The Jaguar and the Fox

Hard as he tried, Murray Gell-Mann could never make himself into a legend like his rakish colleague and collaborator, Richard Feynman -- even if he was probably the greater physicist
Barry Blitt

ALONG the far wall of the spacious, newly renovated bookstore at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, stands a shrine to Richard Feynman, the university's celebrity scientist. Reaching from floor to ceiling, shelf upon shelf is loaded with multiple copies of more than fifty Feynman hits -- books, CDs, cassettes, and videotapes capturing the outpouring of words written about or uttered by the man many consider to be the greatest physicist of the second half of the twentieth century.


Feynman fans can choose among three biographies, two collections of dictated autobiographical reminiscences, dozens of lectures, a collection of the scientist's drawings (he also liked to scrawl on placemats at a topless bar), and Safecracker Suite, a recording of Feynman slapping the skins of bongo drums and regaling listeners with his capers as a young physicist on the Manhattan Project. A precursor to today's computer hackers, Feynman picked the locks on the vaults containing atomic secrets, and then left taunting notes to show how easily security had been thwarted.

Since his death, from cancer, in 1988, the Feynman industry shows no sign of diminishing. Recent books and recordings, including Six Easy Pieces, and Feynman's Lost Lecture, all sold well, and now a new collection, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, has made science best-seller lists. The Mark Taper Forum, in Los Angeles, is planning a production next year called Tuva or Bust!, with Alan Alda as Feynman.

Many physicists are puzzled and a little annoyed to see their old colleague, brilliant as he was, elevated to the level of Einstein. But no one finds the hype more annoying than Murray Gell-Mann. Those who paid attention in physics-for-poets classes may remember Gell-Mann as the man who, working down the hall from Feynman, discovered quarks -- the tiny subparticles from which just about everything is made. (He famously took the spelling from a line in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake: "Three quarks for Muster Mark!") It was Gell-Mann who came up with the Eightfold Way -- an elegant organizing scheme that made sense of the "subatomic zoo," herding some 100 unruly particles into their proper cages. For years a favorite argument among physicists was over "Who is smarter, Murray or Dick?"

But Gell-Mann -- who, in semi-retirement, continues to lecture and write -- has, to his bewilderment and consternation, never become as famous as his old sparring partner. At the Caltech bookstore one is lucky to find a single copy of his book, which did not sell nearly as well as " a collection of humorous anecdotes that Gell-Mann snidely calls "Dick's joke book." When recently asked scientists to name the greatest physicists who ever lived, Feynman came in seventh, just behind Galileo. Gell-Mann didn't make the top ten -- or even get a single vote. When he showed up at President Clinton's millennium New Year's Eve ball squiring the actress Talia Shire (famous for playing Rocky Balboa's wife), the cameras barely blinked.

The intimidatingly smart top players in particle physics compete on a level playing field. The field is also rather constricted, with only a few big ideas being batted around at any one time. Most prizewinning discoveries are made by two or more thinkers simultaneously. What makes one a superstar and relegates another to obscurity often depends less on the work itself than on political acumen.

Gell-Mann, as competitive and as savvy as they come, has easily grabbed top honors, including the Nobel Prize for Physics. But there are other factors that count in the manufacture of fame. Gell-Mann knew how to package ideas, and he had a knack for giving whimsical, and unforgettable, names to the most abstract concepts in science. Feynman had a more vital gift: he knew how to package himself.

WHENEVER a new particle is discovered now, science fans expect it to have a funny name. Up quarks, down quarks, strange quarks, charmed quarks, top quarks, bottom quarks -- in addition to these six "flavors," quarks come in three "colors": red, green, and blue. There is no end to the inventiveness that has become part of the subculture of particle physics. Bottom quarks and anti-bottom quarks (stuck together by -- what else? -- gluons) can be combined to form an exotic compound called bottomonium. It is easy to forget sometimes that all this jabberwocky refers to real things. No one deserves more credit, or blame, for all this verbal whimsy than Murray Gell-Mann. A prodigy who graduated from high school at age fourteen (his classmates thought of him as a walking encyclopedia), he had earned a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the time he was twenty-one. He was brought by Robert Oppenheimer to the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. From there, in 1952, he went to work with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago. It was in the sweltering heat of a Hyde Park summer that Gell-Mann put together the pieces of his first great hit: a theory of strange cosmic rays that seemed to defy the laws of physics.

By all rights these beams of particles, raining down from space, should have decayed as soon as they were snared by the physicists' detectors. But they lingered maddeningly longer -- a full hundred-millionth of a second. When Gell-Mann figured out the physical quality that endowed these interlopers with their unexpected longevity, he decided to call it "strangeness." These were, after all, strange particles. A rival theorist, Abraham Pais, urged his colleagues not to adopt this undignified name, but "strangeness" stuck. And a good thing for Gell-Mann that it did: a Japanese physicist, Kazuhiko Nishijima, made the same discovery at about the same time; he called it the "eta-charge." One is not likely to remember Nishijima from the physics-for-poets class.

Presented by

George Johnson is the author of Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics (1999).

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In