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Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics Paperback


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (October 17, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679756884
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679756880
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 3.2 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #735,901 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Murray Gell-Mann is a leading light in 20th-century physics, yet his name rings bells only for those interested in particle physics. Science writer George Johnson was fortunate enough to develop a friendly relationship with the great scientist, and his biography, Strange Beauty, glows with a rare intimacy gained from a notoriously private and irascible man. From his childhood in New York City to his current scientific elder-statesman status in New Mexico, Johnson explores Gell-Mann's life in glorious detail. A passionate, jealous, and brilliant man, he was capable of both profound insight and bitter lifelong rivalries, but Johnson finds there's much more to the man than these two simple poles; Gell-Mann's volatile family life and deft academic maneuvering also find room in this expansive biography.

The reader finds that Johnson's careful attention to detail shows more than it tells through enlightening stories of Gell-Mann's troubled, romantic, or pretentious dealings with peers, family, and even strangers. Explaining his strange surname means investigating old phone books, scientific legend, and family history, as the scientist is unwilling to shed light on the mystery (it turns out that his father hyphenated it, and Murray dreamed up etymologies as needed--giving rise to the tangled web of myths). Johnson is up to the challenge of recording the life story of a man nearly as strange as the quarks he discovered and named, and Strange Beauty lives up to the promise of its title. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Up, down, top, bottom, strange and charm aren't just states of mind: they're kinds of quarks, the mind-bending, omnipresent sub-subatomic particles co-discovered and named in the early 1960s by the American physicist Murray Gell-Mann. New York Times science reporter Johnson (Fire in the Mind) has written a brisk, accessible life of the Nobel-winning scientist, who will turn 70 next month. Gell-Mann grew up poor in New York City, the son of Eastern European Jews. Still in his teens, he attended Yale and MIT, and soon afterward won notice for his work on cosmic rays. Gell-Mann followed up his insights about quarks with important work at Caltech and elsewhere on superstrings, supergravity and mathematical complexity. His adult life has had its hardships: his daughter gave much of her life to an American Stalinist fringe group, and his wife died of cancer in 1981. (He's since remarried.) Johnson makes clear that Gell-Mann's direct, sometimes arrogant manner could make him difficult to work with; admired by physicists, he failed to achieve the wider fame of his media-friendly colleague, the late Richard Feynman. While Johnson relates such troubles sympathetically, the story of Gell-Mann's life is in large part the story of his and others' researches and discoveries. Explaining difficult fields like quantum physics, Johnson uses as many analogies, and as little math, as he can, while trying always to give some picture of what scientific problems Gell-Mann and his fellow scientists solved. The result is a careful if colloquial biography, perfect for readers who aren'tAor aren't yetAworking scientists. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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All in all, a well written and enjoyable book.
Richard N. Apling
To say that author George Johnson (an accomplished science writer) did a great job capturing Gell-Mann's personality and scientific world would be an understatement.
J. Storey
The reader can choose to ignore this material and stick with the biographical portion, but it is well worth the effort to understand the clear discussion.
L Klonsky

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

147 of 147 people found the following review helpful By Al on October 28, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Several years ago I was having lunch with Murray Gell-Mann. He lamented that one day a biography of him would appear and no doubt it would be written by a fool who would get it all wrong.
This month the biography of Murray Gell-Mann, arguably the most influential physicist of the latter part of the twentieth century appeared, but it was neither written by a fool nor was it all wrong.
A few years back, I read James Gleick's celebrated biography of Richard Feynman (Genius), the other great physicist of the latter part of the twentieth century, and Gell-Mann's closest rival and colleague. I felt that it suffered greatly from a problem that faces many biographers, that is, writing about someone you have never met. Gleick never met Feynman, much less knew him, and therefore it provided a distorted picture of the man. I never felt that Feynman's personality and thought process came through. Many of Feynman's closest intimates and family felt the same way and were more than disappointed by the biography.
In contrast, when I read George Johnson's recent biography of Murray Gell-Mann (Strange Beauty), I couldn't help thinking, "That's Murray!" "Yes, that's Murray!" (Recently I spoke with some close friends of Gell-Mann who felt the same way.) Author Johnson did have the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time with Gell-Mann and that certainly comes through. To a large degree you will get a strong sense of what Gell-Mann's personality is like. He can be extremely formidable, sarcastic with distinguished rivals as well as fools (he does not suffer fools gladly) and arrogant (adapting a phrase from Issac Newton, he once said, the reason I can see further than others is because I am surrounded by dwarfs).
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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Ken Baake on November 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Strange Beauty is a consummate piece of popular science writing that captivates the reader with tales of a fascinating 20th century particle physicist, but without letting the human narrative occlude the science itself. This is no easy accomplishment; often popular accounts of science veer too far into the cult of personality, making their heroes appear to be larger than life and their science to be some kind of high melodrama. George Johnson's storytelling helps us to know the flawed genius of Murray Gell-Mann and to care about him as a lead character. We also care about the knowledge that he and his colleagues are uncovering about the ephemeral wisps of particle reality that give rise to the material world. Gell-Mann comes off in this book as a devoted theorist and a passionate thinker, but also as a real human being. Johnson's portrayal is a more even-handed and fair treatment of Gell-Mann than he has received in other popular writings. The search for new particles reads like a detective story, but not in an affected style. The reader may not fully grasp each stage of the particle trail--a rarefied world that is difficult even for experts to feel at home in. But the particle search that Johnson unfolds makes it clear how mathematical constructs give rise to funny sounding names like "quarks," which then lead researchers on a hunt to find them. Twentieth-century particle physics is strikingly close to Platonic philosophy, which suggests that the foundations of reality can never be known, but only surmised from shadows. Yet, even as Strange Beauty is eliciting all of these insights from the reader, it does so while still managing to to be a ripping good story.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By L Klonsky on January 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
George Johnson's bio of Murray Gell-Mann is an excellent read for anyone intersted in what has been transpiring in post WWII Particle Physics. While providing a long overdue biography of one of the most important physicists of the century, it also has very lucid explanations of the complex theories that Gell-Mann and his cohorts have devised. The only caveat for the potential reader is to be aware that these concepts, while very well explained, are not easy going without some degree of patience and some high school level (or better) physics. The reader can choose to ignore this material and stick with the biographical portion, but it is well worth the effort to understand the clear discussion. In short, an excellent read for anyone intersted in contemporary physics and its practioners.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Richard N. Apling on November 30, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed this book very much. Gell-Mann's contribution to quantum physics is explained well (to the extent that anyone can explain that subject). The author also did an excellent job of exploring Gell-Mann's complex personality and his (often stormy) relationships with other great physicists of the second half of the 20th century. The author's personal relationship with his subject (getting permission to do a biography, getting access to Gell-Mann) is an entertaining sub-theme to the book. My main disappointment with the book (and perhaps this unfair, since the author's subject is Gell-Mann, afterall) is that there is not enough about the interplay between Gell-Mann and his equally great contemporary at Cal Tech--Richard Feynman.
All in all, a well written and enjoyable book.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By W. David Bayless on October 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Given his status in the pantheon of physicists, one might expect Strange Beauty to be a standard paean to Murray Gell-Mann's brilliance. Instead, George Johnson tells a much deeper story of a complicated man, his accomplishments, and his foibles. In 1994, I had eagerly awaited Gell-Mann's own book, The Quark and the Jaguar. I found it nearly unreadable. I was terribly disappointed, as I was very interested in a man who could simultaneously be held in such high regard by both reductionists (as a leading particle physicist) and fans of complexity sciences and emergence (as a co-founder of the Santa Fe Institute). Armed with Johnson's insights, I'm ready to try Gell-Mann's book again.
I'd also recommend Strange Beauty to anyone interested in the process of innovation. It's difficult to imagine a more competitive environment for pure creativity than that characterizing particle physics during much of this century. I took odd comfort from the fact that even among Nobel Prize winners, the process of innovation is marked by redundancy, countless dead ends, internecine struggle, pettiness, and seemingly sudden breakthroughs. Maybe we mere mortals need not be too discouraged when we find the same during our own efforts.
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