Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: Strange Beauty

Strange Beauty

From Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics, by George Johnson:

Open quote 

He is sometimes called the Mendeleev of the twentieth century, for what he provided was no less than a periodic table of the subatomic particles."

Strange Beauty is both a book about particle physics and a biography of a scientist. It suffers from the weaknesses of its two subjects. Particle physics is a mind-numbingly complex field that few understand, and even they are mostly bluffing. And the scientist examined here is not an easy person to like -- brilliant, arrogant, competitive, sarcastic and insecure. Think "The Big Bang Theory's" Sheldon Cooper without any innocent charm.

After the jump, my review and excerpts.

Grade: B-

If you are interested in the history of science, you'll love this book. It was published in 1999, but Gell-Mann's most significant contributions to particle physics took place decades earlier. Strange Beauty takes you along for the ride as the small community of theoretical physicists struggle to come up with a mathematical framework that can explain the subnuclear zoo. And even when a model emerges, it's still not the grand unifying theory that's been the dream of physicists for a century. The so-called Standard Model is good, but it's still imperfect and incomplete, even today, a decade after Strange Beauty was published.

If you are interested in psychology, Murray Gell-Mann makes a fascinating subject. He was a child prodigy who knew it and acted as such. He was a genius as a young scientist, deeply involved in almost every breakthrough in particle physics in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet he was always wary about being wrong, leading him to vacillate forever on the question whether quarks are real or only a convenient mathematical construct. He regretted his failures -- ideas he didn't pursue quickly enough, theories he did but didn't commit to. He was jealous of others who were credited with ideas he felt he himself had, whether or not he published them.

Murray Gell-Mann reminds me of another genius, the mathematician John Nash, the subject of the biography and 2002 Oscar-winning movie, A Beautiful Mind. Gell-Mann's personality flaws don't tip over into paranoid schizophrenia like Nash, but Gell-Mann himself makes for a great case study of genius. Strange Beauty covers his quirks, but they aren't the sole, or even main focus.

So, read Strange Beauty for the biography, read it for the science, read it for the history. From any angle, it's a worthwhile read.


"So here you had one theory implying that the electron’s charge was infinite and another saying it was zero. Obviously, neither result is what is observed in the real world. When Murray first heard about these problems at Yale, he worried that theoretical physics, this brotherhood he longed to join, was in a state of disgrace."

"The ease with which the pieces were clicking together was exhilarating. Within days the whole scheme was in place. Murray called it, with a touch of irony, the Eightfold Way. Not just because there were eight possible rotations and eight particles in each representation, but because of a saying of the Buddha about the eight ways to achieve nirvana."

"At the beginning of the article, Murray put a favorite quote from Francis Bacon: 'There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.' Science with a literary flair."

"His discoveries were not of things but of patterns -- mathematical symmetries that seemed to reflect, in some ultimately mysterious way, the manner in which subatomic particles behaved."

"One colleague interpreted Murray’s maddening ambiguity like this: 'If quarks are not found, remember I never said they would be; if they are found, remember I thought of them first.' But the difficulty cut much deeper, rooted in the confusion that besets every scientist: To what extent were quarks or fields or even neutrinos and electrons out there in the universe, and to what extent were they inventions of the human mind?"

"Particle physics is the most competitive of intellectual sports, and faced with a theory or a theorist he didn’t like, Gell-Mann could be merciless."

"Physicists started to talk about a Caltech style of doing physics, more brutal even than Oppenheimer’s relentless grilling or Pauli’s acerbic wit. Ideas were attacked with a viciousness that some found shocking, others exhilarating. If your theory stood up to this kind of scrutiny, then maybe it would survive the supreme arbiter, nature itself."

"One of them summed up Murray like this: 'He’s very patient with ignorance, totally impatient with stupidity.'"

"The official Nobel citation didn’t say anything about quarks. The prize was being given 'for his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions.' It was a kind of lifetime achievement award, for someone barely forty."

"It sometimes seemed as though the software of the universe had been created by two teams of programmers using two different languages, quantum mechanics and general relativity, then kludged together at the end. But surely the Great Plan could not be so ugly."

"He spoke of hopes that, once the strong force and the weak force had been tamed, a unifying principle would eventually be found to unite all the forces of nature. Electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force would at last be brought into a single framework."

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