The science magazine Nature arranged to celebrate its centenary in November 1969 with a small public symposium addressed by four luminaries of the time. One was Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Another on the programme was Murray Gell-Mann, a rising star from California who had already invented the notion that the substance of the particles in the nuclei of atoms is made from objects he called quarks.
Two days before the meeting in London, there came word that Gell- Mann would not show up on medical advice: that he should not travel by air with an ear infection. The following day came the news that he had been awarded a Nobel Prize. We read what he told the reporters besieging him in California while anxiously seeking a replacement.
In George Johnson's book about Gell-Mann, this incident is cited as an illustration of "how self-centred the man could be". Even Gell- Mann's colleagues suspected he had been tipped off from Stockholm. Johnson describes the malady as "an earache", not necessarily an infection, and there is no reference to medical advice, which strengthens my suspicions that the illness was diplomatic. Later, I learned that Gell-Mann is renowned for his egocentricity, even egomania.
Biographers of scientists (especially of those still alive) have a difficult task. They have to explain the science as well as to give an account of the life of their subject in enough depth for the reader to know what kind of a fellow he or she may be. Johnson's five-year effort was complicated by Gell-Mann's initial refusal to co-operate (but he softened and allowed access to a garage full of papers), by the subject's unwillingness to talk about his early life as well as by the author's own awe. The fact that both now live in the social hothouse of Santa Fe (New Mexico) must complicate post- publication relations at those pool-side parties.
Johnson's manful reconstruction of Gell-Mann's early life, based on what classmates and relatives told him, is that "Murray's" Jewish grandparents were economic immigrants to the US from the neighbourhood of the Carpathians, and that his father (calling himself Arthur) was at once the inventor of the hyphen in the family name, and an intellectual manque with his nose buried in Einstein texts.
Gell-Mann himself was a prodigy. When the Columbia Grammar School on New York's Upper West Side gave him a scholarship, they bumped him up three grades. Even so, the school soon rumbled its prodigy's flair for enhancing the appearance of his undoubted brilliance. He was an intellectual show-off and snob. So he is still.
On the evidence offered, Johnson concludes that Gell-Mann's intolerance of people other than himself derives from his parents' failure to rise to the challenge of having reared a genius. That seems a shaky inference. But Arthur was forever urging his two sons (Murray is the younger brother by a decade) to scholarly pursuits and, in many ways, was able to criticise the young Murray with the impunity parents enjoy.
The distance that grew up between son and parents may simply have been caused by Murray's recognition that they were not his intellectual equals. Fair play, though: when his mother …