Apr/May 2000 Book Reviews

Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th Century

George Johnson
Jonathan Cape, Random House (February 2000) 435 pages
ISBN: 0 224 04427 3

reviewed by Ann Skea

"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion". Francis Bacon. (Quoted by Murray Gell-Mann in an article explaining his theory of cosmic-ray particles whose behaviour seemed to defy the laws of physics.)

George Johnson's choice of this poetic quotation to preface his biography of Murray Gell-Mann, is as good an example of his own apprehension of the poetic beauty of sub-atomic physics as it is of the breadth of Gell-Mann's learning and interests.

Johnson, who is a science editor for the New York Times, writes fluent prose which is a pleasure to read. It captures the strange beauty of the sub-atomic world and the fascination of it: "It is sometimes said," he writes, "that the cathedrals of the late twentieth century are the giant particle accelerators, monuments to the belief--far from obvious on its face--that buried beneath the rough surface of the world we inhabit is a crystalline order so beautiful and subtle that the mind can barely grasp it."

Johnson's own mind, like those of the physicists he writes about, grasps most of the theory describing this order, and he is superbly able to describe this abstract and abstruse theory in every-day, easily understandable terms. Writing of quantum wave theory, for example, he makes the different kinds of waves (scalar, vector, axial vector, pseudoscalar, tensor) like fingers on a hand held up to a mirror: "move your hand into the mirror and your double will seem to be pushing its hand outward; the vector is reversed. A axial vector is an arrow....it is not reversed in a mirror..."; and group theory mathematics is depicted by rotating a book or flipping it end-over-end--operations which physicists describe in complicated formulae but which Johnson makes sound simple.

Johnson conveys, too, the excitement which draws physicists to their subject, the stimulus of constant debate and the thrills, disappointments, challenges and satisfaction which fill the lives of people like Murray Gell-Mann, who himself said of physics that it is "the most exciting game ever devised by mankind."

Strangely, Murray Gell-Mann, unlike Stephen Dawkins and Dick Feynman, is not well known outside scientific circles. Yet many who do not know his name would have heard of quarks, which were his discovery (or invention, as some might say); some will also know about "strangeness," "charm," "truth" and "beauty," names which Gell-Mann coined for certain qualities of sub-atomic particles.

Gell-Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in particle physics in 1969. He is, as Johnson says, a "wizard": a child prodigy who entered Yale University at the age of fourteen, choosing to study physics rather than the archaeology and languages he favoured, because his father said he would starve with a degree in those subjects. He was just twenty-four when he proposed his first revolutionary theory about "strange particles" and, "from then until a decade later, when he proposed the existence of quarks, Gell-Mann dominated particle physics."

Johnson writes of Gell-Mann's work and his life. He captures something of the nature of the man--his brilliance, his doubts and certainties, his reputation for being an arrogant, intellectual show-off, and his generosity to young physics students. At the same time, Johnson explains the historic developments in particle physics and tells something of those, famous and not-so-famous, who have contributed to this.

Murray Gell-Mann's great strength in this history has been his ability to see unifying patterns which unite disparate ideas. His Eightfold Way, which he named ironically after the Buddhist path to nirvana, draws sub-atomic particles together in a pattern akin to Mendeleev's Periodic Table of Elements. It provides a pattern which has had predictive and practical application, in spite of its abstract theoretical nature.

One of the strengths of Johnson's book, for me, is the clarity with which he writes of the nature of theoretical physics. Is it "world stuff or mind stuff?" he asks. It is a question which has also bothered Gell-Mann. And Johnson offers a skeptic's view (which he, himself, does not hold) of the "dippy process" (Feynman's words) by which physicists juggle their maths to make their theories work and invent qualities and forces to 'simplify' complications":

According to the mathematics of group theory, the hadrons are built up from fractionally charged particles called quarks. Since quarks violate the Pauli exclusion principle, it was decreed that they come in three different "colours." Since no one could find particles with fractional charges, it was shown with some fancy mathematics quarks are trapped inside hadrons--that, going against all intuition, the strong force gets stronger, not weaker, with distance. And since electromagnetism and the weak force don't quite mesh, a new particle, the Higgs boson, was invented to break the symmetry between them....

And so on. Whatever one thinks of this, Johnson concludes, Gell-Mann's Standard Model is "a work of art" and a powerful theory.

Gell-Mann, himself, despite his own doubts about the relationship between theory and reality, despite the great range of his knowledge in fields other than physics, and despite his adoption of a very appropriate Buddhist concept for his beautiful patterns of symmetry, is dismissive of those who interpret the world differently--of 'Zen' physics, astrology, and "pseudoscientific theories." Strangely, as I was reading this book, I was also looking through Eliphas Levi's occult book, "The Key to the Mysteries." Alongside Johnson's brief description of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (c. 1925-30): "The more closely you pinned down the electron's position, the fuzzier its momentum became, and vice versa. You had to decide which quality- position or momentum--you wanted to know," I could set Levi's words, written in the late nineteen century: "We have spoken of substance extended in the infinite....When it produces splendour it is called light....It is at once substance and movement. It is fluid and a perpetual vibration."

And, just as the physicist, London, rediscovered in the 1970s that electromagnetism was a basic unifying field in particle physics, Levi had described "the first matter of the Great Work", noting that "Everything is created (and magnetised) by light [and] the vibrations of light are the principle of universal movement....[the] inherent force which sets it in motion is called magnetism."

Levi may not have had complex mathematical formulae to support his theories but they do look remarkably similar.

This, and the whole enterprise of describing our world, was for me one of the main interests of Johnson' book. Others will find Gell-Mann and the physics and physicists with which and with whom he has been involved equally absorbing. And if, at times, the complex and detailed physics bogs you down, it is quite possible to skim through it without great loss to the story of Gell-Mann and the amazing development of particle physics in the twentieth century. George Johnson has written a very interesting and very readable book.


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