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Santa Fe Institute
Murray Gell-Mann Interview (page: 2 / 8)
Developer of the Quark Theory
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.
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 which 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 hard 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. Part way through I made a slip of the tongue and I realized that the slip of the tongue made it ok, the arguments against no longer were valid, and this was probably the right answer. That was how I found the strangeness theory.
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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?
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 fortieth or fiftieth 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 search light or spotlight of consciousness seems to be a serial sequential element in this mass 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 of government, we might come up with some principles that will help to illuminate the nature of consciousness. A direct attack on it will have to be made by people who are professionally trained to study psychological phenomenon.
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.
When did you first have some sense of what you wanted to do in your life, as a career?
Murray Gell-Mann: Well, I had a very strong sense when I was a little child. But I didn't go ahead and do that. I wanted to be an archeologist, and perhaps a linguist. And I had absolutely no inclination to working on physics, none whatsoever.
So how did you get from wanting to be an archeologist or a linguist, to being a famous physicist?
Murray Gell-Mann: Well, let's see if we can trace it.
I was in my senior year in high school, and I was applying for admission to Yale for the following year. And one of the questions on the application form was, if you were admitted to Yale, what will be your major subject. And I thought I would discuss that with my father. Not for any particular reason, it didn't really matter what I filled in. Because when I got to Yale, if I was accepted, I could have changed it to anything else, it really didn't matter at all. But it seemed the thing to do. My father and I didn't discuss many things, but it seemed like something that would be useful to discuss with him. So I mentioned it. And he said, well, what are you thinking of putting down. I said archeology, linguistics. So, he said, "You'll starve." He was very much impressed with the effects of the Depression, which had, among other things, completely changed his position in life. And he felt that I should have some reliable source of income, some skill that would allow me to make a living even in difficult economic circumstances. I said, "Well, what would you like me to study?" and he said "Engineering." I replied that I'd rather starve. And besides, if I built anything it would fall down. I really don't have any talent for engineering. So then he said "Well, why don't we compromise on physics." And I thought he must be joking. I took a course called physics in high school, and it was the only course in which I did badly. It was a really terrible, terrible class. We studied the seven kinds of simple machine, we memorized the names of the seven kinds of simple machine. We learned the three forms of Ohms Law, E=IR, I=E/R, R=E/I. And we studied about mechanics and wave motion, and electricity and magnetism, and acoustics, and so on and so forth, without ever seeing any connection among all those subjects. And surely he wouldn't want me to go on studying that. My father said if you keep studying physics, study advanced physics, it will be very different. You will learn about relativity, and quantum mechanics, and it will be really exciting. And so, at that point I decided not to pursue the conversation. I wrote down physics, knowing that it didn't make the slightest difference. When I got to Yale I could change it, if I ever got there.
Well, I was indeed admitted to Yale, with a very generous scholarship, and the next year I went there. And, but I was too lazy to switch from physics to some other major. [laughs] So I continued doing physics. Eventually it was true that quantum mechanics and relativity were really exciting, and I enjoyed it, and I kept on doing theoretical physics.
So, but for laziness, you might have been an archeologist?
Murray Gell-Mann: Yes!
We've heard that your father was an avid reader. Did he pass that on to you? You moved very quickly through school.
Murray Gell-Mann: Yes, my father read a good deal. But what he did most, when I knew him, was to study math and physics and astronomy as an amateur, and try to learn about them. I don't know exactly how far he got. I am certain in very special kinds of mathematics, not terribly advanced, but rather specialized, he made a lot of progress. And in other things, I really don't know. I know he spent a huge amount of time poring over math and astronomy.
You obviously saw in him a great curiosity for the way the world works.
Murray Gell-Mann: Yes, to some extent. But it was mainly my older brother from whom I learned things. He in turn, had learned a lot from my father, but in my case it was mostly my older brother Ben -- who was nine years older -- who introduced me to the wonders of the world.
Murray Gell-Mann: Oh, lots of examples. We loved nature, and we spent a lot of time outdoors, learning about birds and trees and flowers and mammals, and so on. It was really great. Natural history was a passion, which I think I acquired from my brother. We thought of New York City as a hemlock forest, that had been too heavily logged, and we spent a lot time in a little fragment of hemlock forest that was still standing. Particularly birds. My brother was passionately interested in birds, and I became so also. I still am.
Didn't you go out and try to count as many birds as you could find?
Murray Gell-Mann: Well, people do that, bird watchers do that, generally in the spring. Most bird watchers have done that many times. Actually I have done it more recently, a couple of years ago with my brother ,where he lives now. In between, though, the 50 years or whatever in between I didn't do it. But yes, we went out on a big day in the spring in New York about 50 years ago. It's become a sort of competition now among heavy hitter bird-watchers all over the world, to try to see as many species as possible. Of course, your location matters enormously. The record is held, I think, by the Manu National Park in Peru, but I know people in Africa have done very well, and people in Texas do well, and so on. This area isn't bad, Southern California, to see a great variety of birds.
What kinds of things did you read, as a child?
Murray Gell-Mann: Through my brother I became interested in a great many different things. I just attended his 70th birthday party a little while ago. Two weeks ago, in fact, in southern Illinois. And I told about all the things I had learned, many of the things I had learned from him. He taught me to read, for one thing, at a cousin's house, from a Sunshine Cracker box. And then, well, we were interested together in all sorts of things. Archeology and history, and art to some extent. We would go to art museums. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York sometimes. He would sketch the ancient Greek statues, and I would go look at the Egyptian antiquities, and things of that kind. I talked about nature, about birds and butterflies, and plants. We talked about a great many other things -- languages. Just about everything. And what was nice was that we didn't distinguish sharply among them, with artificial boundaries. Now we're talking about art, and now we're talking about science, now we are talking about social science, and so on. It was just all the richness and beauty and order in the world.
Did you read much fiction in those days, or were you mainly interested in non-fiction?
Murray Gell-Mann: I read some fiction. Yes.
What were your favorites?
Murray Gell-Mann: When I was a boy? Very hard to remember. H. G. Wells, certainly was a favorite. Scientific romances and so forth, but also the novels.
Did you have a favorite?
Murray Gell-Mann: That's very hard to remember. Various mystery stories, adventure stories, and so on. I liked short stories. I've always liked short stories. So I devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories by (Sir Arthur) Conan Doyle. The Father Brown stories by Chesterton -- even though I didn't like Chesterton's attitude toward the world I enjoyed the stories. The Saki stories -- H.H. Munro short stories. I guess my favorite reading was a really thick book of all the short stories of some prolific author.
The wonderful thing about the Sherlock Holmes was that logic always prevails. No problem was unsolvable. Whatever mystery presented itself, could be resolved eventually if you just applied your mind to it.
Murray Gell-Mann: Yes, the power of theory. Most people don't appreciate the power of theory. I like to give illustrations which are from relatively ordinary things. For example, here along the California coast, we have a lot of places with Spanish names, named by Spanish explorers. And people who live here know that. But it never occurs to them that there is a theory of the name. At least it doesn't occur to most of them that there is a theory of the name. But in fact, they are related to one another by a set of laws., because they were almost all named after the day on which the sailing voyage reached them. So if you have a Catholic Calendar, and a map, you can trace the sequences of names along the California coast according to the Saint's days and so forth that were the days of discovery. You can see that on three voyages or so, virtually all the names were given in sequence. Of course, one of those names is Punta Año Nuevo, Point New Year's Day, which was discovered on New Years Day. But the other nearby points and towns were also named after days in December and January preceding and following New Year's day.
Is it that kind of curiosity that propels people into science? To look at things and wonder, "How did it get this way? Why is it like that?"
Murray Gell-Mann: To see pattern and regularity, and then to try to understand the pattern and regularity. You can think of it as two separate things. One is to see that there is a pattern, and the other is to understand how the pattern might have gotten that way. Sometimes it is divisible into those two parts. Not always. Sometimes they go together.
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