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Disagreement among the top physicists


The parity revolution: accounting for the τ and θ puzzle
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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There was an idea which I had had actually for a number of years and which I had mentioned to Pais and other people back in… in ’54 for accounting for what was called 'the τθ puzzle'. The τθ decayed into three pions; it was i = 1, it was a rather flat spectrum and it looked very much like a zero minus particle. But exactly at the same mass there was a decay into two π which looked very much like a zero plus particle. And how could this happen? Well, one way it could happen, I thought, was through parity doubling. And I worked out this idea that if the π was... if the  K particle was parity doubled, then probably the λ was parity doubled also, and so on and so forth. And then the ψ could either be a singlet or a triplet under this, and so forth: it would be a new variable. The ψ wouldn't have to be parity doubled, but the λ and the Σ would, and the K would and so on. I didn't publish that, but I talked about it a lot of places. And then Yang and Lee came up with this same idea and they did publish it and made a huge fuss about it. I was a little upset. I was sorry that I hadn't put it forward under my own name. Feynman said, ‘Well, don't worry, we don't know it's true, so what do you care?’ And I thought, well, maybe he's right, but then what is the explanation? And I didn't know. Then at the Rochester meeting in ’56… ’56? Yeah, ’56; the same one I guess where I spoke about the dispersion theory program. Marty Block, the experimentalist, was rooming with Feynman, and Marty Block said, ‘Well, what if parity isn't conserved?’  Presumably meaning in the weak interaction. ‘Then couldn't the τ and θ be the same thing?’ And Luis Alvarez had been suggesting - without understanding anything about parity - he had been suggesting that somehow the τ and θ could be the same particle, maybe. But anyway Marty posed this question to Feynman instead of posing it to the meeting and so Feynman thought about it and he couldn't think of any real reason why you couldn't have a parity of non-conserving weak interaction. And in fact, although neither of us had paid much attention, we had actually discussed such a thing together in connection with this 'one plus γ five' idea. So he said to Marty, ‘Well, I don't know of any reason why not. Let me ask Murray.’ So he grabbed hold of me and he said, ‘Murray, what if the weak interaction violates parity?’ Well, he didn't say it  that way, he said, ‘What if parity isn't conserved, and the τ and θ are the same particle?’ I said ‘Well, in the weak interaction, it could be that parity isn't conserved. Nobody knows really, nobody has ever proved it one way or the other. Could be true. I don't know of any reason why not.’ I was still interested in my parity doubling hypothesis which Yang and Lee had then put forward, but I had to admit this was a perfectly possible hypothesis. And so Feynman announced it to the meeting. He said, ‘My roommate, Marty Block is suggesting that parity is not conserved in the weak interaction.’ Well, he didn't say, in the weak interaction, but he said ‘is not conserved’. What he meant was in the weak interaction. And maybe that's the explanation and the τ and θ are the same thing.

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: Rochester meeting, Abraham Pais, Richard Feynman, Marty Block, Luis Alvarez, Chen Ning Yang, Tsung-Dao Lee

Duration: 3 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008