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If you like Murray Gell-Mann's story, you might also like:
Gary Becker,
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Freeman Dyson,
Leon Lederman,
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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: 5 / 8)

Developer of the Quark Theory

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  Murray Gell-Mann

When you got into college, and into your graduate studies, how did things finally come together for you? When did you know what direction you wanted to go in?

Murray Gell-Mann: I didn't. I just drifted along playing physics because I had started physics. It was nice. I enjoyed it. I liked it. I became very ambitious to learn more and do something in physics. As I explained, when I got to graduate school, I began to understand what it meant actually to learn, to do something, rather than just to study and pass. And it was fun. I went on and went to the Institute for Advanced Study for a year after graduate school, and began to teach. My first job was at the University of Chicago, and then I came here. It was all very straightforward.

The teacher at MIT, my teacher, who is still alive, Victor Weisskopf, was a wonderful, inspiring person -- is still a wonderful inspiring person. He is really a splendid person, and working with him was marvelous. First of all it was fun, but second I really learned something. Not a fact or a theory particularly, but I learned a principle, which was that fancy mathematics doesn't have any value in science for it's own sake. It may be useful to introduce some new mathematics, some fancy mathematics, because it helps you to get the answer. Helps you to formulate a new theory. Helps you to solve an old one. But just doing it for it's own sake, just snowing people with mathematics is not a good idea. You should use methods that are as simple as possible, given the richness of the material, the depth of the theory that you are applying it to. That was very important, because graduate students are frequently impressed with formalism. And Victy just refused to be impressed with formalism. He said, "That doesn't matter. It's just formalism." What matters is making a new discovery, a new theoretical discovery, not with just improving the formalism. Improving the formalism may prove useful for making a new discovery, and in that case it's fine, but otherwise it is not to be valued. Don't be impressed by formal developments, be impressed by real developments. That was very important for me.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

How much of a role did hard work play, versus luck, in the way things have gone for you?

Murray Gell-Mann: That's a very easy question. I have never done any hard work in my life. I wish that I were capable of hard work. Maybe now, finally, I can do some hard work. All my life I've been terribly lazy. And it's very bad, these last few years, because I've taken on much more than any human being can possibly do. Say I take on 50 times what a person can do, and I work at, say, two percent efficiency. That puts me behind by a factor of 2500. Every day I fall several years further behind, and that's painful. That's the most painful aspect of my life. If I could reduce the commitments, or increase the efficiency, or both, I would be so much happier. But I haven't been able to do it.

But you've been so successful.

Murray Gell-Mann: Well, here and there, something works. But, you know, that's such a tiny fraction of all the things that I could do, or should have done, might do, try to do. Some people are really hard workers, they really get things done. Not only are they hard working, but they are effectively hard working. So they're efficient. They know how to organize their lives and they actually get things done. So all my successes, whatever they are, are at the margin. There are a few things that I have managed to get done. They're just a tiny number of so many things that I would have liked to do, probably could have done, if I had been more sensible.

Could you give us an example of something that you wish you'd done?

Murray Gell-Mann: Well, in physics, for example. I could certainly have followed up my work on quarks, and worked on quantum chromodynamics much earlier that I did. Lots of things I could have followed up on, sooner, more effectively. My attention was scattered. I didn't work hard enough.

How much of that was also the desire to have a personal life?

Murray Gell-Mann Interview Photo
Murray Gell-Mann: Well, that's true. No, I don't regret having a personal life. I don't regret what little time I managed to spend with my wife and children and so on. No, that I don't regret at all. But a lot of it is really wasted. Reading is perhaps the worst. Reading is a terrible addiction. There's a lot of talk now about drugs and alcohol and so on, but reading is really bad. Andre Gide, talked about "Ce vice impuni, la lecture" -- "That unpunished vice, reading." If somebody is a real reading addict, he just reads. Really, you try to read the newspaper every morning. All the junk, all the unimportant junk in the newspaper. The comics, the editorials, and so on, and you read aspirin bottles and anything. It's just terrible.

Cereal boxes?

Murray Gell-Mann: Well, I started on cereal boxes. That was not a waste of time, to learn to read. No, it was a cracker box, Sunshine. No, you start to read a cracker box, and thereby learn to read, that's not so bad. But later on, just reading cracker boxes over and over again! It's a terrible addictive practice. A compulsion. Anyway, I've wasted a tremendous amount of time reading junk. That's just one example.

But you've processed a good bit of it, haven't you.

Murray Gell-Mann: No, I don't think so.

Well, it gives you so many things to talk about, you probably inspired your students.

Murray Gell-Mann: I don't know that I inspired them. I certainly digress a great deal. I've never asked my students what they think of all those digressions. I think they just ignore them. I think they just pass right by. But I'm not sure. Sometime I should have somebody ask the students what they think of the digressions. There certainly are a lot of them.

Perhaps those digressions are a reflection of your view that everything in this world is connected.

Murray Gell-Mann: It's true. And I view culture as something that is unified. I don't like the idea of breaking it up, artificially, into art, science, social science, humanities. Then specific fields -- immunology, nuclear physics, cultural anthropology, and so on and so forth. Because there are so many important things that connect one field to another, and principles that transcend many of these fields. And for me, it's always been true, every since I was little, and my brother and I used to look at the world together, that it's all part of the same fabric. It's all part of human culture. Part of the way we look at the world.

You liked the daring historian who didn't stop when time did.

Murray Gell-Mann: Of course the future is very interesting. I just got through meeting with a group of people that a couple of us have organized here at Caltech to hold a symposium next year on the future. We just finished yesterday a preliminary conference on the same subject. It's on visions of the sustainable world. Can we imagine what a sustainable global society might look like in the middle of the next century? Can we figure out what some of the transitions are that we would have to undergo as a global society, in order to get from here to there? And what are the trends in the world today that seem conducive to making those transitions? I'm also organizing, with some other people, a big research project on the same subject, visions of the sustainable world.

Clearly with an interdisciplinary approach.

Murray Gell-Mann: Oh yes, everything. Natural science, social science, law, medicine, anything you can think of.

If you were a young person these days, what would you be interested in? What would you see as the most exciting areas of inquiry?

Murray Gell-Mann: I think what some of us are trying to do today, which is to understand the general principles that underlie complex adaptive systems. All living things, sets of living things, computers that are programmed to solve problems and create strategies. The chemical reactions that preceded life, so called pre-biotic chemical evolution, aspects of life, like the immune systems of mammals, and complex adaptive systems on other planets throughout the universe, whatever they might be. The must all obey certain principles, fundamental principles of complex adaptive systems. They apply to all learning, adapting and evolving systems throughout the universe. What are those principles? How do those things work? How do they process information so as to learn, adapt and evolve?

But all those things are constantly changing.

Murray Gell-Mann: That's right. The universe, the environment -- if you want to call it that -- of the complex adaptive systems is itself changing with time. Not only is it a time series, with certain probabilities for certain events, but that time series is changing with time. And furthermore, with many cases, the environment is itself an adaptive complex system, and is co-evolving, as well as just changing, with time. So you have two or more systems, both or all of which are evolving together. That is fascinating to study and to think about. These days, with the availability of large computers, one can begin to model such things. It's far too complicated to approach analytically, at least to begin with, by writing down formulas and solving equations, but one can approach it readily by making models, computer models.

That has helped us move more quickly toward integrating a number of problems that cut across disciplines.

Murray Gell-Mann: The study of complex adaptive systems cuts across archeology and linguistics, economics, physics, chemistry, math, immunology, and so on and so forth. It just goes on and on. Computer science. That's the kind of thing we're doing at the Santa Fe Institute, which I helped organize. It is devoted to giving people from virtually all fields the opportunity to work together to understand how complex adaptive systems work, and other complex systems as well, but principally complex adaptive systems. And we bring people from all of these disciplines -- psychology, mathematics, chemistry, anthropology, and so on -- together for meetings, and we allow them, or encourage them, to form research networks. It's very exciting. I do a lot of the recruiting for the Santa Fe Institute, for the science board which supervises the program, and also for individual researchers. Every time I phone somebody in some distant field, some famous, busy person, I know that person is going to say, "Well, what you're doing sounds interesting, but I'm already fully committed, but don't call me, I'll call you." But instead, in almost every single case, the person says, "When can I come? I've been waiting for this! I've been waiting all my life for something like this!" It's very interesting. It's apparently a real felt need.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

You mean something that is not as restraining as the discipline they usually work in?

Murray Gell-Mann: That's right. In a university, or an institute of technology, people feel, whether it's true or not, that they must stick somehow to particular activities, and discuss things in particular ways. When they come to the Santa Fe Institute, they feel free of those restrictions. In one case, we had a seminar on the evolution of the human languages, which I helped to organize. We had five linguists from the same linguistics department, same university. Of course they all knew one another very well. But at the Santa Fe Institute, they had conversations they had never managed to have at home, because it's a place where one is encouraged to make connections.

You mean to reach out in ways that you might not if you expect to be judged only within your discipline?

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes. They were actually all in the same discipline, the same department of the same university, but they were doing somewhat different things. At home they just each stayed at a position. I work on such and such and aspect, and the other says he works on such and such. At Santa Fe Institute, they began to argue about how you could put these things together, and to what extent particular grammatical universals, for example, were explained partially by one approach and partially by the other approach. So some sort of synthesis of the two points of view began to be formed, which the two colleagues had never done at home.

Is the Santa Fe Institute directed largely at behavioral science?

Murray Gell-Mann: No, not particularly. Everything. Math, natural science, behavioral science, even the humanities to some extent. We have a very good historian on the science board, and we have done two sizable workshops on the pre-history of the Southwest, which of course involved a lot of archaeologists.

You made the pioneering study of what physicists call the "strangeness" of sub-atomic particles. In context, what does that mean?

Murray Gell-Mann: It's just a name, which I gave actually, to certain particles. They were called peculiar -- or curious, or strange or something -- particles because they were produced copiously in reactions. Initially, they were observed in cosmic rays, so the reactions were in the atmosphere. Later on, the reactions were in the laboratory. But in either case, they were produced copiously. But they took what, by our standards, is a long time to decay. Ten to the minus ten seconds, for example, is a very long time. A short time would be ten to the minus 24 seconds. So, that's one over one with 24 zeros. One over one with ten zeros is obviously a very long time compared to that. And it wasn't understood initially, back in 1952, how they could be produced in large numbers and take a long time to decay. I explained it with this so called strangeness theory. But I just gave the name to these particles, the strange particles, people were calling them things like that - peculiar particles, strange particles, curious particles. Because they had this apparently paradoxical behavior of being produced strongly and decaying weakly. And I explained why that happened and facetiously gave the name strangeness to the quantum number that was involved. The quantum number was conserved in the production, but violated in the decay. So the production could be done by the strong interactions and could be strong. And the decay went by the weak interactions, and thus the slump.

Is this an example of what you were talking about earlier, of the general laws interacting with varying circumstances to produce different outcomes?

Murray Gell-Mann: No, I wouldn't say this was an example of that. In specific, reproducible, fundamental physical situations, one is just dealing with the consequences of the fundamental laws.

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