«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

Machine trans­la­tion

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

  11.06.2023

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