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Founding the Santa Fe Institute


The lack of academic diversity at Caltech
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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I was always interested in subjects like natural history, evolutionary biology, psychology, archaeology, linguistics, history and so on, which are very different from elementary particle physics because they involve a huge amount of individuality and a huge amount of complexity and a lot of evolution, and… and so on; whereas elementary particle physics involves things like electrons and photons that are exactly the same everywhere, all identical when they belong to a given species, no evolution, just fixed laws and so on and so forth. It's a very different kind of subject. So I've always wondered about the relation between these two, and… and I've always wanted to be at a place where people were concerned with both—preferably with both at the same time. Caltech was not such a place. Caltech has had very little evolutionary biology, or certainly during the time when I was there. I used to kid people there that if it were Bob Jones University it could scarcely have less evolutionary biology. Now I assume David Baltimore will fix that, the new President. But it had very little psychology, very little linguistics, if any, no archaeology, none of these subjects. No… no ecology, very odd. But in… in my book I summarized all of this by saying that Caltech expressed interest only in mechanism, fundamental mechanism, which is very good. Of course I've worked on fundamental mechanisms most of my life and it's very important, but it's not a, by itself, an adequate strategy for studying the world. You also have to… you mustn't build only from the bottom up, but also look from the top down and look at phenomena, especially complex phenomena, and find some of the rules that apply at the level of the subject involving those phenomena, and then perhaps try to build staircases up and down between the more fundamental and the less fundamental field. But it's not adequate to study only neurobiology and not psychology, and so on and so forth. I think it's just wrong. And it produces a somewhat sterile atmosphere, in my opinion.

[Q] And would you say that, I mean, you talk about Caltech in that regard; would you generalize that?

To universities? No.

[Q] To academic..? No…

No, no. Caltech.

[Q] This is a somewhat unique phenomenon.

Right. Well, in some circles of course, that's the most admired kind of science, which is okay. Certainly science involving detailed mechanism is very important, but as I ask in the book: would Caltech have hired Darwin? Darwin didn't know anything about fundamental mechanism or whatever he thought about fundamental mechanisms was probably wrong; but he discovered a lot of wonderful things, and so did some other great researchers.

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: Caltech, David Baltimore, Charles Darwin

Duration: 3 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010