Doctor Murray Gell-Mann is one of the world’s most prominent scientific minds and is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969 and is the author of The Quark and the Jaguar. The United Nations named him to The Global 500 (the UN Environmental Program’s Roll of Honor for Environmental Achievement) in 1988 and he was awarded the Albert Einstein Medal in 2005. Dr. Gell-Mann is currently heading up the Evolution of Languages Program at the Santa Fe Institute. It was an honor for me to have lunch with him and talk with him about some of the most pressing issues facing our society and planet… as well as have a little fun.
Q: What inspired you to co-found the Santa Fe Institute and why was Santa Fe chosen?
A: In 1956 I came to New Mexico from Cal Tech to work as a consultant at Los Alamos Lab. The goal of the institute was to study the most important questions in basic science. The labs were too political so founding an independent institute allowed us to bring brilliant minds together in the wonderful atmosphere of northern New Mexico. The smartest people ask questions before they are answered. We do this at the institute.
Q: What is/are the most pressing question you feel we need answers for today?
A: Since the Big Bang theory is pretty well understood already, I’d have to say the predominance of dark matter. No one knows what it is – it is not made up of quarks or electrons – but it has been identified due to its gravitational effects/pull. We still do not know what it is made of though.
Q: Much of the headlines around climate change and environmental change are alarming. Here in New Mexico there is great concern about drought and wildfire. Can we turn the tide? And if so, what will it take?
A: Maybe we can turn the tide. It is certainly worth looking at and there are many bright minds trying to solve it. I consider myself a cynical optimist so I’d have to say that we may still be able to turn the tide with respect to climate change. The first time I heard people discussing climate change was in the ‘70’s when I served on the Presidential Science Committee during the Nixon years. John Erlichman – who of course served jail time due to the Watergate fiasco – mentioned that it was being discussed in various circles which is a bit ironic, he was a Republican strategist and many of the Republicans are the naysayers to this day refusing to acknowledge the scientific facts about climate change.
Q: The digital age has most of us suffering from information overload. Is it too much? Could it be harmful to us in the long run?
A: This could happen that it would be harmful, but we have not yet reached that point. We need to look at critical thinking and conversation. Thinking could become less clear and conversation could become inhibited. Once people stop looking at interesting things to think about – then that would be harmful, but we have not yet reached that point.
Q: I understand you’ve been an avid birdwatcher. What are some of your favorite places around Santa Fe?
A: I love the Audubon Center and around Taos for birding. I have identified around 4500 species so far which sounds like a lot until you realize that the top birders have identified over 9800 species.
Q: Do you have a favorite bird?
A: I’d have to say the Atlantic puffin. Partly because the puffin played a role in my decision to marry my first wife, Margaret – by the way-a very smart person in her own right. I told her I was going to Scotland to see if I could spot a puffin and not only did she want to go with me, but she knew what a puffin was – and she even drew one for me. This impressed me greatly and was probably a factor in us marrying.
Q: I know you were close friends with Sam and Ethel Ballen. Any stories you want to share about them?
A: They were very close friends of mine. I think it was very important that they saved La Fonda from being torn down. It was critical to preserve La Fonda – they saved all of the guest room balconies and preserved the hotel instead of altering it – which is very important. That is one of their legacies.
At the end of my fascinating lunch with Dr. Gell-Man, I asked if he’d allow me to take a picture with him and he swiftly answered, only if it’s a selfie! I must admit I was taken aback. How this brilliant man not only stays current in knowing what a selfie is but insisting on one – pretty amazing. So, please enjoy the attached selfie of me with Dr. Gell-Man.