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Finding Aid for the Murray Gell-Mann Papers 1931-2001, bulk 1955-1993
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Processing History
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content
  • Related Material
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Murray Gell-Mann Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1931-2001, bulk 1955-1993
    Collection number: 10219-MS
    Creator: Gell-Mann, Murray 1929-
    Extent: 54 linear feet
    Repository: California Institute of Technology. Caltech Archives
    Pasadena, California 91125
    Abstract: The scientific and personal correspondence, organizational and government files, technical and teaching notes, writings and talks, civic and social action files, biographical and family papers, and a small collection of audiovisual material of Murray Gell-Mann (b. 1929) form the collection known as the Murray Gell-Mann Papers in the Archives of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Professor at Caltech beginning 1955, Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969 for his work on the theory of elementary particles. Gell-Mann is a founder of the Santa Fe Institute and writes on complex adaptive systems. He became emeritus from Caltech in 1993.
    Physical location: California Institute of Technology, Institute Archives
    Language of Material:
    Languages represented in the collection:
    English SpanishFrench


    The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access.
    Some files are confidential and will remain closed for an indefinite period. Researchers may request information about closed files from the Caltech Archivist.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Caltech Archivist. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and, unless explicitly stated otherwise, is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Murray Gell-Mann Papers, 10219-MS, Caltech Archives, California Institute of Technology.

    Acquisition Information

    The Papers of Murray Gell-Mann were purchased by Paul B. MacCready and donated by him to the Caltech Archives in December 2003.

    Processing History

    Processed by Charlotte E. Erwin, Loma Karklins, Kevin Knox, Nurit Lifshitz, and Elisa Piccio, June 2007.
    Processing of the Murray Gell-Mann Papers was begun in early 2004. Some original manuscript material was returned to the donor, notably, letters of Margaret Gell-Mann (Murray Gell-Mann's first wife) and papers relating to the Gell-Mann children. Additionally, some audiotapes were deaccessioned, including classical music tapes from commercial recordings and 28 audiocassettes of bird calls evidently recorded by Murray Gell-Mann.
    Funds to assist the processing of the Gell-Mann Papers were provided under the Grants to Archives program of the American Institute of Physics.


    Murray Gell-Mann was born on September 15, 1929, in New York City, the second son of Arthur Isidore Gell-Mann and Pauline, née Reichstein. The hyphenation of the family surname was introduced by Arthur from the traditional Gellmann used by his forebears in the place of his birth, the province of Galicia then part of Austria-Hungary (today Ukraine). The details concerning the unusual name spelling are told by George Johnson in his biography of Murray Gell-Mann, Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics (New York, 1999). Although the family heritage was Jewish, neither Arthur Gell-Mann nor his son Murray practiced any formal religion.
    A gifted child from the start, Murray Gell-Mann entered Columbia Grammar School as a sixth-grader at age 8, and he was admitted to Yale on a full scholarship at the age of 14. He received his bachelor's degree in physics from Yale in 1948 and his PhD under Victor Weisskopf at MIT just two and a half years later, in January 1951. After one year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, then led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, where he began to work on elementary particle theory with Francis Low, Gell-Mann joined the faculty at the University of Chicago. There he met and began collaboration with Marvin L. Goldberger on dispersion theory and S-matrix theory, which Gell-Mann later noted to be "ancestral" to superstring theory. (Goldberger later became president of Caltech during the years 1978-1987.) He also conducted his own research on symmetry properties of elementary particles, inventing the quantum number "strangeness." In 1955 Gell-Mann accepted a professorial position in theoretical physics at Caltech, where he would remain until 1993. Also in 1955 he married Josephine Margaret Dow (1931-1981). They had two children, Elizabeth (Lisa) and Nicholas.
    At Caltech Gell-Mann continued to explore the symmetry properties of elementary particles. There he met and on occasion collaborated with Richard Feynman. The early 1960s were a prolific period for Gell-Mann. In 1963 he put forward the hypothesis that the fundamental constituents of the strongly interacting particles are quarks and gluons. Gell-Mann took the word "quark" from James Joyce's novel, Finnegans Wake. His former student, George Zweig, then working independently, developed a similar theory which called these same particles aces. Gell-Mann's eightfold-way scheme for organizing atomic particles that occurred as octets was first circulated at Caltech in 1961 in an unpublished report. It predicted the existence of the omega-minus particle, which was later confirmed experimentally at Brookhaven National Laboratory in January 1964. In the same year, Gell-Mann and Yuval Ne'eman published the reprint volume, The Eightfold Way, which both provided an overview of the current state of particle physics and inaugurated a new decade in high-energy physics research. From the quark model, Gell-Mann and others built the quantum field theory called quantum chromodynamics, which accounted for all of the nuclear particles and their strong interactions. Murray Gell-Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969.
    Pursuing his interests outside of physics, Murray Gell-Mann became involved in natural history (especially bird study), historical linguistics, archaeology, history, depth psychology, and creative thinking. In an autobiographical essay written circa 1990 (Gell-Mann Papers, Box 109, Folder 11), Gell-Mann links these subjects with biological evolution, cultural evolution, learning and thinking--all aspects of adaptive complex systems. His other interests group themselves around the theme of sustainability of human life on earth. He has been involved in policymaking on the world environment, population growth, sustainable economic development, and the stability of the world political system, including strategic arms control.
    Gell-Mann served on the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) in 1969-1972 and on the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, 1994-2001. He was a Citizen Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, 1974-1988, and a director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 1979-2002. Gell-Mann became a consultant to the RAND Corporation in 1956, and he joined the science advisory group JASON around 1960. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1960 and became a Fellow in 1983. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science; a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London and several other foreign academies of science; and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He currently serves on the boards of the L. S. B. Leakey Foundation and of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
    Among Gell-Mann's many awards, apart from the Nobel Prize, are: the Dannie Heineman Prize of the American Physical Society (1959); the Ernest O. Lawrence Memorial Award of the Atomic Energy Commission (1966); the Franklin Medal of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia (1967); the John J. Carty Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (1968); and the Research Corporation Award (1968). He holds honorary degrees from many academic institutions, including Yale, University of Chicago, University of Turin, and Cambridge and Oxford Universities. Gell-Mann has also been recognized for his environmental work, notably, through the United Nations Environment Program Roll of Honor for Environmental Achievement (the Global 500), 1988. He shared the 1989 Erice Science for Peace Prize.
    Through years of thinking about the world around us, Gell-Mann has come to a field of inquiry he calls "plectics"--the study of simplicity and complexity. In the mid-1980s he helped to establish the private, non-profit Santa Fe Institute and serves now as a Distinguished Fellow and trustee. He retired from Caltech in 1993 as the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus and now lives in Santa Fe. In 1992 he married the poet Marcia Southwick; they divorced in 2005. Gell-Mann continues to teach at the University of New Mexico and to conduct research on complex adaptive systems and the evolution of human language. In 1994 he published his popular science book, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex.

    Scope and Content

    The Murray Gell-Mann Papers were donated to the Caltech Archives without restriction. They document virtually all aspects of his life and work, but the bulk of the material dates from his arrival at Caltech in 1955 until he became professor emeritus in 1993. The papers have been divided into nine series: Correspondence (1); Caltech Material (2); Professional Organizations (3); Civic, Environmental, and Social Action (4); Government (5); Scientific Notes, Papers, and Manuscripts (6); Talks and Conferences (7); Biographical and Personal Material (8); and Audiovisual Material (9).
    Series 1, Correspondence, includes communications with both individuals and corporate bodies and is arranged in alphabetical sequence. Users will find additional correspondence in other series, and every effort has been made to cross-reference correspondents outside the first series. Letters and cards of a strictly personal nature and those concerning members of the Gell-Mann family will be found in Series 8, Biographical and Personal Material. Gell-Mann carried on correspondence with many prominent physicists in the post-World-War-II period; some of these were among his principal collaborators on published papers. Major individual correspondents represented in Series 1 include: L. Alvarez, E. Amaldi, R. Bacher, J. Bahcall, M. A. B. Bég, H. Bethe, L. Biedenharn, A. Bohr, L. Brink, K. Brueckner, G. Chew, J. Cockcroft, J. Cornwall, R. Courant, N. Dombey, F. Dyson, R. Feynman, H. Fritzsch, R. Garwin, M. Goldberger, F. Gürsey, S. Hawking, R. Hermann, L. Lederman, M. Lévy, W. Libby, F. Low, M. Jacob, C. Kaysen, N. Kürti, P. MacCready, R. Marshak, E. McMillan, Y. Nambu,Y. Ne'eman, J. R. Oppenheimer, J. Pati, D. Pines, J. Polkinghorne, A. Polyakov, P. Ramond, A. Rosenfeld, J. Sakurai, A. Salam, D. Sharp, R. Socolow, E. C. G. Sudarshan, V. Telegdi, W. Thirring, C. Townes, S. F. Tuan, K. Watson, V. Weisskopf, J. Wheeler, G-C. Wick, K. Wilson, C. N. Yang, H. Yukawa, F. Zachariasen, Y. Zeldovich, and G. Zweig.
    Corporate correspondents in Series 1 include academic institutions other than Caltech, both domestic and foreign. These are filed under the distinctive part of the institution's name, for example, British Columbia, University of; or California, University of, Berkeley. Other corporate entities include publishers and journals, foundations and organizations, and cultural institutions. For these groups, as well as for individuals, there is overlap with other series, especially Professional Organizations (Series 3), Civic, Environmental, and Social Action (Series 4), and Government (Series 5). Material on scientific conferences is cross-referenced to related material in Series 7, Talks and Conferences.
    Series 2, Caltech Material, is relatively compact in scope but includes important material relating to Gell-Mann's professorial and research activities at the California Institute of Technology. The files have been grouped into four subseries beginning with files on the Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy Division (PMA), one of six academic divisions at Caltech and the locus of Gell-Mann's teaching and research; files on Gell-Mann's research group in high energy physics relating mostly to funding sources; Gell-Mann's lecture notes covering most of his teaching career at Caltech, from 1956 to 1992; and files documenting Gell-Mann's wide array of interests outside of the PMA Division, notably in biology, behavioral and environmental science, and various fields of social science and humanities. There are also files showing his connection with the Caltech community at large, from the library to the eating club called the Athenaeum Apicians. The archivist has closed some files in this series indefinitely to protect the privacy of third parties associated with Caltech. Correspondence with Caltech colleagues may also be found under their individual names in Series 1.
    Murray Gell-Mann was involved in many organizations and activities. The portion of his papers on organizations is arranged over three series: Series 3, Professional Organizations; Series 4, Civic, Environmental and Social Action; and Series 5, Government. All three series are arranged in alphabetic sequence by organizational name or, in a few instances, by subject heading, for example, creationism in Series 4. Of note in Series 3 is the set of files on the defense advisory group JASON, to which Gell-Mann belonged from an early date, ca. 1959-1960. The JASON materials in his papers are essentially administrative documents and correspondence; they do not include any technical material. For more substantial files on JASON at Caltech, see the papers of both Fredrick Zachariasen and Marvin L. Goldberger in the Caltech Archives. (The Goldberger Papers are scheduled to be opened for research in 2013.)
    Series 6, Scientific Notes, Papers and Manuscripts, is divided into two subseries, each arranged chronologically over the period of principally the 1950s-1990s, with some material dating back to Gell-Mann's undergraduate days at Yale, 1944-1948. The first subseries contains unpublished notes and calculations relating to the theoretical physics problems that formed the major part of Gell-Mann's important scientific work for several decades. Although some files from the 1950s are titled by Gell-Mann, the vast majority from about 1960 on are dated only and remain untitled, resulting in 18 boxes of mostly unlabeled loose notes and calculations typically on yellow lined paper. It should be noted that some non-technical notes are mixed in with technical, for example, notes on language study may be found in this series. Subseries 2 contains Gell-Mann's publications in various states, from offprints to notes, drafts, and galleys. These files include correspondence related to his publications and in some instances, with co-authors.
    Series 7, Talks and Conferences, like the preceding series, is arranged chronologically in two subseries. It includes Gell-Mann's invited talks in various formats and states, along with related correspondence and conference ephemera. Most but not all talks are on scientific subjects. Users should compare materials in Series 6 and 7 to observe the evolving relationship of notes, talks, and eventual publications.
    Series 8, Biographical and Personal Material, contains a diverse assortment of items arranged in seven short subseries. The first contains correspondence of a personal nature, comprising letters to close personal friends and relatives, invitations, and various types of greetings. Also in this section is fan mail and miscellaneous non-technical material on quarks, plus a set of files called by Gell-Mann "Cranks," which contain off-beat letters from, typically, self-styled scientists. The next subseries is a miscellany of biographical documents, from personal data to biographical statements and interviews to material on Gell-Mann's 60th birthday symposium in 1989. Included in this section are Gell-Mann's autobiographical statement and a series of notes to himself about himself. The third subseries contains documents on Gell-Mann's many awards and prizes, including the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969. The Nobel Prize scroll and the E. O. Lawrence Memorial Award have been placed at the end of the series in subseries 7, Oversize Material, along with other large-sized award documents. Subseries 4 contains a small amount of material on Gell-Mann's personal interests, from bird-watching to art collecting to linguistics and language study. This section relates closely to the next, Subseries 5, which contains material on Gell-Mann's financial affairs. This includes personal property and finances, as well as investments. The 1988 seizure by U.S. customs agents of Gell-Mann's pre-Columbian art and artifact collection, which resulted in a court case, is documented here. Two files in this subseries relating to Gell-Mann's business partnership with Harry and Shirley Gray have been closed by the archivist for an indefinite period for reasons of third-party privacy. Subseries 6 groups together the correspondence of Gell-Mann's first wife, Margaret, with documents about her illness and death in 1981. Other personal correspondence of Margaret Gell-Mann was returned to the donor. Some additional documents concerning the Gell-Mann children, Lisa and Nicholas, have been retained in this section, but other material relating to the children was deemed inappropriate for archival retention and was returned to the donor.
    Series 9, Audiovisual Material, consists of audio- and videocassette tapes, plus a small number of tape reels. There are several recordings of talks by Gell-Mann that are untitled or unidentified as to topic and date. This series contains a set of videos in VHS format of the Gell-Mann 60th birthday symposium in January 1989, which lacks only the concluding dinner program. Also included is a partial set of five videotapes of the Caltech centennial symposium, "Visions of a Sustainable World," October 1991. (The Caltech Archives has a complete set of audio- and videotapes, the latter in ¾-inch format at present.) Of significant interest is a set of audiotapes of Richard Feynman's lectures at Caltech for Physics 230, Elementary Particle Theory, for the year 1977-1978. The lectures were by all appearances recorded by Gell-Mann himself, and the set is missing only a few lectures in the course of the year. H. David Politzer is recorded on one tape as a guest lecturer in this class.
    The collection is organized into the following series:
    • Series 1. Correspondence
    • Series 2. Caltech Material
    • Series 3. Professional Organizations
    • Series 4. Civic, Environmental and Social Action
    • Series 5. Government
    • Series 6. Scientific Notes, Papers and Manuscripts
    • Series 7. Talks and Conferences
    • Series 8. Biographical and Personal Material
    • Series 9. Audio-Visual Material

    Related Material

    Materials related to the defense advisory group JASON may also be found in the Caltech Archives within the Fredrik Zachariasen Papers and the Marvin L. Goldberger Papers. The Goldberger Papers, which form part of Caltech's presidential papers archive, are closed until 2013.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.


    California Institute of Technology
    Complex adaptive systems
    Particles (Nuclear physics)
    Physics Congresses
    Quantum electrodynamics
    Theoretical physics


    Nobel Prize winners