In Memory of Murray Gell-Mann, Who Gave Us Quarks and Ordered the Subatomic World

Kendrick Frazier

Murray Gell-Mann, the brilliant physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics a half-century ago when he was barely forty years old, died May 24, 2019, at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was eighty-nine.

Gell-Mann helped develop the “standard model” of particle physics. He introduced the concept of quantum “strangeness.”  He brought order to the world of subatomic physics by grouping all particles into eight characteristics, a system he named the “Eightfold Way.” To account for these characteristics, he came up with the then-revolutionary idea of particles with fractional electric charge, and he called them “quarks,” a name he whimsically took from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Experiments subsequently confirmed the existence of quarks. His 1969 Nobel Prize citation read: “For his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions.”

Gell-Mann, born in New York City in 1929, was a child prodigy. He received his PhD at MIT in 1951 and spent most of his research career at Caltech. He was known for his range and depths of interests and knowledge. Late in his career he moved to Santa Fe and in 1984 helped found the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), where scientists from many disciplines study frontier topics surrounding the idea of complexity, a concept common to fields including biology, ecology, sociology, and computer science.

  At SFI he actively researched the evolution of human languages, archaeology, other aspects of human history, and even economics. 

His 1994 book The Quark and the Jaguar united his views about the simple and the complex. Quarks, as he said, were “the basic building blocks of all matter,” and jaguars, while built of quarks and electrons, exhibit “an enormous amount of complexity, the result of billions of years of biological evolution.”

David Krakauer, president of the Santa Fe Institute, called Gell-Mann a “polymath … a mind both cavernous and extensive—animated by the most intense fire of roguish curiosity that I have ever beheld.”

The novelist Cormac McCarthy, a longtime Gell-Mann friend and a fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, said, “Losing Murray is like losing the Encyclopedia Britannica. He knew more things about more things than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“Murray Gell-Mann was a seminal figure in the history of physics,” Thomas Rosenbaum, a physicist and president of Caltech, said in a statement. “A polymath, a discerner of nature’s fundamental patterns, and, as such, an expositor for the connections of physics to other disciplines. Murray helped define the approaches of generations of scientists.”

In addition to his many other scientific honors, in 1985 the Executive Council of CSICOP, predecessor of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, elected Gell-Mann a fellow (SI, Summer 1985). He was always a strong proponent of rationality and evidence-based thinking. He spoke at CSICOP’s 1987 Pasadena conference, where at the evening awards banquet he was given CSICOP’s Frontiers of Science and Technology Award while Carl Sagan was given its In Praise of Reason Award. An SI report on the conference (Fall 1987) said Gell-Mann also gave magician/entertainers Penn and Teller a little help with their show at the conference as “an assistant.”

In October 2007, Gell-Mann was a featured speaker at the Center for Inquiry’s congress on Scientific Inquiry and Human Well-Being in Beijing, China, a conference cosponsored by the China Research Institute for Science Popularization (CRISP).

In respectful remembrance, we here present the summary of his remarks we published at the time and a photo we took of him in the hallway of the Science Hall there in front of a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton:

Gell-Mann: Reality Is Out There … and It’s Beautiful

  From the March/April 2008 Skeptical Inquirer

In case you were wondering, there really is a reality out there independent of human observers. That point—often disputed in deep philosophical discussions by the intellectual cognoscenti—comes from one who has accomplished his own deep investigations into the fundamental realms of physical reality: physicist and CSI Fellow Murray Gell-Mann, who won the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics for his work leading up to the discovery of the quark, which he predicted and named.

Gell-Mann spoke at the [CFI] China conference opening plenary session on “Is Nature Conformable to Itself?” But before launching into that topic, he fired some arrows at certain enemies of science. He cited “a number of tendencies” toward “hostility to science” among fundamentalists, governments, and postmodern scholars. As for the latter, he said, “I call them ‘post-rational’ or ‘post-intelligent.’”

The laws of physics “are out there,” Gell-Mann emphasized. “These laws are not just created by the human mind.”

It is scientists’ job to discover them, and beauty, he said, as did Einstein, is a guide to truth. “What is especially striking and remarkable is that in fundamental physics a beautiful or elegant theory is more likely to be right than a theory that is inelegant.”

What do we mean by beauty of elegance? “A theory appears beautiful or elegant—or simple, if you prefer—when it can be expressed concisely in terms of mathematics we already have.”

Inherent in this discussion is the search for a basic law that would take the form of a unified field theory of all the fundamental forces and all the elementary particles. Yet Gell-Mann scorned using the term “theory of everything.” He said such a law would predict possibilities, but it can’t predict everything because contingency plays a heavy role.

“The basic law cannot be ‘a theory of everything’ because it doesn’t include these zillions of accidents that along with basic law determine the history of the universe. We should never use that term ‘theory of everything.’”

“It does not detract from achievements of humans to know that our intelligence and self-awareness have emerged from the laws of physics and biology, plus accidents.”

What does he mean by nature being conformable to itself? Gell-Mann began with the old analogy of peeling away an onion to discover more and more layers of reality. As we go to higher and higher energies, he said, “the next onion skin resembles the previous one to some extent. There is a self-similarity.” He said Isaac Newton even noticed this effect, in the inverse law effect.   


Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.

Murray Gell-Mann, the brilliant physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics a half-century ago when he was barely forty years old, died May 24, 2019, at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was eighty-nine. Gell-Mann helped develop the “standard model” of particle physics. He introduced the concept of quantum “strangeness.”  He brought …

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