Strange Beauty

Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th-Century Physics

By George Johnson

"Searingly eloquent." -- Sunday Times (London) Books of the Year

"A lovely book and fascinating story that makes the concepts of quantum physics understandable. Anyone could read it and be utterly mesmerised." -- Judges for the Royal Society Science Book Prize

"If biography were diving, the brilliant and irascible Murray Gell-Mann (alive!) would have to be something like a reverse 3-1/2 somersault half-twist from the pike position. George Johnson has nailed this one. 'Strange Beauty' is right. His book is complex, mind-expanding, beautiful, and true." -- James Gleick

"When you have one of the world's most accomplished science writers recounting the life and times of one of the world's most accomplished scientists, readers' expectations are justifiably high. In 'Strange Beauty,' they are fully met. The story flows from the pages with the elegance and finesse of a fine novel. Johnson gives us an extraordinary view of an extraordinary man, foibles and all, and navigates through science that ordinarily would seem difficult, but with such skill that it is not difficult at all. 'Strange Beauty' is a masterpiece of modern biography." -- Roger Lewin

"'Strange Beauty' brings together an irresistible subject -- the difficult polymath Murray Gell-Mann -- and a talented writer who spins an enthralling tale out of the kind of esoteric physics that generally flies right over our heads. Johnson is one of the best science journalists writing today, known for his books 'Fire in the Mind' and 'In the Palaces of Memory' and for incisive reporting in the New York Times. This is his most ambitious project yet -- communicating the fascination of a kind of science that only an elite of superbright people fully understands. He succeeds brilliantly." -- Chet Raymo, Scientific American

"With 'Strange Beauty,' an insightful biography of physicist Murray Gell-Mann, George Johnson, a writer for the New York Times, splendidly captures the energetic spirit of this golden age of theoretical physics. Between Gell-Mann's undeniable brilliance and his irascible personality, he is the perfect subject for examining the heady, competitive atmosphere of physics over the last few decades. With the very problems that Gell-Mann tackles, his search for an aesthetic order within the vast zoo of elementary particles, we gain a front-row seat at an exhilarating intellectual demonstration. . . . The elegance of Johnson's writing matches the beauty of Gell-Mann's discoveries." -- Marcia Bartusiak, Washington Post Book World

"[Johnson] does a masterly job of making the arcana of particle physics available and shepherding the reader through increasing layers of complexity. Also central to this narrative, and what keeps the reader forging through the densest thickets, is the drama of Mr. Gell-Mann's blazing brain. This book is a mind trip, and one that includes its subject's skewed emotional baggage. . . . Johnson excels in portraying theorists working through the seemingly intractable problems of [physics] and the excitement with which ideas were confirmed by experimenters jockeying particles through accelerators at energies of up to 20 billion electron-volts. . . . The most fascinating relationship portrayed here is with Caltech's other resident genius, Richard Feynman (the Mick Jagger of physics). . . . Feynman aficionados will be pleased to add this account to their collection. . . . [Johnson] writes in a seamless, sometimes inspired prose. . . . ["Strange Beauty"] is a testament to the biographer's perseverance, if not nerves of steel." -- Kathleen Stein, New York Times

"Mr. Johnson pulls off an extraordinary feat: he turns the development of modern physics -- hardly the most approachable of subjects -- into a most exciting read. A brilliant, colourful and irascible character, Mr. Gell-Mann proves to be the star of just as many curious anecdotes as his better-known colleague, the late Richard Feynman. . . . But his is the life that most neatly encapsulates the development of post-war physics, and his association with other eminent physicists such as Einstein, Fermi and Dirac enables Mr. Johnson to give them walk-on parts too. The technical explanations which accompany the twists and turns in the development of Mr. Gell-Mann's theories are neatly woven into the narrative, and are models of clarity. . . . Mr. Johnson provides an illuminating and frequently gripping portrait of a man and the scientific field that he helped to revolutionise." -- The Economist

"A multidimensional portrait of a brilliant but tormented man who dominated elementary particle physics for 20 years. . . . Johnson makes no attempt to hide Gell-Mann's relentless insecurity, debilitating perfectionism and abrasive manner. He appears as a flawed, almost Shakespearean hero in an era when prominent physicists like Einstein, Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking are typically portrayed as comic-book heros . . . . Gell-Mann could not have written such a perceptive book about himself. . . . The picture Johnson paints of the young genius is at once exhilarating and sad. . . . [The story of the scientific discoveries] reads like a detective novel. . . . and we feel ourselves cheering each success and mourning each failure, particularly when Gell-Mann plays an important role. Johnson does a wonderful job of describing the competition and cooperation among scientists, the egos and insecurities, the disappointments and triumphs, and the disputes, suspicions and shifting allegiances." -- Louis A. Bloomfield, New York Times Book Review

"A masterpiece of scientific explication for the layman. . . . For anyone interested in physics and physicists or in the make-up of a certified genius, I consider it a 'must read.' . . . Science writing doesn't get much better than this." -- Phillip Anderson, Times Higher Education Supplement

"Fortunately, we now have 'Strange Beauty,' George Johnson's dramatic and lucid biography of Murray Gell-Mann, one of the true geniuses of the 20th century . . . As somebody who spent three years searching for quarks at CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Geneva, I found it a joy to read a book that, to a large extent, recounts the history of the quark, and does so with such clarity and verve. Johnson does not shy away from technical detail and manages to cover the many intellectual milestones while maintaining a swift pace." -- Simon Singh, The Daily Telegraph (London)

"As a primer for work in fundamental physics of the last half-century, it is a brilliant achievement: Johnson writes with assurance, lucidity and charm." -- A. C. Grayling, Financial Times

"Stories about Gell-Mann abound, and physicists who want to learn more about him will find that this book does a superb job in tracing his life so far. However, it does more than just that. Gell-Mann's life is closely intertwined with the development of particle physics, and this book also provides a marvellous description of the recent history of this scientific endeavour written for physicists and non-physicists alike. Indeed, George Johnson, who is a respected science writer, has turned what might have been just a biography into a great scientific saga. Once you grab the book it is difficult to put down." --Maurice Jacob, Physics World

"The story of [particle physics] from the 1940s to the 1990s, is told in this fascinating book. George Johnson also describes, convincingly, the life of a tormented genius and polymath, and his struggles with doubts, colleagues and perceived enemies. The result is compelling reading for anyone interested in the evolution of fundamental physics over the past 50 years, and in how science actually progresses. . . . [An] outstanding book." -- Chris Llewellyn Smith, The Times (London)

"[Gell-Mann's] times, theories, and occasionally insufferable ego are the subject of 'Strange Beauty,' a fascinating, skillfully composed, and entertaining biography. . . ." -- Gregg Easterbrook, Wilson Quarterly

"Few physicists have displayed the poetic inspiration of the Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann. . . . In this biography he emerges as brilliant and often insufferable, relentlessly curious, hopelessly pedantic, and one of the best synthetic thinkers in the history of his field. The book [offers] a vivid sense of Gell-Mann and his contemporaries (including his collaborator and competitor Richard Feynman)." -- The New Yorker

"An altogether impressive performance. . . . I don't envy Murray the weird experience of reading so penetrating and perceptive a biography of himself. . . . What a story! George Johnson has written a fine biography of this important and complex man." -- David L. Goodstein, Engineering & Science (Caltech)

"In some ways Gell-Mann has played Salieri to Feynman's Mozart. . . . Until Johnson took on the challenge, Gell-Mann's reputation as an abrasive personality and a stratospheric theorist had exerted a powerful repulsive force on potential biographers. (Feynman, by contrast, has been marketed as vigorously as Elvis.) . . . Johnson has done justice to Gell-Mann's peculiar form of intelligence . . . with admirably clear descriptions of the ideas and personalities of modern particle physics, and of Gell-Mann's place in the enterprise. By the end of the book you not only appreciate the achievements of a prodigious mind, but you may actually find you're beginning to like the guy." -- Laurence A. Marschall, The Sciences

"George Johnson has done a wonderful job in meeting the biographer's challenge. . . . [He] is very good at capturing the excitement, competitiveness, jealousies, and incredible intensity of the race to be the first in finding a new theory or doing a crucial experiment. . . . ['Strange Beauty'] achieves a rare balance . . . between Gell-Mann's life and his scientific work." -- Harvey Shepard, Philadelphia Inquirer

A stimulating, very readable account of Gell-Mann's life. Gell-Mann's scientific contributions are explained in a comprehensible and lucid manner--without equations. Johnson has an impressive command of the history of high-energy physics during the 20th century, and he vividly details the background and context within which Gell-Mann's work was carried out. . . . 'Strange Beauty' is an elegant biography of one of the outstanding theorists of the twentieth century. -- Silvan S. Schweber, Physics Today

"In this fascinating volume, exhaustively referenced and engagingly illustrated, New York Times science writer George Johnson probes Mr. Gell-Mann's life and work, portraying him with an artful choice of anecdotes that bring out a quirky personality, a masterful ability to describe the arcane and highly mathematical nature of his theories in layman's terms, and an infectious enthusiasm for his subject." -- Jeffrey Marsh, Washington Times

"A riveting read for anybody interested in the history and sociology of late-twentieth-century science." -- Nature

"In every way this is an excellent book which does full justice to a remarkable man." -- Mail on Sunday (London)

"Johnson, an award-winning science writer, paints a fascinating portrait of this brilliant, complicated, sometimes insecure and often exasperating man." -- Marcus Chown, New Scientist

"A splendid book, and very well written. [Johnson] has skillfully interwoven Gell-Mann's life with an account of particle physics in the second half of the century. . . . The result makes fascinating reading for anyone with an interest in physics or in the personality of a very gifted and complex person. I highly recommend it." -- P. Kalmus, European Journal of Physics

"Skillfully and engagingly written . . . Johnson paints a convincing portrait of Gell-Mann's personality, which is in turn charming, irritating, and generous . . . Johnson captures well his subject's inner scientific conflicts. Were quarks actual particles? Or were they just convenient mathematical tools?" -- Science

"Johnson's portrait of the man and his science is clear and candid, winning the reader's respect and understanding for his subject." -- Science News

"George Johnson, a fine science writer here trying his hand at biography, does a great job of showing how Gell-Mann's eventual success left him the most celebrated, but also least well-liked, physicist of his generation. . . . Johnson's best trick, though, is re-creating the sheer confusion of particle physics from the late 40s to the early 60s. . . . The way [quantum chromodynamics] emerged from the pre-existing mathematics of group theory is one of the great triumphs of the belief that maths helps to describe the physical world. Johnson's book shows why." -- Jon Turney, The Guardian

"Johnson has taken great care to explain the physics that Gell-Mann so excelled at. . . . The explanations are lucid, careful and sometimes funny. . . . Above all, 'Strange Beauty' is a fascinating tale of a knight errant of science -- a polymath at large, wanting to know everything, frustrated by the limitations of even his own formidable mind and fascinated by the irreversible choices made in evolution, from the Big Bang onwards." -- Anna Paterson, The Sunday Herald (Glasgow)

"Gell-Mann's biographer never allows us to actually get around to disliking the scientist, a testament to the quality of Johnson's work. This is a remarkably well-written book, bringing the reader along as through a good novel and near effortlessly explaining some of the most complicated science in the world. It allows us to see Gell-Mann as he appeared to those around him, but also to understand the significance of his achievements and the stunning quality of his mind." -- Dick Ahlstrom, The Irish Times

"This is a masterfully told story: it does not fail to treat the often difficult details of the science, and it gives a believable picture of a brilliant, procrastinating, often prickly man and his contributions to our current world-picture." -- Antioch Review

"Johnson weaves his explanations of Gell-Mann's scientific triumphs into an engrossingly human drama." -- Booklist

"Johnson is not afraid to present [Gell-Mann's] theories in great detail, giving crystal-clear descriptions of some of the most abstract and convoluted ideas in physics. Nor is he afraid to delve into the personal side of Gell-Mann, including his relationship with his colleague Richard Feynman, a friendship at times strained by the fame that Feynman achieved from his best-selling book of autobiographical anecdotes. . . . A must-read for anyone studying physics or its history, and for others not afraid to swim in the sometimes deep and murky waters of cutting-edge science." -- Kirkus Reviews


Published in October 1999 by Alfred A. Knopf in the United States. Second printing, February 2000. Third printing, April 2000. Vintage paperback edition, October 2000.

Published in England in January 2000 by Jonathan Cape and January 2001 by Vintage UK.

Finalist for a 2000 Pen Center USA-West Literary Award and the 2001 Royal Society Science Book Prize.

Top 10 Science Books of 2000 at Amazon.com and Amazon.uk.

A feature of the Reader's Subscription, Library of Science, and Astronomy Book Clubs.

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Table of Contents

Excerpt

British edition

Errata

George Johnson's home page

From the jacket of the Knopf edition:

No scientist has done more to shape our understanding of the universe than Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Prize-winner often considered the most brilliant physicist of his generation. His discovery of the quark and the Eightfold Way were cornerstones for all that followed in particle physics, the effort to explain the very stuff of creation. In this, the first biography of Gell-Mann, George Johnson tells the story of a remarkable life.

Born on New York's Lower East Side, Gell-Mann quickly revealed himself as a child prodigy. Propelled by an intense boyhood curiosity and love for nature, he entered Yale at fifteen. By age twenty-three he had ignited a revolution, laying bare in his groundbreaking work the strange beauty of the minute particles that make up reality.

Particle physics is the most competitive of sports, and Johnson shows us the precocious polymath holding his own with giants like Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Richard Feynman -- Gell-Mann's favorite intellectual sparring partner and sometimes antagonistic rival. We see Gell-Mann, the self-taught linguist (who couldn't resist correcting visitors on the pronunciations of their own names); Gell-Mann, the bird watcher and amateur archeologist; Gell-Mann, the Aspen socialite, world traveler, and environmental crusader.

We watch him making his scientific breakthroughs, his abrasive, competitive drive leaving behind a growing trail of enemies. The early death of his wife and a family crisis sent him veering in new directions. Turning from the physics of simple particles, like quarks, he began exploring how complex phenomena like life can be understood scientifically.

George Johnson's informed and insightful biography goes far in helping us understand the complexities of both the man and the science in which he has loomed so large.

With 16 pages of photographs and 23 diagrams in text. 6 1/4 x 9 1/4. 432 pages.

Haitian Creole translation of this web page (by Web Geek Science)