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Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-century Physics Paperback – 4 Jan 2001

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Product details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (4 Jan. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099284324
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099284321
  • Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 3.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 894,249 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

As its subtitle Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics indicates, this is a biography of the quirky human being and father of quarks, the brilliant American Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann. Born in New York in 1929, he is a surviving member of a great generation of physicists who rode the wave of the atomic bomb and its aftermath in theoretical physics. Gell-Mann rubbed shoulders and argued the toss with the likes of Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman.

George Johnson, an award-winning science writer for the New York Times and author of four other books, spent several years compiling this wonderful portrait of Gell-Mann, warts and all. Johnson certainly conveys for the general reader the brilliant, complicated, always fascinating and often exasperating man that he eventually came to like and respect.

Gell-Mann was something of a prodigy, graduating from Yale at 18 and getting his doctorate from MIT by the age of 21. Within a few years he was recognised as one of the foremost theorists in the strange world of particle physics, who studied the behaviour of subatomic particles and proposed the existence of quarks, one of the fundamental constituents of matter. For this work he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1969.

As Johnson describes and explains, life within the highly competitive academic world of particle physics was particularly rebarbative but Gell-Mann managed to shoulder his way through to the top. A Dickensian character, he was at times a show-off and bully but also a generous polymath, who subsequently has espoused environmentalism and arms control.

Under Johnson's expert guidance (assisted by a glossary, notes and bibliography) even the general reader is guided through the complex science and life of this charming conversationalist... apologetic procrastinator and... dispenser of acid remarks--Murray Gell-Mann. --Douglas Palmer


"A dramatic and lucid biography of Gell-Mann, one of the true geniuses of the twentieth century." Daily Telegraph "Outstanding...enthralling." The Times "An everyday tale of scientific genius, of fiercely competitive boffins trying to publish before each other, of arrogant intelligence and dazzling science. As a primer for work in fundamental physics of the last half-century, it is a brilliant achievement: Johnson writes with assurance, lucidity and charm." Financial Times

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First Sentence
Scouring the old Manhattan telephone directories from the early years of the century, now relegated to decaying spools of microfilm in a dark corner of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, one looks in vain for the curious appellation "Gell-Man." Read the first page
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By S Payne on 14 Mar. 2001
Format: Paperback
Although his name is not as well known in the public eye as other more high profile physicists, Murray Gell-Mann can fairly lay claim to being one of the intellectual godfathers of the scientific revolution known as the new physics. In particular, Gell-Mann 'discovered' (in conjunction with, but quite separately from George Zweig, in a startling piece of synchronicity/coincidence) the quark model of particles previously believed to be elementary---in other words, the fact that the bits that make up atoms are themselves not fundamental but built up out of still smaller (and even weirder!) units, which Gell-Mann (borrowing a line from James Joyce's 'Finnegan's Wake') labelled 'quarks'. This wholly remarkable book is in fact, to my mind, two books in one; a straight biography tracing the life of one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists of our time as well as in-depth work of popular science, giving the reader a simple though never distorted picture of one of the most mysterious and enigmatic areas of contemporary sub-atomic physics. This, as well as the book's blessedly clear and highly readable style, make it an absolute must for any lay reader, not well versed in the arcane mysteries of quantum physics perhaps, who wishes to understand the basic stuff of which the Universe is made and one of the most remarkable products of the human scientific quest. Brilliant from beginning to end.
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Format: Hardcover
Reading "Strange Beauty" kept me in a state of blissful concentration all the way to the end. What I most appreciated about this book is the science behind the scientist. With a book like Genius" from James Gleick it's the other way around, the persona overshadows the work.

I was very impressed by the author's pedagogical powers. He has helped me to hone my understanding of many principles of particle physics. George Johnson has brilliantly exposed the unfolding of ideas that led us to our current understanding. The citation on page 301 (HC) about Richard Feynman could be applied to the author himself: << He would take it apart and put it back together so you understood it as never before >>. JG has the ability of making people understand abstract concepts without the recourse of mathematics.

The author could have recounted more mundane stories that occurred in the life of this great scientist. Gell-Mann has travelled so much and interacted with so many people that anecdotes should be pouring in this biography. My understanding is that Johnson has chosen to limit himself to the stories that were relevant to the object of inquiry more than the subject himself. Again, the science before the scientist. It is like reading a scientific biography without the equations. I actually praise this. When Gell-Mann will die there will be plenty of journalists that will pickup what was not covered here, but few will have the same talent for expounding for the general public what Murray Gell-Mann was able to achieve with his extraordinary mind.

Yet the editorial choice that was made leaves me with an unfulfilled sentiment.
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By Amazon Customer on 19 July 2012
Format: Kindle Edition
This excellent biography describes the life & work of Murray Gell-Mann, whose genius & example drove progress in much of modern particle physics, including interplay between theory & experiment (completion of the "eightfold way"), & via "current algebra" & other models of the nucleus to quarks (not the same as partons), thereby towards QCD & the Standard Model. This book deserves to be on your Kindle: you will enjoy reading it, & you are unlikely to archive it!
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By J E Michalski on 20 Oct. 2014
Format: Paperback
good quality
good service
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 28 reviews
152 of 152 people found the following review helpful
An excellent read that captures the man and his achievements 28 Oct. 1999
By Al - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Several years ago I was having lunch with Murray Gell-Mann. He lamented that one day a biography of him would appear and no doubt it would be written by a fool who would get it all wrong.
This month the biography of Murray Gell-Mann, arguably the most influential physicist of the latter part of the twentieth century appeared, but it was neither written by a fool nor was it all wrong.
A few years back, I read James Gleick's celebrated biography of Richard Feynman (Genius), the other great physicist of the latter part of the twentieth century, and Gell-Mann's closest rival and colleague. I felt that it suffered greatly from a problem that faces many biographers, that is, writing about someone you have never met. Gleick never met Feynman, much less knew him, and therefore it provided a distorted picture of the man. I never felt that Feynman's personality and thought process came through. Many of Feynman's closest intimates and family felt the same way and were more than disappointed by the biography.
In contrast, when I read George Johnson's recent biography of Murray Gell-Mann (Strange Beauty), I couldn't help thinking, "That's Murray!" "Yes, that's Murray!" (Recently I spoke with some close friends of Gell-Mann who felt the same way.) Author Johnson did have the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time with Gell-Mann and that certainly comes through. To a large degree you will get a strong sense of what Gell-Mann's personality is like. He can be extremely formidable, sarcastic with distinguished rivals as well as fools (he does not suffer fools gladly) and arrogant (adapting a phrase from Issac Newton, he once said, the reason I can see further than others is because I am surrounded by dwarfs).
Yet, as Johnson points out, Gell-Mann is also a man who is also continually tormented by his own insecurities. Here is a man who has every reason to boast, and should not be insecure about his achievements. His contributions to theoretical physics during the second part of the twentieth century are legendary and perhaps unrivaled. Feynman paid Gell-Mann the ultimate complement after Gell-Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969, "Our knowledge of fundamental physics contains not one fruitful idea that does not carry the name of Murray Gell-Mann."
The complex relationship between these two intellectual giants of physics, Gell-Mann and Feynman, warrants discussion. The two were close colleagues at the California Institute of Technology for almost thirty years. They started as close friends and then drifted apart. In this one area, I felt that Johnson did not fully understand the complex relationship and dynamic between the two men, both of whom I got the chance to know fairly well. One does get some brief glimpses of Gell-Mann's frustrations of their relationship, but one does not have any insight into Feynman's position. The author permits a treatment of Feynman that comes across a bit harsh and unsympathetic. This may be due to the fact that Johnson was only exposed to Gell-Mann's constant harping about Feynman.
There is another aspect of Gell-Mann's character, which perhaps does not come across enough in this fine book. Gell-Mann can be a very warm, charming and tremendously giving person to his friends and others in need of help. He is also extremely passionate about making the world a better place, by spending an enormous amount of his time involved in various important educational and environmental issues. In spite of Gell-Mann's apparent social lapses, he has done a great deal in a positive way for the world and for the friends who surround him.
It would be impossible to author a biography of Gell-Mann without discussing the many contributions he has made to the world of theoretical physics. In this regard, without reference to a single mathematical equation, Johnson has done an extremely admirable job for the interested reader. Gell-Mann's physics and insight come through in an extremely readable way without the sort of egregious errors that are often made when scientific popularizations distill complicated scientific thought. I couldn't find any fault with the scientific issues that were being discussed.
What does Gell-Mann think of the book? In typical Gell-Mann fashion, he stated to me, "There's a mistake on every page." Nevertheless, the "mistakes" that he pointed out were of a rather trivial nature and do not detract from the overall picture of the man and his accomplishments. In conclusion, this is an immensely readable and enjoyable book. I couldn't put it down, nor could any of Gell-Mann's close friends who spoke to me about it! It's really great! Full of insight, fun, drama, and everything else you could wish for in a biography of a truly remarkable man, who has contributed to our understanding of the universe in a very fundamental way.
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Popular science writing at its best 23 Nov. 1999
By Ken Baake - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Strange Beauty is a consummate piece of popular science writing that captivates the reader with tales of a fascinating 20th century particle physicist, but without letting the human narrative occlude the science itself. This is no easy accomplishment; often popular accounts of science veer too far into the cult of personality, making their heroes appear to be larger than life and their science to be some kind of high melodrama. George Johnson's storytelling helps us to know the flawed genius of Murray Gell-Mann and to care about him as a lead character. We also care about the knowledge that he and his colleagues are uncovering about the ephemeral wisps of particle reality that give rise to the material world. Gell-Mann comes off in this book as a devoted theorist and a passionate thinker, but also as a real human being. Johnson's portrayal is a more even-handed and fair treatment of Gell-Mann than he has received in other popular writings. The search for new particles reads like a detective story, but not in an affected style. The reader may not fully grasp each stage of the particle trail--a rarefied world that is difficult even for experts to feel at home in. But the particle search that Johnson unfolds makes it clear how mathematical constructs give rise to funny sounding names like "quarks," which then lead researchers on a hunt to find them. Twentieth-century particle physics is strikingly close to Platonic philosophy, which suggests that the foundations of reality can never be known, but only surmised from shadows. Yet, even as Strange Beauty is eliciting all of these insights from the reader, it does so while still managing to to be a ripping good story.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
"Strange Beauty" is a winner 20 Jan. 2000
By L Klonsky - Published on
Format: Hardcover
George Johnson's bio of Murray Gell-Mann is an excellent read for anyone intersted in what has been transpiring in post WWII Particle Physics. While providing a long overdue biography of one of the most important physicists of the century, it also has very lucid explanations of the complex theories that Gell-Mann and his cohorts have devised. The only caveat for the potential reader is to be aware that these concepts, while very well explained, are not easy going without some degree of patience and some high school level (or better) physics. The reader can choose to ignore this material and stick with the biographical portion, but it is well worth the effort to understand the clear discussion. In short, an excellent read for anyone intersted in contemporary physics and its practioners.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Strange Beauty:Murray Gell-Mann 30 Nov. 1999
By Richard N. Apling - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed this book very much. Gell-Mann's contribution to quantum physics is explained well (to the extent that anyone can explain that subject). The author also did an excellent job of exploring Gell-Mann's complex personality and his (often stormy) relationships with other great physicists of the second half of the 20th century. The author's personal relationship with his subject (getting permission to do a biography, getting access to Gell-Mann) is an entertaining sub-theme to the book. My main disappointment with the book (and perhaps this unfair, since the author's subject is Gell-Mann, afterall) is that there is not enough about the interplay between Gell-Mann and his equally great contemporary at Cal Tech--Richard Feynman.
All in all, a well written and enjoyable book.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Terrific insights into a difficult man. 22 Oct. 1999
By W. David Bayless - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Given his status in the pantheon of physicists, one might expect Strange Beauty to be a standard paean to Murray Gell-Mann's brilliance. Instead, George Johnson tells a much deeper story of a complicated man, his accomplishments, and his foibles. In 1994, I had eagerly awaited Gell-Mann's own book, The Quark and the Jaguar. I found it nearly unreadable. I was terribly disappointed, as I was very interested in a man who could simultaneously be held in such high regard by both reductionists (as a leading particle physicist) and fans of complexity sciences and emergence (as a co-founder of the Santa Fe Institute). Armed with Johnson's insights, I'm ready to try Gell-Mann's book again.
I'd also recommend Strange Beauty to anyone interested in the process of innovation. It's difficult to imagine a more competitive environment for pure creativity than that characterizing particle physics during much of this century. I took odd comfort from the fact that even among Nobel Prize winners, the process of innovation is marked by redundancy, countless dead ends, internecine struggle, pettiness, and seemingly sudden breakthroughs. Maybe we mere mortals need not be too discouraged when we find the same during our own efforts.
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