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If you like Murray Gell-Mann's story, you might also like:
Gary Becker,
Francis Collins,
Freeman Dyson,
Leon Lederman,
John Mather,
Linus Pauling,
Glenn Seaborg,
Edward Teller,
Charles Townes,
James Watson and
Edward O. Wilson

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

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  Murray Gell-Mann

We wanted to ask you about some of the scientists you've known who took controversial stands on public issues. Edward Teller, for example.

Murray Gell-Mann: Well, he's been involved on the wrong side of a lot of larger issues, yes.

There were many people who had no qualms about working on the atom bomb because of the circumstances, but they thought that developing the hydrogen bomb was a different thing entirely.


Murray Gell-Mann: They were entitled to their opinions, and they should not have been persecuted for their opinions. They should not have had their clearances removed by some perversion of the security apparatus because of a conspiracy by Edward and Louis Strauss, and various other people, Air Force people, and so on. I think that was a crime against Robert Oppenheimer. He was entitled to his opinion and he was entitled to propagate his opinion. Making him out to be some sort of enemy agent because he had a different opinion from theirs was terrible. However, I personally supported, at that time, and still do, the development of the thermonuclear weapon. I think at the time when Stalin's Soviet Union was obviously doing the same thing -- and we know who was doing it too. Sakharov and "Ya B." (Yakov Borisovich) Zel'dovich, my friend "Ya B." Zel'dovich, and Kurchatov, and so on. At the time when those people were doing that, I think it was not much alternative to our doing it in this country. But I consider it conspiracy, evil and reprehensible to try to label Robert Oppenheimer as some sort of a fiend, just because he had a set of opinions different from theirs. Basically, his opinions were those of the Army. And theirs were those of the Air Force. And, as I say, I don't disagree with the opinions of the Air Force, but I think there was no reason to try to make out somebody, who happened to agree with the Army instead, to be a fiend.


So you're saying that was basically an inter-service rivalry?

Murray Gell-Mann: Basically, that's what it was.

Murray Gell-Mann Interview Photo
Murray Gell-Mann Interview Photo



Robert thought that it was very important to develop small fission weapons. I was never particularly fond of that idea. But he and a number of other people thought that was very important. And he thought it was very bad to work on the thermonuclear weapons, and in particular, he and a lot of other scientists believed that we could reach an agreement with the Soviet Union not to develop the thermonuclear weapons, so that neither side would have them. Conceivably they were right. I tend to doubt it, because of who was in charge of the Soviet Union at that time. But Stalin did die, of course, around that time. In 1953, by the time of the Oppenheimer hearing, actually, Stalin was gone. By that time, maybe it was possible to make such a deal. I don't know. It's not possible to know, but the reason so many people are angry at Edward (Teller) and at many other of those conspirators, is that it was considered unconscionable to misuse the security apparatus to try to blacken Robert Oppenheimer's name, just because of a disagreement on policy.


We now seem to be beyond the cold war. Do you see any modern-day equivalent to those kinds of challenges of people's views, because others disagree with them, and don't recognize their right to express it?

Murray Gell-Mann: Right now we don't have such an acute problem of suppression of ideas as we did then in this country.

Is that because the ideological battle between groups led by the United States and the Soviet Union has receded?

Murray Gell-Mann: Oh, that continued until very recently, and still continues to some extent. But the crisis and hysteria was restricted to a few years in the 1950s.

Do you see any new threats to the freedom of expression in the scientific community?

Murray Gell-Mann: Well yes, sure. For example...


There are the fundamentalists, who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible in this country, who are trying to make it difficult to explain to students about evolution. And they used to try to get the teaching of evolution suppressed. They have given up on that. Now the push has been in recent years to try to require teachers who explain evolution to explain some sort of nonsense at the same time, and give it equal time, and equal emphasis. Some sort of nonsense based essentially on a literal interpretation of the Bible. I helped to fight against that in the Louisiana creationism case by circulating, among a lot of people, an amicus curiae brief for the Supreme Court. It was signed by virtually all of the American winners of the Swedish prizes in science, and by virtually all of the state academies of science, and may have helped to influence the Justices in their 7-2 decision. I don't know if it did or not. That two justices could have voted the other way I have found just appalling. Just almost unbelievable, especially when one looks at the arguments they used.


So you do see some threats to freedom of scientific inquiry or expression?

Murray Gell-Mann: Well, fundamentalism is a big threat in many places. There are many different kinds of fundamentalism, all over the world. It seems to be a major threat, perhaps a growing one.

We wanted to ask you about Linus Pauling as well. He was at Caltech for 41 years. He felt compelled to take a stand on a political matter, and to organize other scientists around the issue.

Murray Gell-Mann Interview Photo
Murray Gell-Mann: Yes, but one with a very heavy technical component, that political question. I was here then, Caltech, and I was a consultant at Rand, thinking about these issues myself a little bit. But I was very young, and I was timid about doing much about it. Not timid exactly, I just didn't think I could accomplish a lot. I wasn't afraid of anything. I just didn't think that I could accomplish a great deal. So I wasn't very active. I should have been, perhaps. I should have written my views, at least in a letter to the newspapers, or something like that, but I didn't. I did talk with the people at Caltech, though. My impression at the time, and it hasn't changed much over the years, is that Linus was complaining, legitimately, about health threats to local populations and the population of the world. In retrospect, it turns out that he should have concentrated much more heavily on local populations, who were really getting it.

You mean the people who lived near nuclear testing sites?

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes, rather than the general effect on the world population.


I felt, and I still think it's true, that he was exaggerating a lot of the data, and extrapolating results from known results much too much. And making somewhat extravagant claims. But I felt, even if one restricted oneself to things that were probably right, that he had a point. And so I was sort of in the middle. And I remember Lee DuBridge, the president, was unhappy about Linus's remarks, and I said, "Well, I agree with you about this and this." And he said, "Well that's nice. " Then I said, "But I don't agree with you on the rest!" And people couldn't believe that I was disagreeing with both sides, but I was. I thought that denying that there was any problem, and just saying that national security considerations overrode everything else, or whatever it was that they wanted to say. I thought it was absurd. At the same time, I thought that Linus was exaggerating a little bit the evidence, going too far with the evidence. It turns out that there were plenty of bad things to say. And if he had restricted himself largely to local populations, it wouldn't have been so bad, but in fact, he was, I think, exaggerating with the threat and the terms in which he stated.


I was hoping was that we could find a solution. One that wouldn't compromise national security, and one that would meet some of the objections on the grounds of health and safety.


What was obvious was that it was tests in the atmosphere that were compromising health, and it was tests in the atmosphere that were rather easy to detect, so that if they were cheating, you could find out that somebody was cheating. So why didn't we just try, along with the other side, to stop tests in the atmosphere. Well, it took a number of years before people finally got around to agreeing that might be a good idea, and finally the treaty was signed in 1963, but that was some seven years later. When Linus got his second prize from the Nobel Foundation for Peace, a number of people here thought that it was not a good idea, and that it should have gone to those who negotiated the treaty. It should have gone to Jerry Weisner, for example, who helped to formulate the American position on the treaty, and so forth. To Kennedy and Khrushchev, maybe, I don't know. I thought it wasn't such a bad idea that it went to Linus, even though I thought that he had exaggerated back in the '50s the scientific evidence for his position.


Murray Gell-Mann Interview Photo

In any of these controversies, there is a whole spectrum of people doing the work. Some people are exaggerating the data. Some people are excessively conservative, but still defending the same position. Some people are in between. And it's the whole spectrum of people who constitute the movement, whatever it is, that is producing the effect. And each segment, so to speak, plays its role. If there is somebody way over there, that makes me a moderate. I felt that Linus, even though I thought he had been too strident and exaggerated here and there, I thought that, as far as the Peace Prize is concerned, which is not given for scientific accuracy, he did deserve it. He was the one that made the big fuss. It's too bad that it was a scientist, I thought, who was doing this exaggeration. It's better if the scientist leave the exaggeration to somebody else, and the scientist sticks closely to the consequences of the evidence. But anyway, I thought it was correct that he got the Peace Prize. Then he apparently felt that the community here hadn't supported him enough, and he left. But what I could never forgive Linus, it wasn't anything along these lines, but just the fact that he was worshiped so much. Including by his wife and children.

Did you find that annoying?

Murray Gell-Mann: Very maddening!

There are so many issues confronting us. If you were in front of a group of young people, is there something you would want them to understand?


Murray Gell-Mann: I think that it is very important that human society, in facing the future, look to the long run as well as the short run, and our institutions are not very well adapted to that. Our institutions -- political institutions -- are hooked up so that problems are looked at in the short run. Predictions of the long run are of course less reliable. So that also militates against paying attention to the long times. I think, nevertheless, it is extremely important that we do so, that we seek ways of reforming our institutions so that they are more sensitive to the long term concerns. So that we are using, for many purposes, what you might call small discount rates, instead of discounting the future at a huge rate. And at the same time, I think that we must learn to strike a proper balance between cooperation and competition. In free market countries we appreciate the value of competition, the great usefulness of competition, the great usefulness of encouraging individuals to compete, as well as organizations to compete. That's all very well. But there is also a role for cooperation. We need to learn to strike a balance. Neither one by itself is as good as a proper harmonious mixture of the two. And so, there again, we need institutions in favor of that as well.


Before we go, could you tell us the blow gun story?

Murray Gell-Mann: I guess. Yes. A couple of months ago I was in Sabah, and in the forest, and also in the capital, Kota Kinabalu, formerly Jesselton. Sabah used to be called North Borneo, part of Malaysia. They were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the museum in Kota Kinabalu, and I went over there to look at the museum. And in honor of the 25th anniversary, they were having a blow gun contest. All the visitors were invited to shoot three blow gun darts at a target, and see how well they could do hitting it. I was with my friend Dan Martin, who is the program officer for environment and population and several other things. He took a turn at the blow gun. The first shot missed completely, the second one was a the edge of the target, and the third one was closer in. Then they asked me to try. I had done some practicing with my Amazonian blow gun at home, firing at an Amazonian doll figure a few feet high. So I was probably just lucky, but anyhow, I aimed the blow gun a little bit above the target, and blew. And it went -- smack! -- right in the middle of the bull's eye with the first dart. Of course, I refused to try the other two, so as not to spoil a perfect record. But those people were quite impressed.

So you retired undefeated?

Murray Gell-Mann: I retired undefeated. Dan was quite impressed too.

How did you get interested in blow guns?

Murray Gell-Mann Interview Photo
Murray Gell-Mann: I'm interested in weapons. I'm interested in a lot of things. I don't mean guns. I'm not interested in guns, but primitive weapons.

Is that because it's a reflection of people trying to develop some science to deal with their environment?

Murray Gell-Mann: Well, develop techniques to deal with their environment. Kill animals for food, also to deal with their enemies. Anyway, when I came home with that blow gun and the Amazonian figure that I used as a target, my son Nick was really delighted. He was in his early 20s then. He was very pleased. He said, "I must be growing up, because I find theses things you do more interesting that I used to. Either that, or else the things you do are much more fun than the ones you used to do." So we fired blow gun darts together for hours at this target.

Left it pulverized?

Murray Gell-Mann: Actually, I began to feel sorry for the target after a while, because it is a rather nice object itself. So I finally stopped using it and started using other things. So it actually is not too badly wounded. Just a few nicks. Including my son. He's a Nick also.

Well thank you for this interview. It's been a real pleasure.

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