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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: 6 / 8)

Developer of the Quark Theory

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  Murray Gell-Mann

You've taken your scientific interests and applied them in other fields that a good many physicists don't get interested in.

Murray Gell-Mann: In my case, those interests preceded my interest in physics.

And survived them.

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes.

Do you think we've learned as much about ourselves, about people as complex adaptive systems, as we have about the world around us?

Murray Gell-Mann Interview Photo
Murray Gell-Mann: No, I don't think so. It's much harder. Complex adaptive systems are a much more difficult to study than the fundamental laws of physics, for example. And among those, the study of human beings is fairly complex. The study of human beings is a very difficult thing. We haven't made so much progress on it because it is more difficult. The fact that we are studying ourselves, in that case, perhaps may also make for some difficulty.

It is easier to study the interaction of particles than it is the interaction of human beings.

Murray Gell-Mann: Oh, for sure. My forthcoming book on all these things is called The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. The "simple" refers to the fundamental laws of physics. The "complex" refers to things like us. And that's perfectly correct. It may not be how the person on the street prefers to state it, but the fact is that the fundamental laws of physics are very simple. It may take a couple of years to learn the right notations and so on, but they're intrinsically simple, and that's not true of complex adaptive systems.

You once described your marriage as having made you a much more whole person. Did it change your outlook in some way about life?

Murray Gell-Mann Interview Photo
Murray Gell-Mann: Well, I like very much sharing experiences with somebody I love. For me it's a very important part of life. I can't really enjoy something properly if I just do it or see it, or know about it, or hear about it myself. Sharing with a loved one is a very crucial part of living. And Margaret was a very charming person, and very witty, and just a very pleasant companion. A very exciting companion.

There are some times that we get so wrapped up in our work, especially in theoretical endeavors, that one could get very preoccupied with that. Did she help bring you back to a broader reality?

Murray Gell-Mann: Probably. Probably she did. But I would do that anyway. The main thing is to have some wonderful person to do it with. But I would want, in any case, to come home and do other things. The question is, is there some splendid person to do it with? Somebody to raise children, and dogs and hamsters and snakes and so on with. And to engage in all sorts of other adventures, including intellectual.

You mentioned earlier that you had done a bit of exploration, and that you might have wanted to do more. What have you done, and what did you want to do?

Murray Gell-Mann: I would have liked to do pioneering exploration, in areas that very little study had been done, and make new discoveries in natural history, or conceivably in archeology. It's a romantic dream of a great many kids, and I still have it. I've never really done it, but I've poked around in an awful lot of remote places in the last few years. And that's been fun. That's been a lot of fun. And it's been extremely educational. It's also helped me a lot with my activities in conservation of biological diversity. Because most of the problems of conservation and biological diversity are in the tropics. It's where most of the biological diversity is, and it's where the biggest problems are. Problems of rapidly burgeoning populations, poverty, and so forth. So the biggest treasures of biological diversity are in the tropics, and the dangers are the greatest in the tropics. Of course, nothing can be done about those without simultaneously working on the living conditions of rural people in the tropics. One has to build a kind of structure in which those people, in their search for a better life, is in harmony with protecting the biological diversity, so that they have a stake in it, and perceive that they have a stake in it.

Poking around in so many of those places over the last eight years or so has helped a lot with my work on that. I've devoted a lot of attention to that whole area.

Do you find something particularly exhilarating about going somewhere new and seeing how people live, how they relate and adapt to their environment, how they adapt to change?

Murray Gell-Mann: And seeing how the animals and plants in the area relate to one another. The extraordinary variety, and the relationships. Relationships in their taxonomy, and the relationships in their behavior, are both exciting. They form a system. Organisms aren't just individuals, they form a very complicated system with all sorts of very complex patterns of interaction. I don't claim to have studied those things very deeply, but even just the superficial study is extraordinarily interesting, and it's been very valuable in my conservation efforts.

You've also had a lot to say about balancing ecological systems with economic systems, with trying to live within your environment to get a better life.

Murray Gell-Mann: It's very important when you do that, that economics be generalized to include the values of, for example, biological diversity and many other things. It's all part of the program of trying to get closer to true costs, and true values in economics. Now most very advanced researchers in economics agree that that sort of thing in principle is desirable, and they do some theoretical work on it. They have various constructs, like the social discount rate, which measures debt between the generations, the so-called inter-generational equity. Of course they have externalities. If something like the air, or the oceans, or the forests are treated as free goods, it obviously is not true. So you try to charge for them in some sense, theoretically by treating them as externalities, and internalizing them, which means that you actually do charge. Assign a value. Anyway, all of this is done in the textbooks, and the cost of information is considered. But in practice and economic practice in so many places, lending organizations, and so forth, most of this is forgotten, and approximated by zero.

Value is assigned to those things that have value in some trivial sense. Like costs, or trivial costs, that are very easily quantified, and all the things that are difficult to quantify are put equal to zero. And I have been upset by that for 20 years, and for 20 years I've been trying to figure out ways to fight it, and to make propaganda against it, to get people to improve their ways of thinking and their ways of behaving. The survival of our society on this planet, and survival of the other organisms on this planet, is very much bound up with how soon we can learn to charge true cost, and depreciate true values, and combine those things with the usual economic calculations. The usual economic calculations are caricatures.

You mean the things that are considered to have value are the things you have to write a check to pay for?

Murray Gell-Mann: Right. And the other things are for convenience but equal to zero. As I said, the brilliant economist will of course admit that is not correct, but the problem is to do something about it in practice.

If you don't do something about clean air, for instance, you're looking at huge costs for health concerns. There are all sorts of things we don't assign a dollar figure to, but that clearly have value.

Murray Gell-Mann: That's very true. But these huge costs are often not correct. They leave out some other things. They assume free markets, and in fact ,often the market isn't free, there are all kinds of market impediments. Again, I don't mean the brilliant economist. But the people who do these things in practice often make these errors, and if you remove market imperfections, frequently you find the costs are very small, or negative. That you actually make money. For example, saving money in many cases will make money. And reducing carbon dioxide emissions will in some cases make money rather than cost. But you will still find lots of people who will calculate that it's very expensive and will cost a lot. I'm not talking about making money in conventional terms. I'm not talking about making money in terms of true value. But just in actual money. Anyway, this generalization, and correction and refurbishing and reform of economic calculations is very important.

This is a critical aspect, you think, of preserving our future?

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes. One of the most critical. Perhaps the most critical aspect.

Otherwise the bottom line will be a perversion of reality.

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes. It is already. It's very much a perversion.

When you received the Nobel Prize, what were your feelings? What did you say upon receiving the Prize?

Murray Gell-Mann: What did I say? I didn't say anything. You don't say anything at the moment. When the King hands you the prize, you say "thanks."


Murray Gell-Mann Interview Photo
Murray Gell-Mann: Tack själv. I don't know. Later on that evening you make a speech, a brief speech. I just said a few words, partly in Swedish, partly about... I mentioned the new photographs of the Earth from space, showing a blue planet, and how precious our blue planet is. We don't know of any good place to live anywhere close by, other than this blue planet, and we ought to take care of it. And I congratulated the Swedes, in their own language, on proposing the first U.N. conference on the environment, which was held three years later in 1972 in Stockholm. That's the sort of thing I talked about. I said a few other things. I said the beauty of the laws of physics and the beauty of nature and so on, were not to be different things, but aspects of the same thing. The second U.N. Conference on the environment, twenty years after the first, is to be held in '92 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and that will be a very exciting discussion there, of the greatest importance for the future. There's a man who's making a film, a 90-minute film to open that meeting. He's the same man who made the film shown at the first conference in 1972. I was just meeting with him, last night and the night before, to discuss some of the things that he ought to film. I may even appear briefly in the '92 film, in the forests of Brazil. That is one of the most polluted places in the world, not very far from São Paulo. I saw it in 1985. It's exciting that the Brazilians are trying to preserve it now, what fragments are left of the Atlantic Forest that stretches from near the coast, from the North of Brazil all the way down into Paraguay, and even a few kilometers into Argentina.

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