The Relativity of Ordinary

A new biography of two eminent scientists is much more than that.

By Beth Kephart

ORDINARY GENIUSES: Max Delbrück, George Gamow, and the Origins of Genomics and Big Bang Cosmology
By Gino Segrè, faculty
Viking, 2011, $27.95.

George Gamow and Max Delbrück were scientific wall-jumpers—intellectual border-crossers who in many ways defined the fields of cosmology and genomics.  

George, known as Geo, was Russian, a physicist by training, who would go on to be known as the father of Big Bang cosmology. Max, also a trained physicist, was a German whose curiosity would take him many places before he settled in with bacteriophages and the study of genetic replication. Geo was a renowned jokester. Max was considered Zen. Wonder framed their pursuits, and friendship bound them. In choosing to pair the two in Ordinary Geniuses, a dual biography, Gino Segrè, emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at Penn, has crafted a charming and wide-ranging text that has as much to teach about 20th-century science as it does about personal sacrifice and risks.

But what is an ordinary genius? Segrè defines the term in the opening pages of his book:

Pauli, Heisenberg, Dirac, and of course Einstein were extraordinary geniuses, whereas Max and Geo were only ordinary geniuses, smarter and more imaginative than you and me, but not qualitatively different from us … In the right circumstances, through good judgment, perseverance, character, and, we must not forget, luck, even ordinary geniuses can lead a revolution in science. To their enduring credit, this is exactly what Max and Geo did.

Segrè appreciates not just their accomplishments but their “effort to look at the big picture, to think big thoughts and remain undeterred even when proven wrong.” Most of all, he says, he values the “intellectual courage” of his chosen protagonists, which they combined with “quirkiness in thought and behavior that frequently led them off the beaten track.”

His deep affection for Geo and Max is both endearing and contagious. Segrè wants to understand the men, not just their achievements. His quest is urgent and his research takes him far—through the scientific annals, certainly, but also into conversations with scientific greats as well as the heroes’ children.

Readers of Ordinary Geniuses will be impressed by the book’s ambition and scope—its weave through 20th-century science, its careful context-setting, its never-simplistic but also never-confusing array of explanations for everything from general and special relativity to genetic mutation, the Big Bang theory to sensory physiology, dinosaur-extinction theory to the molecular structure of nucleic acids. I studied the history and sociology of science as an undergraduate at Penn, but it’s been a long time since I have sat with so much science on my lap. I was grateful for Segrè’s patience, for his quiet fleshing-out and filling-in of terms, for his companionable excursions in the evolution of ideas.

He also movingly explores how his protagonists lived, how they talked, and whom they loved. Segrè’s writing about Geo—that wild-haired, motorcycle-riding jokester who observed Halley’s Comet as a six-year-old amateur astronomer, who reveled in Russian poetry, who would recite Pushkin throughout his life, and who couldn’t spell (apparently) but could very beautifully and entertainingly write—is some of the best in the book.

But my favorite passage is the one quoted at length below. It’s just after 1948, and Max and his wife, Manny, have moved to Caltech, where once again Max, the physicist perpetually morphing into a biologist, is pursuing life’s big questions in the company of collaborators and questers. 

The Delbrück Pasadena house was a kind of second home for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows; in many ways they became part of the extended family, often with Manny looking after them. There were also the legendary Delbrück camping trips into the desert, simple expeditions organized on the spot, with plain food cooked on a campfire, some ordinary wine, hikes, a little scrambling over the rocks, and wide-ranging discussions about almost everything.  Manny would arrange the excursions, pick Max up at the lab in their old car, and sometimes drive it into the desert until its wheels became stuck in the sand. That’s where they would camp. In the evening you might find the Delbrücks, students, postdocs, and distinguished visitors from America and abroad all huddled together by the campfire. Afterward, sleeping bags were brought out, simple food was cooked over a grill, and, as Jonathan Delbrück remembered, “At night there was talk of all manner of things, as we clustered for dinner around the campfire, like a primeval tribal family, with Manny at its core and Max at the helm.”

Segrè’s abiding affection for his characters, his deep research, his own polymathic understanding of multiple scientific disciplines, and his short-chaptered, well-paced prose is bound to resonate deeply with anyone who wants to know not just how scientific disciplines are advanced and evolved, but who is behind the churn of progress.

Beth Kephart C’82’s 14th book, Small Damages, is being released by Philomel in July. She teaches creative nonfiction at Penn during the spring semesters.

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