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George Johnson's informed and insightful biography of Murray Gell-Mann goes far in helping us understand the complexities of both the man and the science in which he has loomed so large. Gell-Mann's discoveries of the quark and the Eightfold Way were cornerstones for all that has followed in particle physics, the effort to explain the very stuff of creation.
Born on New York's Lower East Side, Gell-Mann was quickly recognized as a child prodigy. Propelled by an intense boyhood curiosity and a love for nature, he entered Yale at fifteen. By age twenty-three he had ignited a revolution, laying bare in his groundbreaking work the strange beauty of the minute particles that constitute the ultimate components of physical reality.
Particle physics is the most competitive of sports, and Johnson shows us the precocious polymath holding his own with giants like Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Richard Feynman -- Gell-Mann's favorite intellectual sparring partner and sometimes antagonistic rival. We see Gell-Mann the self-taught linguist (who couldn't resist correcting visitors on the pronunciation of their own names); Gell-Mann the birdwatcher and amateur archaeologist; Gell-Mann the Aspen socialite, world traveler, and environmental crusader.
We watch him making his scientific breakthroughs, his abrasive, competitive drive leaving behind a growing trail of enemies. The early death of his first wife and a family crisis sent him veering in new directions. Turning from the physics of simple particles, like quarks, he began exploring how complex phenomena like life can be understood scientifically.
"George Johnson has nailed this biography of the brilliant and irascible Murray Gell-Mann. Strange Beauty is complex, mind-expanding, beautiful, and true." —James Gleick
"When you have one of the world's most accomplished science writers recounting the life and times of one of the world's most accomplished scientists, readers' expectations are justifiably high. They are fully met. Johnson gives us an extraordinary view of an extraordinary man, and navigates through science that ordinarily would seem difficult, with such skill that it is not difficult at all. Strange Beauty is a masterpiece of modern biography." —Roger Lewin
"Gell-Mann could not have written such a perceptive book about himself as Johnson has. . . . Reads like a detective novel. Johnson does a wonderful job of describing the competition and cooperation among scientists, the egos and insecurities, the disappointments and triumphs, and the disputes, suspicions and shifting allegiances." —The New York Times Book Review
"Skillfully and engagingly written. . . . Johnson paints a convincing portrait of Gell-Mann's personality, which is in turn charming, irritating, and generous. . . . Johnson captures well his subject's inner scientific conflicts." —Science
"Few physicists have displayed the poetic inspiration of the Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann. . . . In this biography he emerges as brilliant and often insufferable, relentlessly curious, hopelessly pedantic, and one of the best synthetic thinkers in the history of his field. The book [offers] a vivid sense of Gell-Mann and his contemporaries (including his collaborator and competitor Richard Feynman)." —The New Yorker