Sunday, May 26, 2019

On the Passing of Murray Gell-Mann: THE MAKING OF A PHYSICIST

Professor Gell-Mann is the third Nobel Laureate on the blog today but his is in physics, a point that makes a difference to some people including the descendants of Alfred Nobel.
He died on Friday.

A Talk With Murray Gell-mann [6.30.03]

September 15, 1929 – May 24, 2019
Uncharacteristically, I discussed my application to Yale with my father, who asked, "What were you thinking of putting down?" I said, "Whatever would be appropriate for archaeology or linguistics, or both, because those are the things I'm most enthusiastic about. I'm also interested in natural history and exploration."
He said, "You'll starve!"
After all, this was 1944 and his experiences with the Depression were still quite fresh in his mind; we were still living in genteel poverty. He could have quit his job as the vault custodian in a bank and taken a position during the war that would have utilized his talents — his skill in mathematics, for example — but he didn't want to take the risk of changing jobs. He felt that after the war he would regret it, so he stayed where he was. This meant that we really didn't have any spare money at all.
I asked him, "What would you suggest?"
He mentioned engineering, to which I replied, "I'd rather starve. If I designed anything it would fall apart." And sure enough when I took an aptitude test a year later I was advised to take up nearly anything but engineering.
Then my father suggested, "Why don't we compromise — on physics?"
Edge is pleased to bring you a conversation (and video) with Murray Gell-Mann conducted in SantaFe over the Christmas holiday in 2003 — in which he conveyed "something about his life and his attitude toward the world and toward physics."
— JB

MURRAY GELL-MANN (September 15, 1929 – May 24, 2019) was a theoretical physicist and, until his death, Robert Andrews Millikan Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology; winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics; a cofounder of the Santa Fe Institute, where he is a Distinguished Fellow; a former director of the J.D. and C.T. MacArthur Foundation; one of the Global Five Hundred honored by the U.N. Environment Program; a former Citizen Regent of the Smithsonian Institution; a former member of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology; and the author of The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex.
I was born on Manhattan Island just a few weeks before the great stock market crash and I grew up there, except for a few years in the depths of the Depression, when the situation of my family became especially difficult and we couldn't afford the rents in Manhattan. Not only did the crash herald the beginning of the Depression, but the draconian National Origins Act of 1924 became fully effective in 1929. Both of these developments were bad for my father, because he ran a small language school. A German-speaking immigrant from the Austrian part of Austria-Hungary, he had learned flawless English as a young adult. Is pronunciation and grammar were perfect. You might suspect he was a foreigner only because he never made any mistakes. He tried a number of different jobs and finally achieved some modest success with his language school. Besides teaching English to immigrants, he taught German and he hired other teachers for the Romance languages. However, the combination of the Depression and the dearth of new immigrants ruined his school and we fled from the Gramercy district, where I lived when I was a little child, to the area near the Bronx Zoo. Later on we returned to Manhattan, to the Upper West Side, and I grew up there.
My father came to America in the first decade of the 20th century. He was a little over 20 at the time. He had spent a year at the University of Vienna and a year at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He would have returned to Vienna for the third and final year of his undergraduate work, but his parents had immigrated to the U.S. and were not doing well, so they asked him to come over and help. At the time he knew very little English, but he came to Philadelphia, where he worked in an orphanage and learned English and baseball from the orphans. It's a good thing he came, since if he hadn't he would probably have been killed in the First World War.
My mother lived most of her life in New York and believed for a very long time that she was native-born. She voted in four or five presidential elections before she found out that she'd actually come over from Austria-Hungary as a baby. She had to be naturalized in a big hurry in 1940. If she hadn't become a citizen then she would have turned into an enemy alien when the United States joined the war.
My mother was very kind and nurturing, but she had somehow lost her ability to deal with anything intellectual. I don't know how that happened. When she was a high school student she had extremely good grades. Her report cards showed that she had done well in algebra and Spanish, but I don't think she could recall a single formula or a single word of Spanish when I knew her. She would have liked to go to college, but her stepfather ruled it out and said she had to work. She went to secretarial school instead and became a secretary. She was a good typist and her spelling and grammar were always excellent.
She did a very good job of taking care of the family, and was very loving. She also had the idea that I was a little bit special, and she tried very hard to get me into a private school, although my father had no interest in that whatsoever. I didn't know what was happening, but I kept having to pile blocks on top of one another in various tests at different places in New York City. I realize now, of course, that these were all attempts to get me into a private school with a full scholarship. They all failed, unfortunately, until finally a very nice music teacher named Florence Freint succeeded in getting me into Columbia Grammar School.
My brother Ben was a wonderful influence in my life. He taught me almost everything I knew when I was little. Ben and I would do all sorts of things together. He loved bird-watching and we were also interested in flowering plants, trees, butterflies, and many other things. After we moved back to Manhattan we still went up to the Bronx for some of our bird-watching because just north of the Bronx Zoo is the only remaining stretch of the hemlock forest that once covered the whole of New York. We regarded the city as a hemlock forest that had been over-logged, and so we spent some of our time in the small portion of the forest that was still preserved.
I learned a number of things relatively early. My brother taught me to read from a cracker box when I was three. We were visiting our cousins, the Walkers, and while we were sitting in the kitchen he showed me how to read the text on the cracker box. I picked up reading rather quickly after that, so I was somewhat ahead of other kids in learning.
My father and brother were both interested in how to pronounce the sounds in various languages and we all practiced. Except for German and English we didn't have them exactly right, of course, but we were close. My interest in etymologies and the relationships among languages was stimulated by one of my father's books. When I was a little child and we moved to a tiny apartment, he had to give away his library, which beforehand was very extensive. He kept a few books, though, and one of them was on Greek and Latin roots in English.

That subject really fascinated me, and I never ceased being absorbed by the relationships among languages. I'm now involved, with a number of linguists, in a project I helped to organize to explore very distant relationships among human languages. Many of the established holders of chairs in historical linguistics don't believe in investigating these distant relationships, but I strongly disagree with them. They recognize families of languages that go back something like six thousand years, for example Indo-European, Uralic, and Austronesian, but in most cases they refuse to consider larger families (I call them "superfamilies") that go back much further in time. If they were right, then the evidence for the families they do acknowledge would be marginal, but in fact that evidence is overwhelming, and therefore it makes sense to go back further and explore superfamilies.

Since the evidence for those larger groupings is naturally scarcer than it is for closer relationships, we have to be as careful and as scientific as possible.My brother was almost nine years old when I was born and, like me, was three years ahead of most other students in his school. He graduated from high school at the age of 14 and went on to City College in New York, but didn't like it very much. He wanted to spend more of his time bird-watching, so he didn't attend classes regularly and at the age of 15 became what we now call a college drop-out. This was not very common in the 1930s, and certainly not at the age of 15. He became interested in photography, and curiously enough I played a role in that, although I've never had anything to do with photography since then....