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1929: The Man Who Created a 'Theory of Everything’ Is Born

Murray Gell-Man, all-round scholar, also discovered the sub-subatomic particle that he whimsically called the quark.

David Green
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Murray Gell-MannCredit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green

September 15 is the birthday of Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and thinker who, during the late 20th century, discovered some of the most essential qualities about the behavior of sub-sub-atomic particles, although most of us would be hard-pressed to actually understand their meaning.

Gell-Mann’s achievement is especially impressive because his 1961 unifying theory about the more than 100 such particles that had been identified to that date posited the existence of one additional particle, a prediction that was confirmed experimentally a few years later.

“Murray has no particular talent for physics, but he’s so smart he’s a great physicist anyway,” a scientific colleague of Gell-Mann’s once commented about him. Indeed, just as much of Gell-Mann’s physics career has been devoted to coming up with a “theory of everything,” to explain the workings of the universe, it has often been said that he himself knows just about everything. His interests range from natural history to archaeology, and linguistics to bird-watching to psychology.

Gell-Mann (the name is pronounced with a hard G; his late brother Benedict spelled it “Gelman”) was born September 15, 1929, in New York, New York, and grew up both there and in the Bronx. His parents, Arthur Isidore Gell-Mann and the former Pauline Reichstein, were both immigrants from what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Arthur ran a language school for new immigrants, and when that failed, took a low-paying job as a vault custodian in a bank.

Physics, not his thing

Murray was intelligent enough to win a scholarship to study at New York’s Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, and after graduating as valedictorian, he entered Yale University, again on a full scholarship – at age 15.

At his father’s urging, Gell-Mann studied physics, though it was the one subject he hadn’t excelled at in high school. After graduating, in 1948, he went on to do his PhD at MIT, finishing in 1951. After a year of postdoc research at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, and several years teaching at the University of Chicago, he settled in at the California Institute of Technology, in 1955, remaining there for the next 38 years.

In the 1950s, particle accelerators made it possible to detect additional subatomic particles beyond electrons, neutrons and protons. Eventually, more than 100 were discovered. Gell-Mann’s research helped explain why some of them behaved as oddly as they did, a quality he dubbed “strangeness,” and was able to quantify. It was also Gell-Mann, who is both well-read and playful, who decided to call the even smaller entities making up these particles “quarks,” a word he adopted from James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.”

Simultaneous with, although separately from, Israeli physicist Yuval Ne’eman, Gell-Mann proposed categorizing the subatomic particles in groups of eight (“octets”), and posited the existence of an additional particle, the “omega-minus.” Several years later, the omega-minus was identified in the laboratory.

Gell-Mann’s 1969 Nobel Prize, which was not shared with a corecipient, was awarded to him for his work describing subatomic particles. He delivered part of his speech in Swedish, at Stockholm’s Nobel banquet.

In 1984, Murray Gell-Mann helped to cofound the Santa Fe Institute, a multidisciplinary research center whose fellows study “adaptive complexity.” One of the long-term projects he was involved in was a search for the languages that were the ancestors of today’s various language families, and even a possible proto-language that gave birth to all the others. He also has been a director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which bestows the so-called “genius” grants, and an activist on environmental issues and for nuclear disarmament.

Gell-Mann was married to the archaeologist J. Margaret Dow, who died in 1981, and with whom he had two children. He married a second time in 1992, to Marcia Southwick, a poet and jewelry-maker. He lives today in Santa Fe, where he is still active at the institute he cofounded, where later this month he is due to be presented with the Helmholtz Medal, from the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.  

Twitter: @davidbeegreen