Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th Century Physics

27 June 2000

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 cherished.

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 character.

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 Manhattan.

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.

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.

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