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The move to Caltech


The Yang-Mills theory
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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In the ’40s mathematics moved from its traditional way of presenting results to a highly abstract approach favored by Bourbaki, this group of French purists. And it became forbidden to explain in a mathematics article what you were going to do; or what you had done when you finished; to give any motivation; to give any non-trivial examples even. You could give a trivial example in a line or two, but you were not allowed to give, to explore a non-trivial examples. And as a result mathematics and science, particularly physics, drifted apart where previously they'd had a lot of mutual stimulation. It was very sad and I'm glad that later on the trend moved in the opposite direction to some extent.

In any case, I was quite impressed with… with the Yang-Mills theory although I didn't see how in its precise form it was applicable to anything. An exact gauge invariant theory with the group SU(2), and I didn't know what that would apply to. But I assumed that it would be very important some day in some connection, especially if we could develop a soft mechanism for breaking its symmetry; but I didn't see how to do that at the time. I didn't… I don't imagine that in ’55 I was already thinking about how, in a Yang-Mills world, knowing about symmetries would tell you almost immediately about dynamics. That's something I understood only much later, but it's certainly true.

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: Nicolas Bourbaki

Duration: 2 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008