A biography of two maverick scientists whose intellectual wanderlust kick-started modern genomics and cosmology.


What constitutes genius? Is it the mathematician who sees a distant planet and devises a means to calculate the distance to it? Is it the rocketeer who engineers the means to reach it? Is it the thinker who tells us why we find the planet important and worthy of our attention in the first place? Is it all of the above? Whatever it is the term has been reduced in a glut of spending that has turned it from the golden coin of the realm to the copper of colloquial usage and books like this only increase our poverty.

Gamow’s Evolutionary Theory of the Universe claims an initial stew of super-hot nuclear fusions of basic particles created all the hydrogen in the Universe in one explosive moment. The same blast caused space to expand. The ongoing expansion from that “big bang” is observed[sic] by astronomers today throughout cosmos – i.e.; it is found by those who wish to find it. As for scientists it is an irrational process that cannot be described in scientific terms … [nor] challenged by an appeal to observation…

For one thing, the “big bang” requires something before the explosion. No one knows what that might be. If on the other hand, the Universe is eternal and stars are always being made and forever making heavier elements there is no need for an initial explosion. Recent advances in nuclear physics seem to back the “steady state” view, calling on the pressures and temperatures inside stars to manufacture all the heavy elements seen in the cosmos today. Of course NONE of this scientific thinking describes what came first.

Ordinary geniuses : Max Delbruck, George Gamow, and the origins of genomics and big bang cosmology Gino Segre New York : Viking, 2011 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xxi, 330 p. : ill. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 309-318) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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Max Delbruck and George Gamow, the so-called ordinary geniuses of Segre’s book, were not as famous or as decorated as some of their colleagues in midtwentieth-century physics, yet these two friends had a profound influence on how we now see the world, both on its largest scale (the universe) and its smallest (genetic code). Their maverick approach to research resulted in truly pioneering science.

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Wherever these men ventured, they were catalysts for discoveries – or at least novel thinking. Here Segre shows readers how they were far from “ordinary”. While portraying their personal lives Segre, a scientist himself, gives readers an inside look at how science is done – collaboration, competition, the influence of politics, the role of intuition and luck, and the sense of wonder and curiosity that fuels these minds.

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