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Save Murray Gell-Mann a spot in physics hall of fame.

If physics had a hall of fame like baseball's, Murray Gell-Mann would not be eligible for admission.

That isn't because his achievements don't warrant such recognition. Gell-Mann is one of the legends of physics, a chief architect of the modern understanding of matter. He was awarded the Nobel Prize 40 years ago. But eligibility for election to the baseball hall of fame does not begin until five years after retirement. And Gell-Mann, who turns 80 on September 15, is still going strong.

He is currently on the active roster at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, a research center he helped to found a quarter of a century ago (see Page 32). There he collaborates with linguists tracing the ancestry of present-day human languages. He also continues working on refining the modern interpretation of quantum mechanics, a topic that still perplexes many experts and engenders endless misunderstanding among nonexperts. He expects a new paper extending his work on quantum physics, in collaboration with physicist James Hartle of the University of California, Santa Barbara, to appear soon.

Gell-Mann is most famous for developing the concept of and coining the word "quark" to describe the ultimate constituent particle of nuclear matter. In an essay in this issue (Page 24), I recount the story of quarks, focusing on the example they provide of a new idea facing resistance from the scientific establishment. As Gell-Mann observed when I spoke with him recently, quarks defied many deeply held principles among physicists of the early 1960s. Because quarks challenged the orthodoxy of the day, they were at first widely disparaged. But over the years, evidence for them accumulated and their reality is now well established.

The quark story and other examples (such as resistance to the idea of continental drift) show how conventional wisdom can retard the advance of science. But as Gell-Mann emphasizes, such examples are exceptions to the general rule. Most challenges to orthodox scientific belief are, in fact, wrong, and some are entirely crackpot. Only rarely do contrarian ideas go on to demolish well-established concepts. It's important, though, to be on the alert for those rare prescient ideas proposed by the deep thinkers who are destined, like Gell-Mann, to become legends.

--Tom Siegfried, Editor in Chief

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Title Annotation:FROM THE EDITOR
Author:Siegfried, Tom
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 12, 2009
Words:374
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