Tech UPTechnologyMurray Gell-Mann:

Murray Gell-Mann:

Back in the fifties, in the heat of the nuclear particle fever, two New York scientists aroused with their discussions an unprecedented interest in the world of science. In his own words, “we twisted the tail of the cosmos.” And, for this, both received the Nobel Prize in Physics.
One of those wise men, Richard Feynman, died in 1988. The other, Murray Gell-Mann, has reluctantly sat next to me. It is a sunny afternoon in which we begin talking about Spain, Seville, royal weddings … “Yes,” he tells me, “just last year my wife and I were with Prince Felipe in Stockholm.”

We chatted at the Madrid Student Residence, where Professor Gell-Mann arrived quite tired and with more desire for a nap than for interviews. He is accompanied by his second wife, the poet Marcia Southwick. Part of her thanks is due to Gell-Mann taking on the task of writing his wonderful latest book, The Quark and the Jaguar. As was his inspiration, he has dedicated the work to him. For the dedication, the physicist has chosen a poem from her: “It’s good for us, chaos and color, I mean.”

Gell-Mann speaks correct and smooth Spanish. So much so that what he himself says about his father’s English, a native of Austria, could be applied to him: “You could only guess that he was a foreigner because, precisely, he never made mistakes.” The teacher comes to Spain regularly and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Spanish is a common language. But, in addition, he speaks four other languages with such rigor that he is forced to correct the misprints of the French, Italian or Spanish words that appear on the menus of American restaurants.

To begin with, I want to find out how these thirty years or so have elapsed since the discovery of the first quark until the scientists at Fermilab in Chicago found the magical top quark, the last fundamental building block of matter.
“We,” he says, “did not discover one, but the first three quarks: the strange, the up and the down. Then the others came.”

The correction is well used for me, because the history of this find is probably the best known in twentieth-century science. By 1961 Gell-Mann was already proposing “eight sheets” for the classification of atomic particles, which at that time were being discovered with great profusion. Later, Gell-Mann suggested that those families of particles, which he called hadrons, could be made up of even smaller elements. With a bold literary touch, the physicist baptized the latter with the name of quarks, taken from the book Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Actually, it is a word invented by the Irish author that could mean the same “squawk” as “jug”.

While we’re at it, we talk about his bookThe quark and the jaguar, recently appeared in Spanish. It is a remarkable and very multifaceted work that starts again from a literary reference, a poem by Arthur Sze, a friend of the author: “The world of the quark has everything to account for a jaguar circling at night”.

The quark, discovered and named by Gell-Mann, is the simplest particle of matter. For him, at least, it is an easy concept once the physical laws that explain its behavior, that is, its “flavors” and its “colors”, have been found. The jaguar is an ideal model of the complexity of the world around us, especially of what the physicist calls “complex adaptive systems” and which the author has not yet managed to understand. How is the jaguar complex derived and constructed from the elemental quark? This is what the “emergent science of complexity” that Professor Gell-Mann calls plectics, from the Indo-European root plek, is trying to unravel. To that end, he himself founded the Santa Fe Institute ten years ago, where he has worked since retiring from Caltech, the California Institute of Technology.

“Physicists,” he says, “had hoped to test the peculiarities of -this standard model with the amazing superconducting supercollider from Texas, but their aspirations have been frustrated because the United States Congress has cut its budgets. Now, the only hope is the accelerator. CERN. “
Murray Gell-Mann was born in 1929. At the age of fifteen, he consulted with his father before entering Yale; He wanted to study archeology or linguistics, but his father told him that with those studies he would starve and hinted at engineering. “Anything I designed,” he jokingly confesses, “would fall apart.” The father ended up accepting that he study physics.

He graduated at the age of 21 and since then this polymathematician, who is said to have no special talent for physics but is so intelligent that nothing can resist him, has played all or almost all the sticks of the convoluted physics concert of matter: from quantum electrodynamics to the so-called standard model. Gell-Mann has left his mark on the strangeness, the renormalization group, the VA interaction, the conserved vector, the eight folds, the quark model, quantum chromodynamics, and countless findings over extensive theoretical research. There is hardly any center in which he has not been, a conference in which he has not participated or a scientist with whom he has not discussed.

It is said that in 1969, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he contemptuously commented that it was “one of those Swedish prizes.” He himself remembers some juicy anecdotes about the Nobel ceremony. “In 1979, the king of Sweden complied with the protocol in horrible confusion. Every year, the monarch has to give his arm to the wife of the current laureate. Well imagine the confusion he suffered when my friend, the Pakistani and Muslim physicist Abdus Salam appeared to receive the award with his two legitimate wives … “

Gell-Mann likes to reel off trivia. One of their favorites occurred in 1933, when Albert Einstein and seismologist Beno Gutenberg were arguing so animatedly on the subject of earthquakes that they did not know what was shaking the Caltech campus right then and there.

When I ask him for some perspectives for current scientific research, the professor enumerates several, while gesturing with his hands to indicate a kind of sections or stages. It begins, of course, with particle physics and its high hopes for superstring theory. It tells of its origins in 1971 and how, looking so beautiful to him, it had to serve something. “If a theory is beautiful,” he says, “in the end it is useful. That is why I invited its creators, John Schwartz and André Neveu, to Caltech.” Years later they called the four physicists who announced the heterotic superstrings “the Princeton string quartet.”

Gell-Mann continues his predictions in the hope of finding the Higgs boson, which some have already called “the God particle.” And it reveals your interest in the study of the mind or what is more commonly called consciousness.

In fact, his curiosity does not forget almost any aspect of the profuse wealth of science: theoretical physics, cosmology, biology, genetics, ecology, diversity, informatics, neural systems. But he is also concerned with linguistics, art, literature, economics and, in short, the concerns of an intellectual, a true humanist of our time.

And something very much in vogue also appears in the conversation: a journey through superstition, whose “omnipresence alongside science” prompts him to wonder if it is a phenomenon “peculiar to human beings.”
His ramblings about myths, beliefs and artistic models lead him to interesting conclusions regarding his theory of adaptive complexity. Thus, pseudoscience is for him “the dissociation between belief and evidence.”

And in this regard he cites a curious case in which belief has to accept the obvious, however difficult it may seem to “swallow.” That of Arthur Lintgen, a physicist from Pennsylvania who boasted of reading the micro-grooves of a record and identifying the music, the composer and even the performer. It was subjected to the most rigorous tests and it was true: the man distinguished two versions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Ravel’s Bolero, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and even a song by the hard rock singer Alice Cooper, which he described like a “gibberish”. Nothing miraculous had happened, of course: the information was there, in the scarifications of the microgroove.

I want to provoke him a bit and tell him that, in short, everything is planned. But he vehemently shuts me down: “I didn’t say any of that. Goodbye!”
And he is going to enjoy his well-deserved nap.

Celso Collazo


This interview was published in June 1995, in number 169 of VERY Interesting


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