May 24, 2019

Murray Gell-Mann, pioneering particle physicist, dies at 89

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.

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