Gell-Mann, Murray

Alternative names
Birth 1929-09-15

Biographical notes:

Born 1929.

From the description of Oral history interview with Murray Gell-Mann, 1982 July 23. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 78732383


Murray Gell-Mann was born on September 15, 1929, in New York City, the second son of Arthur Isidore Gell-Mann and Pauline, née Reichstein. The hyphenation of the family surname was introduced by Arthur from the traditional Gellmann used by his forebears in the place of his birth, the province of Galicia then part of Austria-Hungary (today Ukraine). The details concerning the unusual name spelling are told by George Johnson in his biography of Murray Gell-Mann, Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics (New York, 1999). Although the family heritage was Jewish, neither Arthur Gell-Mann nor his son Murray practiced any formal religion.

A gifted child from the start, Murray Gell-Mann entered Columbia Grammar School as a sixth-grader at age 8, and he was admitted to Yale on a full scholarship at the age of 14. He received his bachelor's degree in physics from Yale in 1948 and his PhD under Victor Weisskopf at MIT just two and a half years later, in January 1951. After one year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, then led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, where he began to work on elementary particle theory with Francis Low, Gell-Mann joined the faculty at the University of Chicago. There he met and began collaboration with Marvin L. Goldberger on dispersion theory and S-matrix theory, which Gell-Mann later noted to be "ancestral" to superstring theory. (Goldberger later became president of Caltech during the years 1978-1987.) He also conducted his own research on symmetry properties of elementary particles, inventing the quantum number "strangeness." In 1955 Gell-Mann accepted a professorial position in theoretical physics at Caltech, where he would remain until 1993. Also in 1955 he married Josephine Margaret Dow (1931-1981). They had two children, Elizabeth (Lisa) and Nicholas.

At Caltech Gell-Mann continued to explore the symmetry properties of elementary particles. There he met and on occasion collaborated with Richard Feynman. The early 1960s were a prolific period for Gell-Mann. In 1963 he put forward the hypothesis that the fundamental constituents of the strongly interacting particles are quarks and gluons. Gell-Mann took the word "quark" from James Joyce's novel, Finnegans Wake . His former student, George Zweig, then working independently, developed a similar theory which called these same particles aces. Gell-Mann's eightfold-way scheme for organizing atomic particles that occurred as octets was first circulated at Caltech in 1961 in an unpublished report. It predicted the existence of the omega-minus particle, which was later confirmed experimentally at Brookhaven National Laboratory in January 1964. In the same year, Gell-Mann and Yuval Ne'eman published the reprint volume, The Eightfold Way, which both provided an overview of the current state of particle physics and inaugurated a new decade in high-energy physics research. From the quark model, Gell-Mann and others built the quantum field theory called quantum chromodynamics, which accounted for all of the nuclear particles and their strong interactions. Murray Gell-Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969.

Pursuing his interests outside of physics, Murray Gell-Mann became involved in natural history (especially bird study), historical linguistics, archaeology, history, depth psychology, and creative thinking. In an autobiographical essay written circa 1990 (Gell-Mann Papers, Box 109, Folder 11), Gell-Mann links these subjects with biological evolution, cultural evolution, learning and thinking--all aspects of adaptive complex systems. His other interests group themselves around the theme of sustainability of human life on earth. He has been involved in policymaking on the world environment, population growth, sustainable economic development, and the stability of the world political system, including strategic arms control.

Gell-Mann served on the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) in 1969-1972 and on the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, 1994-2001. He was a Citizen Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, 1974-1988, and a director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 1979-2002. Gell-Mann became a consultant to the RAND Corporation in 1956, and he joined the science advisory group JASON around 1960. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1960 and became a Fellow in 1983. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science; a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London and several other foreign academies of science; and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He currently serves on the boards of the L. S. B. Leakey Foundation and of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Among Gell-Mann's many awards, apart from the Nobel Prize, are: the Dannie Heineman Prize of the American Physical Society (1959); the Ernest O. Lawrence Memorial Award of the Atomic Energy Commission (1966); the Franklin Medal of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia (1967); the John J. Carty Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (1968); and the Research Corporation Award (1968). He holds honorary degrees from many academic institutions, including Yale, University of Chicago, University of Turin, and Cambridge and Oxford Universities. Gell-Mann has also been recognized for his environmental work, notably, through the United Nations Environment Program Roll of Honor for Environmental Achievement (the Global 500), 1988. He shared the 1989 Erice Science for Peace Prize.

Through years of thinking about the world around us, Gell-Mann has come to a field of inquiry he calls "plectics"--the study of simplicity and complexity. In the mid-1980s he helped to establish the private, non-profit Santa Fe Institute and serves now as a Distinguished Fellow and trustee. He retired from Caltech in 1993 as the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus and now lives in Santa Fe. In 1992 he married the poet Marcia Southwick; they divorced in 2005. Gell-Mann continues to teach at the University of New Mexico and to conduct research on complex adaptive systems and the evolution of human language. In 1994 he published his popular science book, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex .

From the guide to the Murray Gell-Mann Papers, 1931-2001, bulk 1955-1993, (California Institute of Technology. Caltech Archives)


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  • Ecology
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