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The Moscow meeting on particle physics


The effects of Khrushchev's anti-Stalin speech
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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It was a fascinating experience going to Moscow in 1956. It was like visiting another planet. Some of the people in our group, like Viki, had been there twenty years before and they could compare, they had lots of friends. The rest of us made friends quickly though with the same people, these Russian physicists who had been around in 1936–and of course with the younger ones as well. In a few days we got to know them very well and we talked about all sorts of matters, and it was even possible to discuss some political questions because of the thaw, or whatever you want to call it – the… the change in the political climate. Khrushchev had just given his anti-Stalin speech. It hadn't been published but it was circulated, by word of mouth. The Party official in each work group throughout the country was supposed to tell his or her fellow workers about the speech. Millions of people had been released from confinement in prisons and labor camps. The guards who were fired because they weren't needed any more constituted a huge population of unemployed in addition to the prisoners that had been released. And probably some of the people we saw cleaning the spittoons in the physics labs were, had recently been, guards in labor camps. And we heard all sorts of stories of scientists who had been confined and… and terrible things done to them but were now free. The whole situation was amazing.

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: Moscow, Russia, Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph Stalin

Duration: 1 minute, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008