Strange Beauty; Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics

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9780224044271: Strange Beauty; Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics

No contemporary scientist has done more to shape our understanding of the universe than Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Prize-winner many consider the most brilliant physicist of his generation. His discoveries of the quark and the Eightfold Way were cornerstones for all that has followed in particle physics, the effort to explain the very stuff of creation. In this first biography of Gell-Mann, George Johnson tells the story of a remarkable life.
Born on New York's Lower East Side, Gell-Mann was quickly recognized as a child prodigy. Propelled by an intense boyhood curiosity and a love for nature, he entered Yale at fifteen. By age twenty-three he had ignited a revolution, laying bare in his groundbreaking work the strange beauty of the minute particles that constitute the ultimate components of physical reality.
Particle physics is the most competitive of sports, and Johnson shows us the precocious polymath holding his own with giants like Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Richard Feynman -- Gell-Mann's favorite intellectual sparring partner and sometimes antagonistic rival. We see Gell-Mann the self-taught linguist (who couldn't resist correcting visitors on the pronunciation of their own names); Gell-Mann the birdwatcher and amateur archaeologist; Gell-Mann the Aspen socialite, world traveler, and environmental crusader.
We watch him making his scientific breakthroughs, his abrasive, competitive drive leaving behind a growing trail of enemies. The early death of his first wife and a family crisis sent him veering in new directions. Turning from the physics of simple particles, like quarks, he began exploring how complex phenomena like life can be understood scientifically.
George Johnson's informed and insightful biography goes far in helping us understand the complexities of both the man and the science in which he has loomed so large.

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Murray Gell-Mann is a leading light in 20th-century physics, yet his name rings bells only for those interested in particle physics. Science writer George Johnson was fortunate enough to develop a friendly relationship with the great scientist, and his biography, Strange Beauty, glows with a rare intimacy gained from a notoriously private and irascible man. From his childhood in New York City to his current scientific elder-statesman status in New Mexico, Johnson explores Gell-Mann's life in glorious detail. A passionate, jealous, and brilliant man, he was capable of both profound insight and bitter lifelong rivalries, but Johnson finds there's much more to the man than these two simple poles; Gell-Mann's volatile family life and deft academic maneuvering also find room in this expansive biography.

The reader finds that Johnson's careful attention to detail shows more than it tells through enlightening stories of Gell-Mann's troubled, romantic, or pretentious dealings with peers, family, and even strangers. Explaining his strange surname means investigating old phone books, scientific legend, and family history, as the scientist is unwilling to shed light on the mystery (it turns out that his father hyphenated it, and Murray dreamed up etymologies as needed--giving rise to the tangled web of myths). Johnson is up to the challenge of recording the life story of a man nearly as strange as the quarks he discovered and named, and Strange Beauty lives up to the promise of its title. --Rob Lightner

From the Publisher:

A conversation with George Johnson, author of STRANGE BEAUTY: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth Century Physics

Q. Why do you call the book Strange Beauty?

A. When Gell-Mann was in his early 20s, physicists were baffled by cosmic-ray particles, bombarding the earth from outer space, that seemed to defy the known laws of physics. Gell-Mann solved the problem by proposing that the particles were affected by a previously unknown phenomenon that he decided to call "strangeness." The theory, weird name and all, created a sensation. It was the first example of the "strange beauty" he kept finding in the universe -- mesmerizing patterns that lie beneath the surface of reality.

Q. What happened next?

A. From there he went on to discover The Eightfold Way and quarks, always bestowing his creations with whimsical names. There are top quarks, bottom quarks, strange quarks, charmed quarks. They're held together by things called "gluons." Physics was never again the same.

Q. What is the Eightfold Way? And where do quarks fit in?

A. Before Gell-Mann came onto the scene, there were hundreds of tiny subatomic particles of all shapes and sizes. Gell-Mann saw in a flash of insight that they could all be arranged into patterns. He saw order where there had been confusion. The result was the Eightfold Way. Just as the Periodic Table of the Elements is used to arrange all the different kinds of atoms, the Eightfold Way is used to arrange all the subatomic particles. A little later, Gell-Mann realized that the particles line up this way because they are made of tinier things called quarks. A Nobel prize was around the corner.

Q. One of the classic rivalries in science is between Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman. Why was there so much friction between these two intellectual giants?

A. A favorite pastime of physicists was arguing over who was smarter, Dick or Murray. At any university in the world, each would have been the unquestioned star. But at Caltech they were crowded into the same small department, just two doors from each other (with the same poor secretary in between.) Each was always trying to upstage the other. And they had strikingly different styles. Feynman would speak in an affected Brooklyn drawl and refuse to wear a coat and tie. Murray was as impeccable in his dress as he was in his pronunciation -- and not just in English but in dozens of other languages. He's famous for sitting down at Chinese restaurants and ordering in Chinese, and for correcting foreigners on the pronunciations of their own names.

Q. Gell-Mann is also known for being rather -- shall we say? -- difficult. Tell us your favorite Gell-Mann story.

A. I first met him at a science conference in Santa Fe seven years ago. He coincidentally sat down across from me at lunch, and when I introduced myself as a New York Times editor he launched into a fullscale assault on science coverage in the Times. I was a little shocked, but I knew from the legends that I was seeing vintage Gell-Mann.

Q. He was also a child prodigy, accepted to Yale at age 14. When did he show the first signs of genius?

A. Supposedly, his very first words, sitting on a stoop on 14th Street in Brooklyn, were "the lights of Babylon." In any case, he skipped three grades in elementary school, where he was known as the "pint-sized Einstein" and "the walking encyclopedia." He was the youngest, the smartest, and usually the smallest boy in the class. No wonder he became so intellectually combative. Even after he got a Nobel prize, he had a hard time realizing he didn't need to compete anymore.

Q. You describe in the book how hard it was, at first, to convince him to cooperate with the biography. How does he feel now that the book is done?

A. I think he's as apprehensive as I am. As cooperative as he was in the end, this is still an unauthorized biography. That's the only way I could keep it honest. He'll read the book along with everyone else. I'm expecting the phone to ring any day now.

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George Johnson
Published by Jonathan Cape (2000)
ISBN 10: 0224044273 ISBN 13: 9780224044271
New Hardcover First Edition Quantity Available: 1
Irish Booksellers
(Rumford, ME, U.S.A.)

Book Description Jonathan Cape, 2000. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0224044273

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