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Strange Beauty Paperback – 1 Nov 2000
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"A multidimensional portrait of a brilliant but tormented man who dominated elementary physics for twenty years... An almost Shakespearean hero."--The New York Times Book Review"Skillfully and engagingly written."--Science
From the Inside Flap
With a New Afterword
"Our knowledge of fundamental physics contains not one fruitful idea that does not carry the name of Murray Gell-Mann."--Richard Feynman
Acclaimed science writer George Johnson brings his formidable reporting skills to the first biography of Nobel Prize-winner Murray Gell-Mann, the brilliant, irascible man who revolutionized modern particle physics with his models of the quark and the Eightfold Way.
Born into a Jewish immigrant family on New York's Lower East Side, Gell-Mann's prodigious talent was evident from an early age--he entered Yale at 15, completed his Ph.D. at 21, and was soon identifying the structures of the world's smallest components and illuminating the elegant symmetries of the universe.
Beautifully balanced in its portrayal of an extraordinary and difficult man, interpreting the concepts of advanced physics with scrupulous clarity and simplicity, Strange Beauty is a tour-de-force of both science writing and biography.
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This biography presents the man behind the science: the prodigy who entered Yale at 15 and received his PhD from MIT at 22, the avid observer and collector of birds, obscure languages and archaeological artefacts, the competitive intellectual who dominated his field (at one point, the organizers of a wide-ranging conference reviewing progress in particle physics were thinking of asking five or six experts in different areas to present, before realizing that Gell-Mann was the best person in each field, and asking him to talk about them all), and the concerned and eloquent conservationist who memorably criticized decision-makers as thinking "anything hard to quantify [can be] set to zero [so that] a highway can be driven straight through a neighbourhood or wilderness because there is no reliable quantitative measure of damage to set against the increased cost of running the road around the outside." [p273]
Johnson also describes the alliances and conflicts which arose between Gell-Mann and his colleagues in an intensely competitive and taxing field - including the observation that, whilst Gell-Mann's suggestion about (or discovery of) quarks ultimately proved fundamental to particle classification, they have never been directly observed (nor will ever be, according to current theory), which is one reason why he was apparently undecided for longer than his colleagues whether they really existed, or were merely an aid to calculation. The other reason for his reluctance to commit, according to Johnson, was an over-critical and pedantic father who pounced on any error or omission; it's suggested that the trepidation and quest for perfection he engendered in his son prevented him from being even more pre-eminent in his field.
This is a well-written book about a fascinating man. Although understanding his importance requires some grasp of the science and what he did to it, the author does very well to present this in layman's terms. However, I was often reminded of the reply which was suggested to Gell-Mann's colleague Richard Feynman when he was being asked too many questions by reporters after winning the Nobel Prize in 1965:
"Listen, buddy, if I could tell you in a minute what I did, it wouldn't be worth the Nobel Prize."
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. I would not hesitate to declare this book a masterpiece if the author had conveyed more tension to the stories, like I found for example in "Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos" by Dennis Overbye, or "Noble Dreams" by Gary Taubes. My all-time favourite in this regard is a book that Johnson himself referred to often: "The Second Creation" by Robert Crease and Charles Mann. Where Johnson was at his best is whenever he had the opportunity to show the difference between the two greatest characters of particle physics: Murray Hell-Mann and Richard Funman. Here I imitate Gell-Mann himself who likes to play like this with other people's name. Is it not ultimately the way these very different, but equally smart, individuals will be remembered: One liked to make fun of other people, while the other preferred to have fun with them.
It is impressive to realize the shear amount of very high quality work that has been invested in compiling this biography. A real tour de force!
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