BOOK REVIEW / Functionals and flying fishes: Graham Farmelo on the scientist Murray Gell-Mann and the hunting of the quark: The Quark and the Jaguar - Murray Gell-Mann: Little, Brown, pounds 18.99

AN EXPERT in archaeology, anthropology, ecology, psychology, ornithology and linguistics, a speaker of 13 languages, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics - Murray Gell-Mann bears little resemblance to the caricature of a narrow-minded scientist. He has certainly done pretty well for someone who describes himself as 'fundamentally lazy'.

Over the last 40 years he has contributed prolifically to the theory of subatomic particles, at his peak writing an outstanding paper every few months. He is also well-known for introducing into the scientific lexicon several linguistically striking terms, most famously the 'quark'. This once referred to an agreeable type of curd cheese and a little-known coinage in Finnegans Wake ('Three quarks for Muster Mark]'), but in 1963 Gell-Mann used Joyce's word to name the new type of fundamental particle that he and a colleague at the California Institute of Technology independently proposed.

Experimenters have since verified that all matter, including every living thing, comprises a bundle of electrons and quarks, every one completely devoid of individuality (each electron and each type of quark is identical to every other in the universe). Meanwhile, some theoreticians believe that they are close to finding what they expect to be a comparatively simple theory that will describe, in just a few pages of mathematical hieroglyphics, the behaviour of all the fundamental particles and the forces between them.

But if everything is made of particles that are absolutely identical, how has the universe come to be so

diverse? This is one of the questions that Gell-Mann is now studying at the Santa Fe Institute, the interdisciplinary think-tank in New Mexico that he helped to found 10 years ago. He has also chosen this as the theme of his first book, whose title is taken from the poetry of Arthur Sze: 'The world of the quark has everything to do with a jaguar circling in the night'. This neatly captures Gell-Mann's belief that there are profound connections to be discovered between 'simple' theories of sub-atomic particles and the complexity of the world around us, symbolised by the jaguar, an astonishingly complex product of billions of years of evolution.

For someone so confident - some would say arrogant - Gell-Mann is surprisingly defensive in presenting this eagerly awaited work. He rues that writing has never come easily to him, and he thanks his wife, the poet and English professor Marcia Southwick, for helping to overcome his worst deficiencies of style and also for being 'ideal practice target': a reader who 'has not been trained in science or mathematics but has a profound interest in both'. To tackle a work of this depth and density, you do indeed need a profound interest in science (or at least in Gell-Mann), not just mere curiosity.

With little ado, he sets the scene by considering the technical meanings of simplicity and complexity (neither are simple, of course) and he introduces the key idea of a 'complex adaptive system', an ugly term that badly needs to be given a felicitous and engaging synonym. Such a system is one that learns or evolves in the same way as living systems do: it acquires information about its environment and condenses regularities in the information into a model or 'schema' which is used when the system acts in the real world.

This action feeds back to influence the competition among the competing schemata. Gell-Mann describes a wide variety of these systems - including a child learning a language, bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics and the behaviour of investors on stock markets - drawing fascinating comparisons between them.

The research programme outlined here could hardly be more ambitious: it is to find a single theoretical framework spanning the Big Bang right through to the evolution of human societies. The theory in prospect is 5 likely to focus on the continuous interplay between the simple fundamental laws and the operation of chance, which unavoidably arises in quantum mechanics, an essential ingredient of the laws. This is every bit as complicated as it sounds. As he hints, Gell-Mann's treatment of 'simple' physics is challenging to say the least, and will be easily digested only by the practised quantum mechanic and any others who are at home with 'decoherence functionals of coarse-grained histories'.

As we should expect from its polymathic author, the book is teeming with insights and intelligent comment, covering topics ranging from total quality management, to world environmental policy and reported observations of fishes falling from the sky. Yet, unlike so many accounts that aspire to deal with this range of material, this one is completely rigorous and refreshingly free of pseudo-spiritual twaddle (the God theory is given no space at all). But what a pity it is that Marcia Southwick and Gell-Mann's editors have allowed him so many indulgences, that his themes are more often than not obscured by the welter of his erudition.

In his preface, Murray Gell-Mann points out that the writing of a book is itself a complex adaptive system. The problem here is that in choosing his schema for the book, he didn't pay enough attention to the need to give it a strong and compelling narrative. As a result, I fear that in the competitive marketplace of popular science books The Quark and the Jaguar will, for all its strengths, suffer from the most brutal rigours of natural selection.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate