If you’re neither a physicist nor very interested in physics and the natural sciences, it’s highly unlikely you´ve ever heard of Murray Gell-Mann. Murray Gell-Mann happens to be one of the most influential physicists of the last 50 years. Gell-Mann is a recipient of the 1969. Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles.

Gell-Mann was born on September 15, 1929 in Manhattan, New York, to a family of Jewish immigrants from the western part of present-day Ukraine. His father, Arthur, had arrived in New York from Czernowitz 15 years prior and had opened a language school in lower Manhattan where he taught English as a second language. The language school was not successful and the family was forced to move several times. Arthur eventually managed to find a job as a bank security guard. Arthur, however, was fluent in several languages ​​and was a self-taught mathematician. His father´s interest in languages impacted Murray, who, later in life, would turn to linguistics.

Gell-Mann graduated as valedictorian from Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School at the tender age of 14. He subsequently entered Yale where he graduated with a bachelor´s degree in physics in 1948. He applied to both Princeton and Harvard for his graduate education, the former rejecting him and the latter accepting but unable to provide Gell-Mann with any of the financial assistance he needed. He was, however, accepted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was provided with the financial assistance he much needed. Unaware of MIT´s eminent status, Gell-Mann has stated that at first he was miserable being unable to attend Princeton or Harvard. Gell-Mann received his Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1951 after completing a doctoral dissertation titled “Coupling strenght and nuclear reactions.”

Gell-Mann became a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in 1951 and a visiting research professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1952 to 1953. Gell-Mann was also a visiting professor at Columbia University and and associate professor at the University of Chicago in 1954 to 1955. In 1955 he moved to the California Institute of Technology where he taught until he retired in 1993. During his early years at Caltech, Gell-Mann collaborated with Richard Feynman and discovered the chiral structures of the weak interaction of physics and developed the V-A theory (vector minus axial vector theory). Richard Feynman was at the time also a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, and the two became both friends and rivals. Their personalities and demeanors were complete opposites – Feynman was fiery, relaxed, with a strong Brooklyn accent. Gell-Mann, on the other hand, was always immaculately dressed and careful to pronounce every word according to the rules of pronunciation, whether in English, French, German, or Spanish.

So, what is the importance of Gell-Mann as a theoretical physicist and why was he awarded the Nobel Prize for his work?

To put it simply, Gell-Mann wondered what happened to matter when it is cut into very small pieces and split into something smaller than atoms, protons and neutrons. As we know from elementary chemistry lessons, matter consists of molecules, molecules of atoms and atoms of electrons, protons and neutrons. Electrons do not consist of something smaller, so they are called elementary particles. Gell-Mann´s theoretical model shows that neutrons and protons are indeed made up of smaller particles that Gell-Mann named quarks, a reference to the novel “Finnegan´s Wake” by James Joyce (Three quarks for Muster Mark, book 2, episode 4). For this discovery, Gell-Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969 for his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions.

It should be noted that the Russian-American physicist Georg Zweig also developed a theory of the neutron and proton substructure, independently of Gell-Mann, but in his version quarks were called aces. However, Gell-Mann’s quarks was the name that was popularized and stuck. The quark model, proposed by these two physicists, is today the basis of the Standard Model – particle classification in physics. Today, we know that there are 6 types of quarks, or as physicists like to say, “flavors” of quarks – they are upper, lower, peak,  deep, magical and foreign quarks. In addition, there are antiquarks and antimatter particles. Gell-Mann´s theory of quarks and gluons has been successfully tested in countless high-precision experiments on high-energy particle collisions. This was also marked the beginning of the theory of quantum chromodynamics (QCD) on the rules of stacking “colors” (which are not actually colors) between particles.


 You can also have fun with the animated version of this story about Murray Gell-Mann on Youtube


Murray Gell-Mann married Margaret Dow in 1955. Dow, an English archaeologist at the Princeton Institute. However, in 1980, shortly after Murray turned 50, Margaret was diagnosed with cancer and died the following year. After his wife´s death, Gell-Mann suffered from depression. Having already been awarded the Nobel Prize and numerous other prizes and honors in physics, he looked to new fields to conquer. Gell-Mann turned to linguistics, sustainable development, antiques collecting and biological sciences.

Gell-Mann became a great linguist and polyglot. He is said to have spoken as many as 13 languages ​​and possessed incredible encyclopedic knowledge. Gell-Mann was very sensitive to grammatical and spelling errors. On one occasion he noticed a spelling mistake on a restaurant menu, called the waiter and asked for a new menu to be made, without the mistake of course. Gell-Mann authored a popular science book about physics and complexity science, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex (1994).

Murray Gell-Mann passed away on May 24, 2019 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His contribution to the theory of elementary particles is immeasurable and it is important for all of us to remember his name.




Translated by Jonas Helgason

This text was produced with the support of the United States Embassy in BiH as part of the “U.S. Scientists Who Changed the World” project and we thank the US Embassy.