The 1950s and 60s were a Golden Age of particle physics, as accelerators produced a plethora of new particles with unpredictable properties. This presented a problem: There were too many of these new particles, which appeared in collisions without any evident rhyme or reason. They didn’t look anything like the kind of simple, elegant structure scientists expect from the laws of nature.The creation of what we call the Standard Model was a group enterprise to which hundreds contributed, but Gell-Mann may have contributed the most.
With a series of brilliant strokes, Dr. Gell-Mann revealed the secret pattern that made everything snap into place. His Eightfold Way, mischievously named after a Buddhist doctrine of liberation, made sense of the new particles that had been discovered and predicted ones that hadn’t been. The Eightfold Way is to elementary particles what the Periodic Table is to chemical elements. Ultimately, he proposed “quarks,” unobserved particles that are bound together in groups of two or three, to account for almost all of the new discoveries.
But that wasn’t all.
Dr. Gell-Mann was at the center of a whirlwind of theoretical activity. He showed how quantum mechanics allowed a particle to transform into a different particle and then back again. He demonstrated that the strength of particle interactions would depend on the energy with which they were colliding. With his colleague Richard Feynman, he explicated the symmetry structure of the weak nuclear force, one of the four forces of nature. He proposed a physical quantity — “strangeness” — that would explain why some particles lasted longer than others. He, along with Harald Fritzsch, hypothesized that there were force-carrying particles, which they called “gluons,” that hold quarks together. Each of these ideas has subsequently been triumphantly confirmed by experiment.
He was also a world-class jerk:
He was fond of referring to people he didn’t think highly of as “ignoramuses.” He was the kind of language maven who would correct people on the pronunciation of their own names, and complain to servers at French and Spanish restaurants about misspellings on their menus.And he couldn't stop bragging about his own brilliance. But for that last one, maybe we should forgive him.