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Murray Gell-Mann (R) receiving the Nobel Prize in 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.

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.

"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."

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 enormousness 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.

Go deeper

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations were "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 6 hours ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand, which were later lifted.

6 hours ago - World

North Korea launches 4th suspected missile test this month

A news broadcast in Seoul, South Korea, of an apparent North Korean missile test on Monday morning local time. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea's military fired "two suspected short-range ballistic missiles" eastward from Pyongyang on Monday morning local time, per South Korean and Japanese officials.

Why it matters: The fourth such launch since Jan. 5 comes days after North Korea's military warned of "stronger" action if the U.S. moved to have more sanctions imposed on the country.

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