Nobel Thoughts: Murray Gell-Mann

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

by Marc Abrahams

(Image credit: Flickr user World Economic Forum)

Murray Gell-Mann is a Distinguished Fellow and Co-Chairman of the Science Board of the Santa Fe Institute. He is also the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at the California Institute of Technology. In 1969 Gell-Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics "for his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions."

Do you often give nicknames to people or things?
Not especially. Sometimes using the etymology of the names, but otherwise not.

Are there any nicknames you are known by?
Not that I know of.

Never, throughout your life?
Not really. No.

Sometimes people abbreviate my first name to "Murr," but it's pretty unusual. See, it already has the "ee" sound on the end, which is a typical diminutive: Charlie, Bobby, Harry...

Is that typical of people with "ee" sounds at the end of their names, not to have nicknames?
Well, you wouldn't add an "ee" to it again—"Murr-ee-ee?" The only thing one can do is to shorten it to "Murr," which people have occasionally done. But not more than a few times in my life have I heard that name.

Sometimes people get called a different name, "Spike" or...
Oh, yes. "Sparky," like Mr. Schultz, who just died.

You never had one of those nicknames?
No, I was never called "Sparky" or "Spike."

Never had any desire to have a nickname?
No... Well, I don't know. It might have been nice to be "Studs" or something. But I don't know. I never was.

What advice do you have for young people who are entering the field of physics?
Well, if they're very young and they are just beginning to study physics, I would encourage them to think broadly about what they might do with their lives. People have gone from studying physics into an enormous, wonderful variety of different activities. Of course these days lots of them go to Wall Street and become "quants."

Franz Boaz became a famous anthropologist and linguist. A number of other anthropologists started out studying physics. W. Edwards Deming had a Ph.D. in physics from Yale before he became a statistician for the New Deal, and was then sent over to Japan during the MacArthur period and developed his wonderful relationship with Japanese industry. So there's a zillion things that you can do beginning with physics, and therefore it's a marvelous subject for students to start on, whether or not they're going to become physicists.

However, what they should not do is to impose physics itself on other things that they do.

For example?
Well, for example, some people have gone into biophysics, where they have tried to bring the physics along with them. But what they can do is bring some of the higher skills associated with physics, some of the thought processes, into other fields. That's frequently very productive. But to try to subordinate these other activities to their study of physics is a mistake. What they should do is use it as a springboard to go off and do a great variety of activities—some of which are within physics, of course.

If you were young now, with the landscape the way it is these days, would you be tempted to head off to Wall Street?
Oh, I have no idea. That's very, very, very difficult to say. I was not interested in physics as a child, as, if you've read my book, you know. I was interested in natural history, linguistics, archaeology, history..., things of that kind. I had no interest at all in physics. I'm still interested in all those subjects, and I even work on them a little bit. I co-edited a book on the evolution of human languages. I co-edited another book on the pre-history of the southwest. Physics came later than the other interests, when I was a teenager rather than a small child. But it was delightful, and I had a wonderful time working on elementary particle theory. But it didn't destroy these other interests. Now, at the Santa Fe Institute, I'm able to combine all these things. This is the best of all possible worlds.

To what extent does it surprise you, when you look around, that so many people don't seem to be interested in a wide range of things?
Yeh, I don't know why. I don't know why. It guess, as in the old cliche, it just takes all kinds to make a world. People are very different from one another, and some of them like to burrow very deeply into one thing and not look around. I think it's fine that the world contains all sorts of people.

Every year we give Ig Nobel Prizes to people whose achievements "cannot or should not be reproduced." Whom would you nominate for an Ig Nobel Prize?
I'd suggest that it be given jointly to the people who wrote the "End of..." books, Francis Fukayama [The End of History] and David Lindley [The End of Physics: The Myth of a Unified Theory] and John Horgan [The End of Science]. Horgan put forth the ridiculous theory that science is nearly mined out. Lindley deplores superstring theory. I mean, it's such a fantastic achievement! It's so promising for leading us to the unified theory of all the particles and forces. It's just amazing that somebody would write a book attacking it. And Horgan, too. This is the one branch of science where we may be approaching a great new understanding, and he makes fun of it. It's easy to get attention when you say really foolish things, and the press just magnifies that effect.


This article is republished with permission from the May-June 2000 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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