Gamow – One, Two, Three… Infinity

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One, Two, Three… Infinity, George Gamow, 1947 (revised in 1961, Dover reprint 1988)
George Gamow (1908-1968) was a Russian-born physicist who studied at the University of Leningrad, worked on quantum theory at the University of Gottingen, spent time at the Theoretical Physics Institute of the University of Copenhagen, from 1928 to 1931, and worked under Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. In 1956, he moved to the University of Colorado Boulder, and he was buried in that area. You can read the rest of his biography on the wiki page.

As well as being a researcher, George was a teacher and writer. His most well-known works are probably the 4 books in the Mr. Tompkins series, where the title character enters alternate universes through his dreams, accompanied by discussions of the physics involved.

I first became interested in Gamow last winter when I found One, Two, Three in the imported books section at Junkudo Bookstore. I’d have a couple free hours between English lessons at a small conversational English school nearby, and I’d drop by to read and kill the time. However, the books I’d pick up (For the Love of Physics; a biography of Lewis Carroll, etc.) would be bought by someone else before I could finished them. I figured that with my birthday coming up, I’d ask for whatever was available from the U.S. as a present. I received One, Two, Three, plus 3 other books, so I’m going to comment on them here as I finish them.

One, Two, Three… Infinity is kind of a scattershot approach to quantum physics, with some speculation on how this ties to cosmology, genetics and entropy. It’s a more-or-less equal mix of science history, theory and application. The book starts out with an anecdote of how certain African tribes at the time didn’t have a concept of numbers greater than 3, and that leads into a discussion of very large numbers, and the different kinds of “infinite numbers.” This morphs into a section on natural and artificial numbers, including primes and imaginary numbers, and ends with the possibility of “i” allowing for time to be equivalent to distance in a 4-dimensional space.

Section Two – Space, Time and Einstein – looks at topology, and how we can infer the shape of higher-dimensional spaces by analyzing their 2-D and 3-D projections. Additionally, we get different ways to measure the speed of light, and how this ties to Einstein’s theory of relativity and curved space.

Section Three covers Microcosms, which concerns the shape and make up of atoms, fusion, and how molecules can create the basic building blocks of life – DNA. We also get a look at statistical properties and entropy as they apply to the study of genetics.

Section Four is on the Macrocosmos, starting with various mythologies about how the universe is composed. George goes over the methods for measuring astronomical distances and sets the age of the universe at at least 5 billion years (less than half of the currently accepted 13.8 billion years). He also recounts theories of how our planet and solar system formed. He ends with the expanding universe, and a few questions about what might have existed before the Big Bang.

From a more modern perspective, One, Two, Three suffers from a lack of truly up-to-date information, since there’s no mentions of quarks or string theory, and the age of the universe is set too low. But, that’s understandable since the Dover edition is just a reprint of the 1961 revision of a 1947 publication. If you want a more accurate book, you’ll have to keep looking. Instead, this book’s strengths are that it mixes history with the science, and provides a snap-shot view of modern quantum physics as it was being developed, written by one of the men that helped found it. Gamow has an entertaining writing style, and this book is a pretty easy read. It’s not a textbook by any means, but it’s still educational. Recommended if you want to know how quantum mechanics relates to the physical world.

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