Wednesday, November 28, 2012


When I was a graduate student studying physics at U.C.L.A. during the late 1950s, two godlike figures dominated our imaginations: Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann. Both physicists worked across town at CalTech, and now and then we'd slip over to Pasadena and sit in on a lecture. Feynman was the older of the two and better known, as much for his wry wit as for his work on quantum electrodynamics. Who was smarter, Feynman or Gell-Mann? Among us grad students, the question was up for grabs.

Some folks are just a whole lot smarter than the rest of us, and Feynman and Gell-Mann were about as smart as you can get. The very existence of such towering geniuses just down the road had a mixed effect on us students. Some were inspired to compete with the greats; others were resigned to mediocrity. If nothing else, it was an exciting time to be entering an exciting field, and the two CalTech paragons were a big part of the excitement.

Feynman knew everything there was to know about physics and not much of anything else; when he wasn't doing physics, he played the bongos and hung out in bars. Gell-Mann seemed to know everything there was to know about everything, and during "off" hours he was likely to be bird-watching in some exotic venue, collecting archeological artifacts, or picking up one more foreign language. When the two rivals got together, sparks would fly, igniting lots of good physics. Both men would eventually win Nobel Prizes.

As they worked together at CalTech, Feynman and Gell-Mann delighted in "twisting the tail of the cosmos," as they called it. In his Nobel address in Sweden, Gell-Mann described the physicist's work this way: "We are driven by the insatiable curiosity of the scientist, and our work is a delightful game. I am frequently astonished that it so often results in correct predictions of experimental results."

The work of Feynman and Gell-Mann took us further and further away from everyday experience toward the crystalline symmetries that apparently prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the big bang. As the universe cooled, symmetries were broken, and we eventually find ourselves living in a messy world of bongos, bars, birds of paradise and prehistoric pots. Not to mention consciousness and free will. How did we get from there to here? Not even Feynman and Gell-Mann were smart enough to figure that out. (Although Gell-Mann is happily still with us at age 83; perhaps we shouldn't give up on him yet.)