Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Jaguar and the Fox

Hoo-boy, did I have a fun read this morning, just today being introduced to the July 2000 Atlantic Monthly article by Chris Johnson contrasting the careers of Cal Tech colleagues and socialites Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman, arguably the 2 best Physicists of the last half of the Twentieth century.

``If I were in charge of the world, all physics students would learn how to do Feynman diagram calculations as college freshmen, while their brains are still fully functioning.'' -John Baez

Hard as he tried, Murray Gell-Mann could never make himself into a legend like his rakish colleague and collaborator, Richard Feynman -- even if he was probably the greater physicist

( For the Mathematically inclined, click here for a sweet Introduction to Feynman Diagrams. )

I am not going to copy'n'paste the entire article, which I strongly recommend for those who haven't read it. Part One can be found here.

However, here are some entertaining snippets from the article:

Many physicists are puzzled and a little annoyed to see their old colleague [Feynman], brilliant as he was, elevated to the level of Einstein. But no one finds the hype more annoying than Murray Gell-Mann. Those who paid attention in physics-for-poets classes may remember Gell-Mann as the man who, working down the hall from Feynman, discovered quarks -- the tiny subparticles from which just about everything is made. (He famously took the spelling from a line in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake: "Three quarks for Muster Mark!") It was Gell-Mann who came up with the Eightfold Way -- an elegant organizing scheme that made sense of the "subatomic zoo," herding some 100 unruly particles into their proper cages. For years a favorite argument among physicists was over "Who is smarter, Murray or Dick?"

But Gell-Mann -- who, in semi-retirement, continues to lecture and write -- has, to his bewilderment and consternation, never become as famous as his old sparring partner. At the Caltech bookstore one is lucky to find a single copy of his book, The Quark and the Jaguar, which did not sell nearly as well as "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!," a collection of humorous anecdotes that Gell-Mann snidely calls "Dick's joke book." When Physics World recently asked scientists to name the greatest physicists who ever lived, Feynman came in seventh, just behind Galileo. Gell-Mann didn't make the top ten -- or even get a single vote. When he showed up at President Clinton's millennium New Year's Eve ball squiring the actress Talia Shire (famous for playing Rocky Balboa's wife), the cameras barely blinked.


After Gell-Mann and his wife arrived in Pasadena, in the spring of 1955, Dick and Murray, as everyone soon called them, became inseparable. Strolling Caltech's immaculately landscaped campus or dueling at the chalkboard over some calculations, the two scientists discussed physics for hours -- "twisting the tail of the cosmos," as Gell-Mann later put it. But when it came to almost anything but physics, their personalities clashed.

Gell-Mann, who had been raised in a poor family of Jewish immigrants in Manhattan, was determined to become a debonair man about town. He dressed impeccably, lecturing in well-tailored sport coats and ties on even the hottest summer days. He knew just which wines and dishes to order at a restaurant, and paid with his Carte Blanche. Still the overeager schoolboy, he pronounced foreign words perfectly and corrected new acquaintances on the pronunciation of their own names.

And then there was Feynman, tieless, in shirtsleeves, grabbing lunch at a greasy spoon. He had grown up in Far Rockaway, on the outskirts of Queens. Like Gell-Mann, he had never gotten over a need to prove he was the smartest kid on the block. Feynman affected the role of an outsider, a heckler on the sidelines who was ready to deflate anyone who put on airs. Gell-Mann would make a knowing reference to some foreign locale -- pronouncing "Montreal" so that it caught in his throat with an authentic Quebecois growl, or "Beijing" so that it rang like a temple bell -- and Feynman would pretend not to understand him. "Where?" he'd bark back, sounding more like a Brooklyn cabdriver than someone with a Ph.D. from Princeton. The image was as carefully crafted as Gell-Mann's, but few caught on.


The breaking point came in 1985, when Feynman and Ralph Leighton, the son of a Caltech physicist, compiled some of Feynman's tales into "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character, which became a surprise best seller. In story after story Feynman came off as the holy fool seeing through everyone else's pretenses. Flipping through the pages, Gell-Mann found Feynman's account of the theory of the weak nuclear force, the one they had reluctantly collaborated on. "I was very excited," Feynman said. "It was the first time, and the only time, in my career that I knew a law of nature that nobody else knew." Gell-Mann, enraged, said he would sue. In a later edition Feynman conceded that Gell-Mann and two other physicists had also thought of the idea. But the disclaimer didn't heal the wound.

For all his accomplishments, Gell-Mann couldn't be happy until he had written a best seller like Feynman's. Adding to his melancholy, "Surely, You're Joking" was followed in 1988 by Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which sold more than nine million copies. To Gell-Mann's colleagues, a book of light-hearted anecdotes told by their intense and pedantic friend seemed a dubious prospect. It would have to be called, one of them said, "Dammit, Murray, You're Right Again!" Others remarked that Gell-Mann, unlike Hawking, didn't have the advantage of being confined to a wheelchair.

"I'm writing a book for peasants," Gell-Mann would say dismissively. As it turned out, he wasn't up to the task. The Quark and the Jaguar became legendary in publishing circles for the size of the advances it attracted -- reported to be more than a million dollars worldwide -- and for the toll in human suffering it took on friends, colleagues, ghostwriters, editors, and, finally, readers. It was the Heaven's Gate of science books.

Submitted late and incomplete, the manuscript, composed one agonizing sentence at a time, was rejected by Bantam Books. Shortly afterward Gell-Mann had a mild heart attack. When the book was finally resold, for substantially less money, it did well, but on a far smaller scale than Feynman's. Gell-Mann just couldn't match Feynman as a storyteller. And although Feynman didn't actually write his own books, many of his lectures, transcribed for the popular-science market, were gems of clarity and color. Feynman thought in pictures, Gell-Mann in abstractions. When Gell-Mann tried to convey his ideas to the public, the explanations often fell flat. Making up funny names for particles, it turned out, wasn't enough.

IN the end, Gell-Mann may turn out to be the more important physicist. The Eightfold Way and quarks now lie at the foundation of the Standard Model -- the theory that explains how matter is made. It is hard to imagine a more far-reaching contribution to understanding the physical world. Trying to pin down Feynman's significance is much harder. He himself considered his Nobel Prize-winning work more of a virtuoso technical performance than a meaningful insight into nature, and it was completed when he was thirty. After that he made scattered contributions -- a theory of a phenomenon called superfluidity, for example. His greatest legacy may be Feynman diagrams, the little pictures that vividly describe particle interactions. (Gell-Mann would deny him even that distinction, obstinately calling them "Stückelberg diagrams," after an obscure Swiss physicist who devised a similar notion.)

Neither Feynman nor Gell-Mann got what he most wanted. Feynman never stopped lamenting that he had missed the thrill of being the first to understand a new truth. Gell-Mann has never become a household name. And the friction between them prevented the kind of alliance that might have led to even greater discoveries -- great enough, perhaps, to satisfy both these impossible men.


Plato said...

"The adventure of our science of physics is a perpetual attempt to recognize that the different aspects of nature are really different aspects of the same thing" -- Richard Feynman

Yes interesting relation between the two. You have of course heard of the The Feynman Lectures on Physics

It might be interesting to find out what Murray Gell-Mann is doing today in terms of combining his background with advances in the complexity of human diseases.

The interdisciplinary collaboration approach is quite significant in my point of view.


Steven Colyer said...

Last I heard Gell-Mann was investigating the origin of Language. He's a genius in many areas other than physics. Quite a guy, huh?

Yes I've heard of those lectures and haven't bought them as I'm too poor atm. There is of course the Library and one of these months I intend to pay my local big one a visit.