A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Murray Gell-Mann
1929 -

Photo courtesy of AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Murray Gell-Mann started early. He entered Yale University at age 15. After receiving his B.S. there, he worked with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago. He obtained his PhD from MIT and in 1955 married archaeologist J. Margaret Dow. He has been a professor of physics and theoretical physics at California Institute of Technology for much of his career.

During the 1950s, discoveries of new subatomic particles were proliferating so quickly such that scientists spoke of a "particle zoo." Gell-Mann turned his attention to some particles that behaved particularly strangely. He proposed a new quantum property of particles he called the "strangeness number." While studying particles, he found even more general characteristics that allowed him to sort them into eight "families." He called this grouping the eightfold way, referring to Buddhist philosophy's eight attributes of right living. Then he found that the eightfold way could really best be explained by a particle, undiscovered as yet, that had three parts (hadrons), each holding a fraction of a charge. He called them "quarks" with a nod to James Joyce, whose novel Finnegan's Wake contains the passage: "Three quarks for Muster Mark!" Fractional charge seemed an outrageous suggestion at first, but proof came for his theoretical quarks in 1974.

The names alone that Gell-Mann applies to his new theories and formulations reflect his sense of humor, immensely broad range of interests, and deep understanding. The theories themselves say that much more. A colleague once said, "Murray has no particular talent for physics, but he's so smart he's a great physicist anyway." His main avocational interest is historical linguistics, and hiking, camping, and bird-watching take up his time outside the lab. In fact in 1969, the same year he won the Nobel Prize in physics, Gell-Mann helped organize an environmental studies program sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences.

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