Ordinary Overuse of Genius

Book Book Review, Title Ordinary Geniuses, Author Gino Segrè, Rating 3.0,

Ordinary Geniuses

Gino Segrè

Book Review

This is a good but not great biography of two lesser-known 20th century scientists, George Gamow and Max Delbrück, both of whom show up in many historical accounts of the history of molecular biology, hence my interest. I was particularly interested in the author's depiction of Delbrück, a Nobel Prize winner late in his life for work done thirty years prior. Delbrück, who is routinely depicted as a great thought leader and a fiercely intelligent scientist, is elusive in other historical accounts, begging the question: What did he contribute, and why was his input so prized?

Alas, the author provides no clear insight into either the man nor his specifically laudable accomplishments. In fact, he routinely points out that Delbrück mostly got it wrong scientifically. It appears that what Delbrück got right was that, as one of the earliest physicists to shift to what became molecular biology, he embarked on a search for a physical interpretation of the gene, and mentored many of the future contributors into the field along the way.

Delbrück was unwilling to learn even basic biochemistry, severely limiting his ability to contribute concretely to what became molecular biology. When one of his acolytes, James Watson, along with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA, providing the basis for the molecular in molecular biology, Delbrück complained that the solution was too easy, and looked to move on to another field! Impressive! I was underwhelmed by the historical Delbrück and wonder whether a Nobel prize was wasted on one who in some ways was too smart to actually do the hard work (the Nobel prize is intended to help fund future research by the best in the field). I was not convinced by this biography that the title ‘Ordinary Genius’ actually applied.

He and Gamow were celebrated as a natural leaders, as people who drove others in fruitful directions, even if they didn’t finish strongly themselves. Delbrück is compared to his early mentor, Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who dominated early quantum mechanics, who in his early career made significant contributions, and in his later career, was the pre-eminent leader for many of the future leaders of quantum physics. It is ultimately a weak comparison, as Delbrück produced very little of significance in his own scientific career. Likewise, Delbrück’s leadership and individual contributions pale when compared to his mentee James Watson, who’s early individual contributions were nonpareil, and who’s later career was one of building effective programs that significantly extended the field of molecular biology.

As for Gamow, he worked much harder at contributing to primarily nuclear physics and cosmology, with a brief but memorable side jaunt into an effort to unravel the genetic code immediately following the discovery of the structure of DNA. He wrote well-received textbooks in his field, and contributed significantly to the early quantum understanding of the nuclear particles, in particular, to an understanding of alpha decay. Likewise, he was a thought leader in aspects of modern ‘Big Bang’ cosmology. He was a copious generator of ideas, most of which were short-lived, but in this way stimulated others to pick lines of research that were useful. Gamow was considered an excellent popularizer of science in his time, although his books, such as One, Two, Three … Infinity! are written long enough ago to be a little too out-of-date for modern readers.

One of the pleasures of this book are the efforts to set scientific context for the reader – the author is adept at non-technical explanations of the scientifically challenging. Here is his the author’s pithy references to Einstein’s relativity theories: "Modern cosmology begins in 1915 with Einstein's general theory of relativity. His special theory of relativity formulated in 1905 had been based on two assumptions. The first one was that it to observers or traveling with a uniform velocity with respect to each other all they could establish was their relative motion. There was no absolute frame of reference for determining what it meant to be stationary. The second was that the velocity of light was the same whether the source was at rest or in uniform motion. ... Einstein began his search for general relativity noting that acceleration and forces were absent from special relativity. It occurred to him that 'if a person falls freely he will not feel his own weight.' ... The shortest distance between two points on the surface of a sphere is not a straight line but a geodesic, and two lines of longitude though they are parallel at the equator meet at the poles. So Euclidean geometry cannot be used to describe the surface of a sphere. Where masses cause paths to curve he needed a formulation of trajectories in non-euclidean geometry. Wheeler said it best - 'Matter tells space how to curve, space tells matter how to move'." (pages 147-148) 

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