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My mother's nationality


How my father came to America
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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My father, who was an immigrant from what was then Austria – the Austrian half of Austria-Hungary, grew up...

[Q] Where was that actually?

He grew up in the extreme east, right near the Russian border, very close to the Russian border. And then he went to high school, to the gymnasium in the city then called Czernowitz – later called Cernăuți under the Romanians. Then it was incorporated into the Ukrainian part of the Soviet Union and it’s now part of Ukraina, Ukraine... and there it’s… nowadays I think it's called something like Chernivsti.

He then went to the University of Vienna, in the very early years of this century. He went there for a year – the course was three years; second year he spent in Germany, I think in Heidelberg, because at that time you could interchange attendance at an Austrian or German university very easily. And then  the third year he was to have come back and finished his studies at the University of Vienna, and then he wanted to be a gymnasium teacher, perhaps a teacher of philosophy or something of that kind. He didn't do that though because his parents, having suffered financial reverses, saw no alternative but to go to the United States where you could get an ordinary job... and so his parents had left and were living in New York, and they were still in trouble. I think his father was ill and they didn't have much money and they needed help from him, and so they asked him to come to the United States, which he did after two years of the three-year course at the university.

He arrived in Philadelphia where he worked in an orphan asylum, what would now be called an orphanage, I guess, and he learned English and baseball from the… from the orphans. And he learned English perfectly even though he was an adult; he never made any mistakes, he didn't have a foreign accent...but as I wrote in my book, you could tell that he was a foreigner because he never made mistakes. He spoke very pedantic English and he gave... later on, of course, he made a career giving lessons in English to immigrants and lessons in German to Americans – but that was much later. He... I don't know when he arrived in Philadelphia... 1908 maybe, something like that, and then he went to New York to join his parents, a few years later, a couple of years later.

New York-born physicist Murray Gell-Mann (1929-2019) was known for his creation of the eightfold way, an ordering system for subatomic particles, comparable to the periodic table. His discovery of the omega-minus particle filled a gap in the system, brought the theory wide acceptance and led to Gell-Mann's winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969.

Listeners: Geoffrey West

Geoffrey West is a Staff Member, Fellow, and Program Manager for High Energy Physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is also a member of The Santa Fe Institute. He is a native of England and was educated at Cambridge University (B.A. 1961). He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1966 followed by post-doctoral appointments at Cornell and Harvard Universities. He returned to Stanford as a faculty member in 1970. He left to build and lead the Theoretical High Energy Physics Group at Los Alamos. He has numerous scientific publications including the editing of three books. His primary interest has been in fundamental questions in Physics, especially those concerning the elementary particles and their interactions. His long-term fascination in general scaling phenomena grew out of his work on scaling in quantum chromodynamics and the unification of all forces of nature. In 1996 this evolved into the highly productive collaboration with James Brown and Brian Enquist on the origin of allometric scaling laws in biology and the development of realistic quantitative models that analyse the influence of size on the structural and functional design of organisms.

Tags: Austria, Czernowitz, Czerniowce, University of Vienna, Germany, Heidelberg, USA, Philadelphia, New York

Duration: 3 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008