Quantum and Nuclear

Gell-Mann’s greatness

Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16 16-19 IOP RESOURCES

Murray Gell-Mann received the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the classification of elementary particles and their interactions. He was a prodigy, skipping three years at school, starting Yale at 15 and completing his PhD at MIT by the age of 21.

Quirky quarks

Gell-Mann explained that he thought of the sound of the word ‘quark’ before deciding on the spelling. Whilst reading through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, he came across the phrase: “Three quarks for Muster Mark” and reported that, though Joyce had perhaps intended 'quark' to rhyme with 'Mark', he wanted to find a reason for the particle to be pronounced 'kwork'. Gell-Mann argued Joyce’s phrase might arise from a call for drinks: “Three quarts for Muster Mark” and therefore the particle should rhyme with the word 'quart'.

Simultaneous discovery

In 1969, at the same time as Murray Gell-Mann’s quark model was published, George Zweig independently developed a model involving triplets of fundamental particles. He called the particles in his model aces and suggested baryons could be made of treys (triplets of aces) and mesons from deuces (pairs of aces and antiaces). Zweig reported that the negative reaction of the physics community to his model left an “unpleasant aftertaste” and he went on to become a biologist.

Feynman fall-out

Gell-Mann’s offices were close to Richard Feynman’s at Caltech and at first they had a collaborative relationship. However, aspects of their personalities could clash: Gell-Mann referred to Feynman’s best-selling books as “Dick’s joke books”; Feynman finished a conversation with his peer by concluding, “Murray, in a hundred years nobody will know whether your name is hyphenated or not.” Gell-Mann later reported that he was initially a great admirer of Feynman, but that his view changed over time: “We worked together for a number of years, but I found that he had difficulty thinking in terms of ‘us’. He acted as if the only thing that mattered was his understanding of what was going on. It was all ‘I, I, I,’ and eventually it got on my nerves.”

 

References

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