The opening lines of Homer’s Odyssey describe its eponymous hero as polytropos, a man of many turns. It’s no coincidence that SFI co-founder Murray Gell-Mann invoked Homer’s crafty, long-voyaging hero when he envisioned the pinnacle of the scientific endeavor.
“Murray described his ideal scientist as an ‘Odyssean,’ one who lives somewhere between the analytical Apollonian and the intuitive Dionysian, one who loves to simplify yet is equally enamored of complication,” says David Krakauer, SFI President and Editor-in-Chief of the SFI Press. “Over the course of Murray’s life, he realized this ideal in his own journey from reductive particle physicist to complexity scientist.”
Two November releases from the SFI Press illuminate that journey. A new printing of Gell-Mann’s The Quark & the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple & The Complex (originally published in 1994) will appear in the SFI Press Compass series alongside the second edition of George Johnson’s acclaimed biography Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann & The Revolution in Physics (originally published in 1999).
As both books attest, Gell-Mann was a complicated figure, renowned as much for his divisive personality as for his unwavering belief in interdisciplinarity. His life story in many ways parallels the emergence of complexity science, including the founding of the Santa Fe Institute in 1984 as a haven for fellow “Odysseans.”
The voyage was sometimes tortuous. Amidst other challenges, the same virtuosity that animated Gell-Mann’s forays from physics into linguistics, antiquities, and ornithology also made writing an agonizing trial.
For Gell-Mann, “every word was hovering with connotations and etymology in a quantum haze,” says Johnson, an award-winning science journalist. Strange Beauty, which was shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize, chronicles the years of writer’s block, fired ghostwriters, and missed deadlines that preceded The Quark & the Jaguar.
The ironies of revising a biography of a challenged writer are not lost on Johnson, who relished the chance to revisit Strange Beauty after two decades. Though the core of the biography remains the same, says Johnson, “I never expected that I’d get such a wealth of new material that wasn’t available when the book was first written.”
Among this “treasure trove” are the transcripts of the 1969 Nobel deliberations and a diary Gell-Mann kept before and after the announcement of his prize, as well as reports from the FBI’s investigation into Gell-Mann during the Cold War paranoia of the mid-1950s. The new edition also adds a foreword by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter and a new chapter that covers Gell-Mann’s life up to his passing in May 2019.
The thoughtful design of the new SFI Press editions — available at an affordable price made possible by the Miller Omega Program — honors Gell-Mann’s “many turns,” from physicist to conservationist, dedicated reductionist to champion of diversity in academic disciplines and wildlife species alike.
The central image in The Quark & the Jaguar captures the duality of the book’s title and, perhaps, its author. “The quark,” Gell-Mann wrote, “is a symbol of the physical laws that, once discovered, come into full view before the mind’s analytical eye, so the jaguar is, for me at least, a possible metaphor for the elusive complex adaptive system, which continues to avoid a clear analytical gaze, though its pungent scent can be smelled in the bush.”
|The Quark & the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple & the Complex
by Murray Gell-Mann
Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Physics