George Gamow's Mr. Tompkins returns in comic book form to dream about science

Categories: Books

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Back in the early part of the twentieth century, physicist George Gamow had a hand in some of science's most fascinating breakthroughs: the Big Bang theory, DNA and RNA, radioactivity. The physics department building at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he taught until the end of his career, is named after him, as a matter of fact. But in spite of his scientific prowess, perhaps his most enduring legacy was c.G.h. Tompkins, a fictional banker and everyman who enjoyed taking in scientific lectures and then illustrating their concepts by dreaming them.

If that sounds a little weird, it is a little weird -- Gamow was famously quirky -- but as a teaching tool, it was also brilliant, and it resulted in three books, beginning with Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland, which finds the eponymous character listening to a lecture on relativity and then dreaming himself into a world where the speed of light is 10 miles per hour, causing a lot of weird things to happen.

The book was a success, and over the course of the next fifteen years or so was followed by two more lessons modeled on the same conceit: Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom and Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life, the latter being about biology.

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"With no exaggeration, I must've had dozens and dozens of people come by my office during my time at CU Boulder, see my name and ask me, 'Was George Gamow your father?'" recalls Igor Gamow, son of George. "I'd say, 'Yes, according to my mother,' and all these people would tell me, 'I went into science because of George Gamow.'"

And so it was that, eventually, Igor Gamow was to follow in his father's footsteps in more ways than just his tenure at CU. "When I joined CU in 1967, we were the absolute tops at producing scientists and engineers, and we're just not anymore," Igor laments. "So I decided, well, maybe I can do what my father did and make people excited about science by making it entertaining." To accomplish that, he once again sought the help of one c.G.h. Tompkins.

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Genetic ties aside, Gamow the junior is well suited to helm a Tompkins reboot; a whimsical man (he spent the first roughly 15 percent of our conversation gushing about the "adorable" juvenile bears he found in his apple tree that morning) who speaks with a decidedly nutty professor-ish lilt and is given to wearing Western tuxedos and cowboy hats, he's got the quirky pedigree to make the science-explained-through-weird-dreams concept work -- and this time, with the help of illustrator Scorpio Steele, he's doing it in comic-book form.

"It was inspired by my father's books," he explains, "but where he did three books, I plan to do ten volumes on thirty scientists." (Each volume tackles three of them.) And while the idea was originally conceived as being geared toward the educational world (a series of lectures and a study guide was planned), draconian school-district regulations now have him taking the product to the general public -- which is okay with Gamow. In fact, he's more than okay with that.

"You know, everybody reads Alice in Wonderland," he muses. "Children, hundred-year-olds, everybody reads it. I would like to be known as the Alice in Wonderland of Science."

Igor Gamow's Mr. Tompkins series debuted last year and covered Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford. The second volume, which hits stands this week, covers Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and James D. Watson, and is available for sale on Amazon or as an iPhone app.

See you in Wonderland.

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