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If you like Murray Gell-Mann's story, you might also like:
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Murray Gell-Mann
Murray Gell-Mann
Profile of Murray Gell-Mann Biography of Murray Gell-Mann Interview with Murray Gell-Mann Murray Gell-Mann Photo Gallery

Murray Gell-Mann Interview (page: 4 / 8)

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  Murray Gell-Mann

Are we now at a point in science, where we are on the verge of being able to explain how everything in the world works, and how it all relates?

Murray Gell-Mann: Very close in some ways, I think. First of all, there are the fundamental laws of physics. One of which is the unified quantum field theory of all the particles and all the interactions that I was talking about a moment ago. In the Superstring Theory of John Schwartz and his colleagues, we have the first really good looking candidate for that, and he may be right. But even if it's wrong, I believe that it will turn out to be an important step on the way to the right one. But, what is quite possible is that it's actually right. The other part of the fundamental law of physics is the boundary condition near the beginning of the expansion of the universe. What some people irreverently call the Big Bang. I don't use that phrase, because it was originally used by people who didn't believe in it and were trying to make it sound stupid. Anyway, that boundary condition needs to be adjoined to the fundamental equation if we are going to get the complete laws of physics. And then also we have a candidate. Jim Hartle, my colleague and collaborator and 25 years ago my graduate student here at Caltech, but now a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Steve Hawking, with Cambridge, who has attracted a lot of attention with that book called A Brief History of Time, that so many bought and have claimed to have read. The two of them, Hartle and Hawking, formulated a number of years ago a candidate for that initial condition of the universe. And it might be right also. We don't know, but again it is the kind of thing that might possibly be right. Their condition is particularly interesting because their condition utilizes the same formula that would describe the unified quantum field theory of all particles and all their interactions, which would mean, if they are right, that there is only one fundamental law. The equation and the boundary condition would both be given by the same formula. Which is really exciting. Anyway, so much for the fundamental law. We may be very close to knowing. But that's not all there is, because...

The description of the universe in quantum mechanics is a probabilistic one. The fundamental laws do not tell you the history of the universe. They tell you probabilities for an infinite set of alternative histories of the universe. And what we see about us is the result not only of the fundamental law, but of all those many throws of the quantum dice that determine the specific features of the universe. So we are asked, for instance, the statistical distribution of the shapes of all the galaxies of the universe. It is probably determined by the fundamental laws. The shape of our own galaxy, the specific shape of a particular galaxy, is probably also the result of a lot of accidents, and the same is true of a particular star, like the sun. And the particular planetary system, like the system of planets around the sun. A particular planet, like the earth, is a product not only of the fundamental law, but also of an innumerable set, a very large set of accidents. The same applies to the evolution of life on the earth, which contains many features attributable to accidents that are, in principle, unpredictable. The same with particular forms of life, and the same with particular individuals. For example, every human individual is the result not only of fundamental laws, but also of a huge chain of completely unpredictable accidents. So that the rich fabric of the universe as we see it around us is co-determined by the fundamental law, and this long sequence of accidents. And to understand how that appears, we have to understand a whole different part of science, which is how a system that learns, or adapts, or evolves, can exist in the universe, and how it processes information so as to make some sort of picture of the universe. And we human beings, of course, are among those complex adaptive systems. Life as a whole can be thought of as a complex adaptive system. Parts of living creatures, like the immune system, can be considered to be complex adaptive systems. The brain, or the mind, which is the manifestation of the brain, can be thought of also as a complex adaptive system. Computers that are programmed to invent strategies can also be thought of as complex adaptive systems. All of these that process information in a particular way, seem to have a lot in common. I'm thinking a lot about that these days.

And you are saying that they all operate on a set of fixed laws, but are affected in every instance by varying circumstances?

Murray Gell-Mann: That's right. Varying circumstances, which is the result, at least in part, of long chains of accidents, completely unpredictable accidents. Now that's true of the quantum nature of reality, that we have all these, in principle, unpredictable accidents. But even in the approximation of so-called classical physics, where the specific quantum effects are ignored, there is still the famous phenomenon of chaos. In non-linear mechanics systems, what chaos means, technically, is that the outcome in such systems can be infinitely dependent on the input. In other words, an infinitesimal change in the initial conditions can produce a finite change in the result. The modern rediscovery of that sort of thing is attributable in part to meteorologists. It is very important in meteorology that you can't actually predict certain aspects of the weather very easily, because sometimes they are actually infinitely sensitive to the initial conditions.

We're always intrigued by stories where people travel backwards in time to change one thing so that one outcome can be avoided. They always find that no, you can't change that one little detail, because it would destroy history as we know it .

Murray Gell-Mann Interview Photo
Murray Gell-Mann: That's a science fiction situation. So far, we can't say that such a thing actually happens. But yes, in science fiction there is a famous puzzle of what would happen it you could travel backward in time. If you change things so that the past was then incompatible with the present, then you couldn't get back to the same present. So in some science fiction stories, as you know, the situation is resolved, by having the character take actions in the past which made the present possible. So that instead of shooting his own grandfather before the grandfather had progeny, which would be really dangerous for the present, it turns out the main character is his grandfather. He has gone backwards in time and intervened by siring his own father, for example. But by that means the science fiction writer has created a consistent loop, a self-consistent loop. So far that's just science fiction. It has no counterparts in reality as far as we know.

When you were growing up, was there an experience or an event that most inspired you?

Murray Gell-Mann: 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. I loved that. It was great fun, and continues to be great fun. I think it's great fun for everybody who does it. It's just wonderful. If people have lived without it, they should probably pick it up, because it's really splendid to look at the world in terms of connections, relationships. So many people just look at facts as disconnected objects, and they are not like that at all. There is an intricate pattern of interrelationship among things.

What was the first instance in which you remember discovering that interrelationship, that thinking "ah-ha!"

Murray Gell-Mann: Gee, I don't know. There were so many when I was a little boy. So many it is hard to remember what the first one was. Something that was very important came much later. When I was at Yale as an undergraduate, I learned a lot of math and physics rather formally, and of course a lot of other subjects as well. I loved some of the history classes and a number of other things, but the math and physics that I learned, I learned almost by rote. I learned it in a very superficial manner. There was some of it I understood deeply, but most of it I understood on a rather superficial level. But it was sufficient to pass all the examinations and get very high grades and so on. A student is, in many respects just a machine for getting grades. So I did that sort of work as an undergraduate, without really getting deeply involved in the understanding of what I was doing. Then...

I went to graduate school, MIT, and there, a few weeks after I got there, I attended the Harvard-MIT theoretical seminar, which was held that day at MIT. And I didn't know what a theoretical seminar was, I thought it was something like a class. I looked around for some teacher to please, which was after all the point of class. But it wasn't like that. There were big-shot professors sitting in the front row, and there were all sorts of other people, post-doc graduate students, younger professors, and so on scattered throughout the audience. Anyone who was interested in theoretical physics in the Cambridge, Mass., area was there. The speaker was a Harvard graduate student who was about to get his Ph.D. He talked about his dissertation. And in the dissertation, he attempted to demonstrate, approximately, something that everybody believed to be true, which was that a spin -- angular momentum of the lowest energy stage of a nucleus called Boron-10 -- was one unit. The ground state, so called, or Boron-10 had a spin of one. And what he did was to use so called tri-way functions, and vary them. Try to get the lowest energy possible. And by this approximate method, he found that the lowest energy seemed to come out with a tri-way function of spin one. Which confirmed what he was trying to show. It wasn't a rigorous proof, but it was a significant bit of evidence. And then he finished his talk, and I wondered what would happen. Would the professors in the front row give him a sort of grade? Classes was the only thing that I understood. Grades and pleasing the teacher, that sort of nonsense. The real workings of science was something I understood only from a great distance, from reading history books and so forth. What happened was that the big-shot theoretical professors in the front row didn't say anything, but a little grubby man got up from right next to me. Somebody who looked as if he had crawled out of the basement at MIT. And he said, "Hey, duh spin ain't one. It's three. Dey measured it." And suddenly it occurred to me in a sort of blinding flash that the job of the theoretician was not to please the famous professors in the front row, but to agree with what this grubby man found in the laboratory! Agreeing with nature is the main thing. And suddenly I had a real idea of what a theoretical scientists is, and what the point of theoretical science is.

That's a great story. I take it this person had in fact been in the basement doing research.

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes. I don't think it was his research he was talking about. But he had read about it, heard rumors of an experiment which measured it, and it was not what people thought it was going to be. It was quite a burden, actually. Because at that time, there was a new theory of the structure of light nuclei, the so called "shell model," J.J. Cuppling's shell model with which this new value agreed. But nobody was talking about that theory. They were talking about a bunch of older ideas at this seminar. A few weeks later, one of the people working on that new theory came to give a seminar. And that talk was completely compatible with Boron-10 having three, in fact it predicted that Boron-10 would have a spin of three. So I began to have a real idea of how these things work.

You mentioned a favorite history professor as well.

Murray Gell-Mann: Well, there were a number of history professors at Yale. There was one that I liked very much called Hajo Holborn. His classes were splendid. But there were a number of others that I liked as well.

What was so special about history in general, and that class in particular?

Murray Gell-Mann: I've always been fascinated by history. Most of my reading has been about history, still is. History and pre-history. History and archeology. It is still true. What I liked about him was that he tried to acquaint ordinary students -- most of them were not professional historians and weren't going to become professional historians -- he tried to acquaint them with how history actually operates. What are the primary sources? What do we really know? How much is speculation? How much of what people conventionally say about history is actually false, and so on? I loved that. He tried to cut through the conventional accounts of history that we all absorb in elementary courses and ordinary reading, in newspaper articles and so on, to get back to what really happened, what was really going on. He emphasized that the way historians find that out is by studying the actual primary sources, not just reading one another's books.

Going to the lab, so to speak.

Murray Gell-Mann: A very similar thing, yes. Going into the lab instead of just arguing about theory in the absence of fact. That's right.

What about the person who inspired you most as a young man? You talked about your brother. Was there someone else who had a major impact on your thinking?

Murray Gell-Mann: Not particularly.

There was a teacher at school who was fun. I don't know if he had a big impact on my thinking, but he was a lot of fun. His name was Dow Bunyan Bean, and he had a Doctor of Divinity degree, from some place in the South. I think he came from Georgia. And he had lost his faith and he had lost his interest in religion, and had become a secular high school teacher. Everybody called him Doc Bean. He was marvelous. He was full of animation. He was relatively old at that time. At least we kids considered him relatively old. But he was very lively, jumping around, raising his voice, lowering his voice in all sorts of interesting ways, with a racy line of talk about whatever he was discussing, and suddenly stopping and asking somebody a question to make sure the person was listening. Writing down some little grain in his book. He was lively, and it was marvelous. And if he didn't know something, then he would immediately send whoever asked the question to the library to see what was known on the subject. I thought that was particularly splendid. Not that, of course, everything is available in a library. Lots of things are simply not known, or maybe unavailable in a high school library. But the fact that he wanted to push every inquiry as far as it could be pushed with the local resources, that really impressed me. I thought that was great. And every time anybody was curious about something, either he could answer it, or somebody else in the class could answer it, or else we went and used whatever resources where available to try and find out the answer.

It also seems that you picked up from him the notion that learning can be fun.

Murray Gell-Mann: No, I always thought that learning was fun. Many people think of learning as connected with school, and I never did. For me, learning was something you did, and school was sort of an ancillary piece of equipment. School was never the primary place of learning for me. I did learn things from time to time at school, but it was not the main thing. I have spent my life learning. School was just a little piece of it.

Was that because you had your brother leading the way?

Murray Gell-Mann: Yeah, but I didn't need my brother. My brother started me out in a lot of things, and my father to some extent, but once they did, then I could read, or go to a museum, or read a newspaper, go to a film. There are all sorts of different ways of learning. Listen to the radio, or whatever. But I felt that learning was a life-long experience, and school was incidental. It's a pity that some people I know were put off particular subjects, because they had teachers in those subjects who were uninspired. My late wife, Margaret, for example, had a history teacher that turned her off history for decades, many decades. It's sort of a shame, history is such a glorious subject. Finally, as an adult, she began to realize history had a lot of appeal. She had lost 30 years or something, because of this stupid teacher. Now, that could never happen to me, because I didn't form my opinion of subjects according to what some teacher said. I already had some acquaintance of the subject. If the teacher didn't teach it well, I just turned off the teacher, but not the subject.

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