SANTA FE, N.M. — The way David Krakauer tells it, he was having lunch with Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann and a couple of other physicists when the subject of Niels Bohr came up. Gell-Mann mentioned that he had been invited to the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark and figured he should learn some of the language before he went.
Oh, yes, of course, they thought. You want to be able to say things like “good morning” and “where’s the bathroom?” that you learn from a traveler’s phrase book.
But no. Gell-Mann told them he decided he would read a book in the language: “Out of Africa” by Karen Blixen (also known as Isak Dinesen).
Then, according to Krakauer, Gell-Mann “recited the first page of ‘Out of Africa’ from memory. In Danish.”
Talk about an over-achiever.
Gell-Mann’s accomplishments were such to inspire Seth Lloyd, an MIT physicist, to compose – and sing – a rapid-fire Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque patter praising Gell-Mann as being physically, numismatically and linguistically “the very model of a Nobel laureate.”
Did we mention Gell-Mann gave his speech in Swedish when he went to collect his Nobel Prize for physics in Copenhagen in 1969?
These and many more anecdotes were told during an event Monday celebrating the naming of the main building at the Santa Fe Institute after Gell-Mann, who was one of its founders.
And, while Gell-Mann, now 85, has a “labyrinthian and gargantuan brain,” as described by new SFI President Krakauer, he also demonstrated an impish sense of humor in accepting the honor.
“I request that each letter in the name be in 20-foot-high letters, like the Trump building in Chicago,” Gell-Mann said. “Fully lit at night.”
After all, the granite marker naming the building had not been completed in time for the ceremony, as author and SFI trustee Cormac McCarthy noted. So why not express a preference?
Although, the building Gell-Mann referred to actually is named the Trump International Hotel and Tower.
Gell-Mann wouldn’t mind the correction. From the stories his friends told, he never hesitated to correct others.
Jerry Murdock, a member of the SFI board of trustees, said he first met Gell-Mann at a dinner with friends in which Murdock brought a good bottle of burgundy and Gell-Mann corrected him on his pronunciation of the vineyard.
Lloyd recalled carrying a book under his arm when he met Gell-Mann at Los Alamos National Laboratory, only to have Gell-Mann eye the book and say, “It’s an amusing little volume, but it’s riddled with errors.”
When they were discussing quantum mechanics, Lloyd said he made a comment that caused Gell-Mann to start shouting the word “no” over and over, ultimately putting his forehead to his desk and pounding it with his hands. “I said to myself, ‘Here’s someone I can work with,'” Lloyd related.
In at least one case, the insistence on being right worked in the teller’s favor.
Former SFI president Geoffrey West said he was early in his career, quaking while he gave a presentation with luminaries in the front row, such as Bohr and Richard Feynman, a 1965 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics. West said he was barely into his talk before Feynman started attacking his thinking and conclusions. As West was trying to figure out how to sink through the floor to oblivion, a voice suddenly boomed forth from the back of the auditorium.
“Dick, you’re wrong; he’s right,” Gell-Mann shouted.
“And I’ve loved him ever since,” West said.
In recordings made of Gell-Mann talking about his life, which were played during the program for naming the building, Gell-Mann said he applied to Yale and his father suggested he study engineering, so he could make a living. “I’d rather starve,” Gell-Mann said he responded. Physics was the next suggestion and Gell-Mann noted it was a boring class in high school. “I did badly in it and it was the only subject in which I did badly,” he said.
Yet he went on to produce innovative work in particle physics, including a theoretical prediction of the existence of quarks, a theory supported yet again a month ago by detection of the subatomic particles at the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland.
“It’s been a wonderful experience to work as a theorist and to get to know in your own lifetime whether you’re right,” Gell-Mann said in the recorded remarks.
One of the pivotal experiences in his life, he said in those recordings, was when he was listening to a student dissertation at MIT about boson 10 and why it had a spin unit of one – something the physics establishment believed to be true.
Then, rather than one of the many distinguished professors putting forth a question, someone Gell-Mann described as “a grubby little man with a three-day growth of beard” who looked as though he had emerged from the basement, said the spin unit wasn’t one, it was three, because they had measured it.
The light broke with a realization that pleasing the high-and-mighty professors wasn’t the goal; finding the true answer in nature was, Gell-Mann said.
Murdock said Gell-Mann reminds him of Shakespeare’s character Prospero, who said, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
He described Gell-Mann’s eyes as glimmering and sparkling as he prepares to answer a question, as if reliving the moment when he first discovered that answer, revealing his “not-so-secret romance with knowledge.”
Upon his retirement from physics, Gell-Mann, through the Santa Fe Institute, launched himself and others into the science of complexity, feeding the dreams of researchers who “spend their lives searching for the truth,” Murdock said.
In his recorded remarks on how he wanted to be remembered, Gell-Mann said the life of a scientist includes a great deal of hard work, reversals and despair. But along the way, he said, there also is “a great deal of joy.”
That, he said, is what he’d like to be remembered.