Ordinary Geniuses: Max Delbruck, George Gamow, and the Origins of Genomics and Big Bang Cosmology

  • Gino Segré
  • Viking
  • 352 pp.

In the lives of two physicists, an engrossing view of how science advances through individual talent and curiosity.

Reviewed by Josh Trapani

Physics is often referred to as “the fundamental science” because physical laws undergird all systems, be they chemical, biological or geological. This gives physicists a special prestige among scientists and society as a whole, a prestige enhanced both by the mathematical rigor of physics and by its importance to advances ranging from medical imaging to nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

Among the giants of 20th-century physics — of whom Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr may be the two most famous, but the group includes Dirac, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Fermi and Pauli — Gino Segré’s Ordinary Geniuses tells the story of two scientists, Max Delbruck and George Gamow, who were less well known than some of their peers but profoundly influential nonetheless. Segré, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania and nephew of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, makes it clear from the beginning that he realizes there is nothing truly “ordinary” about these men, except perhaps in the context of their peer group (which later grew to include physicists like Freeman Dyson and other scientists like Watson, Crick and Pauling).

The best way to describe Ordinary Geniuses may be to say what it is not. It is not a conventional biography that investigates its subjects’ outer lives to shed light on their internal workings, or seeks to explain how they became the scientists they were. It is not the story of one particular earth-shattering scientific discovery as told from the perspective of the discoverers. And it is not the story of two men who had a unique, or even especially deep, relationship. It is, instead, a homage to two scientists whose particular ways of asking and answering questions, communicating with peers, nurturing students and transcending disciplinary boundaries helped pave the way for scientific advances spanning scales from very large (the Big Bang as an explanation for the origin of the universe) to very small (understanding of DNA as the source of the genetic code, and the elucidation of its structure).

I was struck by several images that reflect on the humanity of science, and how it has changed over time, which emerge from the story. For example, in the 1920s and early 1930s, “Max” (who was German) and “Geo” (who was Russian) were part of a cadre of essentially stateless young men, wandering between European cities in a series of short-term laboratory positions, growing as scientists and thinkers by studying with different scientific luminaries, all while avoiding the political turmoil of the time as much as they could. Of course, with Nazism and Stalinism about to collide, complete avoidance was unattainable, and the latter part of the story shifts largely to the United States.

It is impossible not to note how young some of the giants of physics were when they were doing their most important work. It is also very difficult to imagine that such young people would be “allowed” to attain such stature in the world of modern science, regardless of their brilliance or their work’s importance.

Another strong undercurrent is that neither Delbruck nor Gamow much respected disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, while Delbruck shared the Nobel Prize in 1969, he earned the prize not in physics but in medicine or physiology! That is an important lesson for the highly stove-piped world of science today, where much lip service (but little else) is paid to breadth and multidisciplinary work.

Segré’s enthusiasm for his two subjects shines through on every page. And as a physicist himself, he serves as an able guide through the wide-ranging odyssey of these twin scientific careers. On one page a reader encounters discussion of how background radiation from the Big Bang was first measured and interpreted; several pages on it’s a description of early speculations about how DNA might code for particular amino acids. All this is easy to follow, neither overburdened with jargon nor underequipped with context. The emotions these scientists experienced — the mystery and frustration of an unknown observation that demands explanation, the creativity inherent in positing hypotheses that made sense and the tension and rigor as experiments are devised to test them — are all made real.

There was never a danger, even without this book, that Delbruck or Gamow would be forgotten. And Ordinary Geniuses has an irritating tendency to gloss over or shrug away the flaws they surely had, as humans and as scientists. But this book, clearly a labor of love, tells the story of 20th-century science from a unique perspective, shedding light and providing lessons on how science truly advances. So much has changed in science since the personalities Segré describes experimented and taught, but that core of science as a fundamentally human endeavor — reliant on individual scientists and their curiosity to carry it forward — remains.

Josh Trapani is the Independent’s senior managing editor.

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