Murray Gell-Mann accepts the Helmholtz Medal in Santa Fe on September 25, 2014 (InSightFoto)

In a moving ceremony Thursday evening at the Santa Fe Institute, SFI Distinguished Fellow Murray Gell-Mann received Germany's prestigious Helmholtz Medal for his achievements in physics and the sciences.

The Helmholtz Medal is the highest honor of the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW) and -- according to BBAW VP Klaus Lucas, who traveled from Germany to present the Medal -- continues the longstanding scientific tradition of the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

Established in June 1892, the Medal has recognized such physicists as Robert Bunsen and Lord Kelvin and, more recently, former SFI researcher Manfred Eigen and 2012 Nobel Prize recipient John C. Polanyi.

In 1969 Gell-Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions. Among his contributions was the “Eightfold Way,” a scheme for ordering subatomic particles onto geometric shapes, which opened the door to the theoretical prediction of undiscovered particles and their properties.

Gell-Mann’s scheme, later confirmed experimentally, led to the quantum field theory of quarks and gluons and seems to account for all subatomic particles and their strong interactions.

The invitation-only ceremony featured an introduction and welcome from SFI President Jerry Sabloff, followed by words of recognition from Gell-Mann’s friends and SFI colleagues Jim Hartle and Geoffrey West.

Hartle, who was Gell-Mann's student at Caltech some 50 years ago, reviewed Gell-Mann's contributions to science outside of physics, from his role in founding the Santa Fe Institute to Gell-Mann's under-appreciated study of the origins and evolution of human language. "To focus only on Murray's contributions to physics," he said, "would fail to credit him for half of his career accomplishments."

West focused on Gell-Mann's achievements in physics and argued, convincingly, that Gell-Mann might have received two Nobel Prizes, including an additional Nobel for his mathematical description and prediction of quarks. (Gell-Mann's 1969 Nobel Prize was not directly related to this more well-known achievement.) Ironically, West said, "the two men who actually predicted their existence as the fundamental particles of matter [Gell-Mann and George Zweig] did not receive the recognition by the Nobel Committee that they surely deserve for this profound insight."

BBAW’s Klaus Lucas offered a review of the Prussian Academy of Sciences tortured history, related in part to the tortured history of Germany itself. He described the history of the Helmholtz Medal in that context, and read, in German ("as tradition dictates"), the award citation. 

Following the presentation of the Medal, Gell-Mann made brief acceptance remarks. Some 60 participants then convened in SFI's foyer for a champaign toast led by Gell-Mann's longtime friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and SFI Trustee Cormac McCarthy, who took issue with Gell-Mann being called "one of the great physicists of the latter half of the 20th century" during the ceremony. McCarthy said it was his firm conviction that Gell-Mann is "undoubtedly one of the great scientists of the 20th century."

Make a gift to the Murray Gell-Mann Fund here.

Read the article in the Santa Fe New Mexican (September 28, 2014)

SFI asked Gell-Mann's friends and colleagues to offer their thoughts on the eve of his award. You are invited to add a comment below (moderated).