Please disable your adblock and script blockers to view this page

Remembering Murray Gell-Mann

Lauritsen Lab
the Wolfram Language
the MacArthur Foundation
MacArthur Fellowship
the Manhattan Project
the University of Illinois
the University of Chicago
Quantum Electrodynamics
the Lie group SU(3
Particle Properties
the Santa Fe Institute
the Rio Grande Institute
New York Times
A New Kind of Science

Murray Gell-Mann
M. Gell-Mann
H. Tuck”—which
Helen Tuck
Richard Feynman
James Joyce
Nathan Isgur
Murph Goldberger
Francis Low
George Zweig
George Johnson
Murray hated.)But
Stephen Wolfram
Steve Jobs
Isaac Newton
I disagree”.Then
James Gleick


Ellis Island!”.)Murray

Small Distances

New York
New Mexico
Santa Fe
Los Alamos
New York City

World War II

Positivity     44.00%   
   Negativity   56.00%
The New York Times
Write a review: Hacker News

And so much progress was being made that it seemed like the fundamental theory of physics might be close at hand.Right in the middle of all this was Murray Gell-Mann—responsible for not one, but most of the leaps of intuition that had brought particle physics to where it was. “This is Murray Gell-Mann”, the caller said, then launched into a monologue about why Caltech was the center of the universe for particle physics at the time. So when he promoted me, I was on the one hand flattered, but on the other hand concerned about what his endorsement might really mean.The interaction between Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman was an interesting thing to behold. In telling this to me, Feynman then went into a long diatribe about how Murray always seemed to think the names for things were so important. (Murray was an avid bird watcher.)Meanwhile, Feynman had worked on particles which seemed (and turned out to be) related to quarks. I never quite understood why Murray—who could have gone to any university in the world—chose to work at Caltech for 33 years in an office two doors down from Feynman.Murray cared a lot about what people thought of him, but would routinely (and maddeningly to watch) put himself in positions where he would look bad. He said he didn’t think polymones was much good, but didn’t have any other suggestion.When I was working on SMP (a forerunner of Mathematica and the Wolfram Language) I asked Murray about it, though at the time I didn’t really understand as I do now the correspondences between human and computational languages. But it was correct: and immediately Murray was able to explain lots of things that had been observed.But how did the weak interaction that was—among other things—responsible for the decay of Murray’s “strange particles” actually work? Zweig (who was at the time visiting CERN) took a mathematically less elaborate approach, observing that the existing particles could be explained as built from three kinds of “aces”, as he called them, with the same properties as Gell-Mann’s quarks.Zweig became a professor at Caltech—and I’ve personally been friends with him for more than 40 years. But he never got as much credit for his aces idea as he should (though in 1977 Feynman proposed him for a Nobel Prize), and after a few years he left particle physics and started studying the neurobiology of the ear—and now, in his eighties, has started a quant hedge fund.Meanwhile, Gell-Mann continued pursuing the theory of quarks, refining his ideas about current algebras. There were lots of details, particularly associated with relativistic kinematics, but in 1969 Feynman proposed his parton (or, as Gell-Mann called it, “put-on”) model, in which the proton contained point-like “parton” particles.It was immediately guessed that partons might be quarks, and within a couple of years this had been established. But it was having trouble, and the discovery of asymptotic freedom in QCD in 1973 brought field theory back to the fore, and, with it, lots of optimism about what might be possible in particle physics.Murray Gell-Mann had had an amazing run. And a consistent theory of weak interactions emerged that, together with QED and QCD, defined what by the early 1980s had become the modern Standard Model of particle physics that exists today.I myself got seriously interested in particle physics in 1972, when I was 12 years old. (Yes, full of charming spelling mistakes, and a few physics mistakes.)When I first met Murray in 1978, his great run of intuition successes and his time defining almost everything that was important in particle physics was already behind him. I think in those days it was most often supergravity—a merger of the idea of supersymmetry with an early form of string theory (itself derived from much earlier work on S-matrix theory).This was the time when QCD, quark models and lots of other things that Murray had basically created were at their hottest. Yet Murray chose not to work on them—for example telling me after hearing a talk I gave on QCD that I should work on more worthwhile topics.I’m guessing Murray somehow thought that his amazing run of intuition would continue, and that his new theories would be as successful as his old. Though when I would see Murray, he would often tell me of some amazing physics that he was just about to crack, often using elaborate mathematical formalism that I didn’t recognize.By the time I left Caltech in 1983, Murray was spending much of his time in New Mexico, around Santa Fe and Los Alamos—particularly getting involved in what would become the Santa Fe Institute. And as chance would have it, in connection with the republication of the proceedings of that event, I just recently wrote an account of what happened there, which I will soon post.But in any case, Murray was co-chairing the event, and talking about his vision for a great interdisciplinary university, in which people would study things like the relations between physics and archaeology. And Murray himself began to use “complexity” as a label for things he was thinking about.I tried for years (starting when I first worked on such things, in 1981) to explain to Murray about cellular automata, and about my explorations of the computational universe. (Several years later, a New York Times writer named George Johnson wrote what I considered a very good biography of Murray, which Murray hated.)But then I heard that Murray’s book was actually going to be about his theory of complexity, whatever that might be. George Zweig told me he’d heard that Murray had left people like me and him out of the index to the book, so we’d have to read the whole book if we wanted to find out what he said about us.At the time, I didn’t bother. (Actually, I don’t think I discussed anything relevant to decoherent histories in quantum mechanics.) He explained that he didn’t want to write a blurb, and ended: “I’m sorry, and I hope that this matter does not present any threat to our friendship, which I hold dear”.As it turned out, I never talked to Murray about science again. And though Murray is now gone, the physics he discovered will live on, defining an important chapter in the quest for our understanding of the fundamental structure of our universe.Posted in: Historical Perspectives, Physical Science3 CommentsRELATED POSTSWolfram|Alpha at 10May 18, 2019The Story of SpikeyDecember 28, 2018We’ve Come a Long Way in 30 Years (But You Haven’t Seen Anything Yet!)June 21, 2018PREVIOUS POSTLaunching Today: Free Wolfram Engine for DevelopersMay 21, 2019Please enter your comment (at least 5 characters).Please enter your name.Please enter a valid email address.I rapidly perused your unpublished book on particle physics and I was awesomely impressed.

As said here by