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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

Civil rights leaders plan a day of voting rights marches

Martin Luther King III and Rev. Al Sharpton. Photo: Cheriss May/Getty Images

Civil rights leaders from Washington to Phoenix are planning marches on Aug. 28 to push Congress to pass new protections around voting rights.

Why it matters: A landmark voting rights proposal remains stalled in the U.S. Senate, as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and other moderates block efforts at filibuster reforms to advance a bill held up by Republicans.

Latinos twice as likely as white people to die from gunfire

Expand chart
Data: Violence Policy Center; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Nearly 3,000 Latinos each year have died from gunfire in the United States over the last two decades, making them twice as likely to be shot to death than white non-Hispanics, according to a study from the Violence Policy Center.

By the numbers: Almost 70,000 Latinos were killed with firearms between 1999 and 2019, 66% of them in homicides, according to the center’s data analysis.

Top labor leader Richard Trumka dies unexpectedly at 72

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who led the largest federation of unions in the country for over a decade, has died at 72.

The big picture: Trumka began working as a coal miner in 1968 and would go on to dedicate his life to the labor movement, including as president of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO beginning in 2009.

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