Search for polymath's elementary particles

Strange Beauty
April 14, 2000

Philip Anderson is enlightened by the life of a 'certified genius'.

A biography of Murray Gell-Mann is long overdue, and this book by George Johnson, a science writer and correspondent for The New York Times , successfully fills the gap. Those of us who had hoped that Gell-Mann's own book, The Quark and the Jaguar , would give us insight into the man and his role in the triumphs of 20th-century physics, were disappointed for reasons that are nicely laid out in this book. Murray (often referred to here as "MGM") is to be congratulated for his generous cooperation with what is not at all an "authorised" biography, as he himself has assured me.

The literate public will hardly have heard of Gell-Mann, and few who have heard of him will have much idea of what he has done. Physics in the 20th century has undergone not one but a series of revolutions, and the physics of today differs from that of Einstein, Heisenberg and Dirac almost as much as their physics differed from its "classical" antecedents. Gell-Mann dominated the collective of remarkable scientists who made the most recent revolution, as Einstein did the earlier one. But unlike Einstein or, later, Richard Feynman, MGM has refused to settle down to become an even superficially relaxed old character.

Aside from his involvement with the notorious (to some) "Jason", a division within the government's Institute of Defence Analysis, and with the president's Science Advisory Committee, and then his work in the world of foundations, he has, over the past decade and longer, joined in founding an institute at Santa Fe with the aim of fomenting intellectual revolutions across the board. Meanwhile, he continues avidly to pursue archaeological collecting, bird-watching and obscure languages and to work substantively on his favourite cause, wilderness conservation.

The story starts in New York with a lonely prodigy's childhood, his family displaced gentry from the further reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His pedantic and perfectionist father was reduced to language teaching, inserting the hyphen into Gellman to enhance the name of his ultimately unsuccessful Manhattan language school.

Helped into Columbia Grammar School by relatives, he graduated from school at 14 and from Yale University at 18. He attended both on full scholarships: even then it was obvious he was uniquely bright, if compulsive about setting others right (a habit he retains to this day). Two-and-a-half years later (six months over his private projection), he got his PhD from Victor Weisskopf at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who sent him off to Robert Oppenheimer's Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where, rooming with Francis Low, fresh from his PhD and ten years MGM's senior, they together wrote the first of the remarkable series of papers that made MGM's reputation. As Johnson notes, this first paper was no slouch: later it was metamorphosed into one of the basic methodologies of modern physics in the hands of Ken Wilson and others.

The following chapters will divide readers into two categories. There will be those like myself, for whom they constitute a compelling page-turner - for example, those who have followed the Standard Model of the elementary particles or have read one or more of the popular accounts of its genesis. But for the general reader, this will be a challenging initiation into what is one of the great intellectual achievements of the human race, no less than the discovery of the underlying structure of the physical universe. I suspect this general reader will be rewarded with some sense of the intense struggle that led to this synthesis. It is an account that nowhere falls back into mystification or solecism and is a masterpiece of scientific explication for the layman.

Overall, Strange Beauty is a remarkably accurate study of the psychology and sociology of competitive scientific research at the highest level, interspersed with incidents in MGM's personal life as the story unfolds, all in the course of traversing the world from one physics meeting, or centre, to another.

At the time, it seemed like a succession of long intervals of bewilderment between short bursts of discovery, the latter mostly involving the proving in of a new superaccelerator and, usually, MGM and someone else sorting out the results. Actually, it was not more than 15 to 20 years, from the first burst of new quantum numbers and particles appearing in about 1953-54, just as MGM came into full possession of his abilities, through the discoveries of the electro-weak theory in 1967 and of quantum chromodynamics in the late 1960s to early 1970s, culminating in the discovery of asymptotic freedom in 1973.

As the 1970s wore on, we all came to realise that the Standard Model, as the result had come to be known, would not endure further revision without its being replaced by some higher-level theory of completely different form, such as "superstring theory". Even with string theory, MGM played an essential leadership role by setting up a "cocoon" at Caltech, where the early workers on string theory could labour undisturbed in the decade 1975-85.

"And now for something completely different." MGM had always had wide-ranging curiosity about the world, including roughing it in areas of great wilderness. He tended to become almost professionally knowledgeable about any field that interested him, be it history, archaeology, psychology or literature. I think of him as a true intellectual, as opposed to the literary intellectuals of the "chattering classes". This breadth stood him in good stead on the board of the MacArthur Foundation, which led to a wide acquaintance among leaders in many fields. (It is one of the few disappointments of the book that it passes over the MacArthur experience very lightly.) MGM was, therefore, the ideal person to provide intellectual leadership for the interdisciplinary initiative that became the Santa Fe Institute, an establishment that has had an influence totally out of proportion to its minute budget in fields as far apart as immunology, archaeology, economics and quantum epistemology - the aspect of his life that I have, to an extent, shared.

For those readers who have little interest in modern physics, there remains the elaboration of MGM's complex personality. The enormous intelligence, coupled with an eidetic memory, which brought him through what could have been a disabling childhood, still could not always gain him empathy. There are a considerable number of solid, long-term friendships and relationships, such as those with Murph Goldberger, the first mentor whom (I deduce) he could genuinely learn from, with his first collaborator Low, with Harold Morowitz from his Yale days, as well as with many students such as Seth Lloyd, and his family's closeness to David and Suzy Pines. His first marriage was a very close partnership; after Margaret's death he found partners and, eventually, a new wife, the poet Marcia Southwick. On the other side, there are a number of instances of collaborations that broke up with real rancour, notoriously that with Abraham Pais, involving MGM's first venture into new quantum numbers.

It is not atypical for him to have dubbed Pais the "evil dwarf" and maintained the nickname and the rancour for decades. Johnson tells this story even-handedly, and also that of the period late in the game when MGM's historical talks seemed to arrogate to himself even more of the credit for the Standard Model than he actually deserved. We all tend, perhaps, to feel that the notebook or the casual remark deserves credit as the moment of the discovery, but it does not. To keep one's equanimity one learns that "what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts", and through his enormous reputation and his facility with names ("quark", "strangeness", the "Eightfold Way"), Murray is here shown to have gained more than he lost.

Johnson makes the point that Murray's perfectionism, perhaps owed to his father, has dogged him all his life. Again and again, in the course of creating the Standard Model, he backed off from publishing correct insights until compelled to by competition, simply because of a reluctance to publish something that was not exactly right. For instance, where his work on quarks was, in the end, the ultimate vindication of quantum field theory, he was almost the last to stop treating them as a semi-fictitious aid to calculation. That perfectionism can lead to troubled relations with others is not surprising.

MGM's life had its share of tragedies, notably the early death of his wife Margaret and the estrangement for more than a decade from his daughter Lisa, while she became involved in a hyper-Maoist splinter party of a level of irrationality that must have been most painful to Murray. There were embarrassments, such as his failure to produce The Quark and the Jaguar in time to keep his record-breaking dollar advance (or to match the sales of Stephen Hawking, a scientist not of Gell-Mann's stature). Johnson relates how a succession of ghost writers found it impossible to deal with his perfectionism, his procrastination and his eagerness to be anywhere but at his desk - and, ultimately, his unwillingness to step out from behind his own persona. His book turned out to be a superb exposition, but lifeless.

Very amusingly told by Johnson is the tale of MGM's missing Richard Feynman's birthday as a result of a customs raid on his collection of pre-Columbian artefacts, some of which turned out to have been smuggled - the resolution being a substantial gift to the Peruvian national museum.

Finally, there is a lot about the fascinating relationship with Feynman, who brought MGM to Caltech and thus began a connection that lasted much longer than anyone could have expected but was hardly cosy. For three decades, these two geniuses, each eccentric and difficult in his own way, argued, collaborated occasionally and somehow managed to live across the hall from each other. MGM thought of Feynman (correctly) as a relative ignoramus outside of physics and a bit irresponsible. Yet it was Feynman who had the popular touch and became the best-selling author, which turned an already chancy relationship quite sour.

I got much enjoyment and enlightenment from this book. For anyone interested in physics and physicists or in the make-up of a certified genius, I consider it a "must-read". For anyone else, Strange Beauty has much to recommend it, even if it may be rather tough going in parts. Science writing doesn't get much better than this.

Philip W. Anderson, Nobel laureate, is professor of physics, Princeton University, United States.

Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth Century Physics

Author - George Johnson
ISBN - 0 224 044 3
Publisher - Cape
Price - £18.99
Pages - 434

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments