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The race to calculate the relativistic Lamb shift


When theory was in disgrace
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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We were just coming out of a period in which theory was in disgrace. I have described that also in some of my writings. The… during that period, quantum field theory, which seemed to be the tool that one should use for describing elementary particle physics, led to very nice formulae in lowest order plus infinite corrections, and so it was a disgrace. Some people proposed throwing away the higher corrections, but that was absurd. As Barber said, just because something is infinite, doesn't mean it’s zero. The… in that same period of confusion people tried to interpret the muon as Yukawa's meson, and of course the muon's properties were totally different from those of Yukawa's meson. So theory was in disgrace in that department as well. Things were very bad, but just before I arrived at graduate school in MIT, things got cleared up — that very year, the previous year. It was… the Lamb shift was measured, and it took this measurement of an electromagnetic correction, a correction to quantum electrodynamics, to persuade people to calculate it seriously on the assumption that it was finite. Before it was measured, did people suppose it was actually infinite? It was only once it was measured, and they had a number that people were inspired actually to calculate it seriously... and, of course, several theories showed right then that you could get a finite result.

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: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hideki Yukawa

Duration: 1 minute, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008