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Confirming the theory


Talking to Fermi, the theory of high angular momentum
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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Fermi was around now and I went in and talked to him about it, that's what it was. I went in and talked to him about my idea, and he listened and said, ‘Oh, that's quite interesting. But you know I am convinced that these new particles are particles of high angular momentum. And Dick Feynman, whom I visited in California, thinks the same. We both believe that these are particles of high angular momentum, they're made by the strong interaction but they're prevented from decaying by the centrifugal barrier which makes the life-time much longer than otherwise. That's all… that's all there is to it. And a number of people are working out the formulae for the inhibition factor from the centrifugal barrier for high angular momentum.’ Well, I was fairly discouraged. Enrico thought the idea didn't… he thought it was interesting but it didn't have much chance of being right and here I had sent out the paper and it was being printed, it was probably wrong.

I didn't have this idea of publication that for example Lee and Yang did; namely that as long as your paper was mathematically correct it was okay, that the purpose of a theorist was to point out the consequences of a hypothesis, to formulate a hypothesis and point out the consequences experimentally. And as long as the math was okay the paper was not wrong. It might be inappropriate, it might not lead to the right answer physically, but it was a correct paper and you should be proud of it. Well that wasn't my idea. What I wanted was to get the right answer, actually to predict what was going to happen in the actual world. And it's a pity that I had that idea because a lot of things that I thought of could have been written up in a contingent in a—what shall I say–as contingencies. I could have said there are these possibilities: maybe so and so, in that case so and so; or else this, in which case that. And each has certain arguments in favor and let's see what actually happens. I could have published many, many more of my good ideas if I had been willing to loosen up to that extent, but I was so tight and so inhibited and so worried about being… and so perfectionist. I only wanted to publish things that would actually correspond to the way nature worked.

And now Fermi was telling me that this idea was probably wrong and high angular momentum was probably right and so on, and I was very discouraged. And that evening I was in the office, and walked up and down nervously, walked into the secretary's office–I think her name was Vivian. She was also Fermi's secretary and in her typewriter was a letter, almost finished–or maybe it wasn't even in the typewriter, maybe she'd taken it out and was lying on the desk–it was ready for Enrico's signature. It was a letter to his friend  Cocconi, and I guess it was in English because Vivian, I don't think Vivian could type in Italian, so I guess it was in English. And it said ‘Dear Cocconi. Thank you so much for your calculations that you are doing on the high angular momentum hypothesis for the new strange, for the new peculiar particles. I'm very glad you did these calculations they look correct. However, you should know that Gell-Mann here at the Institute of Nuclear Studies is speculating about a completely different idea for these particles. He suggests...’ and then he described my theory at great length, and then signed it. So I was not too happy with Enrico. Obviously he thought my idea was very good, he just didn't want to tell me that he thought it was very good. But I was much happier about everything else. A little bit angry with him but very happy about the situation because he was obviously taking it very seriously.

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: Institute of Nuclear Studies, University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi, Dick Feynman, Chen Ning Yang, Tsung-Dao Lee, Guiseppe Cocconi

Duration: 4 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008