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Friday, January 19, 2007

Quark and the Jaguar

Quark and the Jaguar : Adventures in the Simple and the Complex by Dr.Murray Gell-Mann

Scene: A generic auditorium in a physics department, with a rather crusty old chart of elementary particles on one of the walls, filled with grad students and faculty awaiting a talk by the renowned architect of modern particle physics, Dr.Gell-Mann.

Dr.Gell-Mann : "In case some of you are still wondering why my name sounds familiar but are unable to recall in what context you must've heard my name, I helped build this (points to the crusty old chart of elementary particles on the wall beside him) chart from scratch starting over 30 years ago".

That was my first and only contact with this contemporary theoretical physicist who introduced the Quark Model along with his research leading up to his discovery of the quark itself. That was one of the moments that shall remain etched in my memory.

This book is sort of a collection of his work on simple and complex adaptive systems. It explores the diversity of the universe that probably arises from a set of simple laws. "A quark inside an atom. A jaguar circling his jungle territory. What does one have to do with the other?" Dr.Gell-Mann weaves seemingly diverse elements through a description of the simple and the complex.

I had a mixed feeling about this book, even though I could certainly appreciate the ideas by Dr.Gell-Mann. It was not an easy read, in fact, quite a bit tedious for me. But, I read it over 10 years ago for the first time, as a starry-eyed grad student dreaming of making a breakthrough in the elementary particle physics world...

Why am I writing about it today? Well, because, I happened upon a copy of this book recently while trying get my home library organized, and was browsing through it when, without any warning, memories of my Old Life as a grad student with high ideals and such came crashing through. It is a life I comfortably left behind after earning my Master's, but, still look back on with some nostalgia on and off.

In this context, another flash of memory pointed me to The Limitations of Science by JWN Sullivan. My dear friend and room-mate had a copy back then (i believe it is out of print) and I remember being impressed by it because it was written in 1930, yet gave a comprehensive survey of developments in science. (Plus the sole review for this book on happens to be what my former naive self managed to write under the euphoria of reading a good book).

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