Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th Century Physics

Written: June 16, 2015

Everyone knows Einstein and Newton. Few people have heard of Murray Gell-Mann, one of the two greatest minds in physics of the second half of the 20th century, a scientist who helped advance particle physics beyond atoms to quarks. The other is Richard Feynman who is probably less obscure because of his famous demonstration after the Challenger shuttle explosion about how the O-rings become brittle with ice. He dropped O-ring material into a glass of ice water. He also wrote a bestselling biography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. Both worked at CalTech together but their relationship eventually deteriorated as with most all of Gell-Mann’s relationships.

Without a doubt, Gell-Mann has a brilliant, genius mind immediately recognized from early childhood. But just like those super athletes who have remarkable talent at an early age, genetics alone do not equal great success and fame. First, you need to tame that mind. There are countless geniuses out there who just learn a little about everything and wind up on Jeopardy or they find some relatively inconsequential, obscure subject and become an obscure genius few people know about. Or they just never find a subject to love. Just imagine if Mozart had grown up the son of a potato farmer and never touched a piano? While genes create the hardware, you also need the nurture, the software. Second, you need the right amount of social skill to function in society. There are many geniuses that are so annoying or antisocial or even psychotic that nobody wants to teach them anything, employ them, and they can’t get very far in any field. Finally, you need luck. What if Gell-Mann was just content to study linguistics or even relativity instead of particle physics?

At the same time, you do need the hardware as well. For those who think that a brilliant mind or body can be nurtured from a mediocre mind or body, well, sad to say, it has its limits. Sad to say, we are not all born with the potential for great genius or great athleticism. While I like to think that I am pretty smart and in shape, I also know there are people out there with much more mental processing power and storage and people out there with greater cardio and power. While intelligence cannot be measured so well with standardized math and verbal tests, to a certain extent, if you challenged any intelligent person to master any kind of test, they would do a lot better than most everyone. On top of that, there are also countless measures of intelligence including creative intelligence, emotional intelligence, linguistic, associative thinking, critical thinking, etc.

There were many times throughout this book where I got lost in the complexities of particle physics. But somewhat consoling is the fact that after Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize, he was not as involved with the cutting-edge of particle physics research, and he said that he was unable to keep up with the math that started to talk about string theory, branes, and M Theory. The thing about quarks is that there is proof of their existence, because scientists shoot subatomic particles at each other and squeeze out quarks. This is how they found evidence of the Higgs-Boson particle. But you would need particle accelerators the size of galaxies to determine if there is evidence of string theory. Near the end, the book posits that perhaps our universe itself can be used as sort of evidence of M Theory, the Big Bang being a really huge particle accelerator. What this means is that we may have hit the upper ceiling of providing solid evidence for any more theories of the composition of things smaller than quarks. It’s all theory that can never be proven right or wrong. It also brings up the idea that we may also have hit the upper ceiling of human comprehension. I mean if someone as brilliant as Gell-Mann can’t keep up with the math, who can take the math to the next level? Perhaps it is time for a human and artificial intelligence machine to combine to reach beyond?

After winning the Nobel Prize, Gell-Mann focused on another problem, creating complexity from simplicity. I read something about this in another book. There are experiments where you have a single square that is either white or black and it turns white or black based on things that happen in neighboring squares, and after a while, the squares combine to create things that are similar to simple life forms. From simplicity you can get extremely complex things. After all, from the big bang, from a few fundamental particles, you get humanity and our imagination, creativity, consciousness, and art. The other book said that while simple things can be predicted, at a certain point, complexity creates emergent properties that cannot be predicted. Does that mean there is freewill or not? I like to think that it means yes.

In the end, you look back at Gell-Mann’s life and this biography, and it’s just sad. While Gell-Mann makes a lot of money and gets fame and two wives, he ultimately comes across as a sad, lonely man who is paralyzed by the fear of failure and is always looking at what he admits is the hole in the donut of life and not the donut. He sees what is not there, but then again, isn’t that exactly the quality that has made him such a brilliant thinker? If he kept focusing on what is there, he would be like one of those Jeopardy geniuses. He would everything about a lot of things that other people already discovered. Since he constantly focuses on his inadequacies and what is not there, he is always discovering something new from the black hole of emptiness. This brings us to a question. Would you rather be Gell-Mann? Would you rather have this amazing gift of brilliance and yet never be able to enjoy it, to always be groping for something more and to live in constant fear and insecurity? I would say no, but I would say no to living anyone’s life. I only know my own, and mine is not so bad. A new saying. Get a group of people and have everyone throw their problems in a circle. What are the chances you would you wind up picking your own over all the others? I guess this is all about being comfortable with the pain and suffering we are familiar with as opposed to what is foreign. But for every child genius Gell-Mann, I can guarantee you, there are thousands who never became rich and powerful, thousands who suffer the inability to make social connections because of their minds and different-ness. Thousands who find their brilliance more a curse.…/…/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0…


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