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Murray Gell-Mann, Nobel-winning physicist who developed quark idea, dies at 89

Physicist Murray Gell-Mann lectures during a Nov. 2, 1995, class at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Gell-Mann, a 1969 Nobel Prize winner, died Saturday. (Alexandria King/Albuquerque Journal)

Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize-winning American physicist who devised the “eightfold way” to bring order to the world of elementary particles and conceived the idea of “quarks” to explain the structure of such particles, died May 24 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 89.

The death was confirmed by Jenna Marshall, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe Institute, which Dr. Gell-Mann helped found. The cause was not disclosed.

Among physicists, Gell-Mann could easily be placed on the timeline of the centuries-old effort to find the fundamental laws that governed the behavior of the everyday world and the universe around us.

He was a pioneer in the development of what is called the “standard model” of particle physics, a guide to the fundamental behavior of the constituents of the universe.

The Nobel Prize was awarded to Gell-Mann 50 years ago, when he was barely 40, suggesting the early recognition of the significance of his contribution to science.

“Murray Gell-Mann was a seminal figure in the history of physics,” Thomas Rosenbaum, president of the California Institute of Technology and a physicist, said in a statement. “A polymath, a discerner of Nature’s fundamental patterns, and, as such, an expositor for the connections of physics to other disciplines, Murray helped define the approaches of generations of scientists.”

A child prodigy, Gell-Mann grew up in the Bronx, graduated from Yale as a teenager and soon came to be identified with the development of such concepts as the “strangeness” of elementary particles.

It was an apt name for an important characteristic of the particle world in which scientists found themselves in the years after World War II, as high-energy atom smashers produced a proliferation of odd and curious particles that challenged physicists’ earlier assumptions.

One of Gell-Mann’s most widely hailed achievements was a proposal grouping all fundamental particles by eight characteristics, some of them described as quantum properties with no counterpart in the everyday world.

He named his system the “eightfold way,” in reference to a Buddhist concept in which the path to enlightenment embodies a list of eight virtues to achieve harmony in life. The term seemed appropriate for a system that offered coherence and predictability where chaos had prevailed.

As a means of explaining the symmetries inherent in the eightfold way, Gell-Mann came up with the idea of the quark to describe a subatomic structure even more basic than what had once been regarded as fundamental.

Murray Gell-Mann shows the renowned twinkle in his eye as he makes short remarks following a ceremony at the Santa Fe Institute naming the main building in his honor in 2015. Gell-Mann said he wanted his name in 20-foot letters — lit at night. (Santa Fe Institute photo by Babak Dowlatshahi)

Others also proposed the idea that particles once thought of as indivisible were actually composed of smaller constituents. But it was Gell-Mann’s designation for these particles that stuck.

Quarks may be synonymous with modern physics, but they take their name from modernist literature. Gell-Mann found the term in James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” which contains the line “three quarks for Muster Mark.”

The word quark, much like the eightfold way, represented the breadth of Gell-Mann’s interests. In addition to addressing the most challenging problems of the physical world, he was at home in literature and philosophy and was conversant in a dozen languages. (He delivered part of his Nobel acceptance speech in Swedish.)

In the early part of the century, the particles considered to be the fundamental constituents of matter were the proton, neutron and electron, whose basic qualities were termed charge and size and mass.

As physics advanced, new characteristics were discovered in subatomic particles. Scientists used the terms “up,” “down” and “strange” to describe other qualities called “flavors.” He postulated a fourth quark, with a property he called “charm,” that was later proved by experimentation.

Gell-Mann and other physicists also suggested that quarks must possess another property in addition to flavor. They dubbed that property “color,” assigning different quarks the names red, green and blue.

Although abstract, these quark characteristics possessed a significance in the physical world and gave rise to a powerful theory of particle interactions. Gell-Mann named this theory quantum chromodynamics.

The test of a theory is in its ability to predict the behavior of the real world. Gell-Mann’s theory was validated by later research on subatomic particles, including a landmark discovery in 1964 of a particle known as the Omega minus.

“I predicted that experimental physicists would find certain ones; that they would not find others,” Gell-Mann once said. “And this was all true. . . . They actually found all those that I predicted and didn’t find any others.”

Murray Gell-Mann was born Sept. 15, 1929, in New York City. He was the youngest son of Jewish immigrants from Austria. His father, a learned man, operated a language school and later worked in a bank. (His father changed his surname from Gellmann to Gell-Mann after emigrating to the United States.)

He showed early ability in many academic subjects and was dubbed “the walking encyclopedia” by schoolmates.

“My principal interests were all in subjects involving individuality, diversity, evolution,” he said in an oral history with Caltech, where he was a longtime faculty member. “History, archaeology, linguistics, natural history of various kinds – birds, butterflies, trees, herbaceous flowering plants and so on – those are the things that I loved. Plus mathematics. Plus all sorts of other things – art, for example, and music.”

Gell-Mann began his studies at Yale when he was barely 15. He had considered studying archaeology or linguistics, but his father suggested engineering because it would help him find a job. They compromised on physics.

Gell-Mann graduated from Yale in 1948, when he was 18. He earned his doctorate in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951 and had stints at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and the University of Chicago before joining the Caltech faculty in 1955. He retired in 1993.

He and his first wife, Margaret Dow, were married in 1955. She died in 1981. His second marriage, to Marcia Southwick, ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from his first marriage and a stepson from his second marriage.

According to Caltech, Gell-Mann eventually became interested in the idea of complexity, a concept that is common to disciplines including biology, ecology, sociology, and computer science. In 1984, he co-founded the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico to study such complex systems, and in 1994 published “The Quark and the Jaguar,” a book exploring those ideas.

Summarizing his theoretical studies in 1969, when he won the Nobel, Gell-Mann said, “Our work is a delightful game.”

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