Murray Gell-Mann, recipient of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics, in 2003. Credit Jane Bernard/Associated Press.

Science, art and language collide a lot in the field of theoretical physics, it seems. There are appealing language touches in the work of Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann profiled in this article.

He “mischievously” named his theory of elementary particles “The Eightfold Way” after a Buddhist doctrine of liberation.

He named formerly unobserved particles “quarks” after a term encountered in Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” He called force-carrying particles that hold quarks together “gluons.”

“He proposed a physical quantity — “strangeness” — that would explain why some particles lasted longer than others.”

Gell-Mann helped found the Santa Fe Institute, which is today “the world’s leading research center on complexity.” Novelist Cormac McCarthy is a Fellow in that institute.

Last but not least: “His final research program was an expansive project to study the evolution of human languages.”

He was the kind of language maven who would correct people on the pronunciation of their own names, and complain to servers at French and Spanish restaurants about misspellings on their menus.

(Sean Carroll, “The Physicist Who Made Sense of the Universe,” NYTimes, 5-28-19)

Only a consummate theoretician who was also a “wide-ranging polymath, well-versed in archaeology, history and ornithology” could pull off such majestic effrontery.

(c) 2019 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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