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Making friends at MIT


MIT or suicide
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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I had applied to MIT. The application to MIT was a very simple one and I happened to have it and I filled it out and sent it in. I hadn't any intention of going to MIT.

[Q] MIT was known to be a center of modern physics…?

Well, I didn't know that. I just knew it wasn't Ivy League.

[Q] It wasn't a place that you wanted to go to…

It seemed to me kind of grubby.

[Q] Yes.

I imagined it was a grubby place and I didn't really want to go there and then… I got admitted. Not only did I get admitted but I got a letter from Victor Weisskopf saying, ‘We don't have scholarships here that would pay for all your expenses, we understand that that’s what you need, but you could come here and be my assistant. And the pay for that would cover your tuition, your room and board, and whatever you need, and we would very much like you to come’. Well, I was miserable, I was very unhappy, and I seriously thought of suicide. But then it occurred to me, as I've discussed in various publications…

[Q] Why were you so unhappy?

...it occurred to me that I could try MIT first, and then commit suicide, whereas I couldn't do things in the reverse order: if I committed suicide I could not then afterwards try MIT, the… the two operators didn't commute.

[Q] Don't commute.

Exactly. So I talked, had another talk with Professor Pollard, Ernie Pollard, and he said, ‘Oh’, he said, ‘Weisskopf is wonderful! You'll have a great time at MIT. Don't worry at all about it. It’s going to be fine. Just go there and everything will be very good’.

[Q] Why… why were you so unhappy? Because you hadn't gotten into Harvard and..?

I hadn't gotten… well, I did get into Harvard but not…

[Q] I mean, yes, into Princeton and getting the scholarship to Harvard and all the...

Right, and Yale turned me down, the Yale physics group turned me down and so on.

[Q] Now, was the  one thing we haven't discussed of course is the fact that you were very young, relatively speaking.

Well, I had stayed another term so I was… 

[Q] But still, you were still relatively young for incoming graduate students.

Yeah, it would be just before my 19th birthday that I would go to graduate school.

[Q] That’s right. And did that play any role, do you think, in the way you were viewed or...?

No, I don't think so. I imagine that was probably positive.

[Q] I would have thought so, yes.

I imagine, but of course I can't be sure because I've never seen any of the records. Anyway, MIT was delighted with my application and Viki [Victor Weisskopf] wrote me this splendid letter and after talking with Pollard I decided — yes, I'll go, I'll try it. Why not?

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: MIT, Ivy League, Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, Victor Weisskopf, Ernie Pollard

Duration: 2 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008