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Henry Margenau's physics class


How I ended up studying physics at Yale
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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When I filled out the application form for Yale, I consulted my father – not something that I usually did but in this case I did – and… I said, ‘There's a blank here for… the probable for the major subject. What do you think?’ And my father said, ‘Well, what were you going to put down?’ I said, ‘Well, if they permit it, I would like to put down linguistics or archaeology, something of that kind. Or maybe some form of... some kind of biology that's related to natural history’. What I meant really was evolutionary biology. He said, ‘Oh that's absurd – you'll starve!’ because he was so much influenced by the Depression and the problems that he had had in providing for his family. It was only for a very few years when the school flourished that he was… that he felt at all secure financially. And that ended just when I was born... I said, ‘Well, what do you think… what do you think I should put down?’ He said, ‘Engineering, then you'll be able to earn a living’. I said, ‘Well, I don't like engineering. I'm not good at it. If I designed something it would fall apart, and besides I really don't like it. I'd rather starve than be an engineer’. So he said, ‘Well, why don't we compromise on physics?’ And then I explained what I thought about the physics course, physics textbooks and physics courses that I had… with which I had come into contact, and he said, ‘Oh, it'll get much better. You don't understand, advanced physics will include relativity and quantum mechanics, and those are beautiful subjects and you'll love them’. So I thought, well, why don't I just write down physics and please the old man. If I'm actually admitted to Yale, if I really receive the one scholarship that would permit me to attend Yale – the Medill McCormick Scholarship – then I can look into this matter again and I can always change my mind when I get to Newhaven, and major in… use as a major subject whatever I want. But then I was admitted to Yale and I did get that one scholarship that would permit me to attend and when I got there I was too lazy to switch. So I took physics courses and pretty soon I got to quantum mechanics and relativity and my father was absolutely right, they were very exciting.

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: Depression, Medill McCormick Scholarship, Newhaven, Yale University

Duration: 3 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008