Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics

Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics

by George Johnson

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With a New Afterword

"Our knowledge of fundamental physics contains not one fruitful idea that does not carry the name of Murray Gell-Mann."--Richard Feynman

Acclaimed science writer George Johnson brings his formidable reporting skills to the first biography of Nobel Prize-winner Murray Gell-Mann, the brilliant, irascible man who revolutionized modern… See more details below


With a New Afterword

"Our knowledge of fundamental physics contains not one fruitful idea that does not carry the name of Murray Gell-Mann."--Richard Feynman

Acclaimed science writer George Johnson brings his formidable reporting skills to the first biography of Nobel Prize-winner Murray Gell-Mann, the brilliant, irascible man who revolutionized modern particle physics with his models of the quark and the Eightfold Way.  

Born into a Jewish immigrant family on New York's East 14th Street, Gell-Mann's prodigious talent was evident from an early age--he entered Yale at 15, completed his Ph.D. at 21, and was soon identifying the structures of the world's smallest components and illuminating the elegant symmetries of the universe.

Beautifully balanced in its portrayal of an extraordinary and difficult man, interpreting the concepts of advanced physics with scrupulous clarity and simplicity, Strange Beauty is a tour-de-force of both science writing and biography.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Kathleen Stein
[Johnson] does a masterly job of making the arcana of particle physics available and shepherding the reader through increasing layers of complexity. Also central to this narrative, and what keeps the reader forging through the densest thickets, is the drama of Mr. Gell-Mann's blazing brain. This book is a mind trip...[and] a testament to the biographer's perseverance, if not nerves of steel.
New York Times
Chet Raymo
Strange Beauty brings together an irresistible subject -- the difficult polymath Murray Gell-Mann -- and a talented writer who spins an enthralling tale out of the kind of esoteric physics that generally flies right over our heads. Johnson is one of the best science journalists writing today, known for his books Fire in the Mind and In the Palaces of Memory and for incisive reporting in the New York Times. This is his most ambitious project yet -- communicating the fascination of a kind of science that only an elite of superbright people fully understands. He succeeds brilliantly.
Scientific American
New Yorker a vivid sense of Gell-Mann and his contemporaries, including his collaborator and competitor Richard Feynman.
Philadelphia Inquirer
George Johnson has done a wonderful job in meeting the biographer's challenge....[He] is very good at capturing the excitement, competitiveness, jealousies, and incredible intensity of the race to be the first in finding a new theory or doing a crucial experiment....[Strange Beauty] achieves a rare balance...between Gell-Mann's life and his scientific work.
NY Times Book Review
...a multidimensional portrait of a brilliant but tormented man who dominated elementary particle physics for 20 years.
Science Magazine
Skillfully and engagingly written...Johnson paints a convincing portrait of Gell-Mann's personality.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Up, down, top, bottom, strange and charm aren't just states of mind: they're kinds of quarks, the mind-bending, omnipresent sub-subatomic particles co-discovered and named in the early 1960s by the American physicist Murray Gell-Mann. New York Times science reporter Johnson (Fire in the Mind) has written a brisk, accessible life of the Nobel-winning scientist, who will turn 70 next month. Gell-Mann grew up poor in New York City, the son of Eastern European Jews. Still in his teens, he attended Yale and MIT, and soon afterward won notice for his work on cosmic rays. Gell-Mann followed up his insights about quarks with important work at Caltech and elsewhere on superstrings, supergravity and mathematical complexity. His adult life has had its hardships: his daughter gave much of her life to an American Stalinist fringe group, and his wife died of cancer in 1981. (He's since remarried.) Johnson makes clear that Gell-Mann's direct, sometimes arrogant manner could make him difficult to work with; admired by physicists, he failed to achieve the wider fame of his media-friendly colleague, the late Richard Feynman. While Johnson relates such troubles sympathetically, the story of Gell-Mann's life is in large part the story of his and others' researches and discoveries. Explaining difficult fields like quantum physics, Johnson uses as many analogies, and as little math, as he can, while trying always to give some picture of what scientific problems Gell-Mann and his fellow scientists solved. The result is a careful if colloquial biography, perfect for readers who aren't--or aren't yet--working scientists. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
One of the most notable physicists of the Nuclear Age, Murray Gell-Mann worked closely with Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynmann, and others to help unlock the secrets of the subatomic world. In 1969, he received a Nobel prize for his work on the interaction of elementary particles and their classification. Now New York Times science writer Johnson (Fire in the Mind) has written a well-balanced biography of this renowned scientist's complex life and work. Noting Gell-Mann's idiosyncrasies, his faults, and his accomplishments, Johnson follows his subject through his passions (nature and conservation, art collection, anthropology, ornithology, and linguistics), his struggles with chronic writer's block, and his incredible scientific achievements. While it is necessarily dense in parts, this book is free of mathematics and is accessible to the advanced lay reader. Recommended for large public and academic libraries.--James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Johnson, who covers science for the presents a biography of the Novel laureate physicist who discovered the quark and the Eightfold Way, cornerstones for all that has followed in particle physics. He describes his prodigal childhood, his scientific achievements, his abrasive and competitive drive, and family crises. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Marcia Bartusiak
An insightful biography of physicist Murray Gell-Mann [that] splendidly captures the energetic spirit of this golden age of theoretical physics . . . We gain a front-row seat at an exhilarating intellectual demonstration. . . . The elegance of Johnson's writing matches the beauty of Gell-Mann's discoveries.
Washington Post Book World
Simon Singh
Dramatic and lucid . . . As somebody who spent three years searching for quarks at CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Geneva, I found it a joy to read a book that, to a large extent, recounts the history of the quark, and does so with such clarity and verve. Johnson does not shy away from technical detail and manages to cover the many intellectual milestones while maintaining a swift pace.
The Daily Telegraph (London)
Chris Llewellyn Smith
The story of [particle physics] from the 1940s to the 1990s, is told in this fascinating book. George Johnson also describes, convincingly, the life of a tormented genius and polymath, and his struggles with doubts, colleagues and perceived enemies. The result is compelling reading for anyone interested in the evolution of fundamental physics over the past 50 years, and in how science actually progresses. . . . [A]n outstanding book.
The Times (London)
New Scientist
Johnson, an award-winning science writer, paints a fascinating portrait of this brilliant, complicated, sometimes insecure and often exasperating man.
A riveting read for anybody interested in the history and sociology of late-twentieth-century science.
Gregg Easterbrook
[Gell-Mann's] times, theories, and occasionally insufferable ego are the subject of Strange Beauty, a fascinating, skillfully composed, and entertaining biography. . . .
Wilson Quarterly
Jeffrey Marsh
In this fascinating volume, exhaustively referenced and engagingly illustrated, New York Times science writer George Johnson probes Mr. Gell-Mann's life and work, portraying him with an artful choice of anecdotes that bring out a quirky personality, a masterful ability to describe the arcane and highly mathematical nature of his theories in layman's terms, and an infectious enthusiasm for his subject.
Washington Times
Science News
Johnson's portrait of the man and his science is clear and candid, winning the reader's respect and understanding for his subject.
Kirkus Reviews
Part biography, part textbook on quarks and other phenomena discovered by one of the great particle physicists of the twentieth century. Johnson (a New York Times science writer) first introduces us to Murray Gell-Mann in the present day, as a likable retiree living in Santa Fe. He sets his personal experiences with Gell-Mann against Gell-Mann the legend, cutting colleagues down to size if their viewpoints didn't coincide with his own, or calling them by unpleasant and sarcastic nicknames. Gell-Mann's broad scope of knowledge started in his youth in New York City, where he would visit museums, the zoo, anywhere he could learn about the world around him. In school young Murray was always eager to show off his knowledge, winning a spelling bee at the age of seven. At fourteen, he won a scholarship to Yale, moving from there to MIT, where he reveled in the unsolved problems in physics. It was these problems, theories about particles yet to be discovered, that Gell-Mann would spend his career solving. Johnson is not afraid to present these theories in great detail, giving crystal-clear descriptions of some of the most abstract and convoluted ideas in physics. Nor is he afraid to delve into the personal side of Gell-Mann, including his relationship with his colleague Richard Feynman, a friendship at times strained by the fame that Feynman achieved from his best-selling book of autobiographical anecdotes. Gell-Mann wanted to write one, too, but for all his knowledge he was crippled by a lifelong case of writer's block. The limited success of his autobiography once it was finished presumably led to Strange Beauty. A must-read for anyone studying physics or its history, and for others notafraid to swim in the sometimes deep and murky waters of cutting-edge science.

From the Publisher
"A multidimensional portrait of a brilliant but tormented man who dominated elementary physics for twenty years... An almost Shakespearean hero."—The New York Times Book Review

"Skillfully and engagingly written."—Science

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It was Memorial Day weekend of 1996, in the middle of what turned out to be one of New Mexico's worst droughts of the century. The seemingly endless dry spell reminded many of the climatic disaster said to have driven the Anasazi, the original inhabitants of this land, from their stone settlements around Mesa Verde, causing the collapse of a civilization. To escape the heat, I left my house in Santa Fe and drove as high as you can go into the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains. After leaving my Jeep in the ski basin parking lot, already some 10,000 feet above sea level, I began walking higher. My destination, La Vega, "the meadow," lay at the base of Santa Fe Baldy, an 11,600-foot peak of Precambrian granite that juts above the timberline.

Almost as soon as I reached the trail head, I realized that, once again, I had misjudged the perversity of New Mexico weather. Looking out across the Rio Grande Valley, I could see the next mountain range, the Jemez, where just weeks earlier a fire had devastated fifteen thousand acres of one of my favorite places, the wilderness backcountry of Bandelier National Monument. Now storm clouds were boiling up over the Jemez and sweeping toward the Sangre de Cristos. The temperature began dropping, and before long snow flurries, of all things, were swirling around me.

I was wishing I had worn a jacket and long pants instead of khaki shorts and a T-shirt, when, as I rounded a corner on the trail, I heard a familiar voice. "Well, hello," a man in a floppy cotton hat and a windbreaker called out enthusiastically. He was walking toward me from the opposite direction. "How are you?" he said. It took me a few seconds to realize that I had randomly encountered the subject of this biography, my Santa Fe neighbor Murray Gell-Mann, hiking with his stepson, Nick Levis.

For weeks now I had been trying to pin down Gell-Mann for another interview. He had been running hot and cold ever since I had told him, two years earlier, that I intended to write his life story. Lately he had been more helpful. But now I was worrying that his second thoughts were being followed by third and fourth thoughts, and I had no idea what stage our relationship was in. I was relieved that he seemed genuinely pleased to see me. And I was struck again by how much, contrary to so many of the legends, Gell-Mann liked people and conversation, the easy camaraderie of encountering someone familiar on a mountain trail. The physics lore is filled with stories of Gell-Mann cutting down a colleague with a withering remark, of the mocking names he assigned to people whose ideas he didn't respect. Particle physics is the most competitive of intellectual sports, and faced with a theory or a theorist he didn't like, Gell-Mann could be merciless. But up in the mountains, in New Mexico, he seemed almost able to relax.

He introduced me to Nick, who like me was shivering without a jacket. When I said I was headed for La Vega, Gell-Mann was delighted at the coincidence. "La Vega," he said, his mouth stretched wide to mimic as perfect a northern New Mexican accent as you might hear in the villages of Chimayo or Truchas, down the other side of the mountain. He and Nick had also been heading to La Vega when the drop in temperature caused them to turn around, a little way up the trail, at Nambe Creek -- "NAM-be," Murray said, with just the right amount of padding around the b. Now they were heading home.

If Gell-Mann was disappointed about not reaching this particular goal, he didn't show it. His eyes sparkled, and he seemed happy just to be out in the woods again. A few weeks earlier, the cardiologists had stuck a catheter in his chest, checking on his progress since a recent heart attack. They were relieved to find that the artery they had scraped out -- a Roto-rooting, Gell-Mann called it -- was still open. There was another, less threatening obstruction further downstream, but the doctors decided to leave it alone.

I was tempted to turn around and join Murray and Nick on the hike back. But somehow it seemed improper. This was not Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate, the discoverer of the quark and the Eightfold Way, but simply a man on a holiday with his stepson. My strategy all along had been to avoid making him feel cramped. I was in this for the long haul. After a few minutes, we parted ways. I made it about a mile past Nambe Creek. Then, just before the descent into the meadow, the clouds went black and I also decided to save La Vega for another day. Heading back down the mountain, I thought about how much I had come to like this brilliant, complicated, always fascinating, and often exasperating man.

When we visit the ruins of ancient civilizations, we reserve a peculiar fascination for those giant, elaborate structures that seem to serve no practical purpose whatsoever: the pyramids built by the Egyptians on the Nile and the Maya in Mexico, or the large circular kivas of Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico. They stand meaningless now, rock-solid projections long outlasting whatever ideas they were meant to represent. Catholicism still survives, so we can understand some of the rationale behind Chartres, St. Peter's, and the other great cathedrals and basilicas of Europe. But we have barely a hint of the ideas that motivated the construction of the Sphinx.

It is sometimes said that the cathedrals of the late twentieth century are the giant particle accelerators, monuments to the belief -- far from obvious on its face -- that buried beneath the rough surface of the world we inhabit is a crystalline order so beautiful and subtle the mind can barely grasp it. Engaging in a fantasy, we can imagine, centuries and centuries from now, archaeologists (from this planet or perhaps from beyond the solar system) perplexed and captivated by the remains of the seventeen-mile-circumference particle accelerator being constructed at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, near Geneva, or the four-mile ring at Fermilab in Illinois. These "atom smashers" are among the largest, most powerful machines ever built by the human race -- not for the purpose of generating power, like the dams and nuclear reactors, or for predicting the weather or simulating nuclear explosions, like the supercomputers. Their sole purpose is intellectual: to find the faintest glimmers of evidence that, despite so many appearances to the contrary, we live in a mathematically symmetrical universe. How is it that a civilization long ago became so obsessed with this idea? That will be the riddle of these twentieth-century sphinxes.

If our parchments and our data banks survive along with the wreckage of our great machines, the archaeologists will learn a remarkable story: How the elders of the church of science came to believe that, despite what we perceive, matter is not continuous; it is made of invisible particles linked together in a beautiful architecture. As the atomists would show over the years, the seemingly infinite variety of the world is generated by some one hundred elements, neatly arranged in the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev's periodic table of the elements.

Viewed from the heavens, any hint of geometry on the earth -- land divided into rectangles and circles, rock cut into blocks and piled straight and high -- is usually a sign of intelligent creatures imposing order on an irregular world. But surely, the scientists believed, this harmony we find so soothing runs deeper. Beneath the world's confusion of forms is a scaffolding built according to a geometry as pleasing to the mind as a Gothic cathedral.

Since no one could directly see this geometry, the best one could hope for was to study its shadows. And so the physicists began to build the machinery they believed would provide an indirect glimpse. At first these devices were as simple as a jar enclosing gold foil leaves that seemed to waft in the wind of an invisible essence called electricity. By the early twentieth century, scientists were making gas-filled tubes that glowed in the dark with what they took to be mysterious beams of positive and negative charge. By studying and measuring these weird emanations, the physicists reached a powerful consensus: The world was even more elegant and symmetrical than Mendeleev and the atomists dared imagine. The variety of atoms found on the earth and in the sky were made up of combinations of just three particles: the proton, the electron, and the neutron.

But this newfound simplicity was short-lived. Not content with their instruments, the scientists built bigger and bigger machines. With the first particle accelerators, small enough to fit on a tabletop, they began smashing their elementary particles into each other and discovered that they weren't so elementary after all. They could be shattered into fragments. When they built bigger accelerators to smash the pieces even harder, they were left with fragments of fragments. Placing carefully designed detectors on mountaintops or sending them aloft in balloons, they found traces of still other particles, the cosmic rays bombarding the planet from space. Soon, there were so many of these "elementary" constituents that they threatened the very desire for order that had driven the search. The physicists were in despair.

And then, leading them out of the confusion, came the young scientists whose string of discoveries would do so much to make sense of it all, to find pattern hiding beneath the confusion. Viewed through these magicians' wonderful new lenses, the clouds lifted and order shone through. But it came at a curious price. To restore beauty to the core of creation, humanity was asked to believe in truths stranger than any that had come before.

The most remarkable of these wizards was Murray Gell-Mann. Graduating from Yale University at age eighteen, by the time he was twenty-one he had earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Less than three years later, he began his revolution with an astonishing theory explaining the unlikely behavior of certain cosmic rays -- the so-called "strange particles" that bombarded the earth from space. The legend was born. From then until a decade later, when he proposed the existence of quarks, Gell-Mann dominated particle physics. He is sometimes called the Mendeleev of the twentieth century, for what he provided was no less than a periodic table of the subatomic particles. In a fanciful allusion to Buddhist philosophy, Gell-Mann called his organizing scheme the Eightfold Way. While the periodic table shows that the plenitude of atoms can be generated by combining just three particles -- the proton, electron, and neutron -- the Eightfold Way shows that the hundreds of subatomic particles are made up of a handful of the elements Gell-Mann named quarks. Complexity was reduced to simplicity again.

But there is an important difference between the architecture of Mendeleev and the architecture of the Eightfold Way. And it is here that one can glimpse the enormity of the intellectual upheaval brought on by Gell-Mann and his colleagues. The periodic table, now a commonplace in any high school chemistry course, classifies the elements according to properties we can perceive with our senses. Every element is characterized by a unique mass and charge. Mass is something we feel when we pick up a rock; we generate charge when we shuffle across a carpet and touch a doorknob.

Classified according to these commonsense qualities, the elements miraculously arrange themselves into columns -- the rare earth metals, the noble gases, and so forth -- whose members share similar characteristics.

In its ability to sift pattern from chaos, the Eightfold Way is at least as powerful, but tantalizingly more subtle. The qualities Gell-Mann used to arrange the subatomic particles were far more abstract than charge and mass. In his scheme, particles were classified according to elusive qualities called isospin and strangeness, which have no counterpart in the world of everyday experience. To describe the invisible patterns said to underlie the material world, Gell-Mann's strangeness was soon followed by more new qualities with names like charm, truth, and beauty. They "exist" not within the familiar world of three dimensions (four, if you include time), but within artificially constructed mathematical spaces, imaginary realms of pure abstraction.

Was this world stuff or mind stuff? To say that Gell-Mann "discovered" the quark is not quite right. All of his great breakthroughs came from playing with symbols on paper and chalkboards. His most important tools, he liked to say, were pencil, paper, and wastebasket. His discoveries were not of things but of patterns -- mathematical symmetries that seemed to reflect, in some ultimately mysterious way, the manner in which subatomic particles behaved. But then "invented the quark" is not quite right either -- implying some kind of postmodern relativism in which science is pure construction, just another philosophy. When Mendeleev drew his table, he left blank spaces for unknown elements that were discovered only years later. This manmade artifice was predicting truths about the real world. And so it was with the Eightfold Way. New kinds of particles demanded by Gell-Mann's abstract invention showed up in the experimenters' atom smashers.

The conflicting views of the nature of scientific ideas -- are they discovered or invented? -- are starkly laid out in the titles of two books: The Hunting of the Quark by Michael Riordan and Constructing Quarks by Andrew Pickering. Are quarks real particles (whatever that means) or mathematical contrivances? It's a debate that Gell-Mann refused to engage in. Philosophy, he thought, was a waste of time. But the puzzling questions about the reality of quarks -- particles that cannot in principle be independently observed -- quietly churned in his mind. One can see the struggle in the words he wrote and the lectures he gave. Ultimately he and just about everyone stopped worrying about it. Whether invented or discovered or something in between, it was Gell-Mann's quarks and his Eightfold Way that laid the foundation for the explanation physicists have given for how the world is made. For years particle physicists argued over who was the smartest person in their field: Richard Feynman or Murray Gell-Mann.

This idea of breaking the world into pieces and then explaining the pieces in terms of smaller pieces is called reductionism. It would be perfectly justified to consider Gell-Mann, the father of the quark, to be the century's arch-reductionist. But very early on, long before mushy notions of holism became trendy, Gell-Mann appreciated an important truth: While you can reduce downward, that doesn't automatically mean you can explain upward. People can be divided into cells, cells into molecules, molecules into atoms, atoms into electrons and nuclei, nuclei into subatomic particles, and those into still tinier things called quarks. But, true as that may be, there is nothing written in the laws of subatomic physics that can be used to explain higher-level phenomena like human behavior. There is no way that one can start with quarks and predict that cellular life would emerge and evolve over the eons to produce physicists. Reducing downward is vastly easier than explaining upward -- a truth that bears repeating.

In the last decade, what aspires to be a new branch of science has sprung up to try and come to grips with complex phenomena -- organisms, economies, ecosystems, societies, the thunderstorms that sweep through the Rockies. Gell-Mann, some fifteen years after winning a Nobel Prize for his reductionist tour de force, reversed direction and helped found the Santa Fe Institute, a world center for studying complexity. Part of his motivation was political. An ardent conservationist, he hoped to find scientific ammunition to support his environmental causes. He wanted to understand the complexity of the rain forests and convince the world that they must be preserved. But he also hoped to deepen the world's understanding of the relationship between the unseen particles science understood so well and the unruliness of the world that confronts us every day. Sitting in his small office, with its pictures of the particles he had discovered hanging on the walls like family portraits, he would look out at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, at all this rich biology and geology begging to be understood. And, though some of his Santa Fe colleagues would beg to differ, he believed he had come close to figuring it out.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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What People are saying about this

Roger Lewin
The story flows from the pages with the elegance and finesse of a fine novel...Strange Beauty is a masterpiece of modern biography.
James Gleick
George Johnson has nailed this biography of the brilliant and irascible Murray Gell-Mann. Strange Beauty is complex, mind-expanding, beautiful, and true.

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