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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 Biography

Developer of the Quark Theory

Murray Gell-Mann Date of birth: September 15, 1929

Print Murray Gell-Mann Biography Print Biography

  Murray Gell-Mann

Murray Gell-Mann Biography Photo
Murray Gell-Mann was born in New York City. His father was an immigrant from Czernowitz, an ancient city that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now known as Chernivtsi, Ukraine. The elder Gell-Mann struggled to support his family during the Great Depression but managed to instill in his son an intense interest in science and mathematics.

An academic prodigy, young Murray Gell-Mann was an enthusiastic student with wide-ranging interests. At seven he first tried to teach himself calculus; he was only ten when he first delved into Finnegans Wake, the notoriously obscure masterpiece of the Irish novelist James Joyce. By his own account, the one subject in which young Gell-Mann did poorly was a high school course in physics. Nevertheless, he graduated from the city's Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School as class valedictorian and won a scholarship to Yale University at the age of 15. Although his passion at the time lay in linguistics and archeology, his father urged him to choose a major in the sciences. On a whim, he says, he decided to major in physics and soon become captivated by the subject.

He acquired his Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at age 21. After a term at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago. From the early '50s, Gell-Mann's work centered on the field of particle physics, the study of the smallest objects that make up the known universe. In the 1950s, the new particle accelerators detected exotic particles of cosmic radiation, such as kaons and hyperons, whose behavior defied expectation, decaying more slowly than other particles for reasons physics found inexplicable. Murray Gell-Mann dubbed this quality "strangeness" and suggested that particles be assigned a strangeness number, to be evaluated alongside the more accepted parameters of electrical charge and mass.

Murray Gell-Mann Biography Photo
In 1955, Gell-Mann moved to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and within a year was appointed full professor. At 30, he was the youngest full professor in the Institute's distinguished history. Cal Tech was to remain his base of operations for the next 38 years. The same year, he married J. Margaret Dow, a British archaeologist. The couple had two children before Mrs. Gell-Mann's untimely death in 1981.

By the 1960s, nearly 100 different particles had been discovered in the nucleus of the atom, and the function and relation of these particles had become a morass of conjecture, characterized by some physicists as a "particle zoo." Gell-Mann found that by classifying the known particles by their electrical charge and "strangeness" number, they could be usefully classed in octets, or categories of eight, a system he called "the eightfold way." The widely read Gell-Mann derived this term from the Buddhist conception of the "eightfold path" of virtuous living. Within this otherwise perfect pattern, he noted an empty spot, for which no particle had been discovered. Extrapolating from the rest of the eightfold pattern, Gell-Mann estimated the charge, strangeness and mass of an as yet unobserved particle, one he named "Omega-minus." In 1964, particle researchers detected a particle corresponding almost exactly to Gell-Mann's description. Gell-Mann's theory had been entirely validated.

Murray Gell-Mann Biography Photo
Meanwhile, Gell-Mann had been exploring the process that created this extremely regular pattern in the properties of sub-atomic particles. He proposed that all the particles in the nucleus, including the proton and neutron, were composed of still smaller components holding a fractional charge. He called these particles "quarks," a nonsense word he had come across in Finnegans Wake. The quarks, he posited, were governed by forces expressed through the exchange of "gluons."

Gell-Mann's fanciful names for the elementary particles attracted amused attention in the popular press. The notion of a fractional charge was a difficult one for many physicists to accept. Skeptics seized on a chance remark of Gell-Mann's to assert that not even he believed the quarks actually existed, that their existence was purely hypothetical. In fact, Gell-Mann was convinced of the reality of his undetected particles; he believed they lay embedded within the protons and neutrons of ordinary atoms, where they could not be easily observed.

In 1969, Gell-Mann received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles. Over a quarter-century, he was one of only a handful of scientists to receive a Nobel Prize for an individual achievement, without sharing it with co-recipients. His Nobel citation did not even mention his discovery of quarks, an achievement worthy of a second Nobel Prize.

Murray Gell-Mann Biography Photo
Gell-Mann's quark theory was soon confirmed by experiment; scientists forcing a stream of high-speed electrons through a hydrogen atom were able to detect the quarks within. Gell-Mann's view won total acceptance in the scientific community. In 1972, Gell-Mann and colleagues identified a force they described as "color" that holds the quarks together inside the nucleus, and Gell-Mann introduced a quantum number for color, alongside those for mass, electrical charge and strangeness. Gell-Mann elaborated this insight in the theory of quantum chromodynamics, a quantum field theory which accounts for all of the nuclear particles and for their strong interactions.

Turning from the largely defined strong interaction, Gell-Mann was among the first to discover the structure of the "weak interaction" of sub-atomic particles. In more recent years, he has been a vocal supporter of "superstring" theory, also known as M-theory, which proposes that all forces and particles are composed of vibrating entities, "super-symmetric strings," far smaller than the smallest known particles. For some years, he has applied M-theory to investigate the origin of the universe.

Murray Gell-Mann Biography Photo
Murray Gell-Mann's achievements in theoretical physics never wholly drew him away from his wealth of other interests. In the same year he won his Nobel Prize, he established a pioneering environmental studies program for the National Academy of Sciences. His research has extended far beyond the realm of physics, to embrace natural history, linguistics, archaeology, depth psychology, and biological and cultural evolution.

In 1984, Gell-Mann co-founded the Santa Fe Institute, a non-profit research institute based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to study complex systems and disseminate the notion of a separate interdisciplinary study of complexity theory. Returning to one of his first intellectual passions, he has devoted considerable attention to the evolution of human languages. He led the creation of the Institute's Evolution of Human Languages Program, a long-term project to group the known families of human languages into fewer and larger groupings or super-families, and ultimately, to trace their origin to a single, hypothetical proto-language. The works employs archeologists, anthropologists and geneticists, as well as linguists and computer programmers.

Murray Gell-Mann Biography Photo
Apart from his scientific and intellectual pursuits, Gell-Mann has long been an enthusiast of hiking, camping and bird-watching. Over the years, he has concerned himself with public policy issues such as preservation of biodiversity, population control and sustainable development, arms control and international relations. In 1988 he was listed on the United Nations Environmental Program's Roll of Honor for Environmental Achievement. The following year, he was awarded the "Science for Peace" prize.

Much of his work in all fields is concerned with the concepts of simplicity and complexity, regularity and randomness. He explicated his thoughts on a wide range of topics relating to this central issue in a 1994 book for the lay reader, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. He was also the subject of a controversial unauthorized biography, Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th Century Physics. Today he is the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and teaches occasionally at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, in addition to his continuing work at the Santa Fe Institute.

This page last revised on Feb 25, 2008 20:47 EDT
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