Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
We encourage researchers to utilize the full-text search on this page to navigate our oral histories or to use our catalog to locate oral history interviews by keyword.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of George Gamow by Charles Weiner on 1968 April 25,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Gamow's involvement with nuclear physics. His later work in astrophysics and his interest in biology. Personal anecdotes about Gamow's childhood in Odessa, student life with Lev Landau and Dmitriy Ivanenko at the University of Leningrad, his fellowship at Göttingen, work in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, and at University of Cambridge with Ernest Rutherford. Emigration to America in 1934, subsequent work in the United States. Work on penetration barriers, saturation, the beta decay rule, and the nuclear droplet model. Also prominently mentioned are: Hans Albrecht Bethe, Hermann Bondi, Walter Bothe, Maurice de Broglie, James Chadwick, John Cockcroft, Edward Uhler Condon, Francis Crick, Critchfield, Marie Sklodowska Curie, Max Delbrück, Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, Paul Ehrenfest, Enrico Fermi, James Franck, Alexander Friedman, Barbara Gamow, Thomas Gold, Ronald Gurney, Fred Hoyle, Petr Kapitsa, Krutkow, Ernest Orlando Lawrence, Nikolaivitch Luchnik, Chester Nimitz, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Wolfgang Pauli, Léon Rosenfeld, Dimitri Rozhdestwenski, Martin Schwarzschild, Edward Teller, Merle Antony Tuve, James Watson, John Archibald Wheeler, A. M. Wood; Associacion Venezueliana para Promocion de la Sciencia, University of Cambridge Press, Carlsbergfondet Fellowship, George Washington University, Institut de Physique Solvay, Leningradskii gosudarstvennyi universitet imeni A. A. Zhdanova, Moscow M. V. Lomonosov State University, National Academy of Sciences (U.S.), and Odessa I. I. Mechnikov State University.
I would like to start by asking you to think back to your early family life in Odessa. I know the names of your mother and father, but I have no information on the occupation of your father and the general background of the family life.
Well, my father was a teacher of the Russian language and literature in high school. In Russia the division between school and the university is different from here; in Russia the last two years in the school is the equivalent of the freshman and sophomore years here. The university then starts afterwards. My father was teaching Russian language and literature in a school for boys, and my mother was teaching geography and history in a school for girls. So it is quite innocent from the point of view of such an origin but if you go one generation back, my father's father was commander of the garrison of Kishinev, a general or something in the Russian Imperial Army. And my mother's father was Archbishop of Odessa and in charge of all the religion for all the lands north of the Black and Azov Seas called New Russia [Novorossia]. And back in the father line, it was all military all the way back, and the mother's line was all clergy. On the father's side, he had four or five brothers— I don't remember—and all became officers of the Army and were killed in the Turkish war or some other war. The last uncle was killed in the fighting with the White Army against Bolsheviks. And Father was the only man whom my grandfather could send to the university, Odessa University, so he graduated and became a teacher.
Was that because he was the youngest son or the oldest son?
I think the youngest son, but maybe second from the end—I don't know. I knew only one of my uncles, and he was probably older than my father.
On the mother's line, on the other hand, all before was clergy.
My mother was the only girl in the family. One brother was District Attorney of Odessa, or something; another was teaching classical languages; another was a captain of a battleship of the Black Navy; and still another was a chemist and icthyologist. Here the clergy spread into the sciences, so to speak.
In the home was there much of a library?
Oh, yes, Father had a very big library. You see, he was a teacher but he was also connected with the university. He was not a university professor but he had a lot of friends among the philologists and others at the university. As a matter of fact, I was born on a table, on his desk, in his library. That's why I have so many books. What happened is when I was due to come, which happened on March 4, 1904, I was too big and located wrong or something, so the doctors decided in the morning they had to cut me to pieces and get me out piece by piece. In this case the Mother had the privilege. And then a neighboring woman, who later became my godmother, had heard that some famous Russian surgeon from Moscow or something was vacationing in Odessa. And she got him. She got the droshka in the middle of the night, got him out of bed, and the operation was performed —a Caesarian section—in my father's study with the walls lined with books. And it was the doctor, and this neighboring woman who was boiling the water to clean the instruments, and Father was holding the kerosene lamp—that was all who attended. That's why I couldn't have any more brothers or sisters because after this operation Mother couldn't have any more children.
And so this was a good scholarly start in life?
You have recalled in the past an interest in astronomy and mentioned that your father bought you a telescope. Was the purchase of the telescope a consequence of your interest?
You were about six years old when Halley's comet came. Do you have any recollections of that?
Oh, yes, I remember it very well. I climbed up on the roof of the house, and I still remember the comet. An amusing thing was that less than ten years ago, soon after I came here to Colorado (one can check and can find exactly what year and what date it was), I was giving a summer school course on elementary astronomy, and here we have a little astronomical observatory with a small telescope. There is some attendant, and sometimes people from Denver, one day a week, I guess, can come and see the moon or Jupiter. And my students asked me to show them the sky, so I arranged it with the curator of the telescope. In the evening we collected there and when I came he said, "Well, it was a lucky day; there is a comet—look!" And so I have seen my second comet. It was right over the flat lands over there and through the telescope it looked quite impressive, and is the second and probably the last comet I will ever see.
Was this the one that was named after the Japanese?
I don't know. It must have been. I've been here eleven years. Must have been ten years ago, nine years ago.
Now you do recall the earlier comet, Halley's comet, in 1910, but you can't really place whether that got you interested one way or the other. But you do recall the incident of seeing it.
And when your father gave you the telescope, what did you plan to do with it? Did you know what to do?
Just look at the sky. Well, you see, I had the books, Flammarion, a popular book by a French author.
And, well I got interested in physics and through astronomy in physics. Well, actually I am doing both now. Most of the things I am doing now is astronomy, cosmology.
How did this interest manifest itself? Was it through some studies in school?
No. Well, you see, I was quite ahead. When in school they were teaching algebra, I was studying differential equations at home. I learned Einstein's theory of relativity when I was still in school. I simply got interested.
Did you get it from books or was there someone from the school who helped you with this?
Yes. Then I went to the university. Of course, you see this was just the time when Odessa was kind of the center of fighting, civil war still all around. The city was occupied, by Whites, or Reds, or Greens, or Greeks, or British, I forget now what. And there was shooting—and French and British ships were offshore—shooting shrapnel when we were sitting in a coffee house. School was very irregular, and sometimes was suspended for weeks when there was street fighting. Then it more or less was settled, and the Red Army occupied the city with a lot of fighting with the local groups of Ukrainian nationalists and what not. The White Army was sitting in Crimea and getting evacuated to Turkey. And then I went to the university and studied pure mathematics with two professors. Physics, of course, was not given at all. The professor of physics didn't want to lecture. But there were two mathematicians: Kagan and Shchatunovski. And so from them I learned the basis of real mathematics, like the theory of numbers, topology, theory of infinity, and things like this. So I spent one year in Odessa University and then, in 1922 I guess it was, I was 18 years old, things settled well enough so I went to Leningrad—it was still Petrograd then as Lenin was alive—and got a job there. It was all very indefinite. Father sold some family silver so I got some money to buy the ticket. And one of Father's friends, who had been a teacher in the same school as Father, had become professor of meteorology in the Forestry Institute in Leningrad. This was the only connection I had, and he gave me some job of observing in a meteorological station and writing down the wind and measuring pressure and what not. And then I enlisted in the university.
What did you have in mind to study when you went to the university?
It was physics.
When did you make up your mind that it was going to be physics?
Nuclear physics—already in Odessa I was interested in the work of Rutherford, the discovery of isotopes; I knew the theory of relativity well at this time.
How did that come to you there? Did it come from your teachers or were you reading magazines, journals?
Well, books, magazines. There were no teachers. In Odessa there was schooling, so to speak, only from those two professors, and this was pure abstract mathematics.
But you completed the normal school in 1920. Then you went to Odessa University somewhere between '20 and '22.
Yes, for one year.
By this time you had already become familiar with Rutherford's work, and with relativity, so it was clear that physics was going to be the field?
Had you known anyone else in your family or through acquaintances who was in physics?
No. You see, one uncle was a chemist on the mother's side, Uncle Arseni. We called him Myishyak Myishyakowich. Arseni—this is a name— and my grandfather's name was Arseni, so, Arseni Arseniewich. And Arseni is arsenicum and in Russian arsenic, which you use for poisoning mice, is called myishyak, so I called him Myishyak Myishyakowich. He was actually a chemist and ichthyologist. He studied the condition of the water of the Black Sea, chemistry in connection with the fisheries and things like that. My cousin was an astronomer, but he was hanged when I was two years old, hanged by the neck until he died.
Was he in political trouble?
No. This was a son of my uncle who was District Attorney. His wife was Italian, so the boy was half Italian and he went to Italy and there was studying astronomy and getting mixed with nihilists. And when he came back in 1906 or something like that, there was Prime Minister Stolypin of Czarist government. He was strong, active, hanging everybody. There was expression "Stolypin's tie"; Stolypin's necktie was the loop. He [my cousin] was among the group to assassinate this prime minister and there was the provocateur Azeff who betrayed them, actually. So they were all arrested—there were five people—and they were hanged. Seven altogether —five political, including my cousin, and two real robbers. And then Leonid Andreyev, the Russian writer, wrote the famous novel—I think I have it here in English translation—The Seven Who Were Hanged. And my cousin is described there because he got information from my aunt about him, and so on. But this was very amusing—well, not very amusing for him, I guess—but you see, he didn't want to give his name and since he spoke perfect Italian, he claimed he was Italian, named Mario Calvino. In the book he is unknown, called Werner, but actually he was an Italian, Mario Calvino. But of course it was all known.
And then in some high institution in St. Petersburg, to the senators— something like that—the question was put, "What about this libertine who was hanged, who is the son of attorney in Odessa?" And then I think the chairman of senate, who was something like godfather of this boy, got up and told he investigated it and found it was not this [one] but somebody else. And nobody could say anything more.
His mother, my aunt, profited from it ....Her husband died—I can't even remember him, I was probably a small boy at this time—and then she got the pension of her husband, from Czarist government. It was a good pension, because he had a good position, general attorney or whatever it was, and then the revolution came and, of course, she lost the pension of a Czarist official, but the Soviet government gave her the pension of her son, so she continued drawing money from the opposite end of the fence.
These events—the hanging happened, of course, when you were too young ...
Yes. I don't remember him. They told me he played cars with me and hit me on the nose but he was hanged when I was two years old, I guess or something like that.
There is another family question I want to ask: Since there were some clergy in the background of the family, was there any religious training or influence at home?
Well, yes and no. Of course the home was ... well, I still remember Easter. You see, with the grandfather being archbishop, the house was all filled with clergy on Easter. And at Easter we kiss, you know, sometimes on the cheek.
Is this the Russian Orthodox religion?
Yes, Russian Orthodox. And so my skin was itching, with a couple of dozen priests kissing me with their beards. But there was nothing special.
But you had some religious training, did you, as a child?
Well, of course, in the school, you see, at this time one of the subjects was religion, the Law of God, it was called: The Old Testament, New Testament, church services, and all sorts of things. This was given by a priest. And I was the first student in the class. Well, I was first student in the class in all other things, too. But I remember he called me his deacon or something like that. But I very early doubted. I remember once I had a little microscope and I went to— what is it called, in Catholic church they give the wine and piece of bread—
Yes, the Eucharist. And I put the bread behind my cheek instead of swallowing it and ran home and put it under the microscope to see if it is the flesh of Christ and found it was different; it was just bread, so I think this changed my religious attitude.
A young skeptic. How about the relative economic status of the family?
It was pretty good, yes. You see my father was getting good salary and Mother also. We had some money, I don't know, which was all lost in the Revolution, securities, I suppose.
But when it came time to go to the University of Leningrad, you were able to go with some sacrifice on the part of the family?
No, first of all my mother died in 1913, when I was nine years old. So I lived with Father, and when I went to university I didn't have to pay. It was free education and we lived very close to the university, a few blocks from the university. And Father knew most of the professors in the Philological Department, at least.
I was referring to your earlier statement that your father sold the silver in order to get you a ticket to go to Leningrad.
Well, you see this was only after the Revolution. Father retired when the World War started, in 1914. But then when the Revolution came back, he had to go back to a job, because there were laws that whoever was not working was not eating, so he had to work. They enlisted him in the same school in which he had been a teacher for a quarter century or more, as janitor. He didn't clean the corridors, no, but he was just listed as a janitor so we would get the bread card and some money would come. Well, people lived at this time one doesn't know on what money, from selling something.
Well, now I have you back at the university. And all of this was started by my question about when you got interested in physics, and you made the point that it had already occurred earlier.
When you were at the University of Leningrad, you had the job at the meteorological station. What were your courses? What studies did you undertake?
Well, I was taking the regular course because, you see, in a Russian university, as I guess in most European universities, though not here, it is the state's problem: you don't choose your courses; you choose your direction. Since I chose physics, it was certain that in the third year I had to separate—is it electricity or is it optics— something like this. The courses were prescribed; one had in a given year to take these particular courses. One could take more, some extra courses which were not required, free courses. There was an old professor, Khlvolson, a famous man. He wrote a five-volume text book of physics and gave the introductory physics, which corresponds to Physics 101 or something like that here. And I never went to his lectures because at this time I was doing much more. You must take into account that then it was all mixed up; there was nothing regular, and I was taking the course of electrodynamics; of all things, on Maxwell's theory. Then I had to pass the exam, with Khlvolson on elementary physics but since I hadn't been in his courses, I decided I should have something to show him. So I went to this Frederichs, who was giving electrodynamics. He was on vacation on a beach near Leningrad and when I went to him, he examined me on electrodynamics in the water, swimming, and put "Satisfactory," or "Very well" or something like that in matriculus in electrodynamics. And then I came to Khlvolson, and he looked matriculus over, and he said, "Passed electrodynamics?" and I said, "Yes." "Well, I pass you in Elementary Physics." So I never passed this exam. It was all mixed up.
What other courses did you have in physics?
I didn't go too much to the courses. I was mostly attending seminars on theoretical physics. I don't remember. There was a course on optics, I guess. I've forgotten what was the name of the professor. Oh, yes, Rogdestvenski, director of the Rogdestvenski Institute. The chairman of the department, an old man, was teaching it. And of course, statistical mechanics and what not. Again, I attended very few courses because I was working on my own. In 1922 I was interested in Bohr theory and things like this. In 1926 wave mechanics appeared.
What about these theoretical physics seminars? Who was in charge of them?
Well, there were three people, theoretical people: one was Professor Krutkov, another was Bursian, and the third was Frederichs. So between them they ran a seminar and they gave the lectures. Then there was a lab, of course, measuring the resistance of wires and what not. But it was somehow immaterial. I was around the university, I was not in the university. I was registered. I was getting credits, in most cases not attending lectures. And other people did very much the same.
Well, this could be attributed to the unsettled state of things at the time and also to the advanced knowledge that you had.
Did you get much experimental training during this period?
Well, you see, the thing is that when I had to start the Ph.D.— this is strange reason—I decided to get Ph.D. in experimental physics because experimental physicists have their own room in the Institute where they can hang their coat, whereas theoretical physicists have to hang their coat at the entrance. So I went to Rogdestvenski and he gave me the work. It was abnormal dispersion in the absorption lines of potassium, and that involved two interferometers and vapor of potassium and photographing the interference, thinking to measure the factor of indices and so on. I worked for a year or two. I never made any progress; the photographs didn't come out well. Then it turned out that I didn't realize that the exposure time was given for the room temperature. And the room temperature was in Fahrenheit—it would be some 55 degrees, so it was always underdeveloped. Finally I gave it up. And then I got some preliminary results. [Leafing through some papers] The first paper was published in 1926: Gamow and lwanenko, Zur Wellentheorie der Materie.¹ And then comes Prokofiew and Gamow, "Anomale Dispersion an den Linien der Hauptserie des Kaliums,"² experimental work because I never finished it and so Rogdestvenski gave it to another man who was Prokofiew, who was good experimentalist and he finished it, and we published it. Second paper is highly experimental with tables.
And the third paper is "The Quantum Theory of the Atom Nucleus,"³ and this is the first work on the potential barrier.
1. Zeitschrift für Physik, Sonderabdruck Bank 39, Heft 10/11, p. 865.
2. Zsch f Phys, Sonderabdruck Band 44, Heft 11/12, p. 887.
3. Z Physik, Sonderabdruck Band 51, Heft 3 und 4, p. 204.
That's interesting. This was a result of your attempt to get a place to hang your coat?
When you decided you weren't going to be a photographer, what course was open to you then? Did you go back and take another dissertation topic?
Yes. Well, then I talked with Rogdestvenski or he talked with me. In any case we agreed. You see what happened: I actually was not official yet. This was one year. Because I had finished one year too early, completed all courses, so the next stop would be to apply for fellowship or Ph.D.—it was called prepare for professorial title. But I was advised not to do so because this way, since I finished one year early, I would compete with the people who were one year older than I, I mean in educational matters, not necessarily by calendar year. And then I would have no chance because they would get the first. So I stayed for another year in the university as a student without taking any courses. Well, this is not quite true because this resulted in two additional exams. Had I finished at this time I wouldn't have had to do it, but they introduced two new courses which all departments, students in all fields, should take. One was the History of the Revolution; another was Dialectic Materialism, of all things. So, since I was staying for another year, I had to take this, too, and I passed them somehow. But you see it was during this year that I started this work with Rogdestvenski, but it was not yet official. By the time when I had to take something, it was already clear that I would not continue this experimental research. And then Krutkov gave me the topic.
Who gave it to you?
Krutkov, one of the three theoreticians. And this was some rather boring problem about adiabatic invariance or something like this, still in the old quantum theory.
In what year was this?
Oh, gosh, I don't know exactly. Must have been '26. And so I got the fellowship and I wasn't doing much about this, and so I spent two years—no, one year—and I didn't do anything on this adiabatic invariance. And then I managed to go abroad to Göttingen for summer school. At this time it was just a question of the money exchange. This old man Khvolson recommended me especially, so I was permitted to change my money, to collect my fellowship in German marks instead of rubles. I went to Göttingen. And then in Göttingen I did this work, so I never came back and never finished the thesis with Krutkov. Nobody else finished it either and now it's of no interest because it's Bohr's mechanics anyway.
Talking about those years a bit ... when and how did you become aware of the new quantum mechanics and wave mechanics?
When I came in the library at the Institute and there was Annalen der Physik with the paper of Schrödinger.
Had you realized that there were some problems with the old quantum theory?
Well, yes. I think I heard for the first time about the waves when in seminar this Professor Frederichs was reporting on the de Broglie paper which was published earlier, on the basis of which Schrödinger developed his equation. So this was the first time I heard about de Broglie, I guess.
But up until that time was the old quantum theory taught as pretty comprehensive?
At this time I was mostly interested in relativity. And actually when I was doing relativity there was Professor Friedmann, the man who has shown that Einstein is wrong and that his cosmological equation has a time-dependent solution—it was in 1922, the same year Hubble found the red shift, the distance to Andromeda nebula. And I actually thought I would work with Friedmann, Alexander Friedmann. He was pure mathematician or applied mathematician maybe. He was a professor of mathematics, but he was interested in the application of mathematics and what he was mostly doing was hydrogen aerodynamics. And he had a big plan to take the cube of atmosphere and measure the velocity. He was director of geophysical lab, geophysical observatory. He would measure by balloons— there were no rockets at this time —the temperatures and the winds and so on and then put it in the differential equation. But it encouraged me. And he was also interested in mathematics of relativity, and then he found this mistake of Einstein and reported what is now known as Friedmann universe ... And he was giving a course on relativity—the first formal course on mathematical relativity which I took was from him, and now this new book on cosmology which I am writing is dedicated to Friedmann, with his photograph, which I got by luck with some troubles.
And so I was supposed to become his student, but unfortunately he was flying on one of his manned balloons and got severe chills or something and died of pneumonia. So I was lost and then Krutkov took me and gave me this adiabatic invariance.
But he gave you that within the old quantum theory?
Yes, I can tell you exactly what it was.
I think it would be interesting.
You see, this notion was introduced by Ehrenfest, adiabatic invariance. And this is the reason: suppose you have a pendulum and you can shorten the length of it. You have the weight, string, and go through the loop. The pendulum swings, and while it swings, you pull the string so the pendulum becomes shorter. And the question was: what remains constant at this time? Well, it can be shown from classical mechanics what re- mains constant is the energy of the pendulum divided by frequency. So you put it equal to h. You see, the energy equals h And at this time Ehrenfest and other people were looking for what should be quantized. I mean, in Bohr's atom it was clear you quantize this, but not in other cases. And Ehrenfest put the postulate that what should be quantized is the quantities which are adiabatic invariance, which do not change at very slow variation of the parameters. And there was a big search, which of course lost all its sense after wave mechanics.
But in any case, Krutkov gave me what I was supposed to do—sounds silly now—you see, if the pendulum goes, you quantize it. You take the integral pdq in the old Bohr theory for swing to and fro. You use this at half-period and back. You integrate one to the right and back to the left. Now suppose the pendulum's amplitude is larger and larger. Then pendulum almost gets vertical and goes swing up again, almost vertical. You still quantize this way. But if you have a little more energy, then the pendulum begins to go over the top and a rotator begins. And then you quantize only on one circle. You see, if the pendulum doesn't reach the top by one degree, you quantize all the way down all the way back. If it goes over the top, then just one time around. So it is a factor of two. I was supposed to find out what the trouble with it is, and I couldn't find out, so far as I know nobody found it out after me and nobody cares. But this was the thesis.
Was there any discussion of the new papers? You discovered the Schrödinger paper in the library when it came out. Had anyone called it to your attention, or did you just find it?
I don't remember; maybe somebody was reading it. But you see at this time there were three—three musketeers, if you want to call it this way—it was me and Landau—you know he died recently?
A couple of weeks ago.
And Ivanenko. So we formed the nucleus of ... The total number of students in the physics department was probably a dozen: there were three theoreticians and then about ten or less experimentalists. A few of them were girls. And so we were talking together and discussing things.
Did they enter the university about the same time as you did?
Ivanenko, yes, I guess so. Landau came later. He came from Baku but he was in the university. We were on the same level, the same semester. But Landau did something before. Maybe Ivanenko ... I think I came first, and Ivanenko came later. He may have one year of the university in Poltava. He was from Poltava, from Ukraine, and Landau's from Baku. But we were on the same level, maybe, the same year.
So were the new developments in quantum mechanics discussed among the three of you?
Yes. You see, there was this Borgman Library ... Well, Borgman was a professor who had a big library and when he died, he willed it to university, so it was a physics library with easy chairs, and this was the center of theoretical cultures.
But they were also participants then in the theoretical seminars of various types?
Was there a colloquium or regular discussion group of any kind, either formal or informal?
I remember there was a colloquium on statistical mechanics at which I was. There were some meetings—I don't remember whether it was weekly or not. You see, the people were around and talking anyway, so these meetings didn't change much I think. If there was, it was a formal meeting. But the main thing was sitting and talking in the library, just as it was happening in the Bohr's Institute in the years I spent in Copenhagen. There the Institute and library and there were people—me and Mott and Delbrück and Rosenfeld and Casimir and others—and we were just around, reading magazines and talking, playing ping pong and what not.
Then it was informal discussion in which the ideas evolved?
What journals were you reading in Leningrad?
Well, Zeitschrift Physik, Annalen der Physik, Physikalische Zeitung, Proceedings of the Royal Society.
The ones that were the standard journals at that time?
How about the Russian journals? Were they as up to date as the German and English journals?
Well, I'm not sure there were Russian journals at this time because everybody who was publishing, as you can see from my two papers from Russia, was publishing in Germany. I think there was a magazine which was coming out which was called The Advances of Physical Sciences. This was something like The Review of Modern Physics. There probably was a journal of the Russian Physical Society but it probably was not being printed at that time at all. It was easier to send it to print in Germany.
You were reading German then. Did you pick up the German language in the university or back in Odessa?
No. You know there is a rule that a person cannot have a good pronunciation unless he learns it before the age of eight or ten or something like that. Now French I was taught by my mother, who spoke French. She was not French, but at this time, you know, the daughter of archbishop had a French education. So I learned French from my mother and then I went to private school, run by a friend of my father. And to this one goes at the age of ten; before that one goes to public schools. I didn't go to public school; I had two teachers at home, two women. One was for the general education, whatever it was; I don't remember what she was teaching me. Another was a very fat German woman; her name was Urbach, I remember, and she was teaching me German. So I was learning German from this private teacher and French from my mother. And English I learned much later, after the Revolution, I guess. So, as a result, my French and German pronunciation are very good. My English pronunciation is bad. And I feel much easier speaking German or French than speaking English. Of course now, living so long in America, I have more vocabulary probably in English than in anything else. The second best is German because of all the time in Copenhagen. Now the Danes forget how to speak German after the Hitler invasion, but at that time Bohr's Institute was all German. Pauli and Heisenberg and Bohr—I spoke to Bohr, to Niels Bohr, in German, of course. So in Göttingen and Copenhagen, I had a good training in German for a few years and I didn't forget it. This summer I have to give the lecture in Berne in July in memory of Houtermans who was my friend. They have asked me to and I am going to speak German, of course. Of course, in German I'm terribly poor in der, die, das, and my grammar is horrible, but pronunciation good. It flows, and the people understand it.
I remember when I was in Germany the last time in Heidelberg, with Barbara, six or seven years ago, they asked me to give a talk—this man called Hans Jensen, of shell structure—about whatever it was, cosmology, I think. And so, although I could speak English, I spoke German and without any difficulty, except that it turned out afterwards I made one mistake. I was speaking about brightest stars, which is important in Hubble work of estimating distance of galaxy theory, to see which are brightest stars. And in German, of course, it is "die helligste Sterne" and I was speaking about "breitigste Sterne," the widest stars. This was the only mistake. But my German pronunciation is certainly better than my English, and so is my French. In French I have had very little opportunity. Oh, I was taken to Paris as a tourist for a couple of weeks but I never was actually working, so my vocabulary is poor but still pronunciation is quite good. And I remember years ago—let's see, it was just the last year before the war—I was going to the international congress organized by the League of Nations in Warsaw one year before it was destroyed by the German Luftwaffe.
The 1938 congress?
1938, yes. And then de Broglie asked me to give a lecture in Sorbonne, on "L'Evolution des étoiles," and I planned—I was a little bit scared about this—to write it down in French, have it corrected, and then memorize the corrections and so on. But on board ship I never did it, and there I was and so I just had to talk French. I couldn't find out ... I had to speak about white dwarfs, "les naines blanches" and I didn't know what it is so I had to say it in English. And somebody, de Broglie himself or whoever was sitting in the front row, was giving me the French words for it. And after the lecture I told de Broglie that I am very sorry, I planned to prepare it. And he told: "Look, Gamow, it's very good that you didn't because you know last year (it was some special annual lecture) R. H. Fowler from England came here ..." and the English don't know French, as a rule) and, in any case, he wrote it down, de Broglie personally translated it, and then he either memorized or read it in French. But as a result, de Broglie said that after the lecture a group of students came to him and told: "Monsieur le Professeur, nous ne comprenons pas parce que nous croyions que M. Fowler will speak English, and we all understand English. He didn't speak English. In that case, what was the language?"
It was French.
Yes, and de Broglie had to say, "Francais. So this is the danger.
One amusing incident in the same vein: Ten years ago, when I just came here, I was asked to go to Caracas, Venezuela, to visit there for Asociación Venezueliana para Promoción de la Sciencia. And the big lecture should be in Spanish, and the small seminars could be in English. And my Spanish is non-existent. I know a little bit of Italian because I spent a summer in Italy and studied a little for it and was trying to talk in it. But somebody told me I have to write it down so I wrote down in English and when I came to Caracas it was all translated into Spanish. And the idea was that I would speak it and the man would trans- late it, so it's twice as long. (I did it in Japan; it's very tiresome.) And I told them, "Look, after all I speak French, I know some Italian, and I can understand what's written here. It's simple; Spanish is the same language. So I went through a rehearsal a couple of times so we had the correct Spanish pronunciation, but I delivered the lecture in Spanish, reading it from the list. I have it in Spanish on the tape recorder, it's over an hour. But the funniest thing was the danger spots, just because Spanish is so close to Italian but not quite, was the pro- nunciation of the letter "c". In Spanish it is pronounced "piscina" for swimming pool or"conocer." In Italian it is "sh", "conóscere" and "piscina." And this thing I marked specially, but after first ten or fifteen minutes of reading, I got tired and started losing my guard and got into Italian. And as a result the Caracas newspaper next day carried the article, saying the Russian professor from the United States, lectured in Spanish with a heavy Italian accent. That is gospel truth.
Getting back to the mid-twenties, you certainly were reading in German, the scientific publications, most of which were appearing in German journals.
And did the trio of Landau, Ivanenko and yourself stay together pretty much? Did you discuss the same problems?
Oh, yes. We went to the movies together, we played tennis together, there were several girls around, and what else. There was also scientific discussion among physics students.
Did any of the professors get attached to this trio in any way?
Did you have the feeling that you were more up to date on some of the new developments in wave mechanics than some of the professors themselves were?
I don't know, really. Maybe.
I know that by the time you went on to Göttingen in the summer of '28, you apparently had a very solid background in the newest wave mechanics.
And I'm trying to determine how—whether it was just from the reading and discussing with your friends ...
Reading and discussing it with Landau and Ivanenko and so on.
But there was no formal teaching of the new wave mechanics that you recall?
Maybe there was a course. I didn't listen to it.
Did you have any visitors there during that period, anyone from other countries to come in?
Oh, early, yes. Raman was there once, passing through. I remember Fraulein Spöner was there once.
Do you know that she died recently?
She died. Is Franck still alive?
He died several years earlier [in 1964]. What about the relative position of the University of Leningrad in physics in Russia? Was it the major institution or were there others that were equally good?
Leningrad and Moscow were the only two places which operated. Odessa was dead. And such places as Kazan, where Patechevsky probably was, was dead. Leningrad and Moscow were more or less even, I would say. Probably in Leningrad there were more theoretical people than in Moscow, more experimental—something like that, but we had constant exchange. You see, there was an overnight train. We often went for some occasion or another on the overnight train, so we knew very well the Leningrad and Moscow people and vice versa.
Who were the principal people at Moscow?
Well, there was Andronin Leontovich—I don't know what has happened to him now. I don't hear these names; maybe they died during the war or something. Then I knew quite well Mandelstamm's son. Leonid Mandelstamm, the professor, was director of the Moscow University Physics Institute and he discovered Raman effect together with Raman. And was too slow to publish it; he missed it. And I knew very well his son, ? Mandelstamm whom I saw just two weeks ago right here in Boulder. He was semi-theoretical ... I don't know. He came here in connection with the upper atmosphere research and so on. And I was often in his house in Moscow. He lived with his parents. And let's see who else. Oh, a number of people.
At this time Kapitza was in England, wasn't he?
Kapitza was in England, yes. Kapitza was captured in Russia the same year as I left Russia, and many people ascribe the fact that they didn't let Kapitza go out because I didn't come back. And I know this is not true; otherwise I would be unhappy, but it isn't true because the thing is that I knew Kapitza very well. Just before I was leaving for the United States for the first time I stayed in Cambridge... You see, I came to Solvay Congress in the fall of 1933 and wrote this letter to Sam Goudsmit to come to America, but I had to live through the winter, so I was "distributed" between Madame Curie, Bohr, and Rutherford. Madame Curie kept me for two months on fellowship, and then Bohr, and then Rutherford. experimentalists? You said that Bohr, you know, needed this and that you need it, too.
Well, you see I can tell you how I came to this idea bout the potential barrier. It was this way: I was sitting in Göttingen. I came to Göttingen for the summer school and I didn't go to any lectures. Alexander Fock was there, and I just was staying around, and I decided at this time everybody was applying wave mechanics to atoms and molecules and getting more and more complicated, and I hate such things. Now I'm not a nuclear physicist any more; two decades ago it became too complicated for me. But then I decided that I wanted to learn something about the nucleus. I remember I decided while still in Leningrad, reading the papers on radioactivity and things like this, just to get away from this solution of Schrödinger equation for diatomic molecules. And in Göttingen I was doing just this and was trying to think how the alpha particle comes out and maybe spirals and so on and why it takes such a long time. And then in the library in Göttingen I found the Philosophical Magazine, with the article of Rutherford in which he was shooting the fast alpha particles— from Radium C or something—on uranium, and hoping to observe the abnormal scattering and there was none. It was inverse square scattering, which was a contradiction. And Rutherford in this article proposed a theory, which was quite amusing. You see, Rutherford had thought about neutrons actually some five years before neutrons were really discovered and the Cambridge people were doing experiments, never published, which tried to kick neutrons out of the nucleus and failed. And gave up. That's why Chadwick knew it was the neutron because he had been trying years ago to get one.
And so Rutherford had a theory in this paper: how the alpha particle can go through the barrier which is higher than its energy. And being a classical physicist, of course, he thought that the alpha particle goes with two electrons. Well, four neutrons, actually, polyneutron. Mass 4 charge zero gets out of the nucleus. And at a certain distance it drops two electrons which go back, fall, into the nucleus. I don't know where they start getting accelerated. Well, at this point when I read this, I thought, "My gosh, it isn't." It is exponential solution of the equation of Schrödinger. And the next day the paper was ready.
Really? You mean that this thing seemed to you ridiculous, in a sense, did it? What was your reaction when you read Rutherford's paper? Did it make no sense at all?
[repeated several times during preceding question] Yes.
How did that get you to this next step of seeing that the Schrödinger equation applied?
Well, because I knew—this was 1928 and wave mechanics was two years old—and I knew that the solution does not vanish. If there are walls then the thing [or anything] becomes exponential and does not vanish. So I thought exponential—very simple.
And you actually just worked it out overnight, as quickly as that?
Had you thought about it before that, before reading Rutherford's paper?
No. I was trying to have this spiral around, some crazy thing.
You see, Condon—Gurney and Condon—actually Gurney had the idea, of course; Condon just helped him. Gurney got to it from another point of view. I don't remember ... His article begins with the electrons in the symmetrical state of crystals that can go through transitions and so on. But this was just Rutherford's paper and that's all.
When you worked on , did you discuss it with anyone there at Göttingen?
Oh, I told it to Wigner, I remember, and Wigner was quite impressed. And then I had this friend of mine, Fritz Houtermans—he was a friend.
But Wigner was there at the time, too?
Yes, Wigner was there, and Dirac was there. Houtermans was experimental physicist, but he was interested in Russians, so to speak, so I got to be friends with him—he was communistic direction. Well, my second paper is Gamow and Houtermans which follows this [rustling list of publications]—this is the first paper [#3 on list] in which I just give the simple thing and say this is the Geiger-Nuttal Law. And this is Gamow and Houtermans [04 on list], and this is just tedious, more details, calculations of the things, just follow up.
When you told Wigner, Houtermans, and others there, what was their reaction?
They liked it. The reaction of Bohr was very interesting. When the semester finished, I ran out of money and I had to go home. I had a return ticket. I wanted to meet Bohr, and I probably had a return ticket through Stettin, but I changed it to Copenhagen/Stockholm and Finland. And I had some $10 left, just enough for one day. And I came to Copenhagen and stayed in some cheap place and got a bed in some rooming house and went to his Institute and met Frøken Schultz, Bohr's secretary, who just retired recently in January; I sent her a wire, "Congratulations on a half century"—she was for fifty years secretary of Bohr. She was hired when the Institute was formed, and in January she was 70 years old and 50 years Bohr's secretary.
So I told her I am only there one day and could I see Bohr. And it was arranged, and Bohr came to the library where I was waiting and asked what I had been doing. I told him about this—it was not published yet.
Had it been submitted?
Yes; it was already submitted; it was sent from Göttingen. And then Bohr told me ....You see, when Frøken Schultz first told me that the Professor is very busy and I'd have to wait probably a couple of days, I told her, "I have to leave tomorrow because I have no money to pay to eat anywhere." This was already an emergency. And then Bohr said, "My secretary told me you cannot stay more than one day because you have no money. Now if I organize for you a fellowship, a Carlsberg Fellowship at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences, would you stay for a year?" I told him, "Yes, I would." Right on the spot!
Would it be difficult to stay and to extend this short summer trip?
No, not at all, my official passport was good for a year. You see, at this time there was no problem.
But what about your work back in Leningrad? Had you taken your examinations in the spring before you left?
No, I'm a fake Ph.D. I never got a real degree.
Oh, you dropped that adiabatic problem?
Well, I dropped this and sent instead the manuscript of this (pointing to #3).
Of the penetration barriers?
And I have not the slightest idea what happened with it. And at this time there was no Ph.D., anyway—now I think it's reinstituted— but the title was "Learned Physicists, Learned Chemists," because they went away from the titles. No generals, no ministers, you know. Now it's all back so I suppose I have a Ph.D.
I sent this instead, and then when I returned to Leningrad I didn't think about it. And nobody thought about it. And, forgive me but really I didn't care, and nobody cared.
Well, you see, at this time it was entirely different. When I went abroad the first time to Göttingen, the problem was just that of changing money. And since I was recommended by Khvolson, the famous professor, I got the permission to change my money, and that was all.
And you were still on the same fellowship?
I didn't exchange all the money that I could because I didn't have enough rubles to get all marks. And then Bohr gave me the Carlsberg fellowship for a year, but the fellowship is small and he said, "Look, Gamow, you probably will spend more than 1/12 of this amount...." You see, it's not paid monthly; it's just given in cash. "You stay as long as you can do this." So I was doing this as a Carlsberg Fellow for a year, "but if you want to leave sooner I wouldn't hold you And so I now stayed until spring 1929.
And you went there when—in October?
October or something. You see, this is dated—"Zur Quantentheorie der Atomzertrümmerung" [#5 on list].
10th of November.
This "Atomzertrümmerung" is already from Copenhagen, you see. The original one, with Houtermans, was still from Göttingen [pointing to article on desk] and it was August. So I probably came in September or something like that.
Yes. And you had only been in Göttingen just a few months then.
Just two months, yes.
A good productive two months.
And so in the spring I ran out of Danish money. In the meantime Bohr organized for me the Rockefeller fellowship (American money) to spend a year in Cambridge, beginning September, October, or something. And so I was there in the spring, and I had to live through the summer and I had no Danish money. I didn't want Bohr to ask for more, and the American money would come in only in the fall. And in Russia I had the money because my Russian fellowship was going on and it accumulated. So I went to Russia for the summer. I came to Leningrad, stayed maybe for one day or something, probably with Landau in his room because there was no place to sleep, and took a train and went to Odessa to visit my father and went to Crimea and stayed at an observatory there in Simeiz and went to the beach. And by the fall I came back to Leningrad, and my passport was ready. I got the passport and went to England. There was no problem, no problem whatsoever.
And then, of course I stayed in England for a year. Then Bohr asked me to come to Copenhagen for another year, so I stayed two years almost. And it was during this time that the thing became bad.
I want to ask you more about that a little later. I want now to ask about the year in Copenhagen. What did you do between September or October of 1928 and the spring of 1929?
Well, I was first doing waves. I was applying this to Rutherford experiments.
Well, of course, the first paper on penetration barriers was an application to Rutherford's experiments, too.
Yes. The first was alpha decay. This is the bombarding; this is the plain wave. [Rustling papers] This, from Copenhagen, the "Atomzertrümmerung." And this is the curves, the Rutherford curves of dependence of the breaking of the aluminum nucleus by alpha particles as a function of energy.
#5. "Zur Quantentheorie der Atomzertrümmerung," Zeitschrift fur Physik, Sonderabdruck Band 52, Heft 7, 8.
Just for the record, I want to make sure that I refer to that paper. That would be the paper done from Göttingen, the original paper on the penetration barrier is paper #3 on this list.
Yes. Then with Houtermans, it was just brush up of the first paper.
So that would be #4 on this list.
And then "Atomzertrümmerung," which is this one.
And that #5 on the list and this applies directly to the work that was under way at the Cavendish Laboratory.
Yes. And then, you see, "The Discussion" [#8 on list]* February 29 in Royal Society for Rutherford [rustling papers]—Aston, Chadwick, Ellis, Gamow, Fowler, Hartree and Richardson—because Bohr sent me to Rutherford for just a few weeks after Christmas, after New Year—you see, this is the February meeting. I went to England specially to get acquainted with Rutherford and to participate in this discussion, and this was also the droplet model.
I see. This was the winter of '29.
"An equation connecting the energy of alpha-particles with the surface tension of the imaginary 'water-drop.'" This is where I could have predicted fission, if I'd been smarter.
This was the time when you had stopped off to see Ehrenfest on the way to England. [Brief pause] I was trying to get something straight on the chronology. You mentioned that during the time you were in Copenhagen, from the fall of '28 through the spring of 1929, that during this time you took a short trip to England?
Yes, to England, stopping in Leyden.
Just to see Ehrenfest?
Had you ever been in touch with Ehrenfest before that?
I don't remember. He may have been in Copenhagen before and then invited me to come. I don't remember.
What was the nature of the discussion with Ehrenfest?
Nothing special. Well, essentially the droplet, the droplet model. I remember he told me that I should put it all down. And I didn't, so when Bohr and Wheeler formulated, I was not quoted then.
Where did it come from? Were you thinking of the physical analogy of a water drop, a vapor drop?
Did this come from discussions in Copenhagen, because Bohr had always been interested, even from his first paper, in liquid drops.
But anyway the discussion with Ehrenfest carried it somewhat further?
It was quite interesting, my arrival in Leyden. At this time Holland did not recognize Soviet Russia and I had a Soviet Russian passport. And the problem was to get special documents. And the Dutch Embassy in Copenhagen was trying their best. But I had to leave and I still didn't get an answer from Rotterdam or from Den Haag. And I came to the last moment. Of course Kramers was there, and the Dutch Embassy knew Bohr very well and knew that I was going to Ehrenfest. They were very kind and they told me, "Well, all you can do is just take the chance. Just take the chance. Go by train." They gave me some papers saying that I had applied but the answer was not received. "So, try it; and when you come to the Dutch frontier, maybe they will let you through." So I had to leave and I sent Ehrenfest a telegram, since Ehrenfest had invited me to stay in his house and he said he would meet me at the station or something like this. So I wired him that I will arrive by this train but I am not sure I would be permitted to go through, but if I get through, I would be there. And the delivery of this telegram waked Ehrenfest, as I learned later, at two o'clock after midnight, and he was mad and he took the telephone and called the Premier of the Queen of Holland—no, I don't think he called the Queen—but he certainly called the prime minister of Netherlands and somebody else and made a big hell about it. And as a result, I was met when I came over by train from Copenhagen. Things were happening in Holland; Ehrenfest giving orders— getting out of bed to get the telegram, first was mad with me for sending the telegram and then was mad with things, waked up the prime minister, and prime minister wakes somebody else. As a result the telegrams went to all entry points of Holland because they don't know where I am coming, to let me through. So when I humbly came to the frontier, I told them, "Here, I have this paper." This was amusing.
How long did you spend with Ehrenfest?
A couple of days, few days.
And when you raised this idea—did you call it nuclear fluid?
Nuclear fluid, yes.
And how did he take the argument a little further? How did he add to it? In what way?
Well, he wanted me to do actually what Bohr and Wheeler did many years later. When I told about surface tension and so on, he told me that I should calculate the vibration periods and things like this.
So ... ?
And he didn't either?
And he didn't either. You see, neutrons were not known so the question was: is it all right? Probably from these accounts which I give here one could read it. [searches papers] I knew that as a matter of fact it goes down and goes up, but, so what? I mean, the only excitation of the heavy nucleus would be—alpha particle would never come close enough— and the only excitation is by gamma rays. And the chance of this is very small. This is before fission so nobody worried about it.
You speak in this paper that was published (paper #8 on the list which is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, which must have been February '29) of "our ignorance of the behavior of nuclear electrons."
I want to get back to that somewhat later. In your 1931 book, every time you discussed nuclear electrons, you flagged it with a special mark to let the reader know that you are now engaging in speculation.
Yes. Actually the picture was ... I had a stamp of a skull with two crossed bones, and bones were two beta particles which, you know, looked like bones, and I stamped it on the manuscript but Oxford Press wouldn't take it.
But they put in some mark on it, they put in a little squid in there.
Did you save that manuscript? That would be good to see. [Gamow nods negatively.] You don't know what happened to it? Had you been in touch with Rutherford before this trip?
You had two papers which directly related to his work prior to that time and
That's it. And you see Bohr wrote him a letter about me, and Bohr was worried that Rutherford ... You see, Rutherford wouldn't recognize all this innovation like wave mechanics and wants his two electrons going back. So I contradicted his theory, and Bohr was afraid that I will not be welcome. So he wrote him a long letter about this, so when I came I found Rutherford quite friendly, but that is the first time I saw him.
Do you think that he learned of your work then, of those two papers which were really just recently published?
No, these two papers were not yet ....Well, no they came out ..
Well, the first one might have been anyway.
Well, yes. You see, what happened was this: since I sent my paper to Zeitschrift für Physik and told it to Bohr, as it had appeared only [shuffling papers]—where is date when appearance is?
On the cover sheet.
Oh, yes, on the cover sheet. It appeared in August, you see, but before this there appeared in Nature the article by Gurney and Condon, which was sent—I think Condon told me; I didn't check—two days earlier or two days later, but appeared sooner.
But this shows—if it's the same one—that
No, this is my article. It says September 22, and very interesting ... published in Nature September 22 by Gurney and Condon.
Well, maybe this date then is not accurate on yours of August 28.
So you see Condon's appeared—maybe it is not accurate.
Well, we can find that out.
But in any case this appeared, and then Bohr told me that I should write it. And I wrote this, and this was published in Nature and I wrote it ... well, Condon and Gurney, they did the same thing—and got this, but I say I did more. And this is artificial disintegration.
Here. You're right. Your paper was not yet published because you say in this letter [#7 on list], which was written September 29—it was a week after you saw the Condon-Gurney paper—you refer to your article and you say: " ... in Zeitschrift fUr Physik, in course of publication." So what I'm getting at is that this pencilled date on the cover is a misleading date.
Yes, I am probably wrong.
But anyway that clarifies it for me. So, by that time he [Rutherford] knew of Condon-Gurney's paper; if he read Nature he would have seen your comment on that, referring to your paper which was in press. And your paper then came out after that sometime, and he heard from Bohr by letter about your work.
Then what happened when you got there? Was there deep interest?
Did they discuss it in terms of specifically how this changes the energy requirements that they thought was necessary for their work?
I think so, yes. Well, you see here in Rutherford [pointing to paper], "There have been attempts during the past year to avoid this impasse ...This problem has been attacked by Mr. Gamow, whom we are very glad to welcome here today, and also by Gurney and Condon." [p. 378]
These are Rutherford's words.
Did you have a chance to meet the other people? Of course, Aston was in this discussion but how about Cockcroft, who was already doing work which was very definitely influenced by your paper.
Well, I suppose ... You see, I don't remember exactly whom I met during this visit because this was in February and then I came again to England in September for a year. Whether I met Cockcroft before or after, I really don't know.
I talked with Cockcroft last year, before he died, and I saw him again [after the interview] in England. I recall that he said he remembers your coming on a short trip and that there was considerable excitement from his point of view because this very definitely affected his work. Well, then, I guess because of that short trip, you laid the basis for returning?
Yes. You see, Rutherford asked me to calculate what is the chance of proton penetration. And I told him, what energy the proton needed, we just take the exponential [series] until the charge is one-half and the energy should be this. It turned out one MeV is enough to get the same penetration.
Now he asked you on the spot, while you were there, you mean?
Well, this was just during the period later on ...
When you spent considerable time there?
I think this was when I was living in Cambridge.
Now the rest of that time in Copenhagen—was Delbrück there on that first trip? Yes, you mentioned in your book that Delbrück was there in 1928-29 and that you lived in the same rooming house. Let me see. [rustling papers] Yes. Max Delbrück and G. Gamow—1931.
That would have come in your return trip to Copenhagen?
This was on the return trip, the second time. And here is a famous paper about fine structure.[#13 on list] I express thanks to Rosenfeld and Peierls for the opportunity to work here, the Piz da Daint, Switzerland. We went with Peierls and Rosenfeld for a hiking trip in the mountains, and that's where I conceived this idea. So I wrote the paper in the Hütte, sleeping before we climbed this mountain. And I took it and was signing it on the top. This is Rosenfeld and Peierls took the picture. And the thing is, when I came back to Russia, they said, "Piz da Daint?"—that's the name of it; it means in old Romanic "the peak on the right," right side, right peak. But when I came to Russia, nobody believed me; they thought I invented it myself because "Piz da Daint" sounds very much like "piez da dai" is slang expression for woman's sexual organ and "dai" means "to give." Just never occurred to me; I had to get a map of Switzerland to show them it really existed. They thought I had invented it myself: piez da dai.
Did they expect that from you? Were you known for that kind of joke?
This was already on another trip. What I meant to find out is who else was there on your first trip to Copenhagen.
Well, Max Delbruck came later. I think Mott was there, because I remember when I came to Cambridge for good—I mean for a year—and rented a room in a little house, with an ugly housekeeper, and the student has the front room and bedroom—Mott came to visit me and told: "How did you find this house?" I told, "Well, I just saw it said 'For Rent' so I got it." I told, "Do you know what's the name of the house?" I told, "No." You know, they have the names ... Crick has "The Golden Helix" now. "Well, come out and look." I went out; it says "Kremlin." But this I remember of Mott. So I knew Mott well at this time. So Mott was there and Hartree and Casimir apparently.
What was the main work that you were involved in in your first trip to Copenhagen from September—did you continue the penetration barrier?
Sure. Atomzertrümmerung, and the droplet. You see, I reported on droplet.
I never did more about this. Weizsäcker did more work on this and detailed formulae.
Now I want to get back to Cambridge and talk about that year there. By this time your work was definitely of major interest and relevance to the experimental work that was going on there. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you continued working in the same direction. And I'm not at all clear about what happened during that year on the Rockefeller Fellowship at Cambridge.
Nothing much. But let's see. [looking through papers] There is something here probably with Delbrück. But there is one paper from the Reale Accademia d' Italia, the old Congress to which I was not permitted to go. There might have been one article.
On this list article #10 shows, "Mass Defect Curve and Nuclear Constitution",
Yes, here. Rockefeller Foundation Fellow. Here is the formula for surface tension and the Hartree self-consistent equation and this is the first step in elementary droplet, in nuclear droplet model.
So as I see the sequence of the work: in Göttingen you started the penetration barrier, continued that in Copenhagen, and started on the nuclear fluid in Copenhagen and continued that in Cambridge.
Yes. And then in Copenhagen again it was all the gamma rays and I think the paper written in Switzerland must have been the second time in Copenhagen. I remember we tried—Max Delbruck and I and Rosenfeld and everybody—tried to fit in gamma rays into the levels.—I mean what Maria Mayer and Hans Jensen finally did.
In the shell structure.
But we tried; we had the different expositions; everybody did different things because precision was not enough. I remember having five different schemes for the same element.
During this period in '28 when you started applying wave mechanics to theoretical understanding of the nucleus, were there many other people doing that?
Well, Gurney and Condon.
Yes, but how about in Europe?
[after a pause to reflect] No.
When do you think theoreticians started ...
Well, you see, after my paper appeared, there were a number of papers by von Laue and by other people who tried to improve, so to speak, my solution, to discuss it. Laue considered it as a step ....At this time I didn't know exactly what "psi" meant, you know. So there were a number of papers. Somebody published a paper about shape of the barrier for which an integral can be taken analytically. This is a typical mathematical approach for you. And that is inverse square form [laughs]. If you cannot take it analytically, then don't. But they had the special barriers for which analytical solutions were possible which didn't exist in nature. And I remember Pauli, who was there at this time, whenever new papers [appeared]—there had been half a dozen of them—he used to say, "Es Gamow't wieder," like "Es regnet wieder." [It's raining again.] Guido Beck was trying to do some systematics of ....
Let me ask another question about this period, to refresh my memory. In the first paper in 1928 from Göttingen where you're talking about penetration barrier, you start out in the first paragraph talking about forces, but you drop it as if to say it's not profitable to discuss this. You were talking of the classical electromagnetic forces but you didn't pursue it; you went on to the coulomb and to the important point that you were trying to make in the paper. What was the problem in the forces then? Why was it that very few people were doing anything with it except to think of it in terms of classical electromagnetic forces, and this was before the time....
Well, probably because I vaguely remember it as sort of something rotating, you see, I wanted to have magnetic field or.... But the amazing thing is that when I was doing this thing, which I completely forget now what it actually was, then there was in Göttingen on the same semester a Russian mathematician, N. Kotshchin, and I have complicated equations to solve, and he helped me with them. This was all thrown out. And then finally I came to this integral to take or whatever it is, to solve this equation [rustling papers, then pointing to the particular integral], and I didn't know how to take it—I am not good at mathematics—so I went to Kotshchin and asked him how to take this integral—he told, "Substitute." He put U equal to the CoSin here or something and you get it. So I did. And at the end, you see, it expresses thanks to Kotshchin for the help with mathematics. He helped me later with more complicated mathematics which was no good and was never used.
But you gave him the credit?
I gave him the credit, and he told me he became the laughing stock because he was thanked. I probably took this integral myself— really don't remember.
But anyway, for the record, this is a reference to page 211 of the 1928 paper from Göttingen, paper #3. You first heard of the Condon and Gurney paper through Bohr then. He called your attention to it in Nature?
I don't know.
But anyway it was on his suggestion?
Either I saw it myself or somebody had seen it before.
Oh, remember what you said, it was that ...
....that you write. I see. Now when you were at Copenhagen and at the Cavendish, was there a genuine difference of approach to nuclear physics between Bohr and his group as compared to Rutherford and his people? How would you characterize such a difference?
Well, one was purely experimental and the other was purely theoretical. Of course, Dirac was in England but Dirac was not at the Cavendish, you see. Well, Fowler was but he was not a physicist anyway; he was a mathematician. He was just doing things for Rutherford, deriving formulae.
Apparently during this period in 1930, Bohr made a speech indicating he had severe doubts about the application of quantum mechanics to the nucleus and, in fact, in your book in 1931, you referred to the same point, about the failure of conservation of energy—I guess in relation to beta decay.
How widespread was this? It began to put into question how useful quantum mechanics was going to be because it had been so successful in every other aspect, but here was a case where there seemed to be a little difficulty.
Yes. Bohr wanted to have non-conservation of energy.
Non-conservation of energy?
This was a big fight between Bohr and Pauli. Pauli said there's a neutrino, and Bohr told, "No neutrinos; there's non-conservation of energy." And this was settled only when Sedgwick in England measured the spectrum of beta ray and showed that if there is ... Bohr wanted to have statistical conservation of energy, the mean energy of beta decay, and there is a forking, alpha-beta or beta-alpha, after radium-C or thorium-C or actinium-C. So if you add ... there is 1 alpha and then beta, or 1 beta and then alpha, and if you add the upper limits of the beta spectrum, which Sedgwick measured, to the energy of alpha particles, you have conservation; if you add the average energy, you don't. This was it.
Well, did Bohr's view influence some people to take a more phenomenological approach?
I don't know. Fermi, of course, took Pauli right away. But Bohr went farther than this. Bohr was thinking that energy production of stars—this was never published—is due to this. Namely he told this: that the star has a nucleus, this nuclear model; the core is nuclear density—this was called now neutron star—and surrounded by regular body. And now let's see how it was. It's like evaporation; the electrons were evaporated from this nuclear fluid. Or electrons into the regular matter around, above it, and beyond it. And other electrons were coming in.
It was this way. Suppose this is the surface of the nuclear core. So below the surface it is just polyneutron, nuclear density. And here, completely ionized gas, plasma, as we call it. Now there is a dynamic equilibrium because the surface of the neutron core makes beta particles of well-defined energy—or a certain distribution of energy—but well-defined distribution, corresponding to the completely flat surface. Apparently he wants to have beta decay of different nuclei connected with the curvature and pressure, or vapor pressure of the curved surfaces. And the flat surface—for the sufficiently big nucleus it is flat—there is a definite spectrum of emitted electrons subject to non-conservation of energy: some go fast, some go slow. And they go into the regular plasma. And plasma has electrons with Maxwell distribution of energy, which are absorbed. Now, normally there is equilibrium, but if the plasma loses energy by radiation of the star, then the average energy of the plasma electrons is smaller than the average energy of the emitted electrons. So on the average electrons that are emitted with higher energy wraps up with smaller energy because of non-conservation of energy. If there are no energy losses, there will be equilibrium, nothing happens. But since a star radiates material, the temperature of the outer plasma will be always a little lower and therefore by virtue of non-conservation of energy energy is produced by star for eternity. And this is my Bohr theory.
And he talked it, you mean?
And he developed it. And was there a challenge to it in any way?
Well, there is now. Of course, Houtermans and Atkinson had a paper much earlier; they did it right after may paper on Zertrümmerung, still in 1928. But Bohr wanted to have non-conservation. You know there were units ... Somebody had units, you know, like a unit of self advertising. You know what is a unit of cell quantitizing? One "can." One can is a unit of self advertising. It's a very large unit because usually it's measured in millikans.
Now along the same line, and this was in German. Somehow I was called ... Gamow was "ein zerbrochene Herz per kilometer" or something like this. And Bohr was "ein versagende Begriff per Monat," one failing notion. Well, this is Bohr-Kramers-Slater, you know, so it still in the same line. "Ein versagende Begriff per Monat ist one Bohr," so he wanted to have it ...
Now, as far as you know, he didn't develop it further? Although he did make the statement about the non-conservation in a speculative way, saying "It is possible that conservation of energy doesn't hold ..." He said this in 1930 in a speech to the Faraday Society, I think; it was published in 1932. But in 1931 you make the same point in your speculative section of your work.
Now in that, too, you talk about Dirac, and I'd like to know what the general reaction was to Dirac's work, the hole theory, in the years ...
About the anti-particles?
Well, it was this way, that I was sitting in the Maxwell Library of Cavendish, in 1929. And Dirac came in and he wanted to tell me something and he told me well, he just made a theory of protons, the anti-particles. But you know, he believed that he could get the Dirac holes heavier, 1836 times heavier so they would be protons. And he told me he was trying to see if some ... Well, it wasn't quite clear, but he was quite enthusiastic about it and he explained protons. Then I wrote about this to Bohr, and Bohr was very much opposed to the idea. And then Bohr— he always liked elephants for some reason—Bohr proposed the idea of how to catch elephants, a method to catch elephants in Africa; namely, one would find a watering place of elephants and—this is all unpublished— put a big sign, giving the main idea of the Dirac paper about anti-particles. And the elephant which is a clever animal, comes and reads it and stands stunned, shocked, so that gives the time for hunters to run from behind the trees and tie his legs. This is how to catch elephants according to Bohr.
And Pauli at this same time then calculated that if the proton is such a hole, then in hydrogen atom the electron will jump into the hole. He just calculated on the formula for annihilation of pairs correctly. So the hydrogen wouldn't exist more than 10 to minus-whatever-it-is seconds, and he formulated what was known as Second Pauli Principle, that whenever a theoretical physicist proposes a theory, it becomes immediately applicable to himself. And when Dirac thought about this idea, his pro- tons would be all hydrogen atoms and other atoms, too, would be immediately annihilated. There was quite strong opposition.
In the meanwhile, about that time Oppenheimer published, demonstrating that it couldn't be protons, didn't he?
I don't know.
There was a paper of Oppenheimer's, specifically on the subject.
Well Dirac, when he was telling it to me, was sure he can prove that these particles are heavier, the holes are heavier than the missing electron. And then he gave up.
I think that what Oppenheimer did was to demonstrate that couldn't possibly be. But what you're saying is that not only was it not taken seriously, there was strong opposition to it and you're implying there was ridicule.
Oh, yes. Quite so, until Anderson discovered the positive electron.
Well, do you remember where you were then? You were in Leningrad at the time of the positron discovery. That was 1932. So you were back?
Yes. I was in Leningrad, yes.
Do you remember anything about that?
No. I just read it in Nature, apparently.
You see, if people had not taken Dirac seriously, then it's not automatically clear that when the positron was discovered that they would relate it to Dirac's theory. If they had taken it seriously, then they would have related it, so that's why I tried to find out what your reaction was to the discovery of the positron, if you remember; it may not have been that important to you.
I don't remember. Probably I was too busy worrying about which frontier of Soviet Russia is easiest to cross. I didn't do much physics in Russia at this time.
The amusing thing is that Kapitza has shown to me, when I saw him afterwards, when I got out and just before he left for Russia, because the positrons were discovered when I was in Russia, so the first time I could see Kapitza was in 1934. He has shown me the book of the so-called Kapitza Club which is simply the seminars, with the photographs and so on, and there was a paper of Skobelzyn, the Russian physicist who was giving the talk, and the photograph was glued in. And Skobelzyn had the photo- graph which looked like this [rustling papers, showing something]. This is the piston of the chamber and magnetic field like this, taken several years earlier. And the theory was that this is cosmic ray electron which is reflected, and there was long discussion at this meeting how could it be that the electron is reflected exactly backwards. That is photograph.
Those books are photographed. The Kapitza Club books are all on microfilm, so I'm going to look at this. Do you recall how long before your discussion with Kapitza this was in the book?
I don't know. It was before the positron was discovered, I know that. That's why Kapitza had shown it to me.
Good. Sounds great.
But it was a beautiful picture of pairs.
If I can find that, I'll send you a copy. It will be good to see. Well, I know that then, after the discovery of the positron, many people reexamined plates that they had, and they found it. But it's interesting to find that there had been a specific discussion ....
Yes, why it bounces straight back. And then, you see, Rutherford once ... for some reason he was proposing that nuclei are flat discs—I think it was involved with maybe flat and bounces maybe like the ping pong racket or something like that.
Now during this period when you wrote the book in 1931, which was just prior to the discovery of the neutron, were you again too preoccupied with other thoughts to react to that? I should think that might have made an impact on you. That was discovered in 1932, when you were back in Leningrad.
[Leaves table, searches for something] Here I will show you something ... more books.
What is the book? Oh, The Structure of Atomic Nuclei.
This is the second edition of it, doubled in volume. And the first edition was published just before the neutron was discovered, though the book came out on the shelves months after the neutron was discovered. But this is the second edition and this is the letter from Oxford Press: "Dear Dr. Gamow: Glad to be able to send you an advance copy of your book. It looks rather stouter and handsomer this time, as benefits maturity. And I hope you are safe from unfortunate radical discoveries in the next year or two" This reference was to the "unfortunate discovery" of the neutron.
But you were prepared for it because when you knew that there was some problem, you flagged it with a special mark and said that these discussions are difficult since there are speculative things and all sorts of problems. And you talked specifically of the need for a new quantum electro-dynamics. I can show you a particular quote in that book which I thought was very appropriate. I think in a sense your book wasn't obsolete because all you have to do is substitute those sections that you had already flagged. Of course, after the second edition came out, then you had a problem of the compound nucleus just coming out.
This is the third thing; this is with Critchfield* in 1949. So here we have fission and ...
Compound nucleus, yes. Poor book—you see, "safe from unfortunate discovery." It wasn't unfortunate discovery. I think I put it in the preface; that's how he learned about it. I managed to put it in the preface, but not in the book.
But here, when this book came out—this is after Hiroshima, I think, it turned out that they sold out the first printing in no time. I recommended this book for my classes in Washington, and Critchfield, who was at this time out in Minneapolis, recommended it to his class, and the bookstore answered, "The book is sold out." So I wrote a rather disquieting letter and this is the answer again from Oxford Press. Read it all or just whatever you choose. It's the commercial point of view.
December 1, 1949, A.M. Wood from Clarendon Press, Oxford, writes: "Thank you for your letter of 23rd November to Mr. Sissum. You may not know but Mr. Sissum retired from the press about eighteen months ago, and I have to look after the science books in his place. We have been finding out definite information about why you were unable to get copies of Gamow and Critchfield. We sent 175 copies to our New York branch immediately on publication, and they have since ordered 200 more. Unfortunately the demand for this book has been somewhat heavier than we expected...."
[laughs, pointing to word] Look at
They sure use that word "unfortunately." "...and we had not bound up enough copies to meet it. We immediately put in a fresh binding order and are getting a delivery of these next week. Two hundred will be sent by the first available boat to New York, so your students should have no difficulty in getting the book in the near future. I cannot understand why you were told that the book was out of print. It was temporarily unavailable in America, but that will soon be past. We do not usually do photographic editions of our science books in America. Usually books of this sort do not carry a sufficient sale to warrant doing a separate edition in America where the production costs are extremely high. If you have noticed any errors which would need putting right in a reprint we should be glad to have them so they can be dealt with."
Read the second one.
Then the second one is 15th of December, 1949, "Dear Professor
Thank you for your letter of 6th December. I am sorry to hear that Gamow and Critchfield has not been advertised in U.S.A. I am taking this up with our New York branch. We have been very surprised by the demand for books on nuclear physics and an edition which before the war would have lasted us five or more years is gone in as many months, and it is hard to plan in conditions like this."
Isn't that funny?
"However, we are gaining experience of the change of interest, and we hope we shall get the measure of it. We don't like making bad guesses, and this is undoubtedly what has happened with your book. We printed more or less the same number as we did for the previous edition and, quite clearly, it was not enough. I wonder how long this great interest in nuclear physics will go on." That's fantastic. "It seems to be more in evidence in U.S.A. than here, but even here it is clear that there has been a great changeover. Yours sincerely, A. M. Wood." I guess it's the problem of the two cultures.
Now the third edition came out just after the pion was discovered, but at least you included it in the appendix.
What is in the third?
The pi meson. Because you refer in Appendix I to heavy and light mesons, which was first reported in 1947 but the discussion of it ....
You see here also we have the theory of the origin of elements, alpha, beta, gamma [rustling papers, pointing].
"Origins of Elements," right. I see. Well, I think a good way to compare changes in nuclear physics would be to compare the differences in the editions of your book.
Yes. Well, between the first and second—this second one doesn't seem to be much thicker because we dropped a lot of the material. I had in the first edition a lot of experimental material, work of Bothe and things like that. We dropped it out, so that's why the book didn't grow much.
I have the first edition with me; I was looking at it on the Plane.* There's something in one of the sections which you flagged with your special curlicue which means—and you explain it in a footnote— that "these signs mark the more speculative passages about nuclear electrons." And on page 56—this gets back to what we were talking about, about Bohr and conservation of energy; that's the statement I was thinking of—you say: "This would mean that the idea of energy and its conservation fails in dealing with processes involving the emission or capture of nuclear electrons. This does not sound so improbable if we remember all that has been said about the peculiar properties of electrons in the nucleus. While we have no relativistic theory and only very few experimental data, it is very difficult to give an explanation, but there is no doubt that the question is of fundamental importance and will lead to revolutionary changes in our present picture of the physical world." You protected yourself pretty well.
Yes. I was under the influence, so to say, of Niels Bohr.
Well, that's very good. And then you went back—from '30 to '31—to Copenhagen, and by this time you had already published on the nuclear fluid. Was this the period when you were beginning to write the book? I notice the book was published in '31.
Yes. I was writing it. I remember that Landau was helping me with the mathematics, with calculating the perturbation and so on. And these formulas were all derived by Landau.
Well, you acknowledge thanks to Bohr, Casimir, Houtermans, Landau and Mott.
It was done in Copenhagen, yes.
Oh, yes, I see: 1st of May, 1931 you completed it. Did that occupy most of your time in that year?
This and gamma rays. I think this paper at Piz da Daint on the mountain, probably was this winter. I will bring something else to show you, [shows invitation or announcement] to which they didn't let me go.
Was this a meeting which was an invitational one?
Yes. "Reale Accademia d'Italia, Convegno di fisica nucleare, Roma," organized by Marconi. Here are the members, and here is Marconi, and here is Bohr and Aston and Ellis, Bothe, Blackett and ...
... Mott. And I was supposed to give the principal talk here, and the paper was read for me, "Quantum Theory of Nuclear Structure," because they didn't let me go, you see. This was mostly about the relation with gamma rays and levels and this was an attempt that didn't succeed until Jensen and Maria Mayer took it up. Maybe you have not seen this at all?
No, I've never seen this edition of the Proceedings.
And these are original signatures. And here is a postcard which was sent to me from Rome when they found that I am not coming. And this is quite a collection of nice signatures.
Mott and Bohr and Guido Beck and Sommerfeld and 0. W. Richardson, Madame Curie, A. H. Compton, Robert Millikan, Sam Goudsmit, Patrick Blackett, R. H. Fowler, Bruno Rossi, Werner Heisenberg, Franco Rasetti, Hans Geiger, one I can't make out there—Pauli, Fermi ...
Some of them must be Italians you might not know.
Oh, Wick, yes.
C. D. Ellis, Aston, Lise Meitner, Bothe, Corbino. There is a name that looks like it's written in Russian. Brillouin is there.
Oh, Russian? It's Wataghin, the Russian who left after fighting in the White Army against Bolsheviks. He's professor in Turino.
In other words, no one from Russia went that conference?
Nobody else was invited.
I see. How, how did this come about? I'd like to know the story of it. You received a personal invitation, is that it? It didn't go through the government?
Well, you see I got the invitation—I got a letter from Marconi— in Copenhagen to attend this congress. Now the situation was this, that this was during my second stay in Copenhagen. And I planned after this, as I explained, to return to Russia—my passport was expiring in the spring. Actually I had gotten it for a year in England and to stay with Bohr—Bohr I think talked to the Russian Embassy and they extended it for half a year. So I had to get home in the spring of this year, and I got invited to this congress in the fall. And I didn't know by this time that if I had asked some Russian friend, he would have told me then "Don't come back." But I couldn't ask, didn't think about it. But I thought it is more reasonable to stay in Copenhagen all through the summer, just two or three months, then go to the Congress to Rome, then go from the Congress to Istanbul, to Odessa, visit my father again, and go back to Leningrad. And this was all straight and then there was a girl I was interested in in Copenhagen and so on. And so the problem was to continue to get my passport extended another three months. So I went to the Soviet Embassy, and Ambassador—I don't remember his name; I know that he was a mathematician; he started his career as a mathematician and then became a politician and—you can find out—was Soviet Ambassador in Copenhagen. He was very nice; he was apparently the man who on request of Bohr extended it for me for half a year to stay in Copenhagen. And I explained to him the situation and he told: "Yes. I will write to Moscow and see what happens." And then a couple of weeks later I got a telephone call from Soviet Embassy, telling that Ambassador Such-and-Such wants to see me. So I went to the Embassy, as a good Soviet citizen, and he tells, "Look, I got the answer from Moscow: I wrote all the reasons for your extension— but they (he held the official paper in his hand) tell here that they want that you should come back and then go ... before you go to Rome because you have been away for almost two years and they just want to see you and to be sure you are all right." And then he told me, "You'd better go, and I am quite sure you will have no trouble." So, I was a little perturbed, partially because of the change of plan, partially because of the young lady I was interested in. Well, in any case, I went. I flew to Moscow and then went next day to the Commissariat of Education or whatever it is to file the application for a new passport, something like this. They weren't very enthusiastic. And then I had nothing to do in the summer, but I had money somehow, I don't remember.
Maybe from your old fellowship?
No. From the book or.... So I remember I went on a trip on the Volga, I guess, and then to Crimea, and then came back to Moscow at the time ... I was told to come two weeks before time I have to depart. And they said, "No, passport is not ready yet." And then the next two days later it was not ready, and my talk was long, the opening talk, here, it would be—now it isn't because somebody read it for me—and then finally it became quite late. Then they told, "Even if you go now, you miss the beginning." And I thought, "Well, at least I will have the last few days to see people." And then I came again two days later, and they told me: "It is not ready yet." And they told me sillily, "Now, even if you get the passport tomorrow, the meeting is over tomorrow." And I told, "Well, you know, the people are staying there for a week, so I can still go and talk to people." They told, "Well, it is not done, and you'd better sign here, "document, application for the cancellation of my application for the passport." So I signed, on the dotted line, saying that on the advice of the Soviet Government, I decided to withdraw my application for the passport to go to Rome.
What had changed in the intervening period? Was it a conscious, gradual, or a sudden change in policy?
No, apparently very sharp, very sharp. It is a dialectic matter, you see. I had to get a passport to go to England after I came from Copenhagen—Oh, wow, Russian boy gets a Rockefeller Foundation to go work with Rutherford, how wonderful! And it was quite a different gesture. But there is capitalistic science as it is continued now—capitalistic science and proletarian science, so to speak, were racing each other like the space races and this sort of thing and the people are not supposed to fraternize; they should continue enemies and things like this. And officially—no, not officially—I don't exactly remember whom I heard it from: I think it was the editor, somebody who had a connection with the Kremlin, I think he was editor of Gosizdat, the State publication, which published the Russian translation of this book.
Of your 1931 book? Yes.
And I think he found it out. So the situation was this, that the same year that the congress was taking place was 100 years since the birth or death of Hegel. And Hegel was the German philosopher who founded the theory of dialectical materialism, which then was taken by Engels and Marx and Lenin and Stalin and so on. And in Germany—which was Nazi Germany at this time, there was a big celebration, in the Berliner Akademie or someplace, of the Hegel anniversary, and Russia was not invited. They invited representatives from all the other countries but they did not invite the people from the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. And because the German Academy of Sciences, because Hitler didn't invite the Russians to celebrate Hegel's birthday, they decided not to let me go to Mussolini to Italy to attend this congress.
This was before Hitler came to power. Although ... it was two years before, so what you're saying is that the changed situation in Germany might have affected it.
I don't know. You may try to find it out, who was celebrating the Hegel ... although I believe I checked it quite recently. I never thought about it, and some conversation came up and I looked when Hegel was born and he was born 100 years before this date, so apparently there was something in his honor. And why they didn't invite Russians is another matter. And so it goes ever since.
Did it become clear to you with this refusal that, in fact, the situation had changed as far as your career was concerned?
Oh, yes. Well, this was the same time they attacked genetics and Vavilov.
Meanwhile when you went back in 1931, you had a specific appointment in Leningrad as a professor?
When I went in '31, then I got five jobs.
How do you mean?
Well, we had to get five salaries to get enough money to live: I was professor at the university, I was a member of the Physical Research Institutes attached to the university; I was in the Academy of Physico-Mathematical Institute; and I was in Radium Institute, where I lived, and I was also consultant or something at the Joffe Institute. A lot of time was occupied by collecting the salary—there was no checking system— every two weeks we had to go collect salary and stand in line at the cashier's desk, at five different places. Or was it once a week, I guess. Every week. At five different places to collect five salaries.
How did you split your time, though? Was it possible?
I was doing nothing. I was trying to get out of Russia. I'd been traveling to Crimea and Murmansk and so on, trying to get out.
How did one do that? When you say "trying to get out," is this through actually passing the border without being stopped or does it mean ...
Actually the only real attempt was this attempt to cross the Black Sea in a small boat, which was a crazy attempt. We—me and my first wife—spent three days in a storm on the Black Sea and finally were thrown ashore, 60 miles away from the place where we started. I tried different things, investigating, and always found that ... We never did it again. This first attempt through the Black Sea could have cost us our lives because this was in a little kayak, and my wife and the boat were the same weight as I was without boat—just a rubber thing, but it could have made it, if the storm hadn't come—we could have crossed.
Did you carry anything with you?
Oh, food for five days, two bottles of brandy.
No. Just five dollars which somebody, a friend, gave me and an English driving license, Cambridge, and the plan was when we got to Turkey (this was 170 miles across) I would say that I am a Dane—I spoke Danish— and ask to be taken to the Danish Embassy in Istanbul from where I would telephone to Niels Bohr. Childish plan. And the rest we just found was impossible. One way or another. We went to Murmansk and tried to investigate if one can get some Eskimo to bring us across the border to Norway and found that the people talk quite freely about that. And, yes, but the thing was that all the Eskimos there were promised by guards if somebody hired them to go across the border to bring him into the guard house and keep any money he would collect from this man and get additional compensation from Soviet Government for it.
Without taking the trip?
Without taking the trip. And so nothing happened.
But apparently these efforts didn't come to the attention of any authorities because you were given permission later to go to a meeting, and if they had known that you were doing this
I don't know.
That's right; you had no way of knowing. Was there no legal way to go out, to say that you wanted to emigrate or that you wanted to study somewhere?
That had changed completely.
You see before, for example, in this company with Landau and Ivanenko and me, and on the girls' side there was a person called Yevgenia Kanegiesser, a student of physics a couple of years, lower in grade progress, a younger student, married Peierls—the German physicist, you know—
Rudolf Peierls. Peierls was visiting Russia, and they fell in love with each other. And she married him and she got official permission from Soviet Government to drop the Russian citizenship and become a German citizen. And then Hitler came, and they had to become English citizens, and we visited them in Oxford last time we were in England.
They went to Manchester, I guess.
And they went to England. But in any case, she got official permission. And at a time when I was stuck in Russia, these two years, she came back to visit her parents, with her, whatever it was, German or English passport, without being afraid of anything. She visited me. Because she had been permitted to drop.... Now there is a law that Russian citizens are not permitted to marry foreigners. It is a law, not permitted to marry, unless the foreigner decides to stay in Russia and take Russian citizenship. And if you go without permission, as I did, then you are a criminal.
Is it possible that you were considered a special person because of your stature as a physicist? The fact that you held five positions means that by this time not only had your colleagues come to think that you had an important position in the world of theoretical physics but that this was recognized within the Soviet Union by the government.
Well, the more famous a man is outside, the less is the chance they let him go.
When did you get married? Was this 1931?
1931. You see, it was this way: I was staying in Moscow, waiting for this passport. At this time I met a girl, a graduate in physics of the Moscow University, and actually the day I signed the document of not going, of withdrawing my passport application, I got her to be my wife, or something like this. And she came to Leningrad in due course, because it took some official thing for her to be discharged from her job, and we started making plans to escape, and succeeded in less than two years.
During these two years you did do some work with Landau, isn't that right, on a couple of things.
You see, this is published. Well, actually I didn't do anything especially good.
This "Nuclear Alpha and P-Levels,"* and "Internal Temperature of Stars.**
Oh, yes, this is Khibini. Khibini is near Murmansk; this is where we were trying to get across the border to Norway. And we went there with Landau, and Landau knew about this, of course, about the plans— only two people knew, Landau and Bronstein—and Landau went back to Leningrad and we tried to investigate it, and we finally came back to Lenin- grad, too.
"The Internal Temperature of Stars," with Landau, was published in Nature.
It was written Ksuchia, which is also a joke.
What does that mean?
K.S.U. means the Commission for Helping Scientists, which is a special commission, government organization to help scientists, a kind of trade union of scientists; they have an organization of science clubs, and one good thing which they did is in various places—in Crimea, in *"Nuclear Alpha and P-Levels," Physikalische Zeitscrift der Sowjetunion, Band 1, Heft 3, 1932. **"Internal Temperature of Stars," with L. Landau, Nature, October 7, 1933. Caucasus, in Murmansk—they had the kind of lodges to which one can go for vacation, because otherwise you couldn't. In Hungary, you couldn't go and stay in a hotel.
It's the same kind of concept as a workers' place.
Yes. So there were a number of them, and when we were trying to— in Crimea we stayed in one of these KSU, and another KSU was in Murmansk, beyond the Polar Circle, just for skiing, or something like this. A very nice place. One has to get a special permission, what is called "to be delegated," if one is good enough, have connections or something.
But is it meant to be a vacation retreat, nothing that has to do with any conference?
Vacation, 30-day vacation. And we used to call Ksuchia Baza, Ksuchia means like beach, Ksuchia is sand of the beaches, ksu means sand. The one interesting thing about this was that Landau would try to calculate the thermonuclear reactions in the sun, and we needed to remember the cross section or what not. But I remembered the distance to the sun, because it is 8 light minutes, but the diameter of the sun we didn't know. We needed it, so we had to measure it. I remember I built from a pen knife and wood a special instrument to measure the angle of diameter of the sun.
My goodness. It sounds like the ancient Babylonians and Greeks. There was no other way of doing it, of getting the information. I see it is only a brief note, only a page. And then there was another one in '33, "Mechanism of Gamma-Excitation by Beta Disintegration."* They were brief notes, all of them. "Nuclear Energy Levels,"** and so forth.
Yes. [Pointing to list] This is Solvay Conference.
Now let's get to that point.
This is Solvay [pointing].***
When did you get the invitation to that Solvay Congress?
Very late. You see, I did not get an invitation ....In the summer, we (my first wife) went to Caucasus, to Lenkoran, south of Baku, to see if we can get across the Persian border there and out of the country. Then we returned to Leningrad, took a train to Khibini, to investigate ... all the travel just special for this purpose. And then we came to Leningrad in the fall, and I found the note, must be September, I guess, from Kremlin, from Moscow, saying I am delegated to Solvay Congress. And my passport and documents will be ready by this time and just informing me that I am delegated.
Is that the procedure, to delegate someone?
No. What happened actually was this: You see, Bohr was very worried about me; and when I got stuck, when I didn't come to Rome, this was the first warning for me and for my friends. And then Bohr tried to get me to Copenhagen to a meeting and I applied for the passport, and it was "No." And then I got an invitation from Goudsmit, this Ann Arbor business, for which I have the letter. [Aside, called to wife, Barbara:] We have this very nice letter here, written by me to Sam Goudsmit, from Paris, 35 years ago.
And I would like to take a look at
The photostatic copy of it.
I can leave this; I have another copy he made me.
Oh, yes, that would be nice. [Again to Barbara:] You can see how my spelling is poor here. This is after Solvay Congress. I wrote to Goudsmit at Ann Arbor, saying that now I can come. Read it aloud.
There are two letters.
"Two last years I spend sitting in Russia and trying to get permission for going abroad. Finally I succeeded in this very difficult business and could come to nuclear Solvay Congress, even taking my wife with me, which is now...."
[laughing] You read like a Japanese lady.
"...nowaday in Russia nearly a miracle. Well, now when it is done I naturally decided to stay out as long as possible and at any case not to go back before next autumn. My main Anhaltspunkte here are Paris, Cambridge, and Copenhagen, and I wonder whether the kind (k-i-n-d-e) invitation to lecture in Ann Arbor, which I got last summer and could not follow in spite of all attempts, could not be postponed on this summer. Now nothing except the collision with iceberg in Atlantic Ocean could prevent my arrival. I shall be very grateful if you write me about possibilities. And, again, I am looking for to see the skyscrapers and atom splitters of U.S.A. and I also hope that there will be no collision with iceberg in the Atlantic. Our plans for nearest future are as follows: the day after tomorrow we start to England and stay in Cambridge. Address: Cavendish Lab. About two months. In the beginning of March, es geht los" (I don't know German—or is it Danish in this case?) "to Copenhagen, where I am invited by Bohr. Thus we start to U.S.A. evidently with Swedish Line and go direct to Ann Arbor. I think it will not be too late if I ask for U.S.A. visa just when I arrive to Copenhagen. Three months will do? But I think it will be good if you send me an official invitation to show there. After Ann Arbor, the plans are not yet definite. I am building up now my own five-year plan, you see, for staying outside of Russian boundary which was so difficult to jump over. If it will be possible, I will stay in America for longer time. I have spoken with Lawrence in Brussels and he promised to try to arrange the things. Thus I hope that from Ann Arbor we make a cross-country run to California. I will be very grateful if you could write me to Cambridge what is the mean price of life in U.S.A. I mean for two persons if we do it in quite a simple way. Do you have perhaps in Ann Arbor some university buildings for foreigners in order not to stay in hotels? With best wishes for a Happy New Year, Yours truly,"
You have a copy?
Yes, he made two copies; he thought you'd like one.
His handwriting has grown much bigger. It's funny, you know.
His spelling ... is unchanged.
The spelling is unchanged. Unchanged. That's right.
Well, that's the best way to get the whole flavor of that period. We've been talking a long time and what I'd like to do is just talk a little bit more about the Solvay, and getting you up to the point of this letter, and then maybe that'll be all for today.
Well, from my point of view at that time it was that we just failed to cross the border in Finland and Norway and here I am sent to Copenhagen—I mean to Brussels. Now, I think I told you wrong here; I got this invitation several months ahead, I am sure. Something is mixed up because there are lots of things which happened since. So I got this invitation, sometime in the summer—I think this September date was just wrong. We apparently went to Murmansk the summer before that or something because after I got this invitation I stopped trying to cross the border. But the problem was to get my wife with me because I knew that if I went abroad now I would not want to come back. On the other hand, I didn't want to have my wife staying there, so I have to come back. And so the problem was to get her out.
I happened to know one high politician, Bukharin, who was very high, you know, right hand of Lenin, Bukharin. Bukharin was already on the downfall—actually he was executed, as you know, probably a few months after I came to the United States—but he was in a position something like Vannevar Bush here, he was in charge of research and development of science, and I knew him through Academy of Sciences, you see. And he was the man who proposed to me to use all the energy of Moscow District for a few minutes every night to make the thermonuclear reactor wake up a while by heating it up, which I declined.
So I went to Bukharin; I went to Moscow and I went to him and told that I am going to, I am being sent to Bruxelles as a delegate, you see, and I would like to take my wife with me. And he didn't ask why do I want to have my wife with me—probably he wants to be delegated, too, and have his wife with him. But he told me the only thing he can do for me is make me an interview with Molotov. Molotov was the President of the Soviet Republic. And so I stayed in Moscow for several days. I went alone.
Well, my first wife's name was Rho, Lyubov [Vokhimzeva] actually, but nickname R-h-o, like Nicolette Rho—so Rho was staying in Leningrad; I went alone to Moscow and stayed in her parents' apartment and actually slept in her bed instead of her, waiting for this call. And in a few days—maybe two days or something—there was a telephone call from Bukharin's secretary, saying that you have appointment with Molotov. Appear at the East Gate of Kremlin at two o'clock in the afternoon tomorrow.
So I did, and I was escorted with two soldiers—I remember their bayonets—to the office of the President of the Soviet Republic. And at the desk at which Lenin was sitting once, there was Molotov. And then we had a conversation, since I was a delegate. And he told, "Well, if you think so, what you are going to tell there, and so on, and then why did you want to see me?" And I told, "I would like you to help me to get my wife with me." And he smiled. He thought, well, if you're going for two weeks ... I thought well, then I told the truth—only truth but not whole truth—I thought, I remember, that if I would like to build up a case I could tell you that my wife is a physicist, as she was, and acts as my secretary, and I can't attend a big information meeting without her help, taking notes and working and everything, but it is not true. She has never been abroad and I want to take her to Paris afterwards, show her Paris and buy her some clothes. So he smiled and made a note and told me, "Well, there probably will be no difficulty." And would I come in the fall—so this must have been in the spring, early summer apparently.
Yes, I remember I came out of the Kremlin, kind of dancing, and I dropped in the first picture store and bought a framed portrait of Molotov, and took it with me to Leningrad and hung it over my bed. Yes, really and truly.
And then in the fall I came in a few weeks before as requested, and I was met by the secretary of the Kremlin office or something. He wanted to tell me that my case was considered and it was decided that I should go alone, and I asked, "But why?" And he told, "Well, you see if it's now all right for you to take your wife, and if you take your wife, then others would like to take their wives. And I said, "Well, then I don't go." I mean I was just in an absolutely crazy state. I told him, "Then I don't go." He told, "You have to go, you represent the Soviet Union." And I told, "Well, you can escort me to the border, but at the border you can't move me to Brussels. I'll stay in Germany." And I walked out.
And I was sitting in my wife's parents' apartment and the next day there was a telephone call saying that your passport is ready; will you come. And I said, "Well, is the second passport ready?" And they said, "No, just one." And I said, "Well, why should I walk twice? Call me when both are ready." I was just insane. One doesn't behave this way in Soviet Russia. And ... another telephone call, saying "We just received a second passport for you." I thought "Well, I go." So I got passport, took the night train to Leningrad. And then I visited a few embassies, consulates to get the visa, Finnish visa and Danish visa, and went to the last performance of the ballet and theatre, and caught my train for Finland. Actually it was so secret that neither I nor my wife mentioned it nor discussed whether we would stay or not stay. We just didn't talk about it, not until we came to Helsingfor.
Was your father still alive?
Yes. My father died just before the World War started in Europe, I mean two years before Pearl Harbor. And then after the Solvay Congress, we moved to Paris. In this letter I told that I spoke to Lawrence. Maybe I did. I don't remember. I talked to Bohr essentially, and Bohr I think talked to Lawrence, to Ernest Orlando about this but it was later. I mean the first reaction of Bohr was that I should return back to Russia.
Where did he tell you this, when you saw him in Brussels?
No, this was already in Paris apparently.
Let me go back a bit: You took the train to Finland. Then did you proceed from there to Brussels?
Yes. We stopped in Copenhagen and, now again I don't remember exactly what was what, about talking to Bohr. Maybe it was still in Copenhagen, maybe in Brussels, but at any case, then I learned what happened. You see, he was very much worried about getting me out and he knew that I would be invited, or that I certainly deserved to be invited to the first Solvay Congress on Nuclear Physics. But he also knew that normally Langevin would just write (Langevin was the Chairman) a letter, but he knew that this would not work because he wrote such letters to me. And he asked Langevin, who was, I think, a member of the Communist Party of France—at least at this time there was the Alliance Scientifique between Russia and France and he was the chairman of this—that instead of writing to me, he just write officially to Kremlin, asking to delegate me, and so I was delegated.
That was a very wise move.
And then came the trouble ... Well, as I say, I don't remember when. I know that the things started happening in Paris, because maybe I had another conversation with Bohr about this and, you see Bohr told me I have to go home because Langevin did it for him and what position would that put Niels Bohr in if I don't go. But I was arguing that what Langevin did, he got me out, and if I got out alone, I would go back alone. But getting my wife out was my doing, some kind of miracle; I still don't understand how it happened. And at any case the climax came in Paris. I remember we had been to dinner at Madame Curie's house—so it must be in Paris—and I was telling to her about the situation and my troubles of having to go back to Russia, and she told, "Look (she took my side), let me talk to Langevin." Next day I was sitting next to Pierre Curie at the Sorbonne and waiting for her. She came in finally from visiting Langevin and told, "Gamow, vous resterez ici." This was all. Langevin did not ... well, was not so pleasant afterwards but she got for me the official permission.
To stay at her institute?
Noblesse oblige. And then she kept me for two months in Paris— that's when I wrote the letter apparently to Goudsmit—then two weeks in Cambridge and two weeks in Copenhagen. And so this is how it happened.
That's quite a story. Let me just go back to the Solvay Congress itself. What are your recollections about that, since this was the first Solvay Congress on Nuclear Physics. Was it a particularly good one or exciting in any way?
No. For me it was, of course, something different, it had other importance, but it was certainly less interesting than the conferences in Bohr's Institute.
Because it was more formal, you mean?
Yes, more formal probably.
This was after the neutron but before artificial radioactivity.
Probably; I don't remember.
I think so because I think it was at the 1934 conference in London that the Curies reported on their work; Joliot-Curie, too.
What about your paper there [at the Solvay Congress]?
Pauli told me that I did a horrible paper there—he didn't like it at all.
That sometimes a compliment, isn't it?
It really wasn't much. It was kind of fitting experimental data.... Well, that's what I was doing in Russia; I wasn't doing much.
When did you have time to prepare it, considering all the anxiety you were going through? It's a long paper, I notice.
Well, I had to send it ahead of time anyway. The papers had to be sent before because the papers are distributed to all members before the meeting. I wasn't forced to follow it exactly, I could change it before going to press, but it had to be written before.
Do you remember any special point of interest in the discussion, in general, at the meeting—I don't mean necessarily in your paper. Do you remember what was the highlight of the meeting?
Nothing special. Well, the highlight was essentially Cockcroft and Walton because they just broke the lithium by artificial protons.
That was in 1932; this was 1933.
Yes, well one year. '
But it opened up new fields?
Oh, Lawrence and new results ... You see it was essentially what one calls radio-chemistry—what chemists call radio-chemistry because physicists call radio-chemistry chemistry of radioactive elements; the nuclear reaction physicists call it physics, but chemists call it chemistry. In any case, nuclear reactions, cross-sections and things like that. There was, as I remember, very little theory. You see, the congress before when I was in Copenhagen and Bohr went to Solvay Congress—I didn't, of course; I was not yet good for it or something—
That was on magnetism anyway, wasn't it? In 1930?
It was on physical meaning when Bohr and Einstein fought it out about delta E delta T, certain relation between energy and time in 1930, I guess. And so that was apparently very exciting thing; there they really talked about theoretical physics. And this [1933 one] was more or less, if you look at the table of contents—most of the papers were experimental—there was the Cockcroft-Walton paper, and my paper was actually also experimental; it was zoology, as Einstein would call it, of gamma rays, fitting them into the levels—it was nothing especially exciting.
When did you become aware of where you wanted to go, as a place to settle permanently?
Well, when I talked to Bohr ... You see, it started all because I asked Bohr to arrange for me some position somewhere, and I thought about Europe, and Bohr said, "No, it's much better to go to America." He talked to Lawrence, and he told me that Lawrence needs a man because at that time there was nobody, no theoretical people at the cyclotron. And for some reason I was never invited. Teller tried to get me an invitation to Berkeley, and it was always an iron wall. I was invited for one semester to lecture in Berkeley, oh, some 15 years ago or so. Teller tried to arrange for me the position, and he told me he would talk to Lawrence. And then he told me he had run into complete wall because I think they said that ... I can think, I can think, I can talk, but I cannot work. And Lawrence wanted to have a good worker. It was something like this. And when I was in Ann Arbor then Hafstad came over and ... You see, Tuve was looking for ... Tuve actually got for me the job because ...
At George Washington University?
Yes, because Tuve wanted to have theoretical physicist but he couldn't get one full-time, and George Washington wanted to have physicist, and somehow between Merle Tuve and President Marvin of the University they agreed that the University will invite me as professor, and I will be available, so to speak, for research with Carnegie or something like that— a kind of double thing. And so while I was in Ann Arbor, I don't remember, either a letter came or I got a letter saying to come to Washington to talk to the president. I promptly ordered the tickets to Seattle.
Oh, the other Washington. I see.
And just at the last minute I found that taking the train to Seattle would be the wrong way, and I changed the reservations for Washington, D. C. You know, when I came here my mail from Europe was haywire. I mean, some letters were coming to Washington, D. C.—the George Washington University; some were coming to University of Washington in Seattle; and some to Washington University in St. Louis,
Yes. I wanted to go back to when Bohr advised you that it would be good to come to America. Do you recall what reasons he offered? You mentioned that he talked about Lawrence and the needs at Berkeley, but did he give any general reason? It seems to me this was after Hitler had come to power.
Yes, well probably a combination of reasons. First, he thought that more theoretical people were needed in the United States and, secondly, that it's easier to organize, and, thirdly, maybe that Europe may come into trouble—I don't know exactly.
He was very active in this period finding positions, temporary ones, for displaced German and ...
You know how he arranged a position at MIT for Viki Weisskopf? He wrote to MIT, proposing that they invite Weisskopf, and he got the letter from whoever it was, in very polite form, saying they don't want to invite Weisskopf. And he answered, thanking them for inviting Weisskopf. Whether it was a misprint—I don't know; I don't remember from whom I heard it. I think it's true.
Well, first he went to Rochester, and then he went to MIT.
Oh, was it Rochester? Well, maybe it was Rochester, but at any case the first place that Weisskopf came, Bohr wrote proposing him and they wrote "No, thank you," and Bohr said "Thank you for your acceptance." And they had nothing else to do.
Very good. The reason I'm asking about this is because I want to know what you had heard about American science and what impression you had and what your reaction was at the thought of coming. Goudsmit had invited you to Ann Arbor earlier. How did that come about, for example, at that time? Where did you first know Goudsmit?
Maybe Leyden or maybe Copenhagen. I think in Copenhagen.
When you were in Leyden, he was already here. He came here to Michigan in 1927, so you would have missed him.
You see I got this invitation in Russia. Maybe it was also an attempt—I doubt -of Bohr to get me out. I don't think so.
I can ask Goudsmit, I mean to find out what was the reason for the invitation. The reason is obvious: because they wanted to get good people. But I just wanted to know if he had known you before.
I don't know; I don't remember. I remember, of course, them both very well from Ann Arbor but whether I met Goudsmit before ...
Well, I'll check with him.
Maybe ... and Uhlenbeck.
In that letter you wrote to him you talk of the land of the skyscrapers and the atom-splitters. Now a lot of people would be surprised at that reference, of atom-splitters.
Well, this is, of course, Lawrence.
It's a reference to Lawrence's work. Was Lawrence's work pretty well regarded or was it looked down on in Europe?
Well, you see, Lawrence is a definite case. There is Lawrence and Van de Graaff and Ryle now, the famous radio-astronomer in Cambridge— they are engineers; they do gadgets; they are absolutely not interested in the results. And so Lawrence built the cyclotron, invented the cyclotron, made it bigger and bigger, and Van de Graaff developed different ... Now Martin Ryle in Cambridge has one-mile-long telescope and discovered things that—when I was in Cambridge (now I am going to Cambridge again) two and a half years ago I went to talk to Ryle and found that we have nothing to talk about. He was very nice, showing me machinery which I didn't understand, and he was not interested in talking about the cosmological consequences of something like that. And so with Lawrence. There was not a single paper of Lawrence. He just didn't give a damn what the nuclei do; he just wanted to smash them. So he did. And there are such people.
Sure. There's a whole tradition.
I don't know. Wilson, for example—cloud chamber ... C.T.R. Wilson—was an experimentalist really, but a typical example. Also Lawrence, Van de Graaff and Ryle, in my opinion. It's an entirely different thing. I know Lovell, Sir Bernard Lovell, from Jodrell Bank, and Lovell is interested in science. And when I was in Jodrell Bank we talked science, and he wrote a book and I got from him interesting letters recently, new results obtained in Australia, and so on. He's interested in science, but Ryle is apparently not. Or maybe it was an impression; maybe he was too busy at this time and ...
Well, it's a question of what you do with the results you get, whether you interpret them in terms of some concept or not. I know Lovell does because you always see him writing on the subject. Well, I was just curious about that reference to "atom-splitter." Do you think this would be the logical point to stop for today?
This is April 26th, and we are resuming now after an overnight pause. I understand that you had a chance to look at the proceedings of the 1931 Rome Congress on Nuclear Physics.
And I looked in the beginning, "Convegno di fisica nucleare, October 1931," and this is Discorso Inaugurale, the preface, introduction. The Presidente Onorario, Guglielmo Marconi: "Duce, Eccelenze, Signore, Signori. In questo solenne ad augurale convegno che aduna per la prima volta, nel nome e nel segno della Reale Accademia d'Italia, ... al Capodel Governo e Duce del Fascismo; sia perche questa cerimonia Egli ha voluto onorare di Sue presenza," and Sua "his presence, with a capital S.
Referring to Mussolini.
Referring to Mussolini. (Continues to read in Italian) "sia perche, in tal modo, ha riconfermato, anche una volta, la benevolenza," and so on. All this and underneath "Mussolini."
Your feeling is that perhaps this explains—or at least gives one of the reasons—why the Soviet Government was reluctant to let you go. It's quite possible, of course, that the invitation itself might have come from Mussolini.
Well, about the same time there was a physics conference in Kharkov in Russia. And there it was proposed that the first move of the conference was to send a telegram to Stalin, so we sent congratulations to Stalin from the collection of physicists.
Was that an international meeting, too?
No, I don't think so. Maybe there were some foreigners.
Do you remember what year that was?
Oh, '30, '31.
I am going to make a copy of this. I'd like to get a translation of this too. Senator Corbino, who was at that meeting, wrote a very interesting article in 1929, that Emilio Segrè gave me a copy of where he talked about the new direction that physics would be going into. Corbino said that it would be with large scale equipment for higher and higher energies and if this was too expensive, then they had better turn to biology. This was 1929. It was a very interesting approach. When we left off yesterday, we were talking about some of the events in 1933, 1934, culminating in your arrival in this country. I don't think we covered fully the stopovers in Europe. You explained how it was, with the intervention of Madame Curie, that you finally got to stay two months at her institute. And I noted that there were a couple of papers published from that period. Do you remember ...
Yes, I think one at least was with Rosenblum.* This was connected with the fine structure paper which I signed on the top of the Swiss mountain. Rosenblum was an experimentalist who first measured the components of the alpha particles, which I explained by gamma rays, so it was a paper with him. I remember only one.
Was he there temporarily as well?
No. No, he was a permanent ... He was from Russia; he was Russian-Jewish, I guess. He spoke Russian perfectly.
But was he a resident of Paris? Had he emigrated earlier?
Yes, apparently. I don't know exactly. I know a couple of years ago I got a notice from Paris, with a black border, a letter saying that Comptes Rendus des Seances de l'Academie des Sciences, December 18, 1933. he had died. But all the time he had been in Paris. He was an experimentalist working with this big Weiss (?) electromagnet, very strong magnetic field, and he succeeded to break the beam of alpha particles into several very close components, which correspond to a spectrum actually. He called it fine structure, alpha rays, but it was not fine structure in optics. This is a hyper-fine structure, really fine, but actually he made a spectrum of alpha particles.
I see. That was paper 23 on the list. Before that you do have another paper, also in December of '33, from the Annales de l'Institut H. Poincaré.*
Well, this is probably a lecture which I delivered in the Institut Poincaré. I may have written it.
It may be just a reference to it. But during the two months there, what was the main thing that you did with your time?
I went to Montmarte, Folies Bergères.
What about funds during this period? That's right; you came out for a meeting so you didn't have to go in a boat across the Black Sea. Were you able to take very much with you in the way of money or material goods?
No, because I was going for two weeks.
But you had to have money to spend on your wife; at least that's what you told them.
I didn't have any money because ... well, they gave me some pocket money in Russia, but the Solvay Congress was paid for by Belgian money. I mean, they didn't pay traveling expenses; so I probably bought the tickets in Russia and they probably gave me some money to take with me. Then the hotel was paid for by Solvay Congress.
How did you live then in Paris? Did you draw a salary from the institute?
Well, after Madame Curie arranged this, yes. I think they gave me a lump amount, a certain sum to last for two months. And the same with Rutherford and the same with Bohr. And then when I had to buy the tickets for America, I ran out of money, so I had to borrow some money from Bohr personally. And when I came to England from which we sailed, I still was short of money, so I borrowed some money from Rutherford. And when I came to Washington, D. C., I started getting my regular university salary. After several months I collected enough to pay my debts, so I went to the post office and sent money orders—one to Lord Rutherford and another to Niels Bohr. I didn't have a bank account; otherwise it would have been nice to write checks and to have the checks cashed by Rutherford and Bohr.
When you left Paris, did you go to London or to Cambridge?
From Paris to London, and then to Copenhagen. Well, to Cambridge, actually, but I think we stayed in London for a few days.
Did you lecture at all at the University of London? I have some reference to the fact that you lectured there. I think Blackett was there at Birkbeck College then. Did you see him at all?
Well, Blackett was in Cambridge when I was in Cambridge, but this time he already changed for London, yes. He must have been in London.
But you don't recall anything other than being at the Cavendish again on that trip? Because during that period Bethe was in England. You didn't see him? He was in Manchester. Well, you were only there ... what, about two months?
And what did you do at the Cavendish then?
I don't remember. Just hung around, I suppose, and talked to people.
And then you went on to ...
To Bohr's Institute.
For how long was that, do you recall?
Well, you see, the Solvay Congress was in October. And I had to sail to America probably in June, so it was November, December, January, February, March, April—about six months, six or seven months, so this was divided into three portions.
You were still in Paris on the 21st of December, so ... We have it exactly here: (reading) "The day after tomorrow we start to England and stay in Cambridge about two months ... In the beginning of March, Copenhagen."
Then to Copenhagen.
In other words, you probably stayed there March, April, May at least—three months.
Yes. Then to Copenhagen. From Copenhagen I think we stopped in Cambridge on the way back; I'm not sure. I mean, on the way to America.
You did have a paper about that time on nuclear spin, this one on "Nuclear Spin of Radioactive Elements," and since it was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, I'm wondering if that was something you had done at Cambridge.
Probably. This was the paper which was then followed by my paper with Edward Teller in which we established the Gamow-Teller selection rule.* You see, in beta decay, the Fermi selection rule turned to be wrong—he used the optical rule, zero-zero—I mean a change in the momentum of zero was permitted and change by 1 was prohibited. Change by I was permitted in the case of light quantum; then 2 was prohibited, the quadrupole moment and more and more prohibited after that. So he had emission without angular momentum change; in the case of the light quantum, of course, you don't have it. With a magnetic wave you must have it; therefore momentum changes. But alpha emission is fairly symmetrical, so you can have zero change. And Fermi assumed it was zero— if there is no angular momentum change at all, then it is a spherically symmetrical wave and it's permitted; change by 1 is prohibited; change by 3 is more prohibited, and so on. And on the basis of this paper you mentioned, this gamma ray paper, I was checking how the momentum changed and so on. And then when I came to Washington and Teller came, I found that it seems to be that change by 1 is also permitted. And Edward suggested that this just shows that there is strong spin interaction, that if it is orbital angular momentum of 1, then the beta particle electron can turn its spin from + 1/2 to - 1/2. And this change by 1 would compensate for orbital momentum. You see, orbital momentum is 1; that means that it is quadrupole and would be prohibited, but spin is up + 1/2. Now if you turn spin down, you can cancel the angular momentum of the orbit. So our selection rule is: changes of zero and 1 are permitted, and 2 is the first prohibited. And this turned out to be the correct selection rule.
That was about 1936 or so when you did
So this paper that I mentioned was...
This paper was preliminary. I was trying to see ... on the basis of this very rough empirical data, I conceived the idea that the selection rule is different and then Edward Teller added to it the mathematical formulation of strong interaction between spin and orbit.
Well, the interesting thing about that is how you got started. Had you met Fermi thus far in your travels? Had you come across him by early 1931?
When I first met Fermi.
I don't recall that he was at the Solvay Congress.
No. Well, I met Fermi at Solvay Congress. He must have been at Solvay Congress. I would have met him in Rome, but I didn't, and I could have met him during the years in Copenhagen. That was two years. Mostly the visitors to Copenhagen were Germans and Dutchmen, but very seldom from the Latin races.
How about Americans? Were there many Americans?
No, very few. Only Plesset, I guess was the only one.
In the same period you had a couple of papers on negative protons. One in Physical Review* and then one in Nature.**
The Nature one is famous because it has a quotation from Alice Through the Looking Glass. Ever seen that?
Let me see. Would it be in this first one?
(shuffling papers) Can't find it. Must be here. Ah, "Negative Protons and Nuclear Structure," no. From the Discussions of the International Conference on Physics, London, 1934, "General Stability Problems of Atomic Nuclei," no. Here it is: "The Negative Proton," from Nature, May 1935.
Oh, it was that late?
"The Negative Proton" by Dr. George Gamow. "Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said. 'One can't believe impossible things.' I dare say you haven't had much practise,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age I always did it, half an hour a day. Why sometimes I had believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'" Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll. (Continuing to quote from article) "During the last few years physical knowledge has been considered enriched by the discovery of several kinds of new particles." This was amusing. When I wrote this paper, this was the first year in Washington, and we lived in a hotel or kind of apartment-hotel and we bought a puppy, a German shepherd, and this puppy was very destructive, always pulling things out of the basket and spreading papers all around. So I got the proofs of this letter to Nature and left it on the desk and we went to the movies. And when we came back, the Nature proofs were all spread in small pieces over the carpet. So I wrote to Nature that unfortunately my dog, who apparently objects to the negative protons, tore it to pieces; but I suppose it's all right—just publish it as it is. So they did. But it was a wrong idea; this was not Dirac, well, I mean it was not anti-protons actually, not what we understand now as anti-protons.
Now this is just chronology here: In October 1934 you were at the London Conference. Now I'm not clear. Do you mean you came over to Ann Arbor and then went back for the conference?
Oh, yes. This was purely ... You see, we came to Ann Arbor, to the United States, with the visitor's visa, and while I was in Ann Arbor I got the invitation to George Washington University for the permanent [position]. Therefore, we had to change from a visitor's visa to the quota business, and to get the quota you have to get out of the country.
Oh, yes, that's right.
Well, usually people go to Canada, or to Mexico, but in this case there was a congress, this conference, in England, so I decided we could just as well go to England. And in England, while I was there, I applied at the American Embassy in London on the quota to come to America, and I had all the documents from George Washington University, showing that I was offered the permanent position. And then I had to prove that I was lecturing recently. And I wasn't; actually I was mostly doing research on fellowships. And I remember I had to bring some documents, and I think Compton wrote me some letter, saying he remembers hearing me lecture somewhere.
This was A. H. Compton?
Yes, Arthur. And then I had this conference in Henri Poincaré, which I gave in Paris. It was a big "affiche" you know, which was hanging: "Le Conference, Professeur Gamow, 'L'évolution des Étoiles'" and I took it off the wall and folded it, and I had to deposit this in the American Consulate there, to prove that I lectured recently in Paris. This was all formality—very silly. And this, you see, was just when I came to London to this meeting, and then went to Cambridge, then Kapitza was due back from Russia and then came the telegram from him from Leningrad, saying Tanya, his wife, and the car were arriving by boat to London. Please meet them "and I will be somewhat delayed." Then Tanya arrived with the automobile and told that "somewhat delayed" meant she has to sell the house and pick up the boys which were left in Cambridge and leave for Russia.
He had gone back on a visit? I think we talked about this.
No. Kapitza was in England on a visit first time—it was three years before, it was the year when I was in England for one semester. But he came after I left.
Are you describing now that he was there in Russia and was going to come back to England for that conference?
No, no. This was when he went the last time to visit Russia and he was due back in October to stay in England, and they didn't let him out, so his wife came to pick up the belongings and take the boys back to Russia.
Oh, they had left the boys in school in England while they traveled. Had she gone back with him at first or did she remain?
She went with him in the summer, and the children were left— well, there was no school in the summer. The two boys—I don't know, probably there was some housekeeper—in their house for the two months, just stayed there while the parents were in Russia. But then she came back and she had to sell the house and took the boys and went back to Leningrad to join her husband who had to stay there.
How long did you have to wait for the new visa?
Practically no time, after I gave the documents...
There was no problem?
You see, once I left the United States after this visit in Ann Arbor, my visiting visa expired or was cancelled, since I left. It's only for one visit, and when I entered the United States after this London meeting, we entered on a quota. So the quota was arranged during these few weeks. There are rules, you know. I think scientists, clergy and geodesists had the first priority. There was a shortage of scientists, priests, and the people who measure, build, the roads, plan the roads— three classes that were taken right away.
This was the period when a lot of people were trying to get to this country, but it was difficult to demonstrate jobs because people who had been displaced from Germany were looking, too. And you had to have a job first. In your case you had the advantage of getting the job.
Well, you see, it was especially easy because there apparently was some quota for Russians and since Russians were not let out, the quota was empty. So maybe a hundred Russians could go, but nobody came, so it was not difficult at all.
There's a paper that I see that you missed before PA Sketch of the Growth of the Study of the Structure of the Atomic Nucleus"] that you published in a Russian journal and the date is given as 1934. I guess it was in Uspekhis.
And this—there are two—(pointing to list) there's one in '33, "Outlines of the Development of the Studies on the Atomic Nucleus;" and then there's another one in 1934—those are big articles, by the way— and there's one in 1932 and 1933.
I don't have reprints of them.
That would be good to see because it looks like a review article. One is a 12-page article and the other is an 11-page article.
What is the second one?
Well, that one that I mentioned is the same title; it was printed in two parts [Nank 12, 13], "Outlines of the Development of the Studies on the Atomic Nucleus." The second one, which is #99 on this bibliography list is "A Sketch of the Growth of the Study of the Structure of the Atomic Nucleus// [Nank 14].
Yes, these were probably reviews. You see, Uspekhi Fizicheskikh was the equivalent of the Reviews of Modern Physics.
But this was published in 1934, and you had already gone. So how...
Well, I probably had written it before I left, and it was published after.
But it was still published even though they already knew you weren't coming back?
Well, no, they didn't know officially, because we came to Washington and went to the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street and registered the passports—I didn't want to break it—and I applied actually for prolongation of the passports for a year because my position officially in the University the first year was visiting professor, although there was the understanding that I would stay, but at least it was a trial year. So I was visiting professor for a year, and I said that I wanted to spend a year here and I asked for prolongation of the passport. This was refused.
I see. The 1934 article then probably was written before you left. It had to be.
Maybe i1 is a misprint; maybe it was one year sooner.
I want to look at it anyway. I'll send it to you. We'll see if you want to give a translation.
Yes, I'd like to have it.
Because now Uspekhi is translated all the time, but then wasn't—that was the problem. I want to get back to this period of your coming to the United States. You went directly to Ann Arbor. Did you give lectures that summer? Were you one of the lecturers.
Yes. I gave the course on nuclear physics.
And do you remember who else was teaching that year?
Robert Oppenheimer. That's where I first got acquainted with Robert.
Had you known his work before?
I don't remember but probably. But at this time we were very often together. I would talk to him ... I was enchanted; he was interested in Persia, he knew Sanskrit, and all sorts of things, poetry ... Yes, I think there were only two: Robert and me.
Well, I have a list—I don't have it with me—of each year's lecturers, so I can look that up. But I'd like to know what your impression was of Ann Arbor at that summer session. I understand that in general it was very informal, in terms of a lot of discussions going on, night and day. Did you get that feeling?
More or less, yes.
Was this your first introduction to a group of American physicists?
Well, I remember I had a so-to-speak batman, a graduate student who was attached to me who was supposed to help me. "Batman" is English for orderly, like a soldier who attends to the officer, and cleans his shoes and goes and buys him cigarettes. It was F. Kemble. He was a graduate student, and his duty was to help me—for example, I didn't have a car but he had a car and would drive me some place and pick me up— he was a kind of guide. So we very often went together to play tennis and went off to some lake for swimming. And another man was Tompkins—now I don't remember his first name. He was in mathematics. Last time I saw him was in California somewhere, in UCLA, I guess. He is in charge of electronic computing machines or something like that. And this is how Mr. Tompkins originated.
I was going to ask you.
Many people have asked me why. When I was thinking about a funny name for the hero while writing the first story, I thought "Tompkins" because of this. And is because for me "Tompkins" looked funny and sounds funny, and I checked it ...
You were telling about checking the name Tompkins.
Yes. To me it sounded funny. I was looking for a funny name, and it came to me to call him Tompkins. And then I found that when I ask native English-speaking people, British or Americans, "Is Tompkins something funny?" they say "No." But if I ask a German or a Frenchman or another Russian, they think it's funny. Thompson is not—Thompson is another name—but Tompkins, something about m, with "kins"
And so that stuck in your mind. Did he have any characteristics that also were used?
I don't think so. He was the real Tompkins. And so I somewhere have a picture of me with Tompkins and with Kemble—they were two graduate students who were supposed to help me, in such things as advice or car or out to the swimming pool or something like this.
And how about other established people in physics? You mentioned Oppenheimer. Other than talking about Sanskrit and his interest in Persia, did you get to talk much physics with him?
Oh, I don't think so. Well, of course, Goudsmit and Uhlenbeck were there, and Compton was there that summer. He almost killed me once.
How was that?
I was playing tennis with him, and he sent the ball which hit me, now this machine can't see, it hit me here in the genitals. A sharp ball! My gosh. I remember I sat down. But apparently ... Well, my son was conceived and born afterwards, so he didn't destroy anything, but it was awfully painful. Compton was really good, a champion tennis player almost, so he sent the ball ... He aimed for it, and if I were good at playing I would put the racket to protect the place, but I didn't.
He was an athlete. In college he was a tennis player, football player, everything. How about Fermi? Was he there that summer?
No, I don't think so.
He, too, played tennis. That's what reminded me.
There's a funny story about Ann Arbor, just funny. It was later on, a summer when I wasn't there, when Pauli was lecturing. And Pauli fell somehow and broke his right hand, and they put it in a cast, attached so that for some reason he had to keep It up, so there was a belt and stands holding his hand up. And he had to lecture—"Heil Hitler"—he convinced the students.
And this was during the summer session?
This was not that summer. I heard about it, I suppose it was later. Or maybe it was before when I heard about it, I really don't know.
You made contact with Merle Tuve about George Washington University. Was he there at Ann Arbor? Is that how you came to be in touch with him?
No, he just wrote. I think Larry Hafstad, who was working with him, specially came—I mean, since Tuve was looking for somebody and wanted to have me—I'm not sure, but I think he actually sent Hafstad there, just to attend a couple of lectures, but actually the reason was to talk to me about it.
What was your reaction to the idea of taking a position in America? We talked a little bit before about it, that you had been aware of the cyclotron work, that you'd met Lawrence. Now here was a specific offer. What was your reaction to the idea of settling down and doing physics?
Well, I wanted to have a chance. That's what I was looking for.
It's hard, I know, to remember this, but what was your impression of the state of physics in the United States, of how things were going? Did you have the feeling one way or another?
Oh, at this time it was already on a high level. I understand that early in the century that it was something when Tyndall was driving around, and, that when the Physical Society was organized, there was nobody who knew about physics. But by this time it was about the same as now.
Had you realized that when you were in Europe, or did you learn that when you came here?
Well, probably I knew it in Europe. I remember when I was in Copenhagen Casimir, this Dutchman who is now director of research in Philips, went to America and came back and was telling stories about America and singing cowboy songs. What was it (starts to sing): "Around the corner and under a tree/A gallant major made love to me./ I kissed him once;/ he kissed me twice./ It was not the thing to do but/ I thought was awfully nice." He was telling stories about America. He bought some second-hand or third-hand Ford and drove to California and he was telling a lot of amusing stories.
This was during your last trip to Copenhagen?
No, no, this was during one of my visits before ...
Oh, 1931. Then did you go on to Washington, D. C. to look things over or did you go back to the conference in London first?
From Ann Arbor we went to Washington, and I had to meet the president of the university and talk to him. I think with me went Gregory Breit. You see, Gregory Breit was a theoretical man attached to The Carnegie Institution at this time. I think Tuve sent me and Gregory Breit to talk to the president, and it was arranged that I will be visiting professor for the first year, as the rule goes, but with full understanding that this will become permanent, if I want to. And then I got all the necessary documents which, when I came to London, I presented to the American Embassy, indicating that I was professor at the university in Washington, D. C.
Did they outline to you what their hopes and plans were for physics at George Washington University? Or in the Washington, D. C. area?
Well, you see, Marvin, the president, wanted to develop ... You see, George Washington University is apparently quite good in what it is for—the government sciences and so on—because it is for the capitol of the United States, to train senators or politicians; and medicine, I think, was good, too. But the other disciplines—physics, chemistry, biology, and so on—were practically nil. And Marvin wanted to have some- body, and he had planned with Tuve—he asked Tuve for advice and so on— and his plan was to get three people, three theoretical physicists: One, mostly physicist in nuclear physics, and this was me; one should be in chemistry—theoretical physicist but interested in molecules; and the third in biology. So I proposed Edward Teller, who at this time was sitting in Bristol, and Teller was invited, as a chemist, because he was doing molecules, too, at this time—theoretical physics in chemistry. And the third should have been Rashevsky—I don't know if you know the name; he was in Chicago; now I think he moved somewhere, in Ann Arbor— he is in mathematical biology.
Yes, know the name. Who suggested him?
I don't know. He was apparently the only candidate because he was the only person publishing the mathematics. And he came and talked to Marvin, and somehow nothing came out of it. I don't know—money was not right or something. And so they never got [the third man]. By this time Marvin lost interest in this and started being interested in building the hospital. And so the whole thing rested from there on.
When had you met Teller?
see. And so you knew that he was just temporarily in Bristol.
Oh, yes. He was quite a good friend of mine by this time.
You corresponded somewhat during this period?
Yes. And the amazing thing is, you know, that when Teller came— he came one year after me; when I came, I was invited, and came and I recommended Teller, and he was invited beginning of the next year—and since in Copenhagen we always spoke German with him, of course—he was Hungarian, but we spoke German in Copenhagen—we continued to speak German. It was a funny situation, because my wife who was Russian and his wife is Hungarian, so I was speaking with my wife Russian, he was speaking with his wife, Edward with Mica Hungarian; Edward with me was speaking German, and two wives were speaking English because my wife didn't know German or Hungarian. And we continued speaking German always in Washington. First of all we had been accustomed to do it for years and, secondly, not to lose the practice. I remember when I sailed to this congress in War- saw the year before the war started in Europe, I sailed on the German boat, "Europa," sister ship of the "Bremen" on which I'm sailing next month, and practically everybody was German there, and, oh, Edward was very much against my going on a German ship, Nazi and so on. (We are going by a German boat; we will come back on the "France,"—not "Ile de France,"— "France.") But I select ships by the time. I mean, ships don't go every day; it's not as though you can just select the line and happen to get a convenient ship. And, besides, I had the money in Germany because I had some book translated and articles written, which I couldn't get out but I could pay for German Lines; part of it was paid by German money. And so I went by "Europa," and it was populated—I was practically the only non-German, probably. It was either American-Germans going to visit Germany or German-Germans going to visit America. And I was sitting at table d'hôte and spoke German, and, of course, they noticed I am not German from the accent, but they couldn't figure out what accent it is, and I asked them to guess, and the guess was Hungarian. And what happened, apparently, was that in conversation with Teller; he was domineering because he knew German much better than I did—part of my German is learned from Edward, you see—
So the Hungarian accent?
So I inherited a Hungarian accent, you see, from him.
At George Washington did you have certain teaching assignments?
Oh, yes. Let me finish about the German and then ... The day the Germans attacked Poland, Edward stopped talking German completely and never more spoke in German; he changed to English.
I always gave two regular courses.
Advanced courses. Oh, relativity, quantum theory, nuclear physics, what not. You see, George Washington University actually has no regular students. (During and after the war it changed.) The day school is only undergraduate; all graduate courses are given in the evening, because the students are people employed, in Bureau of Standards, in the Navy Department, and what not, who want to get their degrees. So it was always after six o'clock, and for economy of gasoline they had the three [credit] semester course, three-hour course, given in two hours, 1 1/2 hour each—one academic hour, it's 1 hour and 4O minutes or something— and I always put them on top of each other. So I lectured on Tuesday and Thursday, I guess, from six 'til ten; first gave one course, 1 1/2 academic hours; then 10 minutes interval, then another course, 1 1/2 hours, so about three hours altogether, from six 'til nine, twice a week. This was organized also for the students because all the students were married and have children and their jobs and didn't want to out of home every day—just two days when they were going.
How large were the classes on the average, how many students?
Oh, fifteen, twenty.
What about the level? How well prepared were they?
Oh, reasonably good.
What did you do with the rest of your time?
Playing tennis. Writing books later on—I started it there.
Well, I'm thinking of the years before the new edition of your book, which came out in '37.
Doing research mostly with Edward. Since Edward [Teller] arrived next year, we had been working together all the time. Almost every morning I would drive my boy to school and then go to Teller's house, and we would be talking about this or that.
Were there any colloquia? There were some joint sessions, weren't there, with Carnegie Institution people?
Must have been. It wasn't much.
How about Breit? Did you have much to do with Gregory Breit?
No, not much.
And the experimental work that Merle Tuve was doing? He had a Van de Graaff and he had different ...
Well, you see, I was official professor at George Washington University at full salary and I was also the consultant of The Carnegie Institution, Tuve's place, without salary. And the salary was coming from the University, and the research was going in Carnegie—something like this. So I was there quite often, talking to Tuve's group—Tuve and Hafstad and Roberts. Breit left soon after; he wasn't there very ...
He was up at N.Y.U. by this time, I guess.
Yes, then he moved.
So, when you talked with Tuve and the people there, was it in regard to interpretation of the scattering experiments that they were doing?
How about people from other institutions? Did you travel around much? Did you get up to New York or Chicago?
Well, sometimes I got lecture invitations.
I know that in 1936 you went to the Stanford, what was it, the summer school?
Well, this was a special summer school, and then I had one semester in Berkeley on a leave of absence.
In these years did you get some overall impression of where the most interesting physics places were in the United States, in terms of things really going on?
No. I knew the people I wanted to know, and in each case, by this time when I was in Washington, I was more interested in application of nuclear physics to ... Nuclear physics as such became boring for me, became too complicated, with all these complicated experiments and complicated theory, and I was doing nuclear astrophysics, so to speak— the evolution of stars—so I was mostly connected with astronomers, with people like Baade and Hubble, people in Palomar—well, Palomar wasn't there yet—but Mount Wilson. And whenever I went to California I was always going to talk to astronomers. I was in much closer intercourse with astronomers than with physicists at this time because that's what I was working on.
George Gamow on choosing a field.
You mentioned that you got bored with nuclear physics because it got complicated. What particular dead ends did you see in it—or did you see any dead ends, any non-productive areas? Is that what you meant?
No. I started nuclear physics because in 1928 everybody was doing atomic and molecular structure, and van der Waals forces and doublets and triplets and spin and so on—it was too much. I didn't want to get mixed up with all this, so I decided to choose myself a corner where nobody was doing anything, so I chose nuclear physics. And in time nuclear physics blew up into a big thing, so I moved to nuclear astronomy, to nuclear astrophysics, cosmology.
The reason I asked is because people with a different point of view would have considered it a very exciting time—slow neutrons, artificial radioactivity, a number of things, experimental results coming in, just pouring in with no explanation.
I like the pioneering thing. I would rather go in these mountains [Colorado] than in California. I like these mountains much better than California, where they have a hot dog stand on the top of each mountain.
That's a good way of putting it; these are less populated. Well, would you say that the beta decay work with Teller represented sort of a transition point?
Well, it was actually the last thing I did in nuclear physics.
In what year was that? I'm just trying to find the paper.
Must have been a couple of years before Pearl Harbor.
"Selection Rules for the Disintegration," with E. Teller. This was '36. That was the end of the first year that he was there.
You see, that's what I said before. This was actually the sequence to what I published when I was in England, because then I was trying to find empirically this rule, and I had an idea what the rule should be. And then I was talking to Teller, and he told it is probably because the spin turns over, so the thing was ready.
It was his presence, the ability of having someone there to discuss it with, that got you interested in it again, was that it?
It seems to me that the three main, single pieces of work in nuclear physics were the penetration barrier, the saturation—in other words, 1928 and then 1930—and then ...
Then nuclear model, the droplet, which I could have developed that time Ehrenfest told me I should do it—I didn't—what Bohr and Wheeler did afterwards. They did it for practical purposes, because it was fission. But I could have done it simply ... I was talking to Ehrenfest—I remember when I was staying in London—about the vibration of the nucleus, to see if gamma rays could be obtained by vibration of the nucleus, and so on, which people are doing now. But I never went into it. And then the beta decay rule.
Those represent the three major high points, I think. One thing I'd like to go back to for a minute if you think there is anything to say about it, is the 1934 London Conference. We talked about your application for coming over here. Do you remember anything special about the conference? Was it particularly interesting?
I don't remember.
The only thing that I recall from, the proceedings is that this is where the Curies announced their artificial radioactivity. There was some discussion on that, I know. And your paper was "General Stability- Problems of Atomic Nuclei." Now, they list you as from "Leningrad."
But you had already accepted the position at George Washington University?
As visiting professor for one year with the understanding with the Soviet Embassy that it is one year extra abroad and so on.
And so the implication was that you were visiting from Leningrad. You were just as happy if that was the way it was done?
Jumping from that conference in 1934, how did the theoretical physics conferences in Washington come about? Were they initiated while you were there?
You see, when I came and talked to Marvin first—I mean when was accepting his invitation—I put forth several conditions which I wanted to have, which also completely met his desires, so it was not that we had to fight about them. One was that I wanted to have another professor in theoretical physics. I already had in mind Edward; actually, I wanted Edward to come, you see, but I put it that I wanted to have another professor of theoretical physics so I could talk with him. And so Teller came. And, the second was that I wanted to have the annual conferences on theoretical physics jointly with Tuve, just to invite people, and these were very successful meetings. One of them was on astrophysics. Have you seen these old conference photographs?
I have them all in my office. I have only two here, because I want to make copies of them. One of the conferences, you see [showing photograph] Bloch, Bohr, Rabi, Bethe, Thomas, Blackett, Wigner, Plesset, here I am, Breit, Wheeler, Critchfield, Seeger, Crane. Here is Franck, Tuve.
Who is this next to Franck? He looks familiar.
This is Milton Plesset.
I mean this one over here.
I'm not sure—familiar face.
This looks like Dennison, or Crane.
Oh, yes, one from Michigan. And this is the meeting that was dedicated to astronomy and to which I especially invited Hans Bethe. Bethe learned all about thermonuclear reaction and, on the train from this meeting he invented carbon cycle. And here you see Johnnie Von Neumann and Stern and Chandrasekhar and Menzel, the astronomer, and me, and Tuve, Bethe, Teller, and this is Stromgren who now lives in Carlsberg Palace.
This is amusing: this is before Bikini. I was consultant in the Navy Department and I was asked to give a six-lecture course to 100 Navy officers about the atomic bomb. You see, this is fission here. One hundred because it was in the Navy auditorium in the Navy Building for 100— there were several admirals, mostly captains and commanders. And Nimitz was supposed to come, but then he decided he didn't have time and he wanted to learn it all in one lecture, and it was in his office. And this is Admiral Radford, I guess. This was the Secretary of Navy or something, and this is explaining this [showing photographs and names].
The amusing thing was after I gave these lectures, then I published a book with Cambridge Press on atomic energy, atomic bomb, and they wanted to have this picture on the jacket, you know, on the back. And this is an official Navy photo, so I had to get the permission. And I got the per- mission which said that it must be reproduced this way, so that it will show the stripes on Admiral Nimitz but will not show that he has a cigarette. Why, I don't know.
And this—the photographs are old but I composed them together— this is Alpher and Herman and me, and this is YLEM. All this photography was done when I was still in Washington. When this series of origin of elements, alpha, beta, and gamma worked, I remember I bought the bottle of Cointreau to celebrate and wrote YLEM on it and then photographed the bottle and put my head as a genie coming out of it.
What is YLEM in this case?
A mixture of protons, neutrons and electrons.
But the letters stand for what?
You can look in the Webster dictionary. This is a word—I think it's an old Hebrew word, but Aristotle was using it—in Webster dictionary it says "material from which elements were formed."
The primordial substance?
The primordial substance, yes—ylem.
The thick soup or whatever you want to call it?
I mean this is the old Hebrew word meaning something like "space between heaven and earth."
Oh, recall something of that now, but I'm not quite sure of the context. But anyway you felt that these Washington meetings were a deliberate way to bring people together so you could have these discussions. You felt this was necessary—why, were you afraid of being isolated?
I was not afraid, but I didn't want to be. You see, later, after the war, we started these meetings again and it didn't work and we just dropped it. Because now there is so much money, National Science Foundation and what not, that they have everybody going to lecture and invited to travel, but at this time, if I was invited and someone paid my third- class ticket, I was grateful for it. And now I just say no because I don't want to lose time and am not going even if they pay $300 for the lecture. But at this time all these people were coming. The Carnegie Institution and the University pooled the money—equal amounts, I guess, I don't remember how much it was, a few hundred—and Teller and I would make the list and figure out whom we can invite and whom we cannot, adding up the railroad fares, and invited people, and then everybody was coming, just for the free transportation, and I think they paid the hotel; there were no honorariums. Now nobody would go, but at this time it was quite appealing.
This lasted until just about up to the war, I guess, five years.
Yes. It was interrupted by the war, and then we renewed it and just didn't work very well and we dropped it.
Before we get off the subject of nuclear physics: you were still very much involved, at least to the point of writing a second edition of your text. Why was it that you decided that a second edition was necessary? It is obvious that some things had happened between, but did you feel ...
The third edition was with Critchfield.
Yes, but I talking about the 1937, the second edition. How did it come about?
Oh, they just asked me. I got a letter from Oxford, saying they would like to have a new edition of the book.
Did you know it would be that much expanded? After all, it is at least two times larger than the first one.
Oh, sure, of course. But also after the war, they asked me—I didn't propose it—Oxford, Clarendon Press, asked to have a third edition, and this time I hesitated, whether I would like to write it or not. Then I thought about Critchfield, and actually I didn't do much work on the third edition because the old parts, the classical parts, which were essentially taken from the second edition with few changes, occupy about half of the volume—and the new things were written in by Critchfield, so I didn't do much work on it at all.
As you pointed out yesterday, although they felt they wanted a new edition, they didn't anticipate very much of a demand for it. Yet they felt it was necessary to bring one out. But in that book, by this time in the second edition, certain changes had occurred, and yet there was still no fully accepted model of the nucleus. This was before the compound nucleus came out. Do you recall any discussions in these years just before the book of various approaches to models of the nucleus? Do you recall having a favorite feeling about one model as opposed to another? What sort of model did you have in mind?
think at this time I was already more interested in astrophysics.
Already? Before '37?
I think so. Actually when I was in Russia I was thinking about calculating thermonuclear reactions, origin of elements and so on.
Well, you had written a paper with Landau on stellar energy production. [Internal Temperature of Stars, Nature, October 7, 1933]
Then came Bohr's idea of the compound nucleus.
Had you decided pretty much about the time that Teller came, when you did this beta decay selection rule paper, that you were going to pay more attention to astrophysics and stellar energies?
I didn't decide; it just happened.
It just happened. And then the sorts of things that you tackled were consistently that way. Well, what about the paper with Teller. What was the first one with him on stellar energy?
Yes, origin of great nebulae.
How did you collaborate? Did you talk things over first? Or would one of you write it and the other criticize it, or ...?
I don't remember who did the writing. I probably did the writing. This was on the origin of great nebulae, yes.
I see several of the; I'm looking for the earliest one. Where was that published?
In the Physical Review there were "Selection Rules for the Disintegration" [June 15, 1936] and also "Some Generalizations of the Transformation Theory" 15, 1937].
That's the physics volume.
Another paper is "A Star Model with Selective Thermo-Nuclear Source" [The Astrophysical Journal, March 1938].
[Rustling through paper] Oh, here it is, "On the Origin of Great Nebulae" in '39 [The Physical Review, April 1, 1939].
But you had already, though, done work on this subject before that?
Yes, and you see this paper. You know, Edward was sixty years old this January, and for a special volume which is not out yet—it will be a Festschrift, so to speak—they asked me to write for it. And what I did ... must have it here. You see, "Origin of Great Nebulae" with Teller; "The Origin of Galaxies" by Gamow. And this will appear—this is proofs— in this book. I don't know why it is delayed. When Edward Teller was exactly one-half of his present age, he and I ..
Published a paper entitled "On the Origin of Great Nebulae."
... and this is a revamping of this paper, because it just happened that Edward was thirty at this time. I was 33 or something. And so it was a suitable way of doing it.
You are using the same equations that you had developed ...
Then I go into the new things... You see, at this time the age of the universe was wrong, and therefore our conclusions were wrong, because we concluded that stars were formed first, and then stars collected in the galaxies. Now the point of view is different: that galaxies were gases—the proto-galaxies were gases—and then collected in stars. And in this paper with Teller we come to the first point of view because we use the wrong numerical data at this time. And putting in the new data changes the conclusions.
This Mr. Tompkins is C. G. H. Tompkins because I notice that you said that he had suggested the topic ...
Yes, C. G. H. The Velocity of Light, Gravitational Constant and Quantum Constant. That's how the initials arrived.
That's very good. But prior to this time, there's an interesting thing in the Ohio Journal of Science [Vol. 35, No. 5]—I just wonder why you have it in that publication—"Nuclear Transformations and the Origin of the Chemical Elements."
Oh, because it was a lecture.
That you gave at Ohio State?
I was invited to give the lecture. I remember they paid me $100, and I thought, "My gosh, so much!" At this time I was collecting money to buy the car, so it was a big contribution. Yes, just a lecture at Ohio State.
I see. But you have a paper in the Astrophysical Journal, March 1938, "A Star Model with Selective Thermo-Nuclear Source," and then from there on it's almost all nuclear energy sources, stellar evolution, thermonuclear reaction ...
Yes. You see the last paper about nuclear physics without astronomy was with Teller on beta decay. ["Selection Rules for the Disintegration," with E. Teller, The Physical Review, June 15, 1936]
You have one, which was published in that same number of Physical Review, which is a brief note on the "Possibility of Selective Phenomena for Fast Neutrons." a brief thing. But then from there on it was pretty much the stellar energy. Was anyone else in theoretical physics in this country taking these stellar energy problems seriously? I know that Bethe became interested in it, and I know that Weizsäcker and some others in Europe were interested in it.
Well, then of course, astronomers like Schwarzschild and Chandrasekhar- they were theoretical astronomers.
Were they approaching it by applying nuclear physics to it?
Yes, but, you see there was always this hostile feeling that astronomers, especially theoretical astronomers, didn't like me to invade their ground, because actually all these thermonuclear reactions in the stars were done by physicists—me and Bethe and Houtermanns and Weizsäcker— because astronomers didn't know about nuclear physics. They were sitting on their astronomical things. And the same in biology.
Well, when did they start applying nuclear physics to it on their own? Or did they ever really?
Well, I think Schwarzschild started first. He started calculating models with thermonuclear reactions. And now, of course, Salpeter who is an astronomer—actually he did a lot of things.
That came through working with Bethe, though, probably.
Now you collaborated with Schoenberg. He was on a fellowship at George Washington University?
Yes, for one year.
And was this his dissertation topic, his thesis topic?
No, think he had his Ph.D.
Oh, he was a postdoctoral—I see. And then he returned to Brazil?
Then he went to Chicago and he published something there. A year or two to Brazil; then he had to run away from Brazil; he's in Belgium now, I guess.
And your work with Alpher—how did that get started? Was he at Johns Hopkins at that time?
Yes. Well, Alpher was working at Johns Hopkins in its Applied Physics Lab. Then it was Johns Hopkins contract with the Navy, but the laboratory was located just one mile beyond the District of Columbia line, in Silver Springs, Maryland. And this was the Applied Physics Lab which was actually working on proximity fuses. Alpher was working there, and in the evenings he was attending the lectures at George Washington University. He was my student, in my classes for a number of years. He wanted to have a master's degree; he had with me his master. A master doesn't have to be original—just a compilation of all the work on thermonuclear reactions or something like that. So he got a master's, and then he wanted to do a thesis for a Ph.D. and so I gave him this. He was if anything the most consistent student of mine: he was my student as a graduate student, and undergraduate; he got a master's with me; he was more in my lectures and he got a Ph.D. with me.
All the way through. And he had the right name, too, to go along with it.
Except that I was disappointed when I found later that the name was changed. His father emigrated from Poland, or somewhere in eastern Europe, and the original name was Alferovich. And in going to the border he changed Alferovich to Alpher.
Well, he was anticipating that famous paper. It's as simple as that. Now this whole development in astrophysics also almost coincides with your interest in popularization of science.
But before we get to that I want to ask you something about the 1938 Warsaw meeting: you told about the boat trip, but what was meant to be the theme of that meeting?
I don't remember. I've got the program here. It was not nuclear physics. I think Problems of Theoretical Physics was the general title.
Well, at that meeting were there problems about attendance of physicists from different countries, because many events had taken place in Germany which had led to the dismissal of ...
Yes. Germans were not permitted to attend. Heisenberg was supposed to come, and he was told by the Nazi government that he should not go. Nobody was there from Germany. And I had bodyguards. The Polish Embassy in Washington gave me the visa only if I will not object to have the bodyguard because they were afraid that I may be kidnapped to Russia. And so I was introduced to two tough-looking fellows, and they followed me. How much they were protecting me and how much they were protecting Poland, suspecting that I may be a Communist, I don't know. But in any case, I had a bodyguard.
How about people from Russia—were any of them there at that meeting?
No, no. The Russian-Polish border at this time was sealed, absolutely sealed.
Who else came from America?
Johnnie von Neumann, and I think Uhlenbeck or Goudsmit—one of them—because I remember there was some reception in the American Embassy, and we broke the gates—we were not invited—and got through and all three—one American was from Russia, me; another from Hungary, Johnnie von Neumann; and the third—I think it was Sam Goudsmit or somebody—was from Holland; no native American.
Do you remember anything that stands out about the discussions at the meeting itself?
I hadn't heard of that meeting prior to seeing the biography, so I wondered about it. Well, just about this period you got involved in Mr. Tompkins and such things. Where does this start? Looking at your bibliography, I don't see any prior popularization of any type.
Oh, well, you can find it in Russia in these articles which you quoted which I forgot from Uspekhi Fizicheskikh. And then I was writing quite a lot for Pravda of all things. You know, Pravda and Izmestklia. lzvestigia is government agency—mostly government; Pravda is more to the people, so to speak. lzvestiviia is Soviet government, and Pravda is for the Communist Party, I guess. And they always had what is called podevohl—podevohl means "sailor"—on the second or third page, lower part of the page, which is always devoted to some scientific subject. And they pay good money. So I was writing about cosmic rays and so on in Pravda, in the famous newspaper.
And then it must have been popularly written. You don't have those? It would be good to find them someday because ...
No, but I cannot do it, because I cannot write to Russia to ask people to do things for me, but you can do it. Anybody can do it who is not...
It's probably on microfilm already, you see, in their libraries.
Yes. What I would like to have is one I remember by heart. When I was in Copenhagen the first year, they sent me ... there appeared in Pravda, by Demian Biedny—you know, Demian Biedny is the Russian poet— he is kind of the government poet; all real Russian poets didn't like him because he was a political poet, but I like him quite a bit. He plays with the language, was telling, of course, some political things—he lived in Kremlin, shared the same apartment house with Stalin, probably, or something. I have his works here, all his verses—many of them are propaganda, but quite nice. It's not poetry; it's verses, rather, like fables or something like this. And he wrote in Pravda—he was always in every week, I guess—his verse appeared in the top right corner of the first page, one or two verses, about something. And this particular issue, which must have been sometime in 1929, had two verses (somebody in Russia copied it out and sent me the copy to Copenhagen, and I had it but lost it). It was Notizifici—comments, notices from newspaper— that George Gamow solved the problem of alpha decay or something like that. And then he writes a verse about it. And the second verse was that they found some cure for black eye—better than raw beefsteak. But the first verse was about me, and it's quite a nice verse. I remember it by heart in Russian, but I can translate it to you, more or less, and I would love to have the Original photostatic copy of Pravda with this.
Let's hear it.
"Because USSR is called the country of yokels, or something like that. And that's right, here is for example a Soviet fellow Gamow. What can one expect from such people; he only got to the atom. And millions of atoms on the end of the needle. But he thinks about it, he got to the nucleus of the atom—crack, crack, crack—and nucleus went to pieces." And then the last stanza is: "Soviet character—that's a signal for the West—solved the problem of all problems. Is this undermining of usual opinion? Be it undermining or not, but to tell you the truth, in science appears all the fragrance of October" (October Revolution). It is quite nice verse.
I'd like to look at that; that's good.
And then, as I say, in this Pravda they always carried some scientific articles about cosmic rays, about stars, and what not. And I was writing for it often and this was additional income—they paid good money for it.
You found it came easily for you to write this way? It doesn't always come easy for a scientist to write about his own field in terms that someone else can understand.
Well, somehow it was easy to start with.
But then after that you didn't do, as far as I can see, any of that until the late '30s—is that right?
That's true, yes.
For example, when did you start? I guess the first one was the book...
Well, you see, Tompkins is quite an interesting story. I decided to write fantastic stories using this name Tompkins. And what is now the first chapter was the first story. And I wrote it down—just this particular story—and I sent it, I guess, to Harper's Magazine. And Harper's rejected it. So I sent it to The Atlantic Monthly; they rejected it. And the other places rejected it. And so I decided , well, it's like Martin in Jack London, one cannot get to the publications and so I put somewhere in the desk. This was just before I went to Warsaw, and in Warsaw one of the visitors was Darwin, Charles Darwin, Jr.—Jr., the physicist. And somehow, talking to him at one dinner or somewhere about polarization, I told that I had written a nice story about the idea to change the scales so it would become visible and that no magazine would take it. He told me there is a man in England who is editing the magazine called Discovery, published by Cambridge University Press, and the man's name is C. P. Snow. And C. P. Snow wrote some detective stories himself, and I am sure he will like this, so send it to him. So, when I came back to America, I found this manuscript and sent it to C. P. Snow. And I got a telegram from England—really, a wire, cable—saying, "Your article will be published next issue. Please send more." So I wrote more and more, and it was published consistently in Discovery. And then I got a letter (this was my first contact with Cambridge University Press), which suggested I put it in book form. But there were not enough stories to fill the book, and I didn't know what more stories to write, so I added these lectures, just to fill up the space up to 100 pages, which is the minimum for the book. And so the book appeared. That's how I broke into literature.
And this was Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland?
I picked up a used copy of that about a month ago in a book store. Have these been reprinted lately?
Well, now it is Mr. Tompkins in Paperback. You haven't seen it?
And this was funny because, you see, it was Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland, then Mr. Tompkins Explodes the Atom, and then I wrote Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life.
These are three different books?
Yes, three different books. And then Mansbridge, the manager of the American branch of Cambridge University Press, wanted to put it in a paperback, altogether. But we had a big fight because he didn't want to have the biology in—only two volumes, and I wanted to have three. And the reason was that biology didn't go well. It got very good reviews in newspapers but very bad reviews in the professional journals because biologists were very annoyed at a physicist writing biology. They couldn't say anything because the book was read by three biologists, friends of mine, for correctness, and it was all correct. But they just treat it like poison, and finally I agreed to the two first volumes, and the volume would be given to Viking Press to expand. And then came the question, shall it be Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland or Mr. Tompkins Explodes the Atom? What should be the title of this? And I couldn't decide; I was discussing it with Barbara, and she said, why don't you call it Mr. Tompkins in Paperback? And I thought, well, this makes sense, and finally kind of agreed with this. Then I was in New York and had a luncheon with Mansbridge and two people from Cambridge Press, England, to say the book was all done. They wanted the title, but when I said, Mr. Tompkins in Paperback, they said, "Oh, no," I said, "What else?" At this point, one of these Britishers, who is now director of the London office, said "Well, you know, we can put it in hard edition and it will be called Mr. Tompkins in Paperback Hardbound." And it really happened. And we can check (rustling papers), Mr. Tompkins in Paperback, Cambridge University Press, 1965, and this is Mr. Tompkins in Paperback, instead of Hardcover it says Library Edition or something. But in any case it is Mr. Tompkins in Paperback. And Cambridge agreed to give Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life away free, and Viking took it, so I joined with a friend of mine who is a biologist, and this Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself is by George Gamow and Martynas Yeas.
How did you come in contact with Martynas Yeas?
Oh, during the work on proteins and coding.
We're going to get to that soon; I have a lot of questions on that. But when did you discover that you could draw?
Oh, I always could draw—draw a battleship during the First World War and Russian Cossacks. Here are some fancy pictures.
You like to sketch. When you're doing your work, do you doodle or sketch?
No. No, well, unless I have to draw the illustrations for ... Here's a nice piece of stealing from Walt Disney, of course—a penguin. This is some book.
That's a beautiful binding.
Well, this is a special binding. Viking Press selects a Christmas gift. You see, it says: "The giving season for good wishes in New Year." This is my present for the last Christmas, and what they do is select a book each year—and this is the fourth of my books selected—then they bind it like this, 100 or 200 copies, and then send to their authors. So I just got ...
Your own book.
I would have gotten it—even if somebody else had written This is their Christmas present.
You picked a number of topics after the Mr. Tompkins ... You told me about how you got the idea of the name, because it sounded funny and you recalled the Tompkins whom you knew. But where did the idea of using this character as a vehicle for explaining basic science?
I don't remember.
You just cast him as an explorer.
You see, before in my lectures, and right now, I am always giving some popular examples, and so on—I am always doing it—so many things in Mr. Tompkins was what I was doing anyway. In my lecture on relativity, long before I wrote Mr. Tompkins, I was kind of discussing what happens, in the regular Einstein's theory, if the velocity of light would be small and you could notice it. This was just a method of teaching students.
So it was just a question of putting into book form something that was very natural for you do do?
Yes. And in the paperback, you see, the acknowledgments were unusual: "Thanks are due to the following for permission to reproduce copyright material: To Edward B. Marks Music Corporation for the settings of O Come, all ye faithful and Rule, Brittania, from Time to Sing; and the Macmillan Company for figure A on p. 144 from The Crystalline State, by Sir W. H. Bragg and W. L. Bragg." Because here is a newly written chapter, "Cosmic Opera," and these are the songs written by Barbara— I mean, I wrote the text, what I wanted to have included, and she put it in verse. See, here Lemaitre appears and he sings "O Atome prreemorrdial."
To the tune of O Come, All ye Faithful?
Yes. Now here, "After Father Lemaitre finished his aria, there appeared ... a Russian physicist, George Gamow, who had been taking his vacation in the United States for the last three decades. This is what he sang: [sings] "Good Abbe, ourr understandink/It is same in many ways./ Univerrse has been expandink/ Frrom the crradle of its days." Barbara especially put the spelling that is supposed to represent my Russian accent. And then comes Hoyle and sings, to the tune of Rule, Brittania,
Let me ask something else. We jumped many years because I just wanted to talk about the popularizations. Would you say that the choice of topics for the books over the years reflected your own changing research interests?
Not quite; rather the reverse because, you see, Tompkins is physics but then all the books are on astronomy. The Biography of Physics and Thirty Years That Shook Physics were written later, because it is easier to popularize astronomy than to popularize physics, so naturally I went first to stellar evolution and the universe and galaxies, and then I came to the history of physics. It's the reverse order.
Right. I guess the thing that misled me was the fact that the biology book, The Facts of Life book, starts about the time you were getting interested in biology.
That's what I want to get into. It's clear enough to see where the interest in astronomical phenomena gets started—it goes way back. But the biology seems to come just out of the blue.
I think I was always interested in biology, ever since olden times. In Leningrad probably I was thinking about the question: is the notion of entropy, is the second law of thermodynamics violated in biological cases in living organisms? And this I was thinking still as a student in Leningrad. It seems nothing new.
There were some discussions in physics in the early '30s about biology. I know that Heisenberg was interested and Delbruck was. Did you have any discussions with Delbrück at Copenhagen on this subject?
Well, not in Copenhagen. He wasn't interested there, but when I was in Washington and Delbruck came to this country as a professor in North Carolina or somewhere—he was there for quite a number of years as professor of physics but he was doing phages. Then I came once or twice over there to see him, and he was showing me his lab and ... Nashville—he was in Nashville.
Vanderbilt, yes. He was professor of physics but he had five rooms occupied by biological research. And then he was invited to Caltech as professor of biology, as a change.
And his interest originated, apparently, back about 1930.
Yes. After Copenhagen went to Berlin. You see, he never was settled because he started as an astronomer in theory of Saturn ring and didn't do anything well. And then he came to physics, came to Bohr, and didn't do anything special either. Well, he published with me this work on gamma rays, but it was essentially my paper. And then he went to Bristol and was doing some terrible things, boring things, about molecules. I remember Pauli once asked him, "Look, Max, why are you such an interesting man and publish such boring papers?" And Max didn't know what to answer. Oh, I remember, it was in an American bar in Switzerland—Pauli, Delbruck and I were sitting there. And so he never did anything good in physics. And then in Berlin he met this Russian biologist, double name, I don't remember.
Oh, with an M in the name.
Yes. And that's when he was dragged into biology, and from there on he went crescendo up. But this was after Copenhagen, and the next time I saw him was already in America and he was in Nashville, making bacteria phages.
This man's name sounded like Mendelaev, but it was a double name. I have it written down somewhere. [Timofeeff-Ressovsky] Well, you say you think you had this interest as far back as Leningrad, but we see no evidence of it in your papers until l954 ...
Well, I didn't know what to do. When I saw the Watson-Crick model of DNA, then I knew what to do.
Well, tell me about that. That's what I had hoped to learn from you. How did that come about?
Well, to be exact, because I remember very well this day, I was for some reason visiting Berkeley and I was walking through the corridor in Radiation Lab, and there was Luis Alvarez going with Nature in his hand (Luis Alvarez was interested at this time in biology) and he said, "Look, what a wonderful article Watson and Crick have written." This was the first time I saw it. And then I returned to Washington and I started thinking about it, and then I published this. This was the first paper, "Possible Relation between Deoxyribonucleic Acid ..." and then when it ... I got a letter from Ycas about it, and so this dragged me in, you see. And this was the preliminary thing. At that time I had been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, so I had decided to inaugurate it by sending the article, "Possible Mathematical Relation between Deoxyribonucleic Acid and Proteins,"—you see, it says Copenhagen, but it was originally written for National Academy of Sciences—and I sent this to National Academy as my first paper as a member of the Academy, and then something happened. Merle Tuve called on the telephone and told would I mind to drop by, he wants to talk to me in DTM [Department of Terrestrial Magnetism]. And, well, he asks am I coming, and I said yes, sure, I could drive over. I lived close. You see, the rules about papers for the National Academy is that there is no censorship, there is nothing. If I am a member, I can write everything I want—indecent limericks, non- sense—it will be published. And so, in any case, I come to Merle, and he told, "Look, George, I want to talk to you about this article of yours for the National Academy." And I say, "I already know." "Well," he said, "you see," (he wouldn't give the names and I don't know even now who it was) "they are kind of unhappy that you presented this article. This is, you know, biology, and they do not like it. And my advice," said Merle, "is that you withdraw it because, of course, the rule is since you are an elected member you can send anything you like and if you send it in physics, it's another matter. But this is biology, and biologists are unhappy about it." So I was shocked at that, but said, "Fine." So I wrote to, not the editor actually, I don't remember who it was (now it's Miss Williams, very nice researcher there, publishing associate)—saying I decided to withdraw the article, because Tuve said that, you know, "If you publish it, of course it will be published, but you may get in lots of trouble, people will be against you...
I don't understand why ...
Well, the biologists didn't like it. And so I said that I had decided to withdraw it, without explaining why, and would they please return the manuscript and the illustrations for it which I drew. It arrived a few days later; I put it in a fresh envelope, and addressed it to Copenhagen, the Royal Danish Academy, of which I had been a member already for five years by this time.
This is the "Mathematical Relation ..."
Yes. And this was published in Denmark and I got quite a lot of reprints; and I sent a reprint with "best regards" every single member of the Academy (National Academy of Arts and Sciences) in bio- chemistry and biology and physiology. I remember I was telling about this to Urey in Chicago, and Urey just blew up. He said, "I'll go and investigate it" and so on and I said, "Look, Harold, better forget about it." And so you see this appears in Royal Danish and this (pointing to #70 and #71 on bibliography list) appears in Royal Danish, and here, "Statistical Correlation of Protein and Ribonucleic Acid Composition," Gamow and Ycas, is in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
That was a year later.
Now, the first one that you published on DNA was in Nature— one was in Nature ["Possible Relation Between DNA and the Protein Structures"] and one in Royal Danish Academy.
This is February '54—Nature—and Danish Academy, also '54, but it doesn't say date ... volume, number, quotation from Fischer, "George Washington University ... Note added June, 1954"
I see. Later that year anyway. So it's after June 1954 that it was published.
Yes, June 1954. And this was February, you see.
Now the one that was published by the Danish Academy was the one that had originally been intended for the National Academy?
Yes, for the National Academy. I didn't change the slightest thing; just sent it like that. It is in English, so it just went.
You said that the biologists objected. Now, did they object to the content of it?
No. Well, it's an irrational feeling, they don't know to what they object. I mean this criticism of my Mr. Tompkins book was petty. Actually, they couldn't criticize it. You see, the newspapers ... This affected the sales, just dropped like that. The first of Mr. Tompkins are still selling because they are accepted in many universities and colleges and schools. Every year they buy copies. Sales of this just dropped to zero. This is why Cambridge didn't want to reprint it, and I don't know what happened to this book. This is all the diluted half of it, a professor of microbiology, but I wonder. And they just say, well—I can find some of these reviews, they are glued in—why should a physicist popularize biology? My own feeling is: why don't biologists popularize biology, and save me work! And this is why, for example, there were a number of publications in this line, and then when we proved that my regional code ... The idea was the correct idea, and we proved that it cannot be an overlapping code. We had no way to decode it mathematically and then Nirenberg started it. And Nirenberg didn't even quote me in his paper. And that's why I welcome such things as this: this is the article "The New Biology" by Theodore Puck. You know Puck?
He is head of Biophysics Department, Medical School. Now he is Director of the Cancer Institute in Denver. And this is a popular article on protein deciphering. (Reading) "The answer proved to be far simpler than any work in the field. George Gamow first had the courage to propose the simplest possible model, and it also turned out to be correct information." And this by Crick. This is from "The Genetic Code - Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" [Cold Spring Harbor Symposium, Vo. XXXI, 1966]. And here are a lot of quotations, so now I am ...
I didn't realize that Crick himself had done a historical study of this.
It's even more interesting now that Watson's book is out.
Yes, he invented another modification of my regional code which didn't work either, the so-called Commaless Code.
This answers the question I wanted to ask you. He says here: "It was at about this time that Gamow founded that strange organization, the RNA Tie Club." Now in the Library of Congress I found the stationery on which all it said was "RNA tie club" and had "George Gamow, Synthesizer," Watson was, I can't remember, what was his position? I have it all here. And I couldn't make head nor tail of it. I didn't know what all that was about.
It was about ties. I made the design, and someone in Pasadena found a haberdasher and ...
And put the helix on the ties? Let's get the whole story. Let me ask first: You said you were visiting Berkeley and you saw Alvarez with a copy of the article, and he called it to your attention, showing that Watson and Crick had come up with the structure of DNA.
Had you been following these developments beforehand?
You knew about DNA, though?
No, I didn't. I don't think so.
So why was it so evident to you as a physicist who had first been concerned with nuclear physics and who was then concerned with astrophysics—why was it so apparent, just looking at this article, that this was an exciting thing, that this was something to be done.
I don't know. Maybe because Alvarez was excited.
You see, that's the kind of question that it would be good to know about.
I don't know. Well, I like it very much, and so I went home to Washington ... I was just in Berkeley for a short visit—and started thinking how one can get this to make the amino acids. And there were 20 amino acids. As a matter of fact, there were 22. Biologists always think there are 22. Two probably are mistakes. And it turned out to be a mistake because the extra two were actually formed after it was incorporated. I've forgotten about it, but at this time it was strong argument: "It's not 20; it's 22." I was trying to think how one could make 22 out of four, and then I found these triangles and triplets and ...
What physics did you bring to it? Was there any similarity ..
No physics, just mathematics.
Yes, but was there any similarity between this problem and other problems that you had dealt with in physics before?
I don't recall.
Was it a question, then, that you had the mathematical tools to do this kind of analysis?
As I told you, when I was in Odessa before going to Leningrad I was indoctrinated in mathematics by these two professors—in the real mathematics, not the calculus which is engineering science, so I did theory of infinity. It can be actually: if you have four different colors, how many three-colored flags can you make?
Did it have that puzzle type of appeal to you? Was that what attracted you? Because a puzzle implies, you know, that a solution is possible and you just have to figure out how to get to that solution.
I'm not satisfied. I would have to read the paper because I don't know much about this aspect of the work.
It was quite amusing because the number of possible assignments, between 20 and 20 ... You see, if you have 20 first names—George, Mary, and so on—and 20 family names—Gamow, Johnson, and so on—the number of assignment is 20 factorial, and this is equal to the age of universe expressed in seconds—a big number. And the question was to find, is it possible? And at this time I was consultant in the Navy and I knew some people in this top secret business in the Navy basement who were deciphering and broke the Japanese code and so on. So I talked to an admiral, the head of the Bureau of Ordnance, as a result of which three people appeared in my office at the university, not telling their names (one had a beard; maybe it was artificial), and they told they came at the request of Admiral So-and-So to see what the problem is. So I told them the problem, gave them the protein things, and they put it in a machine and after two weeks they informed me there is no solution. Ha! And about the same time this Brenner from South Africa—he is now in Cambridge—proved, and Martynas Ycas proved, too, and showed that it cannot be explained by any of the triplets. And the mistake was quite natural because the step, the distance between every amino acid, is equal to the distance between the bases. And therefore I thought naturally there should be overlap. Three and then ... And it turned out to be wrong, and we still don't know why it is. Now it is 3 and then another 3 and another 3. If it is extended chain, then you place amino acid to the one base, another to another base. If this is to determine the amino acid, amino acid is here. And the next one will be here, and this distance is three times larger than needed to make the bond. So probably this thing is shown by factors 3, by spiralling—nobody knows. But just by coincidence it turned out that it looked like overlapping and then one could decode it. And then it was finally proved it could not be done. And then Nirenberg did it in the hard way and so [4 syllables, away from mike; returns after pause to find a book] Here, this just came out: Genetic Code: The Molecular Basis for Genetic Expression by C. R. Woese. He is professor of microbiology at University of Illinois. Where is it? Here: "Historical Development, The Early Period: Intuition Amid Ignorance. The Gamow Era. Templates for Proton Synthesis." And he wrote about these many things. "Gamow's initial attempt in this respect ..." and so on. He covers it, I think. And then, second part, "The Comma- Free Code Becomes Dogma,"—The Comma-Free Code is Crick—and: "The Second Period: Technique and Travail." This is where Nirenberg came in and did it.
This is a brand new book. I'd like to get it. What is the title? The Genetic Code and Harper published it, 1967, and it has a historical section. In this historical article by Crick, in the Cold Spring Harbor Symposia, he gives a pretty good history and he mentions that he has the early draft of the paper "Protein Synthesis by DNA Molecules," by Gamow and Tompkins. Maybe I misunderstood this before ...
Oh, I think I vaguely remember—I may have sent this paper to the Academy as Gamow and Tompkins.
What I didn't understand before—I thought it was the real Tompkins, but this was your other Tompkins.
Yes, was the book.
Okay. But when Tuve talked with you, your implication was that it certainly wasn't anything as trivial as that that was objected to, but that there was far more basic objection from the biologists.
Well, if they would object that I put the Tompkins, I would take it out. As a matter of fact, I took it out when I sent it to Copenhagen.
Yes, I noticed. Now he (Crick) mentions the RNA Tie Club. I notice that you even had letterhead stationery printed up. And this was supposed to be a group of people concerned with the coding problem?
First of all, how did you come in contact with one another? Because you had just entered the field practically.
Well, it was through Martynas and Crick, through this article. Martynas wrote to me. He wrote to me about this and since I was in New York and Crick at this time was staying at Brooklyn Polytech, so I remember I went there and met him. This was the semester when I was teaching at Berkeley, so people in Berkeley got interested. And Max Delbrück was in Pasadena. And Alec Rich came into it. Here is a big article from him. And this—what is it? biology—this was a big thing.
Rich was down at N.I.H. at the time. I know him. I'll have to ask him about this. I notice on the letterhead stationery it says, "George Gamow, Synthesizer; Jim Watson, Optimist (these are the officers); Francis Crick, Pessimist; Martynas Ycas, Archivist; and Alec Rich, Lord Privy Seal.
Somebody proposed for fun—Crick maybe or someone—proposed Lord Privy Seal.
First of all, it was the Rnatie Club, but it was written out on the letterhead without realizing that it was two words. I didn't under- stand it when I read it. All I saw was capital R, lower-case n, a, t, e. And I tried to spell it backwards, and I tried to decode it. I couldn't figure it out, because the motto was "Do or die, or don't try." Now when did the idea of the club itself start? I mean, you told me about the people, it was just a joke.
We were just drinking California wine and we got the idea. Next day somebody, this Britisher, what's his name, Leslie Orgel—he is a British biologist—proposed the idea of this diagram. I actually drew it.
On the tie, you mean?
And somebody actually brought it to the haberdasher
Did you all wear them?
Crick calls it a "haphazard collection of Gamow's friends. There were also supposed to be four honorary members, one for each of the four bases."
Yes, the tie is cheap, you see, but this is expensive; this is gold, and individual.
Right. And each one had your own amino acid mark on
An amino acid and four honorary members, see, four bases. And the honorary members should be given, so I tried to collect the money from members, to send a dollar or three dollars or something. And practically nobody ... Several people sent it and I had to send it back because others didn't. And Szent-Gyorgi told me (Szent-Gyorgi was one of the candidates for honorary member) if I had let him know, he would have given the money to give to all the members, three dollars each, to get it to become an honorary member. But nothing came out of the honorary membership.
One can see that there was a great sense of excitement in this whole period, once Watson and Crick came through with their structure. Was there a lot of private communication going on in this, in the sense of sending, you know, manuscripts to one another?
Oh, yes, we had a system of—this was one of the rules of the club—that not every letter but every article or something was Xeroxed and sent to all members—something like that.
But was it a competitive feeling at the same time?
No, it was just a result of good California wine. And it very quickly came to nothing.
How long did it last?
I don't know. Probably with this election, when I couldn't get the money to order four pins for the honorary members. Then I gave it up.
Well, that's a whole story in itself, and when I learn a little more about the background, I want to come back and talk with you about some of those questions. But your interest in biology is still a current one?
Yes, there is nothing to do. You see, what I do, I just ... as Ehrenfest I remember put it once ages ago about—not specifically about me— a spider that sits in a corner in a big web, and he waits; then some fly or something gets caught; he quickly goes there. This is Ehrenfest's description. So I am just sitting and waiting, listening, and if something exciting comes, I just jump in.
George Gamow on the "big bang."
Right. And the cosmology has continued. Now that's one of the final things that I want to get into. Your work in stellar energies and star evolution, leads to certain cosmological views, and so, in the popular mind and in the scientific community, you were considered, and still are, a champion of a particular cosmological theory. But I don't know who popularized it as "big bang." Did you? Or did it come from some other source?
Well, I don't like the word "big bang;" I never call it "big bang," because it is kind of cliché. This was invented, I think, by steady-state cosmologists—"big bang" and also the "fire ball" they call it, which has nothing to do with it—it's not fire ball at all. Nothing to do with the fire ball of atomic bomb. I call it radiation regime and meta regime. And there is no ball because you never see seams in it, so there is no ball if it means the surface of a ball. High temperature was also out.
That's interesting because the names are practically synonymous in the popular mind: Big bang equals Gamow. You know that?
And so interesting to hear that, in fact, you don't use them.
Well, because you see, I did it—with Herman and Alpher—20 years ago, and then it kind of ... At this time nobody thought it was possible to ... I calculated what the temperature is; I got 5 degrees, I got 7 degrees, then I got 7, then I got 5—just to see what it would be, because if it would be 500, it would be unpleasant. Outside would be boiling water. So, since it was close to zero, I was satisfied. Radioastronomy practically didn't exist at this time. And then Dicke, a few years ago, independently as he states—I don't know, independently or not—thought about this and started advertising and this is why this fireball word came, and so on.
In these debates between the steady-state cosmologists and Hoyle, Bondi, Gold (and Sciama at one time), the radio astronomers have played a major role because their observations are crucial. People like Ryle, I gather, and others.
But what was the nature of the debates themselves in terms of the atmosphere of the debate?
What it explained, because many people thought that steady state contradicts the physics, and I was very much against this statement, because it doesn't. It's perfectly logical. Matter is not conserved—okay. Bohr wanted energy not to be conserved. Turned out to be wrong, but entropy is not conserved; entropy increases—so what? You see, this is the verse which Barbara wrote for me at this time, and I sent copies of this, one to Ryle and one to Hoyle. And from Ryle I got an enthusiastic answer, saying "It's nice verse" or something like this. Hoyle never answered. And this is it: "Your Years of Toil, said Ryle to Hoyle."
Why don't you read it?
Okay. Barbara doesn't like me to do her verses aloud because I spoil them. "Your years of toil, said Ryle to Hoyle ..." (Calls to Mrs. Gamow as she enters room) Oh, Barbara. I asked him to read it, and he told that I should read it, and I told you don't like me to read. You read it.
Oh, I'll read it; she's busy.
No, Barbara will read it.
I'll make it quick.
I just wanted it for the novelty of it.
This was written long before this book was published.
Which Tompkins is this?
The hardbound one.
Well, it was when Ryle found this deviation about five years ago.
"'Your years of toil,'/Said Ryle to Hoyle,/'Are wasted years, believe me./ The steady state/ Is out of date./ Unless my eyes deceive me,/ My telescope/ Has dashed your hope;/ Your tenets are refuted./ Let me be terse:/ Our universe/ Grows daily more diluted!14/Said Hoyle, 'You quote/ Lemaitre, I note,/ and Gamow. Well, forget them!/ That errant gang/ And their Big Bang/ Why aid them and abet them?,'You see, my friend,/It has no end/ And there was no beginning./ As Bondi, Gold,/And I will hold/ Until our hair is thinning.'// 'Not so,' cried Ryle/ With rising bile/ And straining at the tether./ 'Far galaxies/ Are, as one sees/ More tightly packed together!/, 'You make me boil,'/ Exploded Hoyle/ His statement rearranging;/ 'New matter's born each night and morn./ The picture is unchanging!'// 'Come off it, Hoyle!/ I aim to foil/ You yet'. (The fun commences)/ 'And in a while,'/continued Kyle,/ I'll bring you to your senses!'"
Congratulations. That's not only a good reading but a good writing.
Now I can read. This I can permit because I am singing. The what-to-say was written by me, and then Barbara put it in verse. This is synchronized in melody, you see. I am not a good singer, but Russian sounds will come. First comes Lemaitre, and then I appear, gaily anddrunkenly: (sings) -d Abbe, ourr understandink/ It is same in many ways./ Univerrse has been expandink/ Frrom the crradle of its days./ Univerrse has been expandink/ Frrom the crradle of its days.// You have told it gains in mo- tion./ I rregrret to disagrree,/ And we differr/ in ourr/ notion/ As to how it came to be./ And we differ in our notion/ As to how it came to bed/ It was neutrron fluid - neverr / Prrimal atom as you told./ It is infinite as everr/ It was infinite of old./ It is infinite as everr/ It was infinite of old.// On a limitless pavilion/ In collapse, gas met its fate./ Yearrs ago (some thousant million)/ Having come to densest state./ Yearrs ago (some thousan million)/ Having come to densest state.// All the Space was then rresplendent/ In that crrucial point in time/ Light to matterr was transcendent/ Much as meterr is to rrhyme./ Light to matterr was trans- cendent/ Much as meterr is to rhymed/ Forr each ton of rradiation/ Then of maZrr was an ounce,/ Till the impulse t'warrd inflation/ In that ggAeat prrimeval bounce./ Till the impulse t'warrd inflation/ In that ggreat prrimeval bounce.// Light by then was slowly palink/ Hundrred million yearrs go by .../ Matterr over light prrevailink,/ Is in plentiful supply.// Matterr/ then began condensink/ (Such are Jeans' hypotheses)/ Giant, gaseous clouds dispensink/ Known as prrotogalaxies./ Giant, gaseous clouds dispensink/ Known as prrotogalaxies.// Prrotogalaxies were shatterred,/ Flying outwards thrrough the night./ Starrs were forrmed frrom them, and scatterred,/ And the Space was filled with light./ Starrs were forrmed frrom them, and scatterred/ And the Space was filled with light.// Gala- xies arre everr/Spinnink/ Starrs will burrn to final sparrk,/ Till ourr univerrse is thinnink/ And is lifeless, cold, and darrk./ 'Til our univerrse is thinnink/ And is lifeless, cold, and darrk.//
Now you see when I came to visit Jodrell Bank, Sir Bernard Lovell had a dinner in his house, and I brought this book—this was not out; this just came out—and I have shown this to him. And he looked at it and Rule, Brittania and he is quite a good musician, apparently; in any case, he has a grand piano in his living room. So he decided—it was also after a few Scotches—that he would sing. There were just three of us— he, Lady Lovell, and me; Barbara stayed in Cambridge—and he came to the piano and was holding this to look at the words; the music he knew. And he played with one hand and sang, and Lady Lovell was rolling on the sofa from laughter. But I can sing this, but that you can read.
What is the tune for the other one? I know is a Russian tune.
Oh, this? (sings one verse in Russian)
Now I remember. That was a nice musical interlude. Good. I really think that we've done enough. I want to ask a couple of concluding questions, which will make you reflect a little bit. In thinking back over the scientific work you have done, which pieces of work or which sequences of work do you feel were of the most importance at the time, had the greatest impact at the time?
I don't know. Probably the code, I don't know. Of course, in all things first of all the question is: If Einstein were to be killed in an automobile accident several months before he published the theory of relativity, how soon would it appear? Well, probably a year's delay and then somebody else would do it. I mean, things hang in the air so. One can say, my gosh, of course, the potential barrier and then the expanding universe and thermonuclear reaction, explained the solar energy production, the formulas used for the hydrogen bomb calculation. But on the other hand again, of course, expanding universe is not mine; it's Friedmann, you see, and Lemaitre was kind of in between. Friedmann did pure mathematics and found the solution. Lemaitre was doing it, I think, in the wrong direction. Our understanding is different in many ways. I was probably the first to start doing it physically, instead of doing mathematics or being one kind of these so-called people, the postulator cosmologists. They postulate, and I don't want to postulate. I feel that matter has properties which physics tells you. So I put in on physical ground, and this led to a number of consequences. And biological code, again, probably ... I mean this was the period, which he called the Gamow era was really the theoretical thing, and I was doing it, just telling to people, "Look, why don't some biologists just sit down and do it, instead of us working on the computing machines?" Well, they finally did. It could have been done differently. Oh, I'll show you one more thing. This book—you don't know Russian— can be translated as Why I Resemble My Daddy by Luchnik. Printed by Young Guards, Moscow, 1966. Here is the author: Nikolaivitch Luchnik; he is the Director of Biophysics, the Institute of Academy of Sciences, Moscow. And you know Lysenko in Russia, genetics was killed, you know, but now it is reinstituted and this is all ... Here is Watson and Crick and the model of DNA.
We were just talking about the Russian book.
So a couple of years ago ... You see, my situation with Russian scientists is that physicists and astronomers know that I am persona non grata, and they are afraid to write to me, and I don't want to write to them because I bring them into trouble. But biologists don't. A Russian name, well, there are many Russian names. So a couple of years ago I got from Luchnik some reprints. He was interested in this coding problem, and I sent him my reprints and letter. And this is my stationery, which probably you have seen.
Oh, you called on the telephone.
Well, this is Gamow Dacha—this (house) is called dacha; dacha is a country house. And I did it (pointing to illustration on stationery) myself, copying it from some book Barbara had, some fairy tale or children's book with a house like this. And the idea of this house is somewhat different. And this is the stationery then on which I wrote to him. I sent the reprints and I almost forgot about it. And I found when I got this book, a couple of months or so ago when it arrived—just recently published—his reprints standing there and quoting a letter from him dated two years ago. And here it comes. Here is Crick and Watson, and then comes: "a physicist, living in Boulder, Colorado, and his name is Gyorgy Antonovich Gamow." (This is my spelling—Gamow with v) Here he describes my deciphering (pointing to article in book), and this is all amino acids in Russian and the amusing thing is ... Well, this part to show to people who do not know English, I translated into English and Barbara typed it on my stationery. And read this, read it aloud. It's quite nice.
Can I get a copy of this? From our machine?
Yes, we can run downstairs.
"The alphabet of the genetic code was deciphered because many different people had given thought to it: Geneticists, biochemists, crystallographers, mathematicians and many others in England, the U.S.S.R., France, U.S.A., Germany, Japan, and other countries. The deciphering of the code of living molecules would probably have taken a different direction had it not been for an unusual scientist, living in a tiny hamlet, Boulder, Colorado, U.S.A. His little house on Sixth Street doesn't look like the neighboring houses. The crooked chimney on the shingled roof (that's the picture from the children's book), the carved shutters, the apple tree under the window, all give the feeling of an old-fashioned dacha in a Moscow suburb. But this is not surprising, because the owner's name is Gyorgy Antonovich."
George, son of Anthony.
"In scientific literature he is known as George Gamow, popular American physicist and astrophysicist whose name can be found in all textbooks. But he was born in Russia and apparently is very sorry that he lives so far from his homeland because whenever he meets a Russian (rare in this little hamlet) he pulls him into his dacha to drink a glass, not of whiskey, of course, but of Moscow Special (capital M, capital S) vodka with caviar and to chat in his native tongue. "It is characteristic of theoretical physicists to be interested in questions which are far outside of their specialty. The fact that Gamow noticed the paper of Watson and Crick is not surprising, because it was printed in a British magazine, Nature, read by specialists in all fields of science. Or perhaps, being a Russian, Gamow could at some time have read the paper of Kolsov ..."
I checked that. First Kolsov was famous Russian poet, but of course not. He was a Russian biologist who in 1926 or something was speaking about self-reproduction of protein molecules. Self-reproduction, but DNA was not known at this time.
Self-reproduction of proteins—I never heard about it.
"He could at some time have read the paper of Kolsov who in 1926 spoke about self-replication of protein molecules. But, one way or another Gamow got interested in this work." And then there is a little bit left out and then it continues: "The importance of the work of Gamow was not only that he formulated the problem concerning the deciphering of the code but also that he gave a hypothesis which could be checked. True, the simplest hypothetical 'diamond' code originally proposed by Gamow proved incorrect, but it catalyzed much experimental biochemical research which, some ten years later, culminated in finding the correct translation methods from the 'language of deoxyribonucleic acids' into the 'language of proteins.' This code was proved to be the same for all living beings on the surface of the earth." And is excerpted and translated from Why I Look Like Papa, by N. Luchnik, Young Guard Press, Moscow, 1966. That's very good, very elegant. Well, you're an unusual scientist in a small hamlet. I can vouch for that. We were talking, before we got onto this, about the work that you had done that you considered most important. Another question: Can you identify a specific piece of work or a sequence that gave you the most fun? Gave you more fun than any other in terms of personal satisfaction while doing it and afterwards.
Oh, because it was something new and there was a lot of fun in making codes and ties and things like this. (Aside to Mrs. Gamow:) Well, Barbara, if you are going up, you may take back this gown and ...
Churchill College robe, yes. Well, good, and you came to that in the spirit of fun anyway, you said, of challenge.
Yes. On the other hand, you see, my first paper on nucleus actually formed my career. I mean, after all, the fact that I am here and I was with Bohr and so on is a result of that, and in this sense it was most important. Biology didn't lead anywhere especially. And let's put it this way, if I would have been born forty years later, my first work would be biology. Then it probably wouldn't give me the position, so to speak, in which I am now. The other was much more important.
Was much more important, first of all, in terms of its being essential at that time for the next step in nuclear physics.
Yes. So this was real progress work, whereas this, if somebody would publish it ... Suppose someone, not me being younger, but suppose somebody else would publish these old papers. Well, I don't know whether it would help him to get a good position, let's say, in an American university or something like this. So from, some call it a practical point of view—it's not practical but from a more general point of view—the first was more important. But it was more for fun.
You mean the biology was more for fun?
Good. Well, I think that on that note, which I think is a significant one, we ought to end. And when I look at the transcript, I'll probably think of a thousand things that we should have talked about, but there'll be another time. Thank you.
This is the end of the interview with Dr. Gamow.
This will be a memo which will go into the file, giving additional information and some of the background.
After the interview and after dinner at Dr. Gamow's house, he recalled certain anecdotal types of information. One related to his experiences in Washington at the George Washington University. He worked with Merle Tuve and Larry Hafstad at The Carnegie Institution of Washington. Part of the arrangement, when he went to George Washington University, was that he would be a consultant without pay to The Carnegie Institution.
He helped them interpret the results of the proton-proton scattering experiments Tuve and Hafstad were carrying out. He recalled that Fleming, who was head of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of The Carnegie Institution of Washington, was an interesting man and that he disliked women, and as a result had no women secretaries; all the secretaries were male. All the employees of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism were male in all capacities. Further, he insisted that all letters that went out of there went out under his signature, so that if someone had to write to a colleague Fleming would write the letter, saying Dr. Tuve informs me that he wants to tell you so and so. And in one case, Dr. Gamow recalled, there were some results from the proton-proton scattering which Tuve, in the fashion, communicated to Fleming. Tuve had given these results to Gregory Breit who during that period was making the computations which required the special knowledge of a theoretical physicist of the stature of Gregory Breit. But it would take him a long while to do this. Meanwhile, though, Tuve and the others were anxious that this information be circulated. They wanted it sent to a number of people. Typically, Fleming sent this information out, but he said when he sent it that here's the information, here's the data, but we insist that you don't do any calculations on it; Gregory Breit is doing this. Well, of course, the more appropriate way would have been to say: don't publish the results since Gregory Breit is working on it. Anyway, Gamow reports that Hans Bethe later told him that he had received such a letter and when he was told not to do calculations, that was a challenge to do it. And, in fact, he did and worked out the results, because he had the proficiency to do it.
In another subsequent discussion with Dr. Gamow I asked him how was that he left George Washington University and came to Boulder. He said that he was visiting on a lecture engagement here and had given his first lecture and that after the lecture at Boulder he went to a party with some of the department people who asked him if he would like to become a professor here. He felt that it was sort of the young Turks in the department who were anxious to have someone on their side because they felt that the old line leadership of the department wasn't adequate. When they talked with him he responded very favorably. He was bored with Washington, he needed a change, he liked the area around here. At that time he had been doing some consulting for Convair on the West Coast. They apologized here at Boulder when they talked with him at that party, saying the salary was very low. And he said the salary isn't the thing. He had income from books and so forth and that he would just be interested in the position itself and the work that he could do and in the environment. It turned out that the salary they offered him was half of what he was making for this brief period that he was with Convair. Convair is the aircraft or missile firm. At that time he was on leave from George Washington University. They also offered to make him chairman of the department, which was really part of their motive. But this he declined; he said, "If you want to do that, you can't get me." But anyway, then the next day, I think, or shortly after that he was introduced to the president of the university, and the matter was taken further and was being considered. There was a delay in his lecture for two weeks, probably having to do with the death of Von Neumann, who was scheduled to be in on the scene somewhere, too. Gamow went on to Aspen to give another invited talk and was gone two weeks. He came back just at the very moment that he was being introduced for the lecture, and the hall was full. He was curious to know what had happened in the arrangements, whether or not he was going to get the appointment and what had been discussed here at the university. The introduction was given, stating that here was Professor Gamow. "You may recognize him; you heard him two weeks ago, and now I would like to introduce him as Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Colorado." And it was in this way that he learned, that in fact, everything had gone through.
It was about this time that he remarried, or a little after this time, I guess. He was divorced from his first wife and remarried. I don't know the exact sequence of the dates.
He also told the story of missing meetings with the King of Belgium three times. The first was at the Solvay Congress after he had left Russia in 1933, and they had been invited to dinner with the King. Leaving Russia in his state, he didn't have any proper clothes, much less formal attire. His colleagues and others in Brussels scoured the city with him, trying to find formal clothes, since it was to be a white-tie affair. But they could not. He is a very tall man, and the trousers in Belgium were suited to people of less stature, and they ended a foot above his ankles. And so finally, at the last minute, he had to decline regretfully, and he sent a note to that effect. That was his first missed meeting with the King of Belgium.
Years later there was another conference, and he was invited. By this time he was in the United States. He wanted to be sure, so he spent a lot of money, more than he really had, in Washington, D. C., to buy formal attire and was all ready to make the journey by ship when Hitler entered the situation—it was 1939, I think—and the King of Belgium was in no position to give any parties, so that was called off. His third missed engagement—I don't recall at the moment.
After the interview and during our conversation, he indicated that he had at this point begun an autobiography, that he had thought of doing it for the Scribner's series but had then changed his mind and has not made up his mind how to handle it. The problem is that there are certain things in it that he feels he wants to include, that may not be of interest to others and other things that he wants to exclude for personal or other reasons which he feels he must exclude. And he doesn't know quite how to handle it and hasn't made up his mind whether he wants to see it as a published document. At any rate, I urged him that it should be deposited at the Library of Congress and that, in this case, we would like a copy to supplement the oral history interview. I looked through the manuscript. It's a full story, as far as it goes in time, which is early in his career, actually only through the period of the early 1930s. It includes quite a bit of background on his life in Russia as a child, the family background, the sort of cultural and social setting. It appears to be very well written. Many of the things that were covered in the interview are covered also in the autobiography but in a sketchy fashion, but in some cases more complete. In many places the interview is more complete and especially in terms of the matters relating to science. But anyway the autobiography only covers a brief period of his career. In the manuscript he has interspersed photographs of himself as a child, his family, his colleagues, including a lovely picture of him with a young lady and with Lev Landau playing the bass or the cello as the serenader.
Finally, I think all of that should be a supplement to the interview.
Another note: The interview was conducted over a two-day period in Dr. Gamow's home. We were undisturbed. His wife was there on the second day for part of the time. He is, as may have come out in the transcript, not in good health. He remains at home in pajamas, except for the three one-hour lectures during the week at the university. For the past six months he has undergone a series of serious operations, a couple of them to remove calcium deposits from the major arteries, two in his head and others in his abdomen. He had serious surgery, and there were aftereffects where he had hepatitis and was in the hospital for many months, and now he has a disability involving the intestines, often causing him a great deal of pain. This is apparently the result of the operation and the effect it had on the abdominal muscles, as far as I can make out. But despite this discomfort, he enjoyed the interview; it distracted him. He was eager to talk about his experiences, and I should say that he was very alert throughout the discussions.
*This autobiography has since been published; George Gamow, My World Line: An Informal Autobiography, The Viking Press, 1970.