Geniuses: Max Delbruck, George Gamow, and the Origins
of Genomics and Big
Bang Cosmology by
"Don't do fashionable research"
offers some new perspectives into the lives, personalities and colleagues of two
remarkable twentieth century scientists. Much of the rich tapestry of
interactions and events that make this an interesting book are recently treated
by other authors, but Ordinary Geniuses contains many special insights. Bohr's
fondness of complementarity, and his view that "the existence of life must be
considered as an elementary fact that cannot be explained" is surprising in its
likeness to Pascual Jordan's beyond-physics force of vitalism (a little like the
odd rationale offered more recently by Gould that it is reasonable to remove our
very existence from the logic of science).
bottom-up physical examination of biological phenomena helps mark an important
change in science, and presaged Schrodinger's book, What is Life. Similarly,
Gamow's transition to cosmology achieved more than the foundations of big bang
theory, his collegiate approach through Washington conferences, in the vein of
Bohr's colloquia, stimulated many achievements in science. One is reminded, as
the central characters bob from low to high in their careers, of the importance
of philanthropic institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation in keeping the
scientific ball rolling. `Geo' Gamow is well portrayed as the vital,
hard-living, gregarious exponent of the "pioneering thing". Max Delbruck is the
challenging, restless soul that some, other than this warm and respecting
author, might term brash. This trait can certainly be forgiven considering
Delbruck's almost naïve abhorrence of secrecy in science and his frequent
admonition "Don't do fashionable research", refreshing perspectives that Segre
repeats as sage advice.
The themes of the fundamental physical processes
of life and of big bang cosmology are examined through the process of science.
Linking the lives of two of these two pioneers proves to be a useful and
memorable approach, if occasionally contrived or needy of hyperbole, and Segrè's
understanding of the science and the scientists make the project work.