a full-time job abroad. In October 1934 Gamow’s time for the official visit was over but he did not return to the USSR. He was fired from the Radium Institute and the Institute of Physics and Mathematics. Also, they revoked his title of a corresponding member at the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (in 1938).

In 1934 Gamow was offered a position of professor at the George Washington University in the capital. In no time Gamow initiated annual conferences in Washington where eminent physicists from all over the world took part.

In 1936 he succeeded at summarizing the Fermi’s beta-decay theory when he identified the rules for selection.

In 1937-1940 Gamow designed the first consistent theory of stellar evolution for stars with thermonuclear source. In 1942 he came up with the theory about red giant stars where he assumed the stars had a stable nucleus and a shell with thermonuclear reaction.

In 1946 Gamow was actively involved in cosmology and came up with “The Hot Universe” model (which gave more details to “Big Bang” theory). The main aspects of the theory included the ideas about expansion of the Universe, data about current dissemination of elements (hydrogen and helium in particular) and estimations regarding the age of the Universe which at that time was considered to be equal to the age of the Earth.  

In 1954 Gamow contributed significantly to creation of a new subject – molecular biology – when the issue of genetic code was discussed for the first time.


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