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

Developer of the Quark Theory

December 16, 1990
Pasadena, California

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  Murray Gell-Mann

Let me ask you, in a general way, about some of the things you are best known for. How was it that you began to suspect that there was some particle that we had not yet discovered or accounted for.

Murray Gell-Mann: Which one?

The quark.

Murray Gell-Mann: Oh, I predicted lots of particles before that. And they were all found. But that was sort of by filling in gaps.

I was able to create a chart of my theoretical scheme, and I noticed that there were holes in the chart. And I predicted the existence of the particles to fill the chart. And those all worked. But then the question was, was there some sub-unit out of which all of these particles were made. These strongly interacting particles. Well I tried it, and it came out that you could do it with a certain set of particles, and in a quite economical way. But they would have to have electrical charges, +2/3 and -1/3. And of course, all known particles had integral charges, in units of proton or electron charge. The proton is called +1, the electron is called -1. And all the known particles had charges of +1 or -1, or possibly +2 or -2, and so on. Nothing had a fractional charge. But these sub-units, that would give the most economical scheme for making what we saw out of hidden sub-units. These sub-units would have charges of +2/3 or -1/3. It was initially discouraged, but then I made a visit to Columbia University, and a colleague there, Bob Serber, asked me whether I had ever considered this economical way of making sub-units, considering what you then called triplet. And I said yes, I have considered it, but they come out to have fractional charges. And I showed him the fractional charges on a napkin in the faculty club in Columbia where we were having lunch. And then, thinking about it during the rest of the day, it occurred to me that if they were completely hidden, these particles, if they never came out, but they were permanently trapped inside the known particles, then it wouldn't cause any difficultly, any disagreement with observation or with any fundamental theoretical idea. And so I began to put it forward.

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My attitude has been misunderstood all these years. There are zillions of books which describe the history of this, and describe it quite incorrectly. And in fact the Nobel Foundation, in awarding very,.. the Physics prize this year, to three experimental colleagues who richly deserved it. My very good friend Dick Taylor, and my friends Henry Kendall and Jerry Friedman. In awarding it they mentioned that before the experiment, people thought of quarks as merely mathematical. Now that's true, but what I meant by mathematical, was that they were perfectly real, but trapped inside the neutron, proton, and the other observable strongly interacting particles. Which was correct. Completely correct. And other people, after the quark idea was put forward, came up with the notion that maybe they were directly observable. And that was wrong. But for some reason, history has twisted it around, so as to make my statements about the mathematical character of quarks, which I believed from the first day that they wouldn't come out, they have twisted it into this thing that I thought they weren't really there, which is not the case at all. It's a very strange perversion of fact, that makes its way into history sometimes, and this is one of those case. It is true everywhere. I have tried very often with authors of lots of accounts, books, papers, articles and so on, to explain to them the situation, but it never does any good. So my being right has been converted into some sort of crime by history. Isn't that strange?

It must be very frustrating.

Murray Gell-Mann: I find that particular aspect frustrating. It's nice to be credited with quarks, and have the Swedish foundation refer to my work in awarding the prize to these three wonderful experimentalist who confirmed the existence of quarks inside the proton. I was delighted with all of that. But I was not delighted with this funny interpretation. Actually, the Nobel Foundation didn't say it, didn't actually state the thing wrong. But the implication was that by calling them mathematical, I was sort of denying their existence. What I meant by mathematical was that they wouldn't come out. And be seen individually and directly in the laboratory. And this turned out to be so, they are permanently trapped inside. We didn't understand, of course, back in 1963. I didn't understand why they were permanently trapped. But it was later on, when we formulated the dynamical theory, quantum chromodynamics, that we began to realize what was going on.

Yes, the people in your office said you had multiple personalities, but we didn't know it until this moment.

Murray Gell-Mann: Aaaagghhh!

One of the things we want to know is how you decided to name them quarks.

Murray Gell-Mann: It was sort of an obvious name for the fundamental particle out of which the strongly interacting particles are composed.

Maybe it was obvious to you!

Murray Gell-Mann: Well, not quite. Not the spelling anyway.

I had the sound, "quark." But it could have been spelled differently. For example, k-w-o-r-k or something like that. I thought it was a nice sound. And it didn't mean anything already, I thought, and that was good because when we give fancy Greek names to things -- and of course, I can do that -- but when we've given fancy Greek names to things, it usually turns out that what they mean later is not so appropriate as what we thought at first. The proton, for example. "The first thing," it means. Fundamental. And it turns out it's not fundamental. So, the name proton is very learned, but it turned out not to be apt. Now "quark," if it didn't mean anything at all, was not going to be obsolete, ever. Anyhow, that was fun. That was the sound. But then, leafing through James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, as I sometimes do -- it's a copy my brother bought, actually, when it first came out in the United States in 1939, and leafing through it, I saw the phrase, "Three quarks for Muster Mark." And I thought that would be very good. So I spelled it q-u-a-r-k. Now, Joyce undoubtedly meant it to be pronounced "kwark" to go with bark, and hark, and mark and so on, but I figured out a rationale for pronouncing it "quark," which is that in "Three quarks for Muster Mark" -- of course there is multiple determination of the word, as in many other cases of Finnegans Wake, and what I figured was that one source out of the multiple, the many determinants of the word -- one source was perhaps the fact that the dreamer, whose dream the book is, is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, who is a bar man, a publican, he owns a bar. And frequently, through the book, you hear people giving orders for drinks at the bar, drinks to take away, and so on. So one of the determinants of "three quarks for Muster Mark" could be "three quarts" for so-and-so. An order to the bar. And I still think that may be true, although there are many other, more important factors that have gone into the phrase. Anyway, that allowed me to interpret that maybe it was pronounced "kwork" instead of "kwark" But the commentators on Finnegans Wake think that -- and I think correctly -- that the main thing that it refers to is "three cries of the four gulls" that are following the ship on which they Tristan and Iseult are traveling. They're making fun of King Mark because Tristan and Iseult are having a love affair. Those four gulls occur throughout the book, as four evangelists, four old men in the park, and so on and so forth. Four commentators of various kinds, and in this case they're four gulls following this ship. "Quark" is listed in the dictionary as the cry of a gull. So it's undoubtedly the primary determinant, but maybe "three quarts for so-and-so" has a slight connection with it as well. That would justify pronouncing it "kwork" instead of "kwark."

What initially attracted you to the word?

Murray Gell-Mann: Oh, nothing, just an amusing word. The story I told just now, about the sound and the meaning and so on, is now in the Oxford English Dictionary, because they asked me for a detailed description, and I sent them a detailed letter about it. I think it is the only article in the Oxford English Dictionary that is based on a private letter.

How did you feel about the way people received your theoretical work, the attention and the recognition it received?

Murray Gell-Mann: I don't know. That's very difficult to say.

Initially, a lot of things I did were not taken very seriously. Then finally people realized that they were right. Quark certainly wasn't taken seriously by most people, for quite a while. They thought it was some crazy thing. And people, as I said, misunderstood what I meant by saying that I thought they were mathematical. They thought I was going back on the original ideas, that they weren't true. Whereas what I meant was that they were stuck inside permanently, which we finally found to be true, and we finally understood more or less why it's true. But then, later on people began accepting all sorts of very tentative ideas of mine, as important, and working on them, and that was sort of embarrassing. I would put forward some not very serious idea, just as a passing remark, and lots of people would start working on it. So that the opposite effect.

You mean a notion would just occur to you, and you made a casual statement about it and people would think that you were pointing them in a new direction?

Murray Gell-Mann: That's right. A new and important direction. All of them thought it was very important. I didn't think it was important. But anyway...

Many of the best things I did were not received well at first, but I think that is fairly common. People don't like to change their ideas, they are very comfortable staying in the same basin of attraction. It needs a lot of noise to shake them out of one basin of attraction into another one. That's how you get a good new idea, is by being shaken somehow into a new basin of attraction. Usually, it happens spontaneously. As you know, you fill yourself up with a problem, and then you can't make any further progress by a conscious effort. But sometime at some odd moment, when you are doing something else, or thinking about something else, the idea comes to you. People have asked the question, can't you perhaps accelerate that process, artificially induce the movement into another basin of attraction so that you can try a different idea. And it's possible you can, by some sort of random noise. Various suggestions have been made about how to do that.

Murray Gell-Mann Interview Photo
Random noise?

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes, random noise is one way to shake yourself out of your basin of attraction in which your ideas are stuck into various other basins until you might find a better idea.

Is "basin of attraction" a mathematical term?

Murray Gell-Mann: Yes. But it has a sort of obvious meaning. The one way, for example, Edward de Bono suggests using the last noun on the front page of today's newspaper to solve your problem. Whatever that noun is. Well, that's certainly random. It's random noise introduced into the solution process. Maybe it can accelerate the process of getting a creative idea. Shaking yourself out of your old basin and into a new one.

Are you saying there's some way to jump-start that process?

Murray Gell-Mann: Maybe there is a way to jump-start that process, yes. To accelerate the getting of correct creative ideas, useful creative ideas. But I think it is the process, the normal spontaneous process, and it is apparently common to a great many fields. Psychologists have noted that, artists and scientists, and others have written it down. We discovered it independently at a seminar in Aspen in 1969 where we had painters and poets and theoretical physicists and theoretical biologists, all talking about our experiences in getting useful ideas. And they were all just about the same. I mean, they all followed that same pattern. (Hermann von) Helmholtz wrote about it one hundred years ago, more than one hundred years ago, and he called the phases: saturation, where you fill yourself up with the problem, but can't solve it; incubation, the problem is hidden away and something deep inside you is working on it, some mental process out of awareness in what the shrinks would call the pre-conscious mind, is working on it; and then illumination, where suddenly a good idea breaks through. And then (Henri) Poincaré described this process also, and he described a fourth, rather trivial stage, which is verification, checking to see if the idea actually works.

Is that the way creativity usually goes?

Murray Gell-Mann: Normally goes. It's written up apparently in a book by Graham Waltz, the psychologist, in 1926. So, 43 years before we had our seminar, this whole conclusion had been written down in a book, and about 100 years before it had been written down by Helmholtz. Nevertheless, it may be that one can circumvent that process, accelerate it, jump-start it. That would be really interesting.

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