Gamow – Thirty Years That Shook Physics

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Thirty Years That Shook Physics, George Gamow, 1966 (Dover reprint, 1985)

George Gamow (1908-1968) helped develop the theory of quantum mechanics, and he met, and worked with, many of the greatest physicists from the 1900’s to the 30’s. This book is an introduction to eight of these men, and not only talks about how each one contributed to the development of modern physics, but also provides the historical background for how classical physics had to be broken and revamped to accommodate the existence of very small atomic particles moving at near-relativistic speeds.

We get Max Planck, Neils Bohr, Pauli, De Broglie, Heisenberg, Dirac, Fermi and Yukawa, along with wave mechanics, the uncertainty principle, the existence of the electron, proton, neutron and the neutrino. Gamow also gives us insights into the personalities of the people involved (Bohr and beer; Pauli and the failure of any electronics within a 100-mile radius; and Heisenberg being better known in Leipzig as a pianist than as a physicist).

The last chapter is entitled “Men at Work,” although Gamow’s illustration for the section does include one woman. This is where he says that quantum physics has been limping along for the last 30 years leading up to the publication of this book in 1966, and is in dire need of new breakthroughs. He mentions Feynman, Schwinger and Gell-Mann as having made some contributions, but that hasn’t been quite enough for the next big leap. At this point, there’s no real discussion of quarks or other subatomic particles, and string theory hadn’t been proposed yet.

The last 50 pages of the book is a reprint of the script for a parody of Faust, written and performed by several of Bohr’s pupils in 1932, with “Pauli” portraying Mephistopheles and “Ehrenfest” as Faust. If you understand the material discussed earlier in the book, this play is a pretty funny variation on the discovery of the neutrino.

Summary: Gamow is a pretty good writer, and he combines personal anecdotes of each of the major physicists of the time along with the science behind their discoveries and the historical backgrounds leading up to their breakthroughs. The science is dated, but we still get nice little snapshots of physics as it was as of 1960. Recommended just for the photos of everyone at several of the sciences conferences.

One last comment, though. The title, “Thirty Years That Shook Physics,” makes the book sound more dramatic and breathless than it really is. While the period covered does include a complete rewriting of physics as it was known at the time (from classical Newtonian to quantum-based), Gamow doesn’t take a sensationalist tone in his writing. Actually, everything is treated as being pretty matter-of-fact.


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