Murray Gell-Mann was clearly one of the major figures of twentieth-century science. When he arrived on the scene as a young Ph.D. in the early 1950s, the subatomic world seemed a senseless mess—a hodgepodge of pi particles, sigma particles, rho particles, and on and on through an endless list of Greek alphabetical names assigned at random. But two decades later, largely because of concepts that Gell-Mann had pioneered, physicists were drawing up Grand Unified Theories of all the interparticle forces and were confidently classifying that hodgepodge of particles as various combinations of “quarks”—simple subatomic building blocks that Gell-Mann had named after a made-up word in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. “For a generation,” says a theoretical physicist who has known him for twenty years, “Murray defined the centroid of the research effort in particle physics. What Murray was thinking about was what everyone else should be thinking about. He knew where the truth lay, and he led people to it.”
On the face of it, this thirty-year preoccupation with the inner reaches of protons and neutrons made Gell-Mann an odd recruit to Cowan’s vision of scientific holism; it’s hard to imagine anything more reductionist. But, in fact, Gell-Mann’s interests were legion. He was driven by an omnivorous curiosity. He had been known to turn to strangers sitting next to him on an airplane and grill them about their life stories for hours. He had first come to science through a love of natural history, which he started learning at age five when his older brother took him on nature walks through the Manhattan parks. “We thought of New York as a hemlock forest that had been overlogged,” he says. Ever since, he had been an ardent bird-watcher and conservationist. As chairman of the committee on World Environment and Resources at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, he had helped found a Washington environmental think tank known as the World Resources Institute, and he was deeply involved in efforts to preserve tropical forests.
Gell-Mann likewise had a lifelong fascination with psychology, archeology, and linguistics. (He originally enrolled as a physics major at Yale only to satisfy his father, who feared he would starve if he majored in archeology.) When mentioning a foreign scientist he pronounces the name with a lovingly precise accent—in any of several dozen languages. One colleague remembers mentioning that he would soon be visiting his sister in Ireland.
“What’s her name?” asked Gell-Mann.
“What does it mean?”
“Well, in Gaelic I think it means ‘servant of a bishop.’”
Gell-Mann thought for a moment. “No—in medieval Scots-Gaelic it means more like ‘religious follower of a bishop.
And if anyone at Los Alamos didn’t already know it, Gell-Mann could use that verbal ability with immensely persuasive effect. “Murray can improvise, on the spot, an inspirational speech that may not be Churchillian,” says Carruthers, “but the clarity and brilliance of it are overwhelming.” As soon as he joined the institute discussions, his arguments for a broad-based institute gave the majority of the fellows something to rally around, and the Metropolis-Rota concept of a computer-focused institute quickly lost altitude.
Gell-Mann got his real chance to shine just after Christmas 1983. Taking advantage of the fact that Gell-Mann, Rota, and Pines loved to spend the holidays in New Mexico—in fact, Gell-Mann had just finished building a house in Santa Fe—Cowan called yet another meeting of the fellows to try to get this institute moving.
Gell-Mann pulled out all the stops. These narrow conceptions weren’t grand enough, he told the fellows. “We had to set ourselves a really big task. And that was to tackle the great, emerging syntheses in science—ones that involve many, many disciplines.” Darwin’s theory of biological evolution had been just such a grand synthesis in the nineteenth century, he said. It combined evidence from biology, which revealed that different species of plants and animals were clearly related; from the emerging science of geology, which showed that the earth was incredibly ancient and that the past afforded immense vistas of time; and from paleontology, which proved that the plants and animals who dwelled in that immense past had been very different from those alive today. More recently, he said, there had been the grand synthesis known as the Big Bang theory, which detailed how all the matter in all the stars and galaxies had come into being in an unimaginably vast cosmic explosion some fifteen billion years ago.
“I said I felt that what we should look for were great syntheses that were emerging today, that were highly interdisciplinary,” says Gell-Mann. Some were already well on their way: Molecular biology. Nonlinear science. Cognitive science. But surely there were other emerging syntheses out there, he said, and this new institute should seek them out.
By all means, he added, choose topics that could be helped along by these huge, big, rapid computers that people were talking about—not only because we can use the machines for modeling, but also because these machines themselves were examples of complex systems. Nick and Gian-Carlo were perfectly correct: computers might very well turn out to be part of such a synthesis. But don’t put blinders on before you start. If you’re going to do this at all, he concluded, do it right.
To his listeners it was spellbinding stuff. “I had said it before,” says Gell-Mann, “but perhaps not so convincingly.”