September 15, 1929 – May 24, 2019
[ED. NOTE: Upon learning of the death of long-time friend, and colleague Murray Gell-Mann, I posed the question below to the Edgies who knew and/or worked with him. —JB – Edge.org]
Here’s a story Murray told about himself:
Uncharacteristically, I discussed my application to Yale with my father, who asked, „What were you thinking of putting down?“ I said, „Whatever would be appropriate for archaeology or linguistics, or both, because those are the things I’m most enthusiastic about. I’m also interested in natural history and exploration.“
He said, „You’ll starve!“
After all, this was 1944 and his experiences with the Depression were still quite fresh in his mind; we were still living in genteel poverty. He could have quit his job as the vault custodian in a bank and taken a position during the war that would have utilized his talents — his skill in mathematics, for example — but he didn’t want to take the risk of changing jobs. He felt that after the war he would regret it, so he stayed where he was. This meant that we really didn’t have any spare money at all.
I asked him, „What would you suggest?“
He mentioned engineering, to which I replied, „I’d rather starve. If I designed anything it would fall apart.“ And sure enough when I took an aptitude test a year later I was advised to take up nearly anything but engineering.“
Then my father suggested, „Why don’t we compromise — on physics?“
—Murray Gell-Mann, from „The Making of a Physicist“ (Edge, June 3, 2003)
By Geoffrey West
Murray Gell-Mann was one of the great scientists of the 20th century, one of its few renaissance people and a true polymath. He is best known for his seminal contributions to fundamental physics, for helping to bring order and symmetry to the apparently chaotic world of the elementary particles and the fundamental forces of nature. He dominated the field from the early ‘50s, when he was still in his twenties, up through the late ‘70s. Basically, he ran the show. By modern standards he didn’t publish a lot, but when he did we all hung on every word. It is an amazing litany of accomplishments: strangeness, the renormalization group, color and quantum chromodynamics, and of course, quarks and SU(3), for which he won the Nobel prize in 1969.
He was the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology, a cofounder of the Santa Fe Institute, where he was a Distinguished Fellow; a former director of the J.D. and C.T. MacArthur Foundation; one of the Global Five Hundred honored by the U.N. Environment Program; a former Citizen Regent of the Smithsonian Institution; a former member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology; and the author of The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex.