All achievers

Murray Gell-Mann, Ph.D.

Nobel Prize in Physics

I loved the idea of structure in the world — and the power of theory — from a very early age. I was very excited at discovering relationships among things. So many people just look at facts as disconnected objects. There is an intricate pattern or interrelationship among things.

Murray Gell-Mann was born in New York City. His father was an immigrant from Czernowitz, an ancient city that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now known as Chernivtsi, Ukraine. The elder Gell-Mann struggled to support his family during the Great Depression but managed to instill in his son an intense interest in science and mathematics.

Murray Gell-Mann’s parents, Jewish immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Arthur Gell-Mann and Pauline Reichstein; the young Murray in Manhattan. Murray Gell-Mann was born on September 15, 1929 in New York City.

An academic prodigy, young Murray Gell-Mann was an enthusiastic student with wide-ranging interests. At seven he first tried to teach himself calculus; he was only ten when he delved into Finnegans Wake, the notoriously obscure masterpiece of the Irish novelist James Joyce. By his own account, the one subject in which young Gell-Mann did poorly was a high school course in physics. Nevertheless, he graduated from the city’s Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School as class valedictorian and won a scholarship to Yale University at the age of 15. Although his passion at the time lay in linguistics and archeology, his father urged him to choose a major in the sciences.

Gell-Mann at Yale. He entered Yale University at age 15, earned a B.S. in physics in 1948 and acquired a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951 at 21.

On a whim, he says, he decided to major in physics and soon became captivated by the subject. He acquired his Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at age 21. After a term at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago. From the early ’50s, Gell-Mann’s work centered on the field of particle physics, the study of the smallest objects that make up the known universe. In the 1950s, the new particle accelerators detected exotic particles of cosmic radiation, such as kaons and hyperons, whose behavior defied expectation, decaying more slowly than other particles for reasons physics found inexplicable. Murray Gell-Mann dubbed this quality “strangeness” and suggested that particles be assigned a strangeness number, to be evaluated alongside the more accepted parameters of electrical charge and mass.

Murray Gell-Mann in the classroom at Caltech. In 1952, Gell-Mann joined the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago. The following year, he introduced the concept of “strangeness,” a quantum property. Gell-Mann joined the faculty of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 1955. (Photo by J. R. Eyerman)

In 1955, Gell-Mann moved to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and within a year was appointed full professor. At 30, he was the youngest full professor in the institute’s distinguished history. Caltech was to remain his base of operations for the next 38 years. The same year, he married J. Margaret Dow, a British archaeologist. The couple had two children before Mrs. Gell-Mann’s untimely death in 1981.

By the 1960s, nearly 100 different particles had been discovered in the nucleus of the atom, and the function and relation of these particles had become a morass of conjecture, characterized by some physicists as a “particle zoo.” Gell-Mann found that by classifying the known particles by their electrical charge and “strangeness” number, they could be usefully classed in octets, or categories of eight, a system he called “the eightfold way.” The widely read Gell-Mann derived this term from the Buddhist conception of the “eightfold path” of virtuous living. Within this otherwise perfect pattern, he noted an empty spot, for which no particle had been discovered. Extrapolating from the rest of the eightfold pattern, Gell-Mann estimated the charge, strangeness and mass of an as yet unobserved particle, one he named “Omega-minus.” In 1964, particle researchers detected a particle corresponding almost exactly to Gell-Mann’s description. Gell-Mann’s theory had been entirely validated.

Murray Gell-Mann and Yuval Ne’eman, the Israeli theoretical physicist, soldier and statesman. In 1961, Gell-Mann and Ne’eman independently discovered the quark model. On February 1, 1964, a paper authored by Gell-Mann appeared in Physics Letters, informing the world about the concept of quarks. It brought order to subatomic realm.

Meanwhile, Gell-Mann had been exploring the process that created this extremely regular pattern in the properties of subatomic particles. He proposed that all the particles in the nucleus, including the proton and neutron, were composed of still smaller components holding a fractional charge. He called these particles “quarks,” a nonsense word he had come across in Finnegans Wake. The quarks, he posited, were governed by forces expressed through the exchange of “gluons.”

Gell-Mann’s fanciful names for the elementary particles attracted amused attention in the popular press. The notion of a fractional charge was a difficult one for many physicists to accept. Skeptics seized on a chance remark of Gell-Mann’s to assert that not even he believed the quarks actually existed, that their existence was purely hypothetical. In fact, Gell-Mann was convinced of the reality of his undetected particles; he believed they lay embedded within the protons and neutrons of ordinary atoms, where they could not be easily observed.

December 12, 1969 at Stockholm, Sweden: King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden awarding the Nobel Prize in Physics to Dr. Murray Gell-Mann of the California Institute of Technology for his work on the theory of elementary particles.

In 1969, Gell-Mann received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles. Over a quarter-century, he was one of only a handful of scientists to receive a Nobel Prize for an individual achievement, without sharing it with co-recipients. His Nobel citation did not even mention his discovery of quarks, an achievement worthy of a second Nobel Prize.

Gell-Mann’s quark theory was soon confirmed by experiment; scientists forcing a stream of high-speed electrons through a hydrogen atom were able to detect the quarks within. Gell-Mann’s view won total acceptance in the scientific community. In 1972, Gell-Mann and colleagues identified a force they described as “color” that holds the quarks together inside the nucleus, and Gell-Mann introduced a quantum number for color, alongside those for mass, electrical charge and strangeness. Gell-Mann elaborated this insight in the theory of quantum chromodynamics, a quantum field theory which accounts for all of the nuclear particles and for their strong interactions.

1994: The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex by Dr. Murray Gell-Mann. In this book, Gell-Mann ponders the universe’s mix of simplicity and complexity, regularity and randomness, as he ranges from quarks (the fundamental subatomic particles which he discovered) to complex adaptive systems like bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics, mobile robots, jaguars, and people interacting with and learning from their environment. Along with the often technical chapters on information theory, time, biological evolution and the workings of the subatomic zoo of particles, Gell-Mann devotes special attention to superstring theory, the first viable candidate in physicists’ search for a grand unified theory encompassing all the elementary particles and forces. Stressing the need to control population and to preserve biological and cultural diversity, he advocates a multidisciplinary research agenda geared toward a sustainable future for the human race and the biosphere.

Turning from the largely defined strong interaction, Gell-Mann was among the first to discover the structure of the “weak interaction” of subatomic particles. In more recent years, he has been a vocal supporter of “superstring” theory, also known as M-theory, which proposes that all forces and particles are composed of vibrating entities, “super-symmetric strings,” far smaller than the smallest known particles. For some years, he has applied M-theory to investigate the origin of the universe.

Academy’s Awards Council member Dr. Murray Gell-Mann presents the Golden Plate Award to guest of honor Sir Aaron Klug, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, at the 2000 International Achievement Summit in London.

Murray Gell-Mann’s achievements in theoretical physics never wholly drew him away from his wealth of other interests. In the same year he won his Nobel Prize, he established a pioneering environmental studies program for the National Academy of Sciences. His research has extended far beyond the realm of physics, to embrace natural history, linguistics, archaeology, depth psychology, and biological and cultural evolution.

In 1984, Gell-Mann co-founded the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit research institute based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to study complex systems and disseminate the notion of a separate interdisciplinary study of complexity theory. Returning to one of his first intellectual passions, he has devoted considerable attention to the evolution of human languages. He led the creation of the Institute’s Evolution of Human Languages Program, a long-term project to group the known families of human languages into fewer and larger groupings or superfamilies, and ultimately, to trace their origin to a single, hypothetical proto-language. The work employs archeologists, anthropologists and geneticists, as well as linguists and computer programmers.

Two recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics: Academy Awards Council member Dr. Murray Gell-Mann presents the Golden Plate Award to guest of honor Dr. Zhores I. Alferov, at 2002 Banquet of the Golden Plate in Dublin, Ireland.

Apart from his scientific and intellectual pursuits, Gell-Mann has long been an enthusiast of hiking, camping and bird-watching. Over the years, he has concerned himself with public policy issues such as preservation of biodiversity, population control and sustainable development, arms control and international relations. In 1988 he was listed on the United Nations Environmental Program’s Roll of Honor for Environmental Achievement. The following year, he was awarded the Ettore Majorana Science for Peace Prize.

Murray Gell-Mann is currently Distinguished Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute as well as the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor Emeritus at the California Institute of Technology. Much of his recent research at the Santa Fe Institute has focused on the theory of complex adaptive systems. Currently, Gell-Mann is spearheading the Evolution of Human Languages Program at the Santa Fe Institute. Another focus of his work relates to simplicity, complexity, regularity, and randomness. Murray Gell-Mann is also concerned with how knowledge and understanding are to be extracted from the welter of “information” that can now be transmitted and then stored as a result of the digital revolution. Gell-Mann lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and teaches from time to time at the University of New Mexico.

Much of his work in all fields is concerned with the concepts of simplicity and complexity, regularity and randomness. He explicated his thoughts on a wide range of topics relating to this central issue in a 1994 book for the lay reader, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. He was also the subject of a controversial unauthorized biography, Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics. Today he is the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and teaches occasionally at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, in addition to his continuing work at the Santa Fe Institute.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1962

As a boy, Murray Gell-Mann excelled in every possible field of academic study, except one — physics — but after he decided to pursue it as a career, he emerged as the era’s most brilliant and original mind in the field. In his 20s, he revolutionized the study of particle physics, and for the next two decades, he dominated the field.

He was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics, for bringing order out of the chaos of particle theory. Even a short list of his discoveries reads like a history of mankind’s evolving understanding of the building blocks of matter. The renormalization group, the V-A interaction, the conserved vector current, the partially conserved axial current, the eightfold way, current algebra, the quark model and the theory of quantum chromodynamics are among his monumental original contributions to the field.

His powerful ability to envision the subatomic world was matched by a uniquely vivid gift for describing it, in a fanciful original terminology of “strangeness” and “color,” of “quarks” and “gluons.” Not content with his awe-inspiring accomplishments in theoretical physics, he founded the Santa Fe Institute to foster the interdisciplinary study of complex adaptive systems, not least the evolution of human language.

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Let me ask you, in a general way, about some of the things you are best known for. How did you begin to suspect there was a particle that had not yet been discovered or accounted for?

Murray Gell-Mann: Which one?

The quark.

Murray Gell-Mann: Oh, I predicted lots of particles before that. And they were all found. But that was sort of by filling in gaps.

Keys to success — Vision

I was able to create a chart of my theoretical schemes, and I noticed that there were holes in the chart. And I predicted the existence of the particles to fill the chart. And those all worked. But then the question was: Was there some sub-unit out of which all of these particles were made? These strongly interacting particles. Well I tried it, and it came out that you could do it with a certain set of particles, and in a quite economical way. But they would have to have electrical charges, +2/3 and -1/3. And of course, all known particles had integral charges, in units of the proton or electron charge. The proton is called +1, the electron is called -1. And all the known particles had charges of +1 or -1, or possibly +2 or -2, and so on. Nothing had a fractional charge. But these sub-units — that would give the most economical scheme for making what we saw out of hidden sub-units — these sub-units would have charges of +2/3 or -1/3. I was initially discouraged, but then I made a visit to Columbia University, and a colleague there, Bob Serber, asked me whether I had ever considered this economical way of making sub-units, considering what you then called a triplet. And I said, “Yes, I have considered it, but they come out to have fractional charges.” And I showed him the fractional charges on a napkin in the faculty club in Columbia, where we were having lunch. And then, thinking about it during the rest of the day, it occurred to me that if they were completely hidden, these particles, if they never came out, but they were permanently trapped inside the known particles, then it wouldn’t cause any difficultly, any disagreement with observation or with any fundamental theoretical idea. And so I began to put it forward.

Murray Gell-Mann with his Caltech colleague, fellow physicist Richard Feynman. In 1958, Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman, in parallel with the independent team of George Sudarshan and Robert Marshak, discovered the chiral structures of the weak interaction in physics. (Photo by Joe Munroe. Courtesy of California Institute of Technology)

My attitude has been misunderstood all these years. There are zillions of books which describe the history of this, and describe it quite incorrectly. And in fact the Nobel Foundation, in awarding very — the Physics Prize this year — to three experimental colleagues who richly deserved it. My very good friend Dick Taylor, and my friends Henry Kendall and Jerry Friedman. In awarding it they mentioned that before the experiment, people thought of quarks as merely mathematical. Now that’s true, but what I meant by mathematical was that they were perfectly real, but trapped inside the neutron, proton, and the other observable strongly interacting particles. Which was correct. Completely correct. And other people, after the quark idea was put forward, came up with the notion that maybe they were directly observable. And that was wrong. But for some reason, history has twisted it around, so as to make my statements about the mathematical character of quarks — which I believed from the first day, that they wouldn’t come out — they have twisted it into a statement that I thought they weren’t really there, which is not the case at all. It’s a very strange perversion of fact, that makes its way into history sometimes, and this is one of those cases. It is true everywhere. I have tried very often with authors of lots of accounts, books, papers, articles and so on, to explain to them the situation, but it never does any good. So my being right has been converted into some kind of crime by history. Isn’t that strange?

It must be very frustrating.

Murray Gell-Mann: I find that particular aspect frustrating. It’s nice to be credited with quarks, and have the Swedish foundation refer to my work in awarding the prize to these three wonderful experimentalists who confirmed the existence of quarks inside the proton. I was delighted with all of that. But I was not delighted with this funny interpretation. Actually, the Nobel Foundation didn’t say it, didn’t actually state the thing wrong. But the implication was that by calling them mathematical, I was sort of denying their existence. What I meant by mathematical was that they wouldn’t come out and be seen individually and directly in the laboratory. And that’s turned out to be so; they are permanently trapped inside. We didn’t understand, of course, back in 1963. I didn’t understand why they were permanently trapped. But it was later on, when we formulated the dynamical theory, quantum chromodynamics, that we began to realize what was going on.

Yes, the people in your office said you had multiple personalities, but we didn’t know it until this moment.

Murray Gell-Mann: Aaaagghhh!

One of the things we want to know is how you decided to name them quarks.

Murray Gell-Mann: It was sort of an obvious name for the fundamental particle out of which the strongly interacting particles are composed.

Maybe it was obvious to you!

Murray Gell-Mann: Well, not quite. Not the spelling anyway.

I had the sound, “quark.” But it could have been spelled differently. For example, k-w-o-r-k or something like that. I thought it was a nice sound. And it didn’t mean anything, I thought, and that was good because when we give fancy Greek names to things — and of course, I can do that — but when we give fancy Greek names to things, it usually turns out that what they mean later is not so appropriate as what we thought at first. The proton, for example. “The first thing,” it means. Fundamental. And it turns out it’s not fundamental. So, the name proton is very learned, but it turned out not to be apt. Now “quark,” if it didn’t mean anything at all, was not going to be obsolete, ever. Anyhow, that was fine. That was the sound. But then, leafing through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, as I sometimes do — it’s a copy my brother bought, actually, when it first came out in the United States in 1939 — and leafing through it, I saw the phrase, “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” And I thought that would be very good. So I spelled it q-u-a-r-k. Now, Joyce undoubtedly meant it to be pronounced “kwark,” to go with bark, and hark, and mark and so on. But I figured out a rationale for pronouncing it “quark,” which is that in “Three quarks for Muster Mark” — of course there is multiple determination of the word, as in many other cases of Finnegans Wake.  And what I figured was that one source out of the multiple — of the many determinants of the word — one source was perhaps the fact that the dreamer, whose dream the book is, is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, who is a bar man, a publican, he owns a bar. And frequently, through the book, you hear people giving orders for drinks at the bar, drinks to take away, and so on. So one of the determinants of “three quarks for Muster Mark” could be “three quarts” for so-and-so. An order to the bar. And I still think that may be true, although there are many other, more important factors that have gone into the phrase. Anyway, that allowed me to interpret that maybe it was pronounced “kwork” instead of “kwark.” But the commentators on Finnegans Wake think that — and I think, correctly — that the main thing that it refers to is “three cries of the four gulls” that are following the ship on which Tristan and Iseult are traveling. They’re making fun of King Mark, because Tristan and Iseult are having a love affair. Those four gulls occur throughout the book, as four evangelists, four old men in the park, and so on and so forth. Four commentators of various kinds, and in this case they’re four gulls following this ship. “Quark” is listed in the dictionary as the cry of a gull. So it’s undoubtedly the primary determinant, but maybe “three quarts for so-and-so” has a slight connection with it as well. That would justify pronouncing it “kwork” instead of “kwark.”

Quantum physicists: John Bardeen, Murray Gell-Mann, and David Pines. Bardeen shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the point-contact transistor, and was awarded the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics for work on superconductivity. Gell-Mann was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on elementary particles. He also introduced quantum strangeness. (Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

What initially attracted you to the word?

Murray Gell-Mann: Oh, nothing, just an amusing word. The story I told just now, about the sound and the meaning and so on, is now in the Oxford English Dictionary, because they asked me for a detailed description, and I sent them a detailed letter about it. I think it is the only article in the Oxford English Dictionary that is based on a private letter.

How did you feel about the way people received your theoretical work, the attention and the recognition it received?

Murray Gell-Mann: I don’t know. That’s very difficult to say.

Initially, a lot of things I did were not taken very seriously. Then finally people realized that they were right. Quark certainly wasn’t taken seriously by most people, for quite a while. They thought it was some crazy thing. And people, as I said, misunderstood what I meant by saying that I thought they were mathematical. They thought I was going back on the original ideas, that they weren’t true. Whereas what I meant was that they were stuck inside permanently, which we finally found to be true, and we finally understood more or less why it’s true. But then, later on people began accepting all sorts of very tentative ideas of mine, as important, and working on them, and that was sort of embarrassing. I would put forward some not very serious idea, just as a passing remark, and lots of people would start working on it. Sort of the opposite effect.

You mean a notion would just occur to you, and you made a casual statement about it and people would think that you were pointing them in a new direction?

Murray Gell-Mann: That’s right. A new and important direction. All of them thought it was very important. I didn’t think it was important. But anyway…

Random noise?

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes, random noise is one way to shake yourself out of your basin of attraction in which your ideas are stuck into various other basins until you might find a better idea.

Is “basin of attraction” a mathematical term?

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes. But it has a sort of obvious meaning. The one way, for example, Edward de Bono suggests using the last noun on the front page of today’s newspaper to solve your problem. Whatever that noun is. Well, that’s certainly random. It’s random noise introduced into the solution process. Maybe it can accelerate the process of getting a creative idea. Shaking yourself out of your old basin and into a new one.

Are you saying there’s some way to jump-start that process?

Murray Gell-Mann: Maybe there is a way to jump-start that process, yes. To accelerate the getting of correct creative ideas, useful creative ideas. But in any case, the process, the normal spontaneous process, is apparently common to a great many fields. Psychologists have noted that; artists and scientists and others have written it down. We discovered it independently at a seminar in Aspen in 1969, where we had painters and poets and theoretical physicists and theoretical biologists, all talking about our experiences of getting useful ideas. And they were all just about the same. And they all followed that same pattern. (Hermann von) Helmholtz wrote about it one hundred years ago, more than one hundred years ago, and he called the phases: saturation, where you fill yourself up with the problem, but can’t solve it; incubation, the problem is hidden away and something deep inside you is working on it, some mental process out of awareness in what the shrinks would call the pre-conscious mind, is working on it; and then illumination, when suddenly a good idea breaks through. And then (Henri) Poincaré described this process also, and he described the fourth, rather trivial stage, which is verification, checking to see that the idea actually works.

Is that the way creativity usually goes?

Murray Gell-Mann: Normally goes. It’s written up apparently in a book by Graham Waltz, the psychologist, in 1926. So, 43 years before we had our seminar, this whole conclusion had been written down in a book, and about 100 years before it had been written down by Helmholtz. Nevertheless, it may be that one can circumvent that process, accelerate it, jump-start it. That would be really interesting.

Has there ever been a moment of discovery in your work, a moment when you saw the flash? We read there was an occasion when you made a mistake putting something on the board, and had a revelation.

Keys to success — Vision

Murray Gell-Mann: Just a slip of the tongue. That’s how I figured out the explanation of strangeness. I had come up with an incorrect explanation, which had some features in common with the correct one, but was wrong. And I knew why it was wrong. And another fellow had gotten the same idea, and figured out that it was wrong, and had written a letter about it, which was published. I hadn’t published anything. But he had published the idea, plus the reason why it was wrong, but in a very confused manner, so that it was extremely difficult to follow. I hadn’t even read it, but I knew what it was, because I had the idea, and I knew why it was wrong. And when I visited the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, where I had been working a short time before, the theoretical physicist there asked me to explain how this worked, how the idea went and why it was wrong. And I said, “Yes, I can do that.” So I went to the blackboard and I started explaining the idea, and explaining why it was wrong. Partway through I made a slip of the tongue, and I realized that the slip of the tongue made it okay, the arguments against no longer were valid, and this was probably the right answer. That was how I found the strangeness theory.

2000: Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics by George Johnson. Acclaimed science writer George Johnson brings his formidable reporting skills to the first biography of Murray Gell-Mann. Beautifully balanced in its portrayal of an extraordinary and difficult man, interpreting the concepts of advanced physics with scrupulous clarity and simplicity. The title is a play on words. One of Gell-Mann’s most notable discoveries in elementary particle physics are quarks. Of the six known types of quark, one is called ”strange” and another ”beauty.” But the title also refers to Gell-Mann’s incessant quest for order in a complicated and unpredictable world. After a difficult and abbreviated childhood, which the precocious Gell-Mann found bewildering, this search for simplicity and regularity led him to seek out the strange beauty of particle physics.

And it literally came out of your mouth.

Murray Gell-Mann: Oh yes, I wanted to say “five halves” and I said “one” instead.

That’s not even close, in language.

Murray Gell-Mann: No. It’s not close in any way. But one worked and five halves didn’t. So obviously there was some interesting mental process going on out of awareness. The problem was being solved, and the solution was being stated, by a mental process out of awareness. And it came out on a slip of the tongue. Shrinks would love that, I guess.

That also touches on an idea we know you’re interested in these days, and that’s what defines consciousness.

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes. Yes, a lot of people think it is not very scientific to think about that. But I think it is a perfectly valid question for scientists. Is there a threshold of complexity for the phenomenon of consciousness? What is the phenomenon of consciousness? How do you describe it?

How?

Murray Gell-Mann: One thing that is clear is that in our human mental processes, there are a lot of things going on at once, many parallel threads going on at once. But that our attention is not focused on more than one during a very brief time, like one 40th of a second. That’s a sort of unit of time for psychological attention. Something like a 40th or 50th of a second. And during that 40th or 50th of a second, it doesn’t seem that we can concentrate attention on a great many things. More like one thing. But we can jump around a lot, so we get the impression, for example, that we are following several conversations at once. But probably what we are doing is just sampling them serially, and using the redundancy of the conversations to fill in. And if the conversation consists of reciting a series of random numbers, then we cannot fill it in because there is no longer any pattern that you can use to fill in what you missed. Now, what that means is that there is a lot of information processing going on in parallel. But the searchlight or spotlight of consciousness seems to be a serial sequential element in this mess of parallel things. This, then this, then this, then this, then this. The nature of that spotlight is still quite unclear. Now this is all in fields far from the ones I have been trained in. So I obviously am not going to make any contribution to it through studying that particular kind of science. But by looking generally at thresholds of complexity, and looking generally at complex adaptive systems, and the laws that govern them, we might come up with some principles that will help to illuminate the nature of consciousness. A direct attack on it would have to be made by people who are professionally trained to study psychological phenomenon.

Murray Gell-Mann with fellow Academy Awards Council member and Nobel Prize laureate Dr. James D. Watson and Catherine and Wayne Reynolds, the Summit Host and Chairman at the 2002 International Achievement Summit.

But you can certainly ask questions, raise issues, yes?

Murray Gell-Mann: I think I can, yes, I believe so. Together with other colleagues. I like to do these things in common with people, collectively. That’s what the Santa Fe Institute is all about.

Is that because you get so many different perspectives, looking at the same problem from different points of view?

Murray Gell-Mann: And you get corrections, because we deal with real scientists, real scholars, humanists, whatever they are from these various fields. Real psychologists, real economists, real linguists, real mathematicians, real chemists, and so on. And they assure us then, that when we think about these subjects, which are often far from those in which we were trained, that we are not doing phony linguistics, phony mathematics, and so on. That would be a pity.

So there is a reality check, in other words.

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes. They all, the existence of all of these highly trained, highly skilled, rather famous people, often, in their own fields, assures us that we are not too far off the track when we are discussing these various kinds of subject matter. But at the same time we have to have people who are willing to be flexible, and not just bring to the conversation a bunch of clichés from their own subjects that they are unwilling to vary. They have to be people who are flexible in their thought processes, but at the same time very much aware of the facts of their own subjects.