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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The last amateurs

Is the age of the talented amateur over in science? By amateur here I don't mean a non-scientist doing science (that age probably ended earlier), but rather a specialist from one area making a contribution in another. The example below is George Gamow, a cosmologist and theoretical physicist who migrated into biology.

Specialization of science also robbed us of much of our passion. We wanted to grasp science whole, but by then the whole was something far too vast and complex to master. Only rarely could we ask the deep questions that had first drawn us to science.

Ulam on George Gamow:
Gamow, who was a complete layman in the field of biology ... proposed, with his fantastically unerring instinct, some ideas about how the code really worked. I think he was the first to suggest that the sequence of the four substances of the DNA denoted by the letters A, C, T, C expressed words, and how from these four letters one could build 20 or 23 amino acids ... defining the structure of proteins. Gamow had this idea before anyone else. He even almost had the correct way (later found by Crick) of expressing the formation by triplets. ...

One may see in his work, among other outstanding traits, perhaps the last example of amateurism in science ...

Gamow and Einstein crossing the street:
Quantum uncertainty allows the temporary creation of bubbles of energy, or pairs of particles (such as electron-positron pairs) out of nothing, provided that they disappear in a short time. The less energy is involved, the longer the bubble can exist. Curiously, the energy in a gravitational field is negative, while the energy locked up in matter is positive. If the Universe is exactly flat, then as Tryon pointed out the two numbers cancel out, and the overall energy of the Universe is precisely zero. In that case, the quantum rules allow it to last forever. If you find this mind-blowing, you are in good company. George Gamow told in his book My World Line (Viking, New York, reprinted 1970) how he was having a conversation with Albert Einstein while walking through Princeton in the 1940s. Gamow casually mentioned that one of his colleagues had pointed out to him that according to Einstein's equations a star could be created out of nothing at all, because its negative gravitational energy precisely cancels out its positive mass energy. "Einstein stopped in his tracks," says Gamow, "and, since we were crossing a street, several cars had to stop to avoid running us down".

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