Field of Science

Happy Birthday to the man with five brains

Today is Murray Gell-Mann's birthday. John Brockman calls him "the man with five brains, each one of which is smarter than yours". We are thankful he is still with us and holding forth on a variety of important problems. Gell-Mann of course is famous as the man who, inspired by a line from a book which he predictably would be the right person to have read, invented quarks. Nobody has observed an isolated quark yet, but there have been plenty of Nobel Prize-winning experiments confirming their evidence through other incontrovertible means.

In the 1960s there was a famous running rivalry between Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman for the title of Smartest Man on the Planet (there was another lesser known rivalry between Gell-Mann and Einstein biographer Abraham Pais, who Gell-Mann once bitterly called "that little dwarf"). In terms of raw I.Q. the two New Yorkers certainly were equal to each other. It was the joint presence of these wunderkinder that made Caltech perhaps the most exciting place for theoretical physics in the 60s and 70s. Now most of the public believes Feynman won the contest, but that's probably because, as Gell-Mann put it, Feynman was inordinately fond of generating anecdotes about himself and making himself appear larger than life. The two worked together for a while and admired each other for the rest of their lives, but according to Gell-Mann he eventually got tired of what he thought was Feynman's preoccupation with self-promotion.

In some sense Gell-Mann was the perfect foil to Feynman's anecdote generator, just as Feynman was often the perfect foil to Gell-Mann's predilection for tossing out trivia. I would wager that Gell-Mann's quarks were at least as important as Feynman's quantum electrodynamics, laying the foundation for all the particle physics that followed, including the culmination of the efforts of many people in the Standard Model. Gell-Mann also made other important contributions to physics, including to current algebra and quantum chromodynamics. Ironically, famous rival as he was, it was Feynman who paid Gell-Mann the ultimate compliment: "Our knowledge of fundamental physics contains not one fruitful idea that does not carry the name of Murray Gell-Mann".

Gell-Mann would easily be Feynman's contender for the world's smartest man not only because he has racked up a tremendous amount of achievement in physics but because he also, in the words of his biographer George Johnson, seems to know everything about everything. Simply conquering physics was not enough for Gell-Mann, he wanted to conquer the depths of all human knowledge. His christening of quarks based on a remark from James Joyce's dense "Finnegan's Wake" was not a coincidence. The range of his intellectual facilities equaled that of Oppenheimer, and he can tell you as much about linguistics or classical history as he can about physics; it was his propensity to generously offer trivia about these topics that in part used to drive Feynman crazy. He is fluent in half a dozen languages and known for correcting native speakers' pronunciations of words from their own language. With such a prodigious command of the world's knowledge at his disposal, it's not surprising that he does not suffer fools gladly; he is known to walk out of meetings (like his august predecessor Wolfgang Pauli) if he thinks less of the speaker. I was not afraid of knocking on Freeman Dyson's door, but I would have to fortify my nerves with a few shots of gin before contemplating an encounter with Gell-Mann.

Regarding literature on or by Gell-Mann, you can do no better than George Johnson's "Strange Beauty" which along with James Gleick's "Genius" is the best physics biography I have ever read. Gell-Mann himself has found it notoriously painful to put pen to paper all his life and therefore it is no surprise to find that he almost disowned his own book - part scientific meditation, part memoir- after it was written. And yet I will recommend it warmly: "In "The Quark and the Jaguar" Gell-Mann ruminates across a vast range of time and length scales of the cosmos, from quarks to humans to the entire universe. It has sparkling and remarkably clear discussions of topics like algorithmic complexity and quantum electrodynamics and reading it feels akin to getting an intellectual workout in a swanky gym. With Gell-Mann holding forth on science and the universe, life is at least not dull.

And therefore the best tribute to the man with five brains would be a vodka martini, shaken with a generous helping of nature's fundamental forces and stirred with the ingredients of the cosmos, and held up with a full-throated cry of "Three quarks for Muster Mark!".


  1. Happy birthday Murray! I was in high school when the particles being discovered seemed endless and without order. It was Gell-Mann who put order to this menagerie and we are grateful. The world is both a better place and a much more contentious place because of him. He can be awe inspiring and frustratingly annoying. I am not prepared to fault Feynman for his self-promotion and credit Gell-Mann for abstaining from such things. He seems to delight in insulting his peers and maybe that is because he fundamentally believes he has no peers. The history of science is full of examples of great minds who did not engage in what appear to be personal attacks on those they disagreed with or denigrating the accomplishments of those they do agree with. Despite his flaws (and I’m sure Gell-Mann thinks he has none) Gell-Mann definitely pushed our understanding of the fundamental building blocks of matter into new unimagined realms.
    M Tucker

  2. Amazing how one person can be so accomplished in so many fields....


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