The Man Who Found Quarks and Made Sense of the Universe

Gellman1An interview with Murray Gell-Mann in Discover:

You’ve known some of the greatest physicists in history. Whom do you put on the highest pedestal?

I don’t put people on pedestals very much, especially not physicists. Feynman [who won a 1965 Nobel for his work in particle physics] was pretty good, although not as good as he thought he was. He was too self-absorbed and spent a huge amount of energy generating anecdotes about himself. Fermi [who developed the first nuclear reactor] was good, but again with limitations—every now and then he was wrong. I didn’t know anybody without some limitations in my field of theoretical physics.

Back then, did you understand how special the people around you were?

No. I grew up thinking that the previous people were the special ones. Even though I knew most of them. I didn’t know Erwin Schrödinger [a pioneer of quantum mechanics]; I passed up a chance to meet him for some reason. But I did know Werner Heisenberg fairly well. He was one of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, which is one of the greatest achievements of the human mind. But by the time I knew him, although he was not extremely old, he was more or less a crank.

How so?

He was talking a lot of nonsense. He had things that he called theories that were not really theories; they were gibberish. His goal was to find a unified theory of all the particles and forces. He worked on an equation, but the equation didn’t have any practical significance. It was impossible to work with it. There were no solutions. It was just nonsense. Anyway, it was interesting that Wolfgang Pauli [discoverer of the exclusion principle], who did not go in for particularly crazy things—at least not in physics—was taken in by Heisenberg’s stuff for a little while. He agreed to join Heisenberg in his program.

But then Pauli came to the United States, where various people worked on him—including Dick Feynman, and including me. Many of us talked to Pauli and said, “Look, you shouldn’t associate yourself with this. It’s all rubbish, and you have your reputation to consider.” Pauli agreed, and he wrote a letter to Heisenberg saying something like: “I quit. This is all nonsense. There’s nothing to it. Take my name off.”