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Individuality and freedom: its importance and its absence


A cornucopia of early interests
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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I was very interested in archaeology, and my early reading was in… largely in ancient history and archaeology. My brother taught me to read when I was about three. We started with a Sunshine Crackerbox in the apartment of our cousins, the Walkers… and before long I was reading ancient history and learning about archaeology, and I dreamt of being an archaeologist, learning about ancient cultures and ancient languages and perhaps discovering new ones, ones new to science and that sort of thing. And so at that time I began to have what was a lifelong interest in a great many subjects. Oh, by the way – another thing was etymology, my father had a couple of books on etymology of English words.

[Q] Was your father teaching languages at that time? Was that the time he had a language school?

No. He had a language school before I was born. He tried a number of things after the orphan asylum. He worked on Wall Street for a while. He was there in fact when that huge explosion took place in 1920, I think it was, 1919 or 1920… a huge explosion in front of the Morgan Bank. He was in an office right across the street and – the way he told the story – two pieces of plate glass from the window blew by him, one on each side. Either one would probably have killed him. Then he worked for a toy importer and… he also, when he was younger, took a course in pharmaceutical chemistry at Columbia and completed the course. I saw his drawings and copies of slides and all these things that he used for the courses…

[Q] So, so you grew up…

...amazingly, amazingly industrious and careful and… but he lacked $5.00 for the fee, the graduation fee, and so he didn't get his pharmaceutical chemistry certificate. Sometimes I think only a European could have done that. I can't imagine anyone born in this country failing to achieve something like that through lacking a $5.00 fee. But anyway, he finally ended up with the language school. He taught English to immigrants, trying to get rid of their accents and improve their grammar and so on and so forth. And… and he taught German, then he hired teachers for some other subjects.

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: Wall Street, Morgan Bank, Columbia University

Duration: 2 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008