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Early days at Caltech. Working with Feynman


The move to Caltech
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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I was thinking of going to Copenhagen and spending the next year in Copenhagen. And I was learning some Danish and I thought that Margaret and I would get married, which we did in April, and that we might spend the next year together in Copenhagen. But my draft board was getting very upset. They said they understood a student and they understood a professor, but these, all these research positions and post-doctoral positions and things like that they didn't understand and they wanted me to go and have a regular professorship at a regular teaching institution and then they could defer me. So I gave up the… the trip to Copenhagen. We did go there for a few weeks in the summer, but I gave up the idea of going there for a term or a year–and I accepted the offer from Caltech, not from Columbia. I think there were some other offers as well, but I… I turned down everything but Caltech. Well, Chicago by that time was offering me a similar job.

[Q] And what did you find so attractive about going to Caltech at the time?

Well, I thought highly of Feynman. Although I didn't know him very well, I'd met him a few times. I thought highly of the experimental group of Anderson et al. who had discovered all these strange particles, or at least the… the second through twentieth examples or second through fifth examples of various strange particles. I thought of it as a place where the politics would be congenial, as opposed, say, to Berkeley where there was a huge split between people with exaggerated ideas about national security and so on and people who weren't like that. In fact there was that long-standing lawsuit, as you know, by people who had left Berkeley, because of the oath controversy and sued to get their jobs back. They won, actually, although very few of them really returned. So I thought of it as both scientifically and politically pleasant and I knew that the campus was rather attractive; clean, neat, not a messy place like Columbia.

[Q] Were you concerned–given your early broad interests— were you concerned about going to an Institute of Technology, quote, as distinct from a broad university?

Yes. Viki Weisskopf warned me about that. He came to the little house in Princeton and Margaret cooked dinner for us–I had a tiny little place right near the Institute for Advanced Study and so the three of us spent the evening together talking. And Viki said, ‘Well, if you go out there, you know, there'll be some things that are pretty strange. For example, very little in the way of bookshops, maybe a drug store with a few magazines.’ Actually there is one very famous bookstop… bookshop in Pasadena, but anyway I… I could see what he meant later on. He said very little in the way of cultured discussions, and that was absolutely true, cultured conversation was rare. Then he described going camping. Bellbrook [sic], his old pal, had taken him out camping in the desert and he had told him that it essentially never rains in the desert so they didn't have to worry about tents or anything. But then it did rain, and not only did it rain, but after the rain the palm trees emptied the water on him, the water that had accumulated in the palm fronds fell on him making him even wetter than he had been before on account of the rain and so on and so on and so forth. He didn't make it sound like a really wonderful place to be. So I was a little worried, and it turned out I was not… not really that happy there. I found it very narrow. There was a lot of good science, but not archaeology or natural history or evolutionary biology or linguistics or ecology or all the things that really turned me on outside of physics.

New York-born physicist Murray Gell-Mann (1929-2019) was known for his creation of the eightfold way, an ordering system for subatomic particles, comparable to the periodic table. His discovery of the omega-minus particle filled a gap in the system, brought the theory wide acceptance and led to Gell-Mann's winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969.

Listeners: Geoffrey West

Geoffrey West is a Staff Member, Fellow, and Program Manager for High Energy Physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is also a member of The Santa Fe Institute. He is a native of England and was educated at Cambridge University (B.A. 1961). He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1966 followed by post-doctoral appointments at Cornell and Harvard Universities. He returned to Stanford as a faculty member in 1970. He left to build and lead the Theoretical High Energy Physics Group at Los Alamos. He has numerous scientific publications including the editing of three books. His primary interest has been in fundamental questions in Physics, especially those concerning the elementary particles and their interactions. His long-term fascination in general scaling phenomena grew out of his work on scaling in quantum chromodynamics and the unification of all forces of nature. In 1996 this evolved into the highly productive collaboration with James Brown and Brian Enquist on the origin of allometric scaling laws in biology and the development of realistic quantitative models that analyse the influence of size on the structural and functional design of organisms.

Tags: Copenhagen, Danish, Caltech, Columbia University, Princeton University, Institute for Advanced Study, Richard Feynman, Carl D Anderson, Viki Weisskopf

Duration: 4 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008