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«Are there now enough Curies, Bohrs, and Rutherfords to help scientists from these three countries?» Natalia Berloff on the new symbolism of the Gamow Prize

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In 2023, the George Gamow® award will again be given to two scientists. The organizer RASA-America (Russian-American Science Association), announced the start of the collection of nominations. Recall that the award has been given to members of the Russian-speaking scientific diaspora for outstanding contributions to world science since 2015. This year’s Gamow Awards committee was chaired by professor of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge (UK) Natalia Berloff.

“Georgy Antonovich Gamow is an outstanding Soviet and American physicist and science popularizer who made pioneering contributions to the theory of alpha decay, the ‘hot universe’ model, and the application of nuclear physics to problems of stellar evolution,” reported on the prize page. Gamow also made a significant contribution to biology by being the first to formulate the problem of the genetic code. He is widely known for his popular science books, in which he used the experience of his hero, Mr. Tompkins, to explain modern scientific ideas in a fascinating and accessible way. Gamow was a corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

This year is certainly a special year for the award, which is given to members of the Russian-speaking scientific diaspora. For the first time scientists will be nominated during the full-scale war in Ukraine.

RASA members and many representatives of the scientific diaspora actively help and assist scientists from both Ukraine and Russia in relocating and obtaining academic positions.

At the same time, Natalia Berloff stressed in a comment to T-invariant that tragic external circumstances did not directly affect the work of the organizing committee or the selection among the nominees. “I approached the selection of committee members on the basis of their reputation in the academic community and the representativeness of various scientific fields. I’m sure the same criteria were used before the war. Also, the conditions for inclusion of nominees, as far as I know, have not changed,” Berloff said.

And while these important academic formalities are invariant, the symbolism of this year’s Georgy Gamow Prize, according to Natalia Berloff, is quite different.

What Georgy Gamow’s legacy sounds like this year, what new meaning and new role the prestigious award has, in Natalia Berloff’s column for T-invariant.

“In Gamow’s place one could easily imagine scientists from Russia or Belarus now”

Recent events have shown that when there is a severe division of people, it is necessary to support those societies or organizations that have the strength and desire to help people, based on universal human values. Having worked in the West for many years, now it’s very easy to say “it’s none of my business”, “I left the Soviet Union”, “everyone who stayed there deserved it”, “why didn’t you leave? RASA clearly and repeatedly expressed its attitude to the war and became involved in helping refugees and returnees, whether Ukrainian, Russian or Belarusian. More and more important are those professional communities that are willing to help “their own” on a professional basis. In this case, the division, being “professional”, does not divide, because help must be substantive with knowledge and information that can really help people find themselves in a new space, in an international scientific context. There are many stories of such assistance, from helping last grade schoolchildren with their parents fleeing Russian bombings, to undergraduate and graduate students who find themselves in the conditional Upper Lars, to professors who find themselves in exile without a means of livelihood.

We all find ourselves in a whirlwind of pain. Here is a 17-year-old teenager who has just successfully completed an interview for the Cambridge Mathematics Department, who has yet to meet the admission requirements, pass his final school exams and, in addition, STEP, a special exam for admission to Cambridge. He is from Mariupol, at the most critical time of the exams, almost a month, he has not heard from his father. While he and his brother and grandmother were getting out of the occupied territory.

A graduate student who left Russia after an anti-war rally, his grandmother is seriously ill, and he is worried that he will never see her again.

Here is a history professor from Kharkov, her son was called for a military medical examination.

Here is a scientist, a physicist who wrote a book on quantum computing and dedicated it to his friend who died in the war.

Here is a professor of English literature from Nikolaev, her 80-year-old mother hugging me and telling me goodbye at the end of a dinner at a Cambridge college: “It’s so good to finally hear Russian!”

In this context, the Gamow Award has a new symbolism. The Gamow Prize is given to members of the Russian-speaking diaspora “for outstanding contributions to science and for efforts to promote international cooperation and preserve the Russian cultural heritage. Georgy Gamow is a theoretical physicist known for his breakthrough research in quantum mechanics, atomic and nuclear physics, astrophysics, cosmology and biology. He was born in Odessa and worked in Leningrad, Paris, Gettingen, Cambridge, Washington, Berkeley, Boulder. There is a transcript of a interview that George Gamow gave to Charles Weiner in 1968 shortly before his death. Reading it, it is impossible not to be surprised by the cyclical nature of history.

In the twenties Gamow worked in Cambridge, where at that time many young scientists from the Soviet Union (including, for example, Peter Kapitsa) were interning, and moved freely between Europe and Russia. However, in 1931 there was a dramatic change in the political situation. Soviet scientists were much less frequently invited and even more rarely allowed to attend international scientific conferences. The decision of the German Academy of Sciences not to invite representatives of the USSR Academy of Sciences to an international conference in honor of the 100th anniversary of Hegel, the German philosopher, the founder of the theory of dialectical materialism, the basis of Marxism-Leninism, was met with resentment at the highest level.

In 1931 Gamow made the decision to leave the USSR. He attempted to sail across the Black Sea to Turkey in a small boat. He and his first wife spent three days in rough seas and were finally beached 60 miles from the starting point. They had five days’ worth of food and two bottles of cognac with them. Over the next two years, they explored the possibility of crossing the Finnish and Norwegian borders illegally. Finally, in 1933, Gamow received permission to go to Brussels for the Solvay International Conference as a representative of the USSR. The invitation was written by Langevin (“the Langevin equations”), president of the conference, at the request of Niels Bohr (creator of the first quantum theory of the atom), who tried many times to help Gamow get out of the USSR. It took the help of Bukharin and a personal meeting with Molotov to get permission for his wife to leave.

Bohr insisted that Gamow return back to Russia after the conference because Langevin did not know about Gamow’s plans to leave, and Bohr felt embarrassed. According to another participant in this famous conference, Pauli (“the Pauli exclusion principle”), Gamow’s performance at the conference was terrible: he was desperate. It took the intervention of another legendary physicist, Marie Sklodowska-Curie, who talked to Langevin and got his official consent for Gamow to stay (Langevin could not refuse the woman he once loved, for which he almost died in a duel). In Brussels, Gamow and his wife were left destitute. “I had to survive the winter, so I was distributed between Madame Curie, Bohr and Rutherford,” Gamow recalls in an interview. Curie kept him for two months on a stipend in her laboratory, then Bohr did the same, then Rutherford, and so on until there was a position in America, and Gamow left Europe for George Washington University.

One can easily imagine scientists from Russia or Belarus now in Gamow’s place. But are there enough Curies, Bohrs and Rutherfords to help them now! I hope that awarding the Gamow Prize will be a symbol of unity of the international scientific community and our readiness to help scientists in trouble, without dividing them into nationalities.

The organizing committee informs that nominations (not more than one page of text with justification) can be sent until July 15 to [email protected]. The award will be presented to the recipients in person at the RASA Annual Conference to be held October 15-16, 2023 in Chicago, IL, USA. The award statute and information about past winners can be read on the award page.</blockquote


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