This book’s title immediately leaves the reader wondering about what it means to be an ordinary (as opposed to extraordinary) genius. Anticipating this question, the author helpfully explains that ordinary geniuses are smarter and more imaginative than most people but “not qualitatively different” (p. xviii) from most of us. In contrast, extraordinary geniuses are—to use the description of the mathematician Mark Kac—like magicians “whose inventions are so ingenious it is hard to see how any mortal could have imagined them” (p. xviii).
Max Delbruck and George Gamow were, according to the author, ordinary geniuses, and this book tells a fascinating tale about the lives of these two individuals in the context of broader developments in genomics and cosmology in the last century. Max Delbruck was born on 4 September 1906 in Berlin. He was born into a family whose members were already prominent for having made noteworthy contributions to, inter alia, chemistry, history, and public service. Delbruck trained as a physicist at the University of Gottingen but, over the years, his interests changed and he moved away from physics and towards molecular biology.
George Gamow was born on 4 March 1904 in Odessa in more modest circumstances. Even so, the young Gamow displayed a love of learning and he went off to St. Petersburg to study physics because it was not possible to study physics seriously in the University of Odessa. Unlike Delbruck who made a clear move into a different area of research later on in life, Gamow dabbled in many different areas but remained essentially a physicist.
A significant part of this book is devoted to describing how the thinking and the lives of these—and many other—scholars were shaped by exposure to the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen created by the eminent Danish physicist Neils Bohr. We learn that Bohr successfully created in his Institute a nurturing environment that was distinctive not only because it encouraged discussion about and research in top quality physics, but also because it established a great esprit de corps among its many visitors and residents. Both Delbruck and Gamow were influenced by this environment to such a degree that they seriously attempted to recreate it in their subsequent perches in the United States many years later.
The turbulent times created in Europe by the rise of Hitler in Germany and Stalin in the Soviet Union resulted in the departure of many first-rate scientists from their native countries to other nations of the world (and to the United States in particular). Delbruck ended up in the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, and Gamow found refuge in George Washington University in Washington, DC. From their new locations, both Delbruck and Gamow proceeded to make significant intellectual contributions to, respectively, molecular biology and cosmology.
Delbruck emerged as the leader of the so called “phage group,” which made many noteworthy contributions to molecular biology. These contributions resulted in his receiving the 1969 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. However, after the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick, Delbruck decided to follow his own admonition to not do “fashionable research” and to move on to other areas of intellectual inquiry. In contrast to Delbruck, even though Gamow made many scientific contributions, he did not win a Nobel Prize. The author does not clearly explain why this turned out to be the case, but the implication of his extended discussion of Gamow’s research contributions is that Gamow was too interested in doing “the pioneering thing” and hence never stayed in any specific field long enough to win a Nobel Prize.
This book contains a dual biography of two very prominent scientists of the recent past and is chockfull of thought-provoking information about how scientists conduct research, the personalities and the foibles of some leading researchers, and how difficult it can be to shed meaningful light on some of the most difficult research questions in both genomics and cosmology. The classification of scientists as ordinary or extraordinary geniuses is certainly subjective and occasionally rings hollow. In addition, the author’s attempts to find commonalities between Delbruck and Gamow are sometimes a bit of a stretch. These two points notwithstanding, there is no gainsaying the fact that this book provides a vivid account of the conduct of research by some of the finest minds to have lived on the planet and is a delight to read.