Stranger In A Strange Car

Toward the end of my New Mexico journalistic career, I had a run-in with a celebrity driving a gold Land Rover – gold! I was backing my old Toyota coop out of a dead-end intersection on a dirt road in the Tesuque hills between Santa Fe and Los Alamos. It was night, and I had missed a turn. Suddenly the Land

Rover was blocking my way. A compact man with white hair got out and, keeping his distance, was saying something. I stepped out. He said:

Why are you here?

I said: I’m turning around.

But why are you here?

To pick up my daughter.

Where is this daughter?

She’s visiting a friend.

Where does this friend live?

Down the road.

Why are you here?

Restraining my anger (He might have a gun?) I kept silent. He stared and stared, then without another word he went back and drove away.

Three decades later, reading “Strange Beauty” by the science writer George Johnson, I discovered who my

Wikipedia Commons Photo

interrogator was. The evidence was all there:  gold Land Rover, property in Tesuque, white hair, medium height, and… attitude. I had been accosted by a Nobel laureate physicist: Murray Gell-Mann, architect of subatomic symmetries, father of “quarks,” a genius called The New Mendeleev (creator of the periodic table of elements). The book is a biography of Gell-Mann and, quoting the subtitle, “the Revolution in Physics.” His generation of post-Trinity physicists could get almost anything they wanted to advance nuclear science;

The original edition was published in 1999 by Alfred A. Knopf without the approval of Gell-Mann who was still alive.  An updated edition – the one I read – was published under arrangement with Knopf in November 2023 by the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), of which Gell-Mann was a founder. Johnson, a science writer who lives in Santa Fe, has eight other books to his credit in addition to his early work for the New York Times. The new edition is revised or continued with Johnson’s footnotes plus a postscript on Gell-Mann’s final two decades. (Imprimatur of the SFI at left)

Johnson’s scientific explanations and glossary composed 25 years ago are essentially accessible. The foundational concept of symmetry in particle physics, for example, is illustrated with a drawing of two thumbs-up fists. The fingers of the left-hand curl clockwise and of the right hand, counterclockwise. This is a simplified illustration of particle “spin.” Our hands are symmetrical. If they were identical, they would be useless.

But let me review what is new, with special attention to Gell-Mann’s friendship late in life with Cormac McCarthy, the novelist known for his “border trilogy” about Texas cowboys lost in Mexico, plus other dark Mexican-border novels including evil-themed “The Counselor” and “No Country for Old Men,” made into movies. McCarthy left southern New Mexico for Santa Fe shortly before he won a MacArthur “genius” award in 1981.  At the award ceremony he met Gell-Mann, who was a member of the MacArthur Foundation board. They became close friends and neighbors in Tesuque, and McCarthy became a constant presence at SFI. In a eulogy in 2019, McCarthy said of Gell-Mann: “He knew more things about more things than anyone I’ve ever met.” His last works were twin postmodern novels, “The Passenger” and “Stella Marris,” probably typed on his Olivetti at the SFI citadel (a hilltop mansion built 80 years ago by Gen. Patrick Hurley).

The protagonist in the first of the two, Bobby Western, is characterized as the son of a Los Alamos scientist who “attempted to destroy the universe. . . a fabricator of expensive devices that make a loud noise and vaporize people.” Western makes a living at whatever is available, including recovery diving. He tried nuclear physics but, as he put it, “I was not good enough.”  Such inadequacy is a theme in a conversation between Western and a mathematician identified only as Asher. “Most physicists,” says Western, “have neither the talent nor the balls to take on the really hard problems. . . Being wrong is the worst thing a physicist can be. It’s up there with being dead.”

Author Johnson suggests that Gell-Mann’s consistent procrastination – especially failure to meet writing deadlines – was a result of a fear of being wrong. And, I suppose, my encounter long ago with his territorial defensiveness might have been motivated by a similar problem going back to childhood. For the updated edition, Johnson obtained (after two years) a 400-page response to his Freedom of Information request for the FBI security clearance file on Gell-Mann. A grade school teacher told FBI agents he was “violent” and “ungovernable.” A counselor “complained about his mercurial temper, variously described as ‘very intolerant of others’ ideas’ and ‘felt superior to all authority.’” Also after his death, Johnson also had access to Gell-Mann’s occasional diary. “It vividly shows that when it came to his own personal failings, he could be as hard on himself as he was on those around him,” a footnote says.

The attitude was well known. At the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) in the 1970’s, star professors Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman (ten years older) had offices in the same hall. The two competed dramatically, shouting each other down in conferences. “While Feynman usually laughed off the absurd exchanges, Gell-Mann would get angrier and angrier. Dick didn’t let anything get under his skin; Murray let everything get under his. The two were so different and so competitive that it was becoming harder for them to be friends,” Johnson wrote in the original edition. This impression is corroborated in a memoir by Leonard Mlodinow, a junior faculty member given office in the same hall at Cal Tech. He wrote a book based on his frequent office conversations with Feynman but never could relate to Gell-Mann, who in their first meeting in the department lunch room approached him and said “Who are you?” without introducing himself. Gell-Mann then corrected Mlodinow’s pronunciation of his own Russian surname. The young post-doctoral physicist eventually quit physics and went to Hollywood, where he wrote for Star Trek.

Johnson’s depiction of Gell-Mann’s attitude toward journalists makes me glad I did not tell him at that run-in, “Look, I am not a burglar. I am a journalist.” Science writers that Gell-Mann abhored did not merit first names. He referred to “that Wilford person.” John Noble Wilford was a Times writer. Or “that Gleick person.” James Gleick wrote a biography of Feynman called “Genius.” Gell-Mann called the best-selling book of anecdotes (“Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman,”) “Feyman’s joke book”

Gell-Mann and Feynman were post-Trinity physicists, a group represented by novelist McCarthy as ruthlessly competitive. And the competition was do or die. In 1995, I was let loose from my column with the Albuquerque Journal to write the paper’s commemoration at the 50th anniversary of the earth-shaking test – code named “Trinity” by J. Robert Oppenheimer – of the world’s first nuclear bomb, made in Los Alamos. The “Manhattan Project” participants I was able to interview were modest, giving the impression of remarkable teamwork under the direction of Oppenheimer, although Edward Teller was not shy about his secret testimony to the postwar Atomic Energy Commission revoked his security clearance. The 2023 blockbuster movie “Oppenheimer” is a tragic story including that disgrace. The fictional but sweetly redemptive ending of the film brings in the most beloved physicist of the modern era: Albert Einstein.

At an award ceremony at SFI a speaker called Gell-Mann “one of the greatest scientists of the latter half of the 20th century.” Johnson writes that Cormac McCarthy begged to differ, saying Gell-Mann was “undoubtedly one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century.” The encomium must have gratified Gell-Mann, who disregarded Einstein. “In Murray’s eyes, Einstein had become a little pathetic,” Johnson wrote. He never said more than “Good morning” when he passed Einstein walking at the Princeton Institute of Advance Study. “He could not imagine what to say to someone so hopelessly mired in the past.”

Einstein late in life modestly wrote, “For the most part I do the thing which my own nature drives me to do.  It is embarrassing to earn so much love and respect for it. Arrows of hate have been shot at me too, but they never hit me because somehow they belong to another world with which I have no connection whatsoever.”

He had rejected quantum physics mostly for its “uncertainty principle,” saying, “God does not play dice.” That assertion is clearly philosophical, not scientific. On the contrary, Gell-Mann, like Feynman, advocated strict scientific-thinking. A quip they both used was: “My doctor told me to avoid philosophy.

One thought on “Stranger In A Strange Car

  1. Wow Larry. I was riveted by your amazing chronically of the atomic story. I love the way you interlaced so many key people, employees and bystanders. I was taken through the entire story with you. It didn’t seem like history. It was like I was there
    , and it was happening now.

    And as always your impeccable research fastens every incident to the ground of time and place.

    Congratulations!!!! And thank you for creating this vivid experience!!!!

    Love, love, Linda Jo, your very proud sister

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