May 24, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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Any stories we should be chasing? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com. Kaveh Waddell is at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

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1 big thing: The man who discovered the quark

Gell-Mann (R) receiving the Nobel, 1969. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty

Murray Gell-Mann corrected others' pronunciations of their own names. He watched birds, knew fine wines, collected art — and received the Nobel prize for physics in 1969, Kaveh writes.

Why it matters: "Much of what we currently understand about particle physics was invented by Murray Gell-Mann," says Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, where Gell-Mann taught for decades. "He was a towering influence in the field."

  • A polymath who discovered and organized the tiniest building blocks of matter and went on to study the most complex systems in the universe, Gell-Mann died Friday at the age of 89.

Among his lasting achievements:

  • Discovering quarks — the smallest fundamental component of matter — in 1964, the same year as another physicist, George Zweig. Gell-Mann named the quark after a line from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake: "Three quarks for Muster Mark!"
  • Taming the "particle zoo" — a chaotic period in the 1950s and 1960s during which new particles were being discovered seemingly constantly, but without a clear understanding for how they related to one another.
  • Establishing the Santa Fe Institute, a research center dedicated to studying complex systems, from a human body, a bustling metropolis, the internet, or the solar system.

The grand projects of his career bridged the physical sciences and humanities: He went from studying the arcane dynamics of infinitesimal particles to exploring the enormity of complex systems.

  • Gell-Mann was celebrated for discovering renormalization, a theory that explains particles' behavior using statistical tricks to account for things that can't be observed — much the way that social scientists study people.
  • "In a way what he was doing later was in part a continuation of that intellectual project," says Simon DeDeo, a CMU professor and former Santa Fe Institute fellow.
  • Social scientists like to say that all models are wrong but some are useful; "Murray made that work for physics," says DeDeo.

By all accounts, Gell-Mann was well acquainted with his own genius, treating perceived incompetence with impatience.

  • Writing in 2013, George Johnson, who wrote a biography of Gell-Mann, recounted his first, abrasive encounter with the scientist. (Johnson also wrote Gell-Mann's obituary today in the New York Times.)
  • Unlike his rumpled Caltech colleague and rival Richard Feynman, Gell-Mann was nearly always seen in a jacket and a tie. The pair regularly butted heads over personality and academic credit.
  • "They were two of the most brilliant people in the world," Carroll says. "Also two of the biggest egos in the world; two of the biggest personalities in the world."

What's next: Gell-Mann's study of complex systems, continuing at the Santa Fe Institute, could help humans understand some of the most confounding problems out there, says Carroll — from aging to the internet to financial crises to the human brain.

2. Amazonian housing crunch

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In Seattle, Amazon's home, housing prices have doubled over the past 6 years. Now, the Washington, D.C. market is feeling the same effect, Erica and David McCabe report.

By the numbers: Per a new report from Redfin, home prices in the D.C. suburb of Arlington were up nearly 18% year-over-year in April. That's compared with 2.7% for the D.C. metro area overall.

  • The supply of homes is down almost 42% since last April in Arlington, and the typical home is selling in just 6 days versus 10 last year, per Redfin.

What's happening: Homeowners are holding onto their houses in the hopes of higher prices once the HQ2 project expands, say multiple area agents. And buyers have been rushing to lock in sales before Amazon’s presence bumps up prices.

  • A Redfin agent said a client emailed her right after Amazon announced its HQ2 plans in November asking if he should raise the price of his home by $10,000 to $20,000.
  • An agent for Compass said one house near the Crystal City HQ2 site got offers from 15 buyers. Ten paid hundreds of dollars for an inspection in the hopes of a more competitive offer — even though it meant losing money if they lost the house.

An Amazon spokesperson said: "Access to housing is a concern in communities throughout the U.S., including Arlington. One of the things that drew us to this location was the plans the County and the Commonwealth have in place to address this issue." The company also said, "We plan to hire people who live here so the impact on the region will be minimal."

3. What you may have missed

Photo: Murat Oner Tas/Anadolu/Getty

You can't get Future everywhere. Never mind — here is the top of the week:

1. The 2020 health care election: Americans are fixated on medicine

2. Sharing the big data bonanza: The payoff may be disappointing

3. For Trump, a China trade war election: A forever game of brinkmanship

4. Privacy-preserving AI: Sharing collective wisdom

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The college dropout crisis (David Leonhardt, Sahil Chinoy - NYT)

A robotic threat to baseball umpires (Kendall Baker - Axios)

This Amazon device can read emotions (Matthew Day - Bloomberg)

Central Asia's weird and wonderful Soviet architecture (Michael Hardy - Wired)

The race for the better battery (Jeff Ball - Fortune)

5. 1 fun thing: A $3 million lunch

Photo: Adam Jeffery/CNBC/Getty

Do you want to pick Warren Buffett's brain over steak? You can — but it'll cost you millions of dollars.

Erica writes: Every year, Buffett auctions off a meal with him and donates the proceeds to GLIDE, which serves homeless or impoverished people in San Francisco. In 2001, it sold for $18,600. Last year the price tag was $3.3 million, reports Quartz.

This year, the bidding starts at $25,000 and ends May 31. Lunch is at Smith & Wollensky on Third Avenue in Manhattan.

Bryan Walsh