Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Gell-Mann, Feynman, Hawking

Murray Gell-Mann on his relationship with Feynman.

See also Gell-Mann, Feynman, Everett.

I had only one memorable encounter with Murray while I was a student at Caltech. On the other hand I have quite a few memories of Feynman, who enjoyed interacting with students. I don't really blame Murray for not being particularly interested in students. The gap between him and us must have been (and still is) quite vast :-)

Hawking was on campus and was giving a kind of "secret" (not advertised) seminar in the medium sized lecture room on the second floor of Lauritsen. In those days Hawking could sort of talk, although only people who had worked closely with him could understand what he was saying. Nick Warner, at that time a postdoc at Caltech, was Hawking's interpreter. Hawking would gurgle briefly, and Nick would translate (decompress?) the message as Consider a 4-manifold endowed with a metric ...  drawing a blob on the blackboard and even writing equations. I could never figure out how this communication worked because what Nick said was so much more elaborate than the brief gurgle from Hawking. Perhaps the gurgle messages were something like Give the setup for the no-boundary wavefunction on a Euclidean 4-manifold!

They were filming the lecture for a documentary. A statuesque blonde woman in a tank top and jeans was holding a boom mike (microphone attached to long white plastic tube), standing in the aisle next to my seat. To keep the mike off camera she had both arms extended above her head with her chest thrust forward in a dramatic posture. Murray was seated directly ahead of me, and he couldn't keep his eyes on the lecture. He spent the first 15 minutes craning his neck to look at the chest display of boom mike girl. But he must have been half listening because at some point he got agitated about what Nick was saying and jumped up to disagree. He ran to the blackboard and hijacked the lecture from the postdoc and the guy in a wheelchair to explain his ideas about the wavefunction of the universe. After holding the speaker, interpreter and audience hostage for about 10 minutes, he relinquished the chalk and sat back down to resume peeking over his shoulder. That's my most vivid memory of Murray.


Rodrigo Guzman said...

given the rivalry between your alma matter and its counterpart on the east, you might enjoy this: :-)

Paul said...

Weinberg wrote something similar about Feynman (Times Higher Education - Feynman on God and his granny).

efalken said...

Feynman was a show-off, but among human vices that's pretty minor. Feynman actually had a very profound understanding of science, as his approach really underlies some of Feyerabend and Popper, ie, anything goes as long as you can test it. Gell-Mann seems more like a pedant, and his Santa Fe institute a big waste. G-M is a genius, but lacking in common sense, and his arrogance underlies his insecurity about Feynman.

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