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The Institute for Advanced Study


Student days: living hand-to-mouth
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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I would have liked to be a Member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, but that didn't work, they didn't accept me. And… and then there was another thing that Viki [Victor Weisskopf] tried and that didn't work either. I forget what that was. So then, he tried the Institute for Advanced Study, and there I was accepted. But then I delayed writing up the dissertation. I should have written it up by June 1950, which would be two academic years of work, because I'd done most of the work, I just had to write up the dissertation. But I've always had this terrible, terrible problem since I was a little boy of writing things up. And I delayed and Viki left for France where he was a visiting professor that year, and I stayed around MIT. And then something else happened that was bad. The assistantship had been replaced by an AEC scholarship, the Atomic Energy Commission scholarship. I got one the very first year they were offered, and that covered everything, so I didn't need to be an assistant any more. The scholarship was very good. But, then, it was discovered that one of these scholarships had gone to a communist.

[Q] Horror of horrors.

And to the Senate the idea of associating AEC, Atomic Energy Commission, with communism was just too much to bear. So they passed the O'Mahoney amendment, named after Senator O'Mahoney of Wyoming, I believe, which required a full AEC clearance for anyone who had an AEC scholarship. Well, that of course stopped the payments on my scholarship until I could get an AEC clearance, which dragged on and on and on and on. So, I had no money and I hadn't finished the dissertation and I was paralyzed, I just somehow couldn't work on it. And I sat around reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead in Evans-Wentz's translation in twelve volumes from the graduate house library, and things like that, and living clandestinely in the graduate house as the guest of my former room-mates and other people. I made some wonderful friends that way, actually. These new, there were some new room-mates whom I got to know... two European... two European graduate students.

[Q] So this is what… this is ’51? ‘50? 1950?

This was, no, this was… this was ’50.

[Q] So you'd basically done your dissertation in two years?

In two years.

[Q] And in ‘51...

So I should have... graduated in June ’50...

[Q] ... June ’50, but you stayed and then went...

 ... at the age of 20...

[Q] Twenty, exactly.

But I stayed on over the summer and into the fall, living in this hand-to-mouth way. And then my friends started to lend me money because I didn't have any cash. So I formed this investment syndicate, people investing in me, and I was able to eat that way. And I lived rent-free as a clandestine room-mate, an extra room-mate and so on and so on.

Finally, New Year’s Eve came, and I just felt I just couldn't go on this way anymore. The Institute for Advanced Study kept calling and saying, ‘When are you coming? What's going on here? Are you a ringer? Do you really exist?’ And, so finally, New Year’s Eve I drank quite a lot and started to write the dissertation, and within a few days I had it written and I had the... the exam and got the PhD in January ’51. And then I went to Washington, I was invited to Washington for a clearance interview, and we thrashed out what was worrying them about my former left-wing ideas and contacts – which were minimal – and everything was all right. I got the... the clearance, they paid me my back-pay. I had pay now from the Institute for Advanced Study, where I went...

[Q] So you were suddenly a rich man.

... promptly. So I had money, I was able to pay back all my friends, which I'm not sure they expected, and I was able to buy a car. So I was at the Institute for Advanced Study, I had my PhD, I had a car, I had enough money to live on, I'd paid back my debts – everything was very good.

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: Harvard University, Institute for Advanced Study, MIT, Atomic Energy Commission, The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, Victor Weisskopf, Senator Joseph C O'Mahoney, Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz

Duration: 4 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008