Murray Gell-Mann and the Quarks

Murray Gell-Mann
Image: World Economic Forum

On September 15, 1929, American physicist and Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann was born. He is best known for his work on the theory of elementary particles and introduced the quark model. The quark model is a classification scheme for hadrons, i.e. composite particle made of quarks held together by the strong force (in the same way as atoms and molecules are held together by the electromagnetic force).

The child prodigy Gell-Mann taught himself calculus at 7 the age of seven and entered Yale only 8 years later. At the MIT, Gell-Mann earned the PhD in physics in 1951. Only about seven years later, Gell-Mann along with Richard Feynman discovered chiral structures of the weak interaction in physics independently to George Sudarshan and Robert Marshak.

In the early 1950’s, Gell-Mann’s work made a subject of the recently discovered cosmic ray particles called kaons and hyperons. While classifying them, Gell-Mann came to notice that a strangeness in the meaning of the quantum number could be conserved by strong and electromagnetic interactions instead of weak interactions. He later on developed a whole new classification scheme for hadrons along with Kazuhiko Nishijma, which is explained by the quark model now. Alluding to the Noble Eightfold Path Gell-Mann referred to his new scheme as the Eightfold Way due to the octets of particles in the schemes.

Georg Zweig and Murray Gell-Mann postulated the existence of quarks independently from each other in 1964. Still, Gell-Mann coined the term. ‘Quarks’ represent a reference to James Joyce’s final work Finnegans Wake (Book 2), a novel published in 1939 and written in a idiosyncratic language. However, quarks are considered as particles of which the hadrons od his scheme were composed. Soon after Gell-Mann’s success with quarks, antiquarks and gluons evolved as underlying elementary objects while studying the hadron’s structure. For his extraordinary achievements in physics, Murray Gell-Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969.

Along with Harald Fritzsch, Gell-Mann introduced the quantum number color charge and coined the term quantum chromodynamics later on with Heinrich Leutwyler. He was able to improve the eightfold way scheme significantly in these years and published new ‘flavours’, meaning types of elementary particles.

In the 1990’s, Murray Gell-Mann’s interests changed a bit, focusing now on the study of complexity and participating significantly in the founding of the famous Santa Fe Institute, a non-profit theoretical research institute to study complex systems and disseminate the notion of a separate interdisciplinary study of complexity theory.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a lecture by Murray Gell-Mann himself, talking about the Beauty and truth in physics.

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