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Oppenheimer

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Einstein
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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Einstein was around. We saw him most days, he would come in. He would walk in sometimes with Gödel, but they looked like Mutt and Jeff, tall Einstein and little tiny Gödel. They were deep in conversation about something or other, I don't know what. I never spoke with Einstein except to say hello, and you know,  'Good morning', or something. And I suppose he would answer, 'Guten morning' or whatever.

[Q] He was not involved, or interested, I should say, with... I know he wasn't involved  He showed no great interest in sort of what was called particle physics at the time...

No, no. He didn't believe in any of it. And that's why I didn't interact with him. I thought it would be pretentious and artificial to cultivate a relationship with Einstein when he didn't believe anything that we were doing, because he didn't believe quantum mechanics, and he didn't think that all these elementary particles were of any importance. He thought they would all be derived some day from a theory of electromagnetism and gravity. So I knew that there wouldn't be any real overlap in our work, and this idea of... of striking up a friendship or a relationship with this distinguished old man for the sake of historical associations struck me as the kind of thing that people I didn't like did. Today I would feel completely different. Today I wouldn't have those ideas. I would want to know this important, interesting figure.

[Q] He died not so long after that.

He died in ’55 when I was there on my second visit. And if I remember correctly, the newspaper people were taking pictures of Fuld Hall with the flag at half-staff in connection with reporting his death. And they wanted some human figure in the picture, preferably a pretty young lady, and so my fiancé Margaret was the one they asked to pose, with her legs crossed in front of the Institute for Advanced Study, so that... so that they could have a... they could have a human figure in the... in the picture of Fuld Hall with the... with the flag at half-staff.

[Q] You didn't interact with him on your second visit?

No, I didn't... He was probably... ...I didn't ever... well, then he was quite ill, by then he was quite ill. In ’51 he wasn't that ill. I had missed his last seminar. His last seminar was given about a month before I arrived and everybody was still talking about it. If I had not delayed so long in writing up my dissertation I would have been there and seen and heard his last seminar at the institute. He talked, of course, about his attempts to construct a unified theory of gravitation and electromagnetism. It was an entirely unsuitable theory and of course one knows that it should have been a theory including a lot of other particles and a lot of other forces, and it should have been quantum mechanical and so on and so on. We know that and we even suspected it then of course. And the theory just wasn't... didn't make a lot of sense. It didn't have very sensible interactions between gravity and electromagnetism. But it had nice formal properties which appealed to Einstein. And by the way Schrödinger, at just about the same time, came up with just about the same theory except for using i equals the square root of minus one in his equation, so in other words instead of an unsymmetrical metric  he had... or connection... he had a... a complex one, a Hermitian one.

[Q] Did you interact with Oppenheimer much?

Oh yes, oh yes, a great deal, but... no, but I was about to say something... oh, about Einstein's last seminar. What they were talking about was not the content; what they were talking about was that they weren't able to concentrate on the content because of the presentation. He was dressed in the costume that he conventionally wore after his second wife died, and he neglected himself very much after she died. He had on a pair of baggy trousers unpressed, and shoes with no socks... just to have more time for work I guess,  and... and a sweatshirt, an old, grubby, grey sweatshirt. But the particular additional feature when he gave the seminar was that the fly of the trousers was open and the sweatshirt protruded obscenely through the fly, and they were all looking at that and concentrating on that feature, and they were unable to follow what he was saying about the mathematics. Anyway, I didn't know him, and now, of course, I regret it. It would have been very nice to get to know him in 1951.

New York-born physicist Murray Gell-Mann is 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: Fuld Hall, Institute for Advanced Study, Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Erwin Schrödinger, Robert Oppenheimer

Duration: 4 minutes, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008