«INTERVIEWED BY SARA LIPPINCOTT July 17 and 18, 1997 Photo ID RFB70.2-4 ARCHIVES CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY Pasadena, California Subject area ...»
July 17 and 18, 1997
Photo ID RFB70.2-4
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
Physics, particle physics
An interview in two sessions, July 1997, with Murray Gell-Mann, Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Theoretical Physics, emeritus. Dr. Gell-Mann was on the faculty of Caltech’s Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy from 1955 until 1993.
In this anecdotal interview tracing his career to 1960, he begins by recalling his Manhattan childhood during the Depression, family background, early education at Columbia Grammar School. Discusses his undergraduate years at Yale, graduate work at MIT with Victor Weisskopf, courses at Harvard with Norman Ramsey and Julian Schwinger—followed in 1951 by two terms at Institute for Advanced Study, working with Francis Low on a problem in quantum field theory. Summer 1951, University of Illinois, works on complex systems with Keith Brueckner; interaction with John von Neumann.
Joins University of Chicago’s Institute for Nuclear Studies, headed by Enrico Fermi; recalls such colleagues as M. L. Goldberger, Leo Szilard, Harold Urey, Gerald Wasserburg; works on dispersion relations and pseudoscalar meson theory http://resolver.caltech.edu/CaltechOH:OH_Gell-Mann_M with Goldberger. At University of Illinois, summer 1953, works with Low on elementary-particle field theory, invents the renormalization group; comments on later contributions of Petermann & Stueckelberg, his student Kenneth Wilson.
His early work at Caltech on what was later called S-matrix theory; comments on contribution to superstring theory. Meets future wife, Margaret Dow; travels in Scotland with her, 1954; their marriage. Recruited to Caltech by R. P. Feynman;
life in Pasadena; visits Bohr Institute, Copenhagen, summer 1955; Spain, France, and the U.K. Back at Caltech fall 1956, teaches quantum mechanics course.
Recollections of Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer, Stewart Harrison. Comments on undergraduate education at Caltech and vain efforts to promote behavioral and social sciences there.
Work at RAND, 1956; paper with Brueckner; objections by Brueckner and Tatsuro Sawada; contributions of Bill Karzas, Don DuBois, Jeffrey Goldstone.
Annual Review of Nuclear Science article on “last stand of the universal Fermi Interaction” with Arthur Rosenfeld; related work by Marshak & Sudarshan;
Feynman’s approach; their collaboration; later work by Yang & Lee. Comments on origins of the Eightfold Way. Preoccupation with symmetry, supermultiplets, weak and strong interactions, Yang-Mills theory. Collaboration with Maurice Lévy et al., in France, 1959, on the axial vector current in beta decay.
Administrative information Access The interview is unrestricted.
Copyright Copyright has been assigned to the California Institute of Technology © 2013.
All requests for permission to publish or quote from the transcript must be submitted in writing to the Head, Archives and Special Collections.
Preferred citation Gell-Mann, Murray. Interview by Sara Lippincott. Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, July 1997. Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology
Archives. Retrieved [supply date of retrieval] from the World Wide Web:
http://resolver.caltech.edu/CaltechOH:OH_Gell-Mann_M Contact information Archives, California Institute of Technology Mail Code 015A-74 Pasadena, CA 91125 Phone: (626)395-2704 Fax: (626)395-4073 Email: email@example.com Graphics and content © 2013 California Institute of Technology.
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY ARCHIVES
Begin Tape 1, Side 1 LIPPINCOTT: I’d like to start off by talking a little bit about your early life. You were born in Manhattan, around the time the market crashed?
GELL-MANN: Right. A few weeks earlier [September 15, 1929].
LIPPINCOTT: How about your family life? Tell me about your father and mother.
GELL-MANN: I’ve written a lot about my father.
LIPPINCOTT: He was a teacher of languages, isn’t that right?
GELL-MANN: Well, that’s what he ended up doing. He had hoped to be a philosophy teacher in a Gymnasium—one of the prestigious classical high schools. This was in Austria. He attended a Gymnasium and did very well there. Then he went to the University of Vienna, very early in the century. And after the first year, he went to Germany for a year, I think to Heidelberg. The universities were interchangeable, and he would have come back to Vienna after the third year and finished up that way, and with that degree he could have begun a career in the teaching system in Austria. But his parents, who had suffered some financial reverses, were already in New York, and they had problems there. My grandfather had become ill, and they had financial problems stemming from that. So they asked him to come to the United States to help them out.
LIPPINCOTT: Why were they in the United States?
GELL-MANN: As I said, they had had financial reverses, and when Europeans were faced with financial reverses, they didn’t know what to do. You couldn’t just get a job.
LIPPINCOTT: So they came here seeking their fortune?
GELL-MANN: Seeking a job. They came to the United States, where on arrival as an immigrant you could get some sort of job in a sweatshop. So that’s what they did. But it was not working out, and they asked him to come to the U.S. and help them out. So he dropped out of the university after two years and came to Philadelphia, where he was offered a job at an orphan asylum. When I wrote that in my book [The Quark and the Jaguar (W. H. Freeman, 1994)], people told me I had to change it to “orphanage,” because nobody had ever heard of an orphan asylum. When I was a child, that was a common expression.
LIPPINCOTT: What did he do there?
GELL-MANN: He was a sort of counselor for the children. He knew very little English, but he picked up English, and baseball, from the children, and he spoke English perfectly—no accent and no mistakes. As I said in my book, you could tell he was a foreigner only because he never made mistakes. [Laughter]
LIPPINCOTT: Was he married at the time to your mother?
GELL-MANN: No, they met in New York. He moved later from Philadelphia to New York and got a series of jobs of many different kinds. He tried studying pharmaceutical chemistry at Columbia. And he managed to do it without textbooks—making his own textbook by copying the notes and the lectures and constructing pictures from what he saw under the microscope, reproductions of the microscope slides. He essentially made up his own textbook. He did very, very well in the courses, but he didn’t graduate, because he needed a $5 fee and he couldn’t figure out how to beg, borrow, or steal the $5 necessary to complete the course.
LIPPINCOTT: While he was doing that, was he working?
GELL-MANN: I don’t know—probably. He had a series of jobs. He had a job on Wall Street at one point. And when he was working there, the explosion in front of the Morgan bank occurred.
This was in 1920. You know, it was a wagonload of dynamite that exploded in front of the Morgan bank. And his office was right across the street. He was very nearly killed. The window was blown open, smashed, by the explosion, and two jagged pieces of plate glass went by him, one on each side, but they both missed.
He also worked for a toy-importing firm, doing their German correspondence. They wanted him to become an officer of the firm, but he refused. I think he sensed that there was something the matter, and sure enough, the officers went to jail. [Laughter] He had nothing to do with their illegal activities, though.
My parents met in the late 1910s, and they were married secretly in 1919.
LIPPINCOTT: Why secretly?
GELL-MANN: I don’t know—their parents weren’t ready for it yet or something. And then they had a public wedding on January 1, 1920, and that was their official wedding day. I have the invitation still.
LIPPINCOTT: What was her background?
GELL-MANN: My mother always thought, until about 1940, that she was born in New York. But then she discovered she had been born in Austria and had come over here as a tiny infant. But she had already voted here in numerous elections. [Laughter] So she had to be hastily naturalized. It's a good thing she discovered it when she did, because a year later she would have been an enemy alien. [Laughter] But it’s as if she had been born in New York.
Her father died when she was young, and her mother remarried—married a man with six children and had to take care of the younger ones. So it was quite a chore for her mother, but she managed.
My mother did very well in high school, apparently, and wanted to go on to the university. But they wouldn’t let her. They said she had to go to work. So she went to Miss http://resolver.caltech.edu/CaltechOH:OH_Gell-Mann_M Gell-Mann–4 Aub’s secretarial school, and at the age of sixteen, or something like that, she became a secretary. And from what I understand, she did quite well as a secretary. She and my father met—I think their mothers introduced them to each other, the least romantic possible way to meet. Anyway, they met sometime in the late teens. I don’t know exactly at which stage my father was, in this progression of different things he tried. Eventually, sometime in the 1920s, he opened a language school in New York. And he stayed with that until it failed.
LIPPINCOTT: And it was for teaching immigrants English?
GELL-MANN: Well, one thing was to teach English to immigrants, and to teach English successfully, because my father had learned English perfectly—no accent, no mistakes—and he wanted other immigrants to come at least close to that. But he also taught German. And he hired teachers at one point for Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
LIPPINCOTT: Did the school fail as a part of the Depression?
GELL-MANN: Well, I think it failed soon after I was born—the market crashed six weeks later.
But also, 1929 was the year in which the draconian Immigration Act of 1924 took effect. So there were few immigrants. And if they were there, they had very little money, because following the stock market crash came the Depression. So the schoolroom was largely empty.
What the family had was a series of apartments in Manhattan—big apartments, with room for schoolrooms. My father would teach right there in the house. And they were empty when I was one or two, because there were no students, and the thing was obviously failing.
So we moved away from Manhattan. We moved up near Bronx Park, near the Bronx Zoo—near the little bit of hemlock forest that was left of the primeval hemlock forest that had covered the whole of New York at one time. We lived there for a few years, and my father got a job at a bank, which he kept until he retired. He was in charge of the vault. It was not a very intellectually demanding job.
LIPPINCOTT: What did he have to do? Open it?
GELL-MANN: Open it and close it. [Laughter]
LIPPINCOTT: And you had one sibling? That was an older brother?
GELL-MANN: Yes. My brother Benedict is older—something like nine years older. He was born in late November 1920.
LIPPINCOTT: One thing I haven’t read about is where you had your elementary education. Was Columbia Grammar School really more of a high school?
GELL-MANN: No, it included everything from kindergarten on. But I didn’t start there in kindergarten.
LIPPINCOTT: Where did you start?
GELL-MANN: Well, my mother was a romantic. And she always had dreams for me, of doing great things. Whereas my father was more likely to pooh-pooh things and say, “This is impossible” and “That’s impossible.” LIPPINCOTT: Well, he’d had some reverses in his life, and that might have made him— GELL-MANN: Well, I think maybe it was the other way around: He had reverses to some extent because he didn’t believe things were really possible. [Laughter] I can’t imagine an American failing to get that pharmaceutical chemistry degree because of a $5 fee. There must be some way to borrow $5.
Anyway, my mother had dreams. And she wanted me to go to a private school. And she dragged me around to a great variety of schools to be tested, because she was convinced that I had special talents or intelligence.
LIPPINCOTT: What made her think so?
GELL-MANN: I don’t know. She took me to a lot of places, and nothing worked at the beginning. So I started in public school in the Bronx. And I went through grade 1A. Then 1B gave rise within a few weeks to 2A, and then 3A.
LIPPINCOTT: You whizzed through the first few grades?
GELL-MANN: In the first two terms, I had gotten through 3A and then I did 3B. So that was a year and a half. In a year and a half, I did the first three grades.
Then my mother’s dream was realized. She had also taken me to have music lessons at various places—piano lessons—and at one of those places the piano teacher managed to get me an introduction to yet another private school. And that was the Columbia Grammar School—on West 93rd Street, just one building away from Central Park West. And there they gave me, again, a battery of tests. But this time they said yes, they would accept me, and they would give me a full scholarship—which of course was necessary, because my family had no money. They started me in sixth grade. So I skipped four and five.
LIPPINCOTT: How old were you then, when you started sixth grade?