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Ordinary Geniuses

Max Delbruck, George Gamow and the Origins of Genomics and Big-Bang Cosmology

Ordinary Geniuses by Gino Segrè

Max Delbruck and George Gamow met in 1931 at Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen Institute for Theoretical Physics. Both were promising members of the young cadre drawn into physics by the exciting developments in quantum mechanics. Joined as well by a predilection for practical jokes, they became good friends. But they also seemed to share a desire to do what Gamow referred to as “the pioneering thing” and this made them move away from the burgeoning field of nuclear physics. Over the course of several years, marked in part by Delbruck fleeing Hitler’s Germany and Gamow escaping from Stalin’s Russia, one turned to molecular biology and the other to astrophysics and cosmology.

As well as being a narrative of these individuals’ lives, this book is also about how a new field of science emerges and how, under the right circumstances, even an ordinary genius can accomplish extraordinary things. I loved writing about these two men, whose quirky humor matched their quirky brilliance.

Ordinary Geniuses was published by Viking-Penguin in August 2011.


  • Segrè spins a rousing tale of scientific thought and adventure. And like his subjects, he makes a convincing case for approaching new problems with a sense of wonder.
    Publisher’s Weekly – August 2011
  • An exuberant dual biography that integrates developments in quantum physics, cosmology and genetics since the 1920s with the lives of these two scientists.
    Kirkus Reviews — August 2011
  • Gino Segrè’s fascinating dual biography of George Gamow and Max Delbrück, “Ordinary Geniuses.” Gamow was a theoretical physicist who made an interesting foray into the biology of protein synthesis, while Delbrück was a theoretical physicist who became a biologist and then won the Nobel Prize for his work in genetics.
    Jeremy Bernstein, Wall Street Journal – August 13, 2011
  • In parallel chapters Segrè has sensitively and insightfully narrated chronologically Delbrück and Gamow’s personal and professional lives. And while doing so, he has clearly presented and explained their scientific contributions; the prior works on which they were based; and their present day importance and relevance.
    Silvan Schwebe, American Scientist
  • Segrè convincingly shows how the pair’s maverick personalities led to their discoveries, while their restlessness often stopped them seeing their ideas to maturity.
  • Jonathan Keats, New Scientist – August 2011


Advance praise

  • Ordinary Geniuses makes me wistfully wonder if the world will ever again witness the coming together of such fun-loving intellectual brilliance.
    James D. Watson, author of The Double Helix
  • George Gamow and Max Delbrück were free spirits and practical jokers. They broke away from the mainstream of science in the 1930s and found new ways of thinking that opened the way to new sciences in the 1950s. George invented Big Bang cosmology, and Max invented molecular biology. This book brings them magnificently to life. It gives us a fresh view of the way new sciences are born.
    Freeman Dyson, Princeton Institute for Advanced Study
  • Ordinary Geniuses is no ordinary book. Gino Segrè, a masterly storyteller, takes us off the beaten path to view two revolutions in twentieth-century science from a novel perspective. By chronicling the lives of two renegade scientists. Max Delbrück and George Gamow, Segrè puts the birth of both molecular biology and modern cosmology in a whole new light. An engaging read.
    Marcia Bartusiak, author of the Day We Found the Universe
  • Gino Segrè is an accomplished scientist, a gifted writer, and a meticulous scholar. His talents come together in this wonderful book, the story of the intertwining careers of two quite amazing scientists. But it is more. It is a loving ode to twentieth-century science and will enthrall as it instructs.
    Kenneth W. Ford, author of 101 Quantum Questions:What You Need to Know About the World You Can’t See; former director, American Institute of Physics
  • A marvelous book. Segrè describes vividly how Delbrück helped to establish the new science of molecular biology while Gamow went into cosmology and originated our current view of the Big Bang. They both left major impressions on science, as might be expected from ordinary geniuses.
    Alex Rich, Sedgwick Professor of Biophysics, MIT
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