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Book Review

Ordinary Geniuses: Max Delbruck, George Gamow, and the Origins of Genomics and Big Bang Cosmology

Max Delbruck and George Gamow, the so-called ordinary geniuses of the title, were not as famous or decorated as some of their colleagues in mid-twentieth century physics. Yet, it was these two friends whose work paved the way for two of today’s most exciting areas of science: genomics and cosmology.

In the 1940s, while their colleagues were focusing on splitting atoms and other highly politicized pursuits in the shadow of World War II, Delbruck and Gamow struck out into unfashionable areas of research. Once a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, the other from Stalin’s Russia, they followed their own unique senses of curiosity about, among other things, how parents transmit genetic traits to offspring and how stars generate energy. In doing so, they became catalysts for great discoveries wherever they ventured. But because their research accomplishments were so controversial and so radically different from the mainstream scientific pursuits of the time, it tool longer for their achievements to be recognized as the breakthroughs they really were.

Max didn’t win his Nobel Prize until he was in his sixties, and Geo, thanks to his intellectual “wanderlust” when it came to research, never stayed in one field long enough to win one. And yet, their contributions to science are unquestionable. Thanks in large part to them, today we have mapped the human genome and understand the ramifications of the Big Bang.

Gino Segre brings to life the stories of these two maverick scientists and their long friendship. In addition, the author offers a real inside look at how science is done by the people behind the scenes—the collaboration and competition, the quirks and failures, the role of intuition and luck, and the sense of wonder and curiosity that keeps these extraordinary minds going.