BY the mid-1980s what had begun as a friendly rivalry was a bitter feud. Gell-Mann had become notorious for his bad temper. Among his cronies, the nasty names he coined for rivals were as familiar as the catchy terminology he applied to particles. Leon Lederman was "the plumber," because he was an experimenter rather than a theorist. The distinguished theorists C. N. Yang and T. D. Lee were "those two Chinamen from New York."
Gell-Mann respected Feynman too much to saddle him with an insulting name. But Feynman was driving him crazy. Though hardly a prude, Gell-Mann would bristle as Feynman ebulliently described his latest escapades at the Esalen Institute, the New Age spa at Big Sur. Feynman would mock the fuzzy-headed philosophy of the place as he soaked in a hot tub and flirted with naked sunbathers.
The breaking point came in 1985, when Feynman and Ralph Leighton, the son of a Caltech physicist, compiled some of Feynman's tales into "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character, which became a surprise best seller. In story after story Feynman came off as the holy fool seeing through everyone else's pretenses. Flipping through the pages, Gell-Mann found Feynman's account of the theory of the weak nuclear force, the one they had reluctantly collaborated on. "I was very excited," Feynman said. "It was the first time, and the only time, in my career that I knew a law of nature that nobody else knew." Gell-Mann, enraged, said he would sue. In a later edition Feynman conceded that Gell-Mann and two other physicists had also thought of the idea. But the disclaimer didn't heal the wound.
For all his accomplishments, Gell-Mann couldn't be happy until he had written a best seller like Feynman's. Adding to his melancholy, "Surely, You're Joking" was followed in 1988 by Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which sold more than nine million copies. To Gell-Mann's colleagues, a book of light-hearted anecdotes told by their intense and pedantic friend seemed a dubious prospect. It would have to be called, one of them said, "Dammit, Murray, You're Right Again!" Others remarked that Gell-Mann, unlike Hawking, didn't have the advantage of being confined to a wheelchair.
"I'm writing a book for peasants," Gell-Mann would say dismissively. As it turned out, he wasn't up to the task. The Quark and the Jaguar became legendary in publishing circles for the size of the advances it attracted -- reported to be more than a million dollars worldwide -- and for the toll in human suffering it took on friends, colleagues, ghostwriters, editors, and, finally, readers. It was the Heaven's Gate of science books.
Submitted late and incomplete, the manuscript, composed one agonizing sentence at a time, was rejected by Bantam Books. Shortly afterward Gell-Mann had a mild heart attack. When the book was finally resold, for substantially less money, it did well, but on a far smaller scale than Feynman's. Gell-Mann just couldn't match Feynman as a storyteller. And although Feynman didn't actually write his own books, many of his lectures, transcribed for the popular-science market, were gems of clarity and color. Feynman thought in pictures, Gell-Mann in abstractions. When Gell-Mann tried to convey his ideas to the public, the explanations often fell flat. Making up funny names for particles, it turned out, wasn't enough.