27 June 2000

Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution
in 20th Century Physics
by George Johnson (published
by Knopf in the US: 0679437649, and by Jonathan Cape in
the UK: 0224044273).

Murray Gell-Mann befriended
me in Paris towards the end of my National Science
Foundation postdoctoral junket and lured me to Pasadena.
It was the year of the Eightfold Way, smack in the middle
of Gell-Mann’s two-decade reign as emperor of elementary
particles. His brilliance was so intense that lesser folk, such
as myself and my sidekick Sidney Coleman, had to ration
our time with him. Not only did Gell-Mann devise the lion’s
share of today’s particle lore, but on first acquaintance you
would soon learn, through his painfully in-your-face
erudition, that he knew far more than you about almost
everything, from archaeology, birds and cacti to Yoruban
myth and zymology. He once drew a false etymology of
avocado, but his errors were so rare as to be

This book is a brave attempt to interweave
two stories. One is the history of particle physics according
to Gell-Mann, from the development of quantum field
theory to the fall of the Superconducting Super-Collider
(which he lamented) and the coincidental rise of string
theory (which he championed). The other is a must-read
account of the life of a truly fascinating

Explaining particle physics to the lay
reader is a labour of Hercules. Johnson strives magnificently
but doesn’t always succeed. After a long explication of
strangeness, he drops the ball by asserting that the Xi
hyperon has strangeness +2. His exposition of the quark
hypothesis is better: how they were invented and named by
Gell-Mann; thought of independently by George Zweig,
who called them “aces”, had his paper rejected and soon
left physics; how Gell-Mann vacillated for years between
the interpretation of quarks as helpful mathematical fictions
or as real and observable particles (they are neither); how
quarks acquired their “colours”, the change of which from
patriotic to primary is given undue significance; and how
they have become a crucial part of today’s Standard Model
of particle physics.

However, bloopers like “the
briefer a particle’s life span, the higher its energy”, “in
quantum theory every particle can be represented by a
differently shaped wave”, “neutrons and antineutrons
[have] different spins” and the allegation that mesons are
fermions will annoy physicist readers and mislead others.
To explain the meaning of parity violation, Johnson asks
how a radio message sent to Martians could tell them which
side is the left. Two simple answers are given, but they are
said to cheat or to “violate the spirit of the game”. Just
what game is this?

Johnson portrays Gell-Mann’s
family origins in Galicia and Austria, and his father’s
difficult accommodation of life in the US, partly via his
introduction of the curious hyphen. We see Gell-Mann
evolve from an arrogantly precocious know-it-all, to a
preppy pretender at Yale, to an aspiring then renowned
theoretical physicist and, most recently, to a wealthy and
charming curmudgeon with homes in Aspen, Santa Fe and

We follow his triumphant path through
the reductionist subatomic world and his recent return to a
childhood fascination with the richer world of “complex
adaptive systems” consisting of such marvels as birds,
jaguars and (says Johnson) the relationship between
biographer and biographee. Along the way we learn how
Gell-Mann wooed and wed two remarkable women, reared
two difficult children and was almost jailed for receiving
smuggled antiquities.

This tale of quarks and quirks is
engagingly told, although Johnson often resorts to jarringly
undocumentable quotations. He has Gell-Mann saying: “But
I do know everything” to his classmates, “Where are the
dotted eighth’s?” at a concert, “I would rather starve” to his
father’s suggestion that he become an engineer, “The
cross-sections are just details” to Dyson,
“[Electromagnetism] doesn’t do dirty little jobs for people”
to Fermi, and so on. Was Johnson there at the time, like
Edmund Morris’s imaginary avatar who follows Reagan
about in Dutch?

Much is made of the family’s
rejection of their heritage: neither father nor son wished to
be regarded as Jews. Gell-Mann once attributed his name to
the confluence of two Scottish rivers. I recall another
incident when, as we were wandering about Hollywood,
Stanley Mandelstam read the Hebrew sign on a butcher’s
shop and Gell-Mann immediately corrected his
pronunciation of kosher. “I didn’t know you were Jewish,”
said poor Stanley, to Murray’s pained “What? Me Jewish?”
(Here I adopt Johnson’s conceit.) Why does Gell-Mann do
this? Why does he refer to Israel as Palestine, and Jerusalem
as the citadel of the Jebusites?

Another recurrent
motif is Gell-Mann’s sometimes extreme difficulty in putting
thoughts to paper. He was almost unable to complete his
one book The Quark and the Jaguar,and he never
did write up his Nobel lecture. However, Johnson errs
when he relates Gell-Mann’s reluctance to disseminate his
discovery of the Eightfold Way. The original version, a well
circulated and often cited CalTech report, was created in
just a few days.

In summary, I rather like this book.
It explains why Gell-Mann is universally regarded as a great
scientist, but only occasionally as a pompous prig. It
describes his warmth and generosity toward his colleagues
(Francis Low, Harald Fritzsch, John Schwarz and Yuval
Ne’eman, among many others) and his problems with
others (he alienated Zweig, belittled Julian Schwinger,
detested Bram Pais, and his friendship with Dick Feynman
turned sour). Most of all this book gives a new twist to the
classic tale of a poor immigrant’s son from the Bronx
making it big in the US.
Sheldon Lee
This review first appeared in the June issue of
the American Journal of Physics. Reprinted with
permission. Sheldon Lee Glashow, who shared the Nobel
Prize for Physics in 1979, has been Higgins Professor of
Physics at Harvard since 1979. He is joining the faculty of
Boston University as the first Arthur G B Metcalf Professor
of Science.

Lie Algebras in Particle
by Howard Georgi (2nd edn) Perseus 0 7382
023 9.

It is fortunate that Howard Georgi has
decided to publish a revised and updated version of his
famous book Lie Algebras in Particle Physics,the
previous edition having appeared in 1982. In this case it
may have been a non-trivial problem to decide whether
significant changes to the text are pertinent, because, as the
author himself points out in the preface to the second
edition, “this has been an extremely successful book”.
Indeed, many generations of graduate students have learned
from it the basic algebraic tools in SU and other such Lie
algebras, which are at the core of the Standard Model and
all of its conjectured extensions.

Besides a healthy
evolution from old-fashioned typewriter fonts to modern
LaTeX layout, the present edition includes numerous
improvements in the presentation, as well as new material.
Perhaps the most important piece of new material is an
enlarged introductory chapter on finite group theory. This
makes the book a little longer, but much more
self-contained, because a lot of the group-theory jargon –
such as conjugacy classes, characters and the role of the
permutation group and Young tableaux – is introduced in a
simple form, where the student can see the nuts and bolts

Finite groups appear in many physics
problems, so their absence from the first edition was
somewhat unfortunate. On the other hand, in its present
form the book can be used as a rather complete
group-theory textbook for particle physics

One of the distinctive reasons for the book’s
success had been the introduction of “physics-flavoured”
chapters in which the algebraic techniques were put to
work in simple yet important topics in high-energy physics.
It is those physics chapters that have undergone
comparatively major rewriting.

Keeping the essential
outline of the first edition, one notes many changes in
wording and emphasis, which reflects the author’s desire to
suppress anecdotal information – such as the hadron tables
of chapter XVII in the first edition, while at the same time
making room for more useful theoretical applications. One
good example is the description of algebraic constraints on
the Higgs mechanism in various common unification

To summarize, the book’s contents have
been improved while the basic philosophy – introducing the
mathematical tools in a way as concrete and “calculational”
as possible – is kept almost intact. Prof. Georgi has managed
to maintain a fresh and direct “lecture notes” style –
something that students and teachers will surely
J L F Barbon,

Statistical Models for Nuclear
Decay: from Evaporation to Vaporization
by J Cole,
Institut des Sciences Nucleaires, Grenoble, France. Institute
of Physics Publishing, Bristol and Philadelphia 0750305126
(illus. hbk 368pp £80/$130).

This book covers
statistical models applied to the decay of atomic nuclei with
emphasis on highly excited nuclei, which are usually
produced using heavy ion collisions.

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