Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Making Of A Physicist: A Talk With Murray Gell-Mann

The Making Of A Physicist: A Talk With Murray Gell-Mann
By the time I got to Caltech Feynman was very well established. He was eleven and a half years older than I. We worked together for several years, and it was very pleasant and exciting. We would bounce ideas off each other, and call each other at odd times of day and night. We would try things and become enthusiastic about them and then find they didn’t work, and sometimes we would find other things that did work; it was quite fun. After a while, however, his preoccupation with himself and his own image began to get on my nerves. He was a very good scientist, but he spent a great deal of effort generating anecdotes about himself. In addition, whenever we did anything together he would somehow think of it as his work. It’s not that he didn’t appreciate me—he actually admired me a great deal—but somehow he couldn’t keep his own ego out of a common effort. Finally, I just couldn’t collaborate with him any more. We had worked closely together for five or six years and were good friends, but eventually I got turned off.

The effort that Dick spent generating stories about himself was unbelievable. He insisted on being different, always. His father had taught him that. However, in many cases it doesn’t pay to be different. Doing the regular thing is often okay. For instance, he advocated on national television that people not brush their teeth or floss. We shared the same firm of dentists, and I knew that they were having terrible trouble with his teeth. They tried to persuade him to brush, or floss, or both, and he wouldn’t do it. They kept bringing in scientific papers showing that it was useful; but he kept insisting it was just a superstition.

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