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October 4, 2006

George Gamow wins second Nobel Prize in Physics


joe, you're really more messed up than we thought.

First of all, Gamow (above) died in 1968, and dead people can't win the Nobel Prize.

Second of all, he never even won one so how can he win another?

Michio Kaku, professor of physics at the City University of New York, explains it all for you in his editorial page essay in today's Wall Street Journal.

Brief piece short: Gamow predicted the existence of the microwave background radiation from the Big Bang and he published his work — in 1948.

Nobel Prizes confirming his predictions were awarded in 1978 and again yesterday — to others.

Here's Kaku's piece.

    Echo of Genesis

    Alas, in business, as in love and even in science, life can be so unfair. Has anyone ever received credit for your ideas? Have your insights been ridiculed, only to win accolades for others?

    Yesterday, John Mather and George Smoot won the Nobel Prize in Physics for providing "increased support for the Big Bang scenario for the origin of the universe." Of course, they richly deserved the prize. But so did George Gamow and his students, who made their stunning prediction back in 1948 but never got the Nobel.

    Gamow was one of the principle architects of the Big Bang theory, the seminal idea that the entire universe began in an unimaginably hot explosion, which blasted the stars and galaxies in all directions in an expanding universe.

    But how do you test this idea? He and his students, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman, reasoned that the Big Bang must have been so blisteringly hot that its radiation might still be circulating around the universe, even today. They predicted that this "echo of Genesis," the afterglow of the Big Bang, would have cooled down after billions of years, filling the universe with a chilly radiation five degrees above absolute zero. Their landmark paper is arguably one of the most influential scientific papers of the 20th century, opening up the field of cosmology as a true science.

    Unfortunately, their paper was met with deafening silence. It was quickly relegated to the dust bin of preposterous ideas that are wildly speculative and impossible to test.

    But in 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were scanning the heavens with the huge Holmdel Horn Radio Telescope in New Jersey, which picked up a pesky background "noise" that filled the sky. They were mystified, and even thought this annoying static might be due to bird droppings on the telescope. Later, it was pointed out to them that this spurious noise was probably the residual radiation from the creation of the universe, predicted by Gamow. (Remarkably, this echo from the Big Bang makes up a significant fraction of the static you hear on the radio. You literally pick up signals from Genesis itself every time you spin the radio dial. And if we somehow had eyes that could see microwave radiation, we would see this radiation come out every night, filling the night sky with a soft, faint glow.)

    Wilson and Penzias won the Nobel Prize in 1978. Their work determined that Gamow's background radiation was 2.7 degrees above zero, remarkably close to the original prediction. But the work of Gamow and his students was pointedly ignored. Gamow, ever the gentleman, had never complained publicly, but in private letters he wrote that it was unfair that their work never got the recognition it deserved.

    The latest Nobel Prize recognizes the work of Messrs. Mather and Smoot, who used the Cosmic Background Explorer space satellite, launched in 1989, to give us the most detailed chart of Gamow's fossil radiation. Their stunning picture of the Big Bang's relic radiation was dubbed by the press as "the face of God." It was really a "baby picture" of the infant universe when it was only about 400,000 years old, clearly showing the tiny ripples that would eventually grow into today's galaxies.

    So why did the Nobel Prize committee ignore Gamow? Some have argued that no one could take him seriously because he was an amateur cartoonist who wrote children's books (e.g., the classic "Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland" series, which were the first to inspire generations of schoolchildren, myself included, to the wonders of quantum physics and relativity). Others have said it was because he was too colorful a figure, notorious for his practical jokes. He once added physicist Hans Bethe's name, without his permission, to a paper written by him and his student Alpher, so it could be called the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper. He was also famous for his silly limericks. He once wrote: "There was a young fellow from Trinity / Who took the square root of infinity / But the number of digits / Gave him the figits; / He dropped Math and took up Divinity."

    It's a disgrace that Gamow and his students never got the Nobel. But perhaps they got something even more important. Prizes come and go. But the ultimate testament to their monumental work comes out every night, when the residual radiation they predicted fills up the entire night sky, bathing all of us with the glow from Genesis itself.


"If I have seen further than others, it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." — Isaac Newton

October 4, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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John Mather is very nice. Teaches as an adjunct at UMCP, giving hope to all we adjuncts everywhere that our labor -- for peanuts -- matters.

Mathers manipulated matter material. I can not resist.

Posted by: Mb | Oct 4, 2006 7:28:57 PM

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