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Literary The Jaguar and the Fox

Illustration by Barry Blitt

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

by George Johnson

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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.

Discuss this article in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

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From the archives:

"A Cataclysm of Thought," by Alan Lightman (January, 1999)
In 1905 Albert Einstein, a twenty-six-year-old clerk, published five epochal papers. One was later awarded a Nobel Prize. Reading them today, our reviewer is thrilled by their genius.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Feynman Online!
Links, a biography, and other related information about Richard Feynman.

Murray Gell-Mann Home Page
Murray Gell-Mann's Web site at the Santa Fe Institute.

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, Six Not-So-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, The Quark and the Jaguar, which did not sell nearly as well as "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!," a collection of humorous anecdotes that Gell-Mann snidely calls "Dick's joke book." When Physics World 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.

Other particles that the new theory said should exist (one, with a strangeness of 2, was, Gell-Mann said, "doubly strange") were soon found by experimenters. Gell-Mann was suddenly a star. Refusing an offer from the University of Chicago to double his salary, he accepted his first tenured position, at Caltech. It was not the southern-California lifestyle that lured him (he found the place only slightly less depressing than Chicago) but the presence of the physicist he most wanted to work with: Richard Feynman.

In a field that Gell-Mann thought suffered from intellectual phoniness, Feynman, with his madcap energy, seemed to have real genius. He had made his name in 1948, when he and two other scientists, Julian Schwinger and Sin-itiro Tomonaga, figured out how to fix a flaw in the theory of quantum electrodynamics, which explains light, magnetism, and electricity. Like a buggy piece of software, QED, as it is called, kept coughing up answers that were ridiculous (saying, for example, that a particle's mass or charge was infinite). Each of the three theorists solved the problem in a different way, but it was Feynman's vivid approach, calculating with ingenious little pictures soon to be called Feynman diagrams, that made the strongest impression. Feynman dismissed his own accomplishment (which would earn him and the others a Nobel Prize) as so much mathematical hocus-pocus. But Gell-Mann thought that Feynman, more than most others, had a way of seeing beyond the dazzling surface of the equations to what nature was really doing.

After Gell-Mann and his wife arrived in Pasadena, in the spring of 1955, Dick and Murray, as everyone soon called them, became inseparable. Strolling Caltech's immaculately landscaped campus or dueling at the chalkboard over some calculations, the two scientists discussed physics for hours -- "twisting the tail of the cosmos," as Gell-Mann later put it. But when it came to almost anything but physics, their personalities clashed.

Gell-Mann, who had been raised in a poor family of Jewish immigrants in Manhattan, was determined to become a debonair man about town. He dressed impeccably, lecturing in well-tailored sport coats and ties on even the hottest summer days. He knew just which wines and dishes to order at a restaurant, and paid with his Carte Blanche. Still the overeager schoolboy, he pronounced foreign words perfectly and corrected new acquaintances on the pronunciation of their own names.

And then there was Feynman, tieless, in shirtsleeves, grabbing lunch at a greasy spoon. He had grown up in Far Rockaway, on the outskirts of Queens. Like Gell-Mann, he had never gotten over a need to prove he was the smartest kid on the block. Feynman affected the role of an outsider, a heckler on the sidelines who was ready to deflate anyone who put on airs. Gell-Mann would make a knowing reference to some foreign locale -- pronouncing "Montreal" so that it caught in his throat with an authentic Quebecois growl, or "Beijing" so that it rang like a temple bell -- and Feynman would pretend not to understand him. "Where?" he'd bark back, sounding more like a Brooklyn cabdriver than someone with a Ph.D. from Princeton. The image was as carefully crafted as Gell-Mann's, but few caught on.


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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

Illustration by Barry Blitt.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; The Jaguar and the Fox - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 82-85.