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Almost getting drafted; a letter to the Physical Review


Giving talks on the idea of isotopic spin
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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I lectured on the… on this idea but very, very vaguely at Leprince-Ringuet's summer retreat to which I was invited. It was a very nice thing to invite me along with all the lab members to his country house in Burgundy where he had the summer retreat, and there I gave a little talk about this problem, but isotopic spin was considered something very advanced that you couldn't discuss with experimentalists, so I spoke in the vaguest terms and didn't really announce the theory. When I returned to Chicago in the fall though, I talked about it at the weekly Institute of Nuclear Studies seminar, which was a strange thing: it was like a Quaker prayer meeting. All these distinguished folk met–including Urey, Fermi, Szilard and so on and so on and so on–and whoever wanted to say something would get up and say it, and then there would be a discussion. So I rose and gave this... presented these ideas. Fermi wasn't there; he was somewhere else lecturing or perhaps he was at Los Alamos working with Nick Metropolis or something of that kind, so he didn't hear it. But Dick Garwin was there and Dick Garwin pooh-poohed it and said he didn't understand what the point was and what it would accomplish and so on. Which was really too bad because Dick Garwin was performing precisely the experiment that was crucial in this connection; namely looking for n plus a neutron plus neutron gives lambda plus lambda, because some people such as Nambu and  Pais and so on had suggested associated production. Well, my theory led to a kind of associated production, but it forbade neutron plus neutron going into lambda plus lambda. Pontecorvo did this–or Poniacorva [sic] if you want the Russian pronunciation–did the same experiment in Russia. And he also failed to find neutron plus neutron going to lambda plus lambda, which should be a strong interaction according… a strong production reaction according to the plane associated production ideas, but was forbidden in my scheme. And so it's a pity that Garwin and I didn't pursue it further and that he didn't see that it was interesting and so on. But I was very reluctant to push my own ideas. For years and years and years I was reluctant to push them, and so if people pooh-poohed something I just retreated into myself and didn't… didn’t push it very far.

[Q] But that didn’t persist in later years?

 A long time later I got over it to some extent, but I was always worried because I was very worried about making a mistake. My father was such a perfectionist and I became a perfectionist and I hated the idea of making a mistake. And I would rather throw away fifty good ideas than make one mistake.

[Q] That must also relate to the problems you have writing things up?

Yes, exactly. I couldn't write things up because I was worried there might be some flaws and where I wouldn't write it up… 

[Q] Especially in writing?

Yes, I wouldn't write it up perfectly, exactly. Well, Dick Garwin later apologized very handsomely and publicly for this, which is really nice. He said later that he should have understood it and he was sorry that he made negative noises about this idea at Chicago and so on. He was very nice about it.

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: Burgundy, Courcelles-Frémoy, University of Chicago, Institute of Nuclear Studies, Los Alamos, Russia, Louis Leprince-Ringuet, Harold Urey, Enrico Fermi, Leó Szilárd, Nick Metropolis, Dick Garwin, Bruno Pontecorvo, Yoichiro Nambu, Abraham Pais

Duration: 3 minutes, 47 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008