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What The Quark and the Jaguar is about


Writing The Quark and the Jaguar
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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I found a… a very effective agent, John Brockman, who got me some wonderful contracts, very lucrative contracts all over the world, and… but I didn't make much progress in the actual writing. I wrote a number of essays but stringing together essays on different subjects doesn't make the kind of book that the publishers want for this purpose. They want something that's more integrated, that has a message and so on and I was very slow about producing, and in fact I hadn't done much when the deadline arrived for the American publisher, and the American publisher was looking for an excuse to cancel the contract, and did so… Since it was so lucrative… which created some serious problems. Well, the whole project ended up being very lucrative anyway. For some reason the press has stated the opposite, but it's not true. I did very well out of the book, not quite as well as if I'd finished it on time, but it… it worked out very well. But then, in great part through Marcia's efforts, I began to work on it and to be efficient about actually accomplishing things. She helped me to write properly in a decent, reasonable style. I mean I… I know how to construct sentences and all that, but there's more to it than that; and she helped me with my style; she advised me to use a computer, which was excellent advice; and she went over large parts of the manuscript and helped me a lot with individual bits. The writer… the novelist Cormac McCarthy helped me also, he copy-read the whole thing and made some wonderful suggestions. Unfortunately, in both cases, I didn't have enough time to take many of Marcia's excellent suggestions, although I did take a lot of them, and the same with Cormac, because the publisher… American publisher supplied me with a very unfortunate copy-editor, and somehow they arranged it so I had to deal with her modifications of the book, rather than for her to suggest modifications. I had somehow to work with her modified manuscript and it was a disaster, it was a terrible struggle, very time-consuming, very frustrating, and meant that in many cases I didn't have a chance to use some of the excellent suggestions of Marcia and of Cormac McCarthy, but I did use a good many of them and I really learned to write moderately well. I'm fairly proud of the book actually. Some people have trouble with it because it has middle chapters that are on physics, on quantum… elementary particles and on quantum mechanics. They're not written in mathematical jargon but for people who are unfamiliar with physics sometimes it's difficult. In the preface I ask people if they do have such a trouble… difficulty, to skim chapters eleven through thirteen because the rest of the book is very easy for anybody to read, and so is the first part. But many people don't do that and they get put off and discouraged by the middle chapters. It's too bad, really. But it sold quite well in this country and elsewhere, not as much as I'd hoped. I don't think my second publisher, the one I got after the first one cancelled really understands how to sell a trade book, and I think they could have done much, much better in this country if they'd been more skilled at… at selling.

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: John Brockman, Marcia Southwick, Cormac McCarthy

Duration: 3 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010