R.I.P. Murray Gell-Mann, 1929-2019

Dr. Murray Gell-Mann in his Santa Fe Institute office, 2014. Photo credit InSightFoto

Dr. Murray Gell-Mann in his Santa Fe Institute office, 2014. Photo credit InSightFoto

Murray Gell-Mann is the only Nobel Prize winner WC has ever taken birding.

It’s true. Here’s a (lightly edited) blog post from 2009, reporting the event:

WC won’t even pretend: this borders on bragging. Last Saturday WC birded with Dr. Murray Gell-Mann, Nobel-prize winning physicist, linguist, philosopher and avid birder. There wasn’t much of a shot at some of his target species. WC means, Grey-headed Chickadee? Sure, as if.

But we did find Hoary Redpoll and Willow Ptarmigan, two birds he wanted. We also picked up Common Redpoll, Black-capped and Boreal Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Grey Jay, Mallard, Common Merganser, Northern Hawk Owl and Common Raven.

On a beautiful day, perhaps a bit brisk by stateside standards, we tried the hills as far north as Goldstream Road to the Chena River below Chena 5 Power Plant. We walked plowed trails and waded through thigh-deep snow. He was amused, amusing and enthusiastic. We talked about quantum chromodynamics, Ethiopian language families, Athabascan place names, nonprofit law (he founded the Santa Fe Institute), avian winter survival strategies (he had the categories immediately) and Terry Pratchett (he’s read them all). WC may not be very smart, but WC’s smart enough to know when he is in the presence of genius.

WC will call my life a success if, at age 80 plus, WC is as energetic, enthusiastic, inquiring and able as Professor Gell-Mann. Thank you, sir, for a most enjoyable four hours.

Not reported back in 2009 was the first conversation we had after being introduced: Gell-Mann parsed the etymology of WC’s last name. And nailed it. It was one of Gell-Mann’s peculiar habits, and just one example of the amazing range of his intellect.

Gell-Mann was a true polymath, and not shy about it. The physics work that won him his Nobel Prize involved discerning patterns in the bewildering numbers of subatomic particles. It was Gell-Mann who named a set of those sub-particles “quarks,” after a line from James Joyce’s novel, Finnegan’s Wake, “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” It was mostly Gell-Mann who gave particle physics a Joycean feel: up quarks and down quarks, strange quarks and charm quarks, top quarks and bottom quarks, all stuck together with particles called gluons. The funny nomenclature was as much a Gell-Mann inspiration as his formidable mathematic support of his classifications.

Gell-Mann blended an extraordinary intuitive insight with rigorous mathematical proof. He had a child-like joy and delight in discovery and insight across a truly extraordinary range of knowledge. In his 1969 Nobel Physics Prize award speech, he said, “Our work is a delightful game. I am frequently astonished that it so often results in correct predictions of experimental results.”

With his death we have lost the last of an extraordinary group of physicists who changed our understanding of how matter is made. And a damn fine birder.

R.I.P., Murray Gell-Mann, 1929-2019.