Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Google talk: Murray Gell-Mann

On getting creative ideas (click)

Murray Gell-Mann got his PhD at age of 21, discovered a lot of things in physics, led Ken Wilson, Sidney Coleman, and Barton Zwiebach to their PhD degrees, learned 13 languages (an assertion to be re-analyzed below), and gave a talk at Google Inc in March 2007.

Picture by LM: click to see how the colors have changed

He talks about creative ideas in different disciplines - recalling an interdisciplinary meeting -, the psychological setup in which this miraculous phenomenon appears, and some creative stories about the strange hadrons (figuring out that a particle has I=1 by a slip of his tongue),

Gell-Mann continues with Einstein's strategies, the obvious name for "quarks", non-existent quark industry at Route 128 near Boston, the fact that most challenges to the scientific orthodoxy are wrong and many of them are crank. You should always ask "Why not?" but realize that there is usually a damn good reason why not. A story about the Enron ad follows. Gell-Mann reveals the origin of "thinking outside the box": a puzzle about connecting 3x3 dots by a minimum number of straight lines.

Another strategy in creative thinking is to take some previous ideas more seriously than the predecessors and founders did. Lorentz found the right transformations but wasn't able to throw the rigid space away and couldn't extend the transformations to mechanics. Einstein took Lorentz more seriously than Lorentz, and the same thing with Planck and photons when Einstein explained the photoelectric effect. Finally, Einstein and the Polish guy also took the notion of molecules more seriously in explaining the Brownian motion.

Gell-Mann asks whether creativity can be taught and ends up with the analogy with the search for a global minimum of a function by going down the hill with some additional noise of the right temperature, and with creativity in everyday life, especially with cutting cheese by credit cards.

Gell-Mann and string theory

Questions start at 38:10. A computer scientist explains that during debugging, his colleagues do science. Gell-Mann agrees. At 39:50, a rather unattractive, artificially laughing, fat enemy of theoretical physics - let me stop this silly polite game: it was simply a shitty crackpot W*itian pig ;-) (the most offensive word was partially scratched) - asks a question "about string theory" that is not a real question. Gell-Mann is able to give a detailed answer to this non-question anyway.

Murray rightfully takes credit for having created the environment for the development of string theory at Caltech, something he was sure would be important. In his shop, they realized what the theory was actually good for. Murray Gell-Mann revisits the history in some technical detail and explains how they realized that string theory predicts general relativity within a quantum mechanical framework not plagued by infinities.

He talks about the enormous progress in string theory throughout the 30 years and the fact that the end is not here yet. Some results look discouraging, others don't, but there will certainly be predictions - general relativity has already been one of them in the past. Broken SUSY is the next one.

When he explains SUSY, he postulates the anti-exclusion principle for bosons - something I also like to say but I didn't coin the explicit term. ;-) He talks about the search for superpartners and explains other virtues of SUSY. Gell-Mann says that in principle, SUSY may exist without string theory and the enemies could always make similar assertions. Nevertheless, SUSY discovery would be encouraging for string theory.

Gell-Mann says that attacking a theory that hasn't been fully constructed is a little strange and it's mostly about money: some people want the resources that are otherwise flowing to smart theorists.

The next guy can't formulate his question for several minutes and then he mentions that Gell-Mann was talking about creativity which Gell-Mann denies. ;-) The attendant asks how thinkers find their new problems and Gell-Mann mentions that this is what his talk was about. I have no idea what the person was asking but Gell-Mann made a funny joke about Gates' great creative idea to sell products that consumers must debug themselves.

Quantum computing (a Russian guy was asking), astronomy (that only talks about 4%, everything else is photinos, he told his astrocolleagues), cosmological constant (dark energy is a really dumb name), and other topics follow.

At 59:40, someone who has clearly no idea what a "theorist" actually means and why he exists asks about the most thrilling applications (something like microwave ovens) of Gell-Mann's discoveries and Murray screams: "Applications!?" :-) Of course, he honestly answers that there aren't any. At 1:02:00, he is asked about lattice QCD. He says it's important but can't replace experiments. Money has been wasted for worse things than particle accelerators.

At 1:04:00 there is a question based on some quotes of Michael Crichton about anomalies in the late 19th century physics. Gell-Mann says that he doesn't get his science education from this very tall medical student. Sorry MC MD but I had to laugh a bit. ;-) But he enumerates some current anomalies anyway - the big challenges are to find the supersymmetry, super gauge theory, super Yang-Mills theory, Higgs, explain the vacuum energy, and verify string theory.

At 1:05:35, a question about the Bussard fusion follows. Gell-Mann thinks that Dr Bussard studies identical twins and gets very excited. ;-) Murray doesn't understand the questions too well and probably is not familiar with this particular approach, so he recalls some old, highly classified history of the fusion research and calls the project as confining milk by rubber bands. :-)

After a question at 1:08:20, he agrees with an attendant that it is good if one can convince others, besides being creative, but it may become a waste of time with certain people. Very true. At 1:09:00 he is asked about his 13 languages, so he mentions his linguistic research about the fascinating relations between languages and says that he only speaks the U.S. English well.

Finally, Gell-Mann is not sure whether there is a relation between languages and creative thinking.

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