Physicist Murray Gell-Mann in 2003.
Image: AP

Pioneering physicist Murray Gell-Mann has passed away at the age of 89. Among his many scientific contributions, the Nobel laureate will be remembered for bringing order to the chaotic field of particle physics, and for coining the term “quark”—a fundamental building block of matter.

Physicist Murray Gell-Mann died “peacefully” on Friday, May 24 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a Santa Fe Institute press release has confirmed. Gell-Mann was a co-founder of the institute, where he taught for decades and headed its Evolution of Human Languages program. The cause of his death was not revealed.

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Gell-Mann was a giant who helped to make sense of the very small. The winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics, he developed a classification scheme called the Eightfold Way that finally gave order to elementary particles. He helped to develop the idea of quarks, while making significant contributions to the standard model of particle physics, which is used for explaining and predicting a wide variety of physical phenomena.

Gell-Mann was born in lower Manhattan in 1929 to a family of Jewish immigrants from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (specifically the region that’s now Ukraine). As a child, Gell-Mann displayed an early proficiency at math; his brother said he could multiply numbers in his head and perform other feats of “mental gymnastics that most people couldn’t do,” noted the Santa Fe Institute in its release.

A graduate of Yale and MIT, Gell-Mann made early contributions to the emerging practice of using “atom smashers”—devices now known as particle accelerators—to smash electrons and protons at high speeds. In the late 1950s, Gell-Mann co-authored a paper with the esteemed Caltech physicist Richard Feynman about the radioactive decay of neutrons.

During the following decade, Gell-Mann developed a system to classify subatomic particles in a manner often compared to the Periodic Table of Elements in chemistry. The Santa Fe Institute press release explains:

The field of particle physics in the late 1950s and early 1960s was often described as a “particle zoo,” littered with more than 100 so-called elementary particles that had been either predicted by mathematical theory or observed in experiments with particle accelerators. In 1961, Gell-Mann and Yuval Ne’eman independently proposed a scheme for ordering these subatomic particles onto clusters of eight and ten based on a symmetry called SU(3). The “Eightfold Way,” which Gell-Mann poetically named after the Buddhist eightfold path to enlightenment, has been likened to the Mendele’ev Periodic Table of Elements in chemistry because it classified subatomic particles, like protons, neutrons, mesons, and baryons, into groups with similar and related properties. Furthermore, it described their interactions and, equally importantly, opened the door for predicting the existence of new particle states, which were subsequently discovered.

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Gell-Mann was subsequently awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions.”

Gell-Mann (second from left) receiving his Nobel Prize in 1969.
Image: AP

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The new classification scheme inspired Gell-Mann to predict the existence of a previously undocumented elementary particle. This hypothetical building block of neutrons and protons were dubbed “quarks” by Gell-Mann, who borrowed the word from James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake—specifically the reference to “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” (Importantly, physicist George Zweig independently came up with the same idea around the same time.) Later, using the Stanford Linear Accelerator, quarks were proven to exist, according to the Santa Fe Institute.

“Murray Gell-Mann was a seminal figure in the history of physics,” said Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum in a Caltech statement. “A polymath, a discerner of Nature’s fundamental patterns, and, as such, an expositor for the connections of physics to other disciplines, Murray helped define the approaches of generations of scientists.”

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Over the years, Gell-Mann taught and worked at a number of institutions, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago. In 1994 he published The Quark and the Jaguar, a book that made his ideas more accessible to a wider audience. Among his many awards, Gell-Mann was the 2010 recipient of the USC Presidential Professor of Physics and Medicine at the University of Southern California, and the 2014 Helmholtz Medal, a prestigious German award.

Gell-Mann is survived by his children Nicholas Gell-Mann and Elizabeth Gell-Mann, his and stepson Nicholas Southwick Levis, as per Caltech.

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