On Getting Creative Ideas

On Getting Creative Ideas

November 9, 2019 31 By Bernardo Ryan


MALE SPEAKER: Hi, everyone. Thank you for coming today. It’s my great pleasure to
introduce one of the great minds of our time,
Murray Gell-Mann. Professor Gell-Mann has a list
of accomplishments so long that I could spend all hour
up here, reciting them. I won’t do that, but I’ll
highlight a few. He’s been recognized by the
Atomic Energy Commission, the Franklin Institute, the National
Academy of Sciences, the United Nations. He has honorary degrees from,
well, more institutions than most of us have even attended. And then there’s that little
prize he one in 1969, the Nobel Prize. He spent his life contributing
to our understanding of the world and the universe. Today he’s here to
deliver a talk on getting creative ideas. So please join me in welcoming
professor Gell-Mann. MURRAY GELL-MANN: I’m very
pleased to be here and to talk with you about this subject. Probably most of you heard most
of the things that I’ll refer to, but maybe for each of
you, there will be a little nugget that’s new. I hope so. The notion of a creative idea
can be extended from science, to art, and business,
and many other activities in which we engage. And whenever a comparison is
made among the different kinds of applications, it
seems that there are very close parallels. I was part of a group that met
in an Aspen in 1969 to talk about the experience of getting
a creative idea, the light bulb turning
on, the aha! moment. And there was a poet, two
painters, a theoretical biologist, and I was the
theoretical physicist. There was another visual artist,
a very famous one, but he didn’t stay. He couldn’t stand listening
to anyone else talk. And he went out and got drunk
instead of staying. That doesn’t stop me from
collecting his prints. Anyway, all of us who spoke had
very similar experiences. There was a contradiction
between certain established are available ways of doing
things and something we needed to accomplish– in art, the expression of
a feeling of thought and insight, in theoretical science,
the explanation of some observations. Well, first of all, each of us
worked for days or weeks or months to resolve this
contradiction between what was needed and what we
had, filling the mind with the problem. Then, second, there came a time
when further conscious thought seemed to be useless. But somehow, outside of
conscious awareness, mental activity went on anyway, or at
least that’s my interpretation of what happened. Third, one day while cycling, or
cooking, or shaving, or by a slip of the tongue, while
talking, or even while sleeping and dreaming, according
to some people, the crucial idea turned up, that
got us out of the rut, and resolved the contradiction. All of us at that meeting were
impressed with the congruence of our stories. I discovered later,
by reading, that none of this was new. The great German scientist,
Helmholtz, in the late 19th century, had already described
three steps, and named them saturation, incubation,
and illumination, just corresponding to what
we were discussing. Henri Poincare, the great
mathematician, in 1908, added a fourth step, obvious, but also
crucial, verification. Check that the idea works. It turned out that the
psychologist, Graham Wallace, in his text in 1926,
had already listed these four steps. But none of us knew about it. None of us had read his book. We just came across the same
ideas through personal experience, these four stages. In theoretical science, a new
idea may permit us to alter or extend the body of theory to
explain observations that previously couldn’t be
understood, and, of course, to make new predictions that
can someday be verified. Let me give an example from
my own experience. In fact, I’ll give, a little
later, another example for my own experience. But this one is earlier, 1952. So-called strange particles
have been observed in the cosmic radiation. Later on, they were observed
also in accelerators when the more energetic accelerators
went online. Some of us were trying to
explain why these strange particles took so long to
disintegrate into other particles, when they were
made copiously. If they were made copiously,
they must have interacted strongly. But if they took a long time
to decay, as much as one 10 millionth of a second, which
in particle physics, is a very long time. They take a very long
time to decay, they must be weakly coupled. So what was going on? Well I thought I had succeeded
in explaining this strange behavior of the strange
particles. Let’s take for example, a
proton, a particle similar to the neutron and proton,
which was strange. It was produced copiously, but
took a long time to decay. My attempt at explanation
involves a quantity i, isotopic spin. i can have value 0, or 1/2,
or 1, or 3/2, or whatever. The conventional wisdom was
that particles like the neutron and proton, which have
spin angular momentum 1/2, j equals 1/2, had to have i equal
1/2, or 3/2, or 5/2, but not an integer, not
a whole number. Other particles, mesons, with
spin angular momentum j equals 0 would have i equals 0 or 1, or
2, or something, that would be the similarity between
the values of i and the values of j. It was a very nice idea. But there was no
reason for it. I visited the Institute for
Advanced Study, where I had spent the previous year. And people had heard that I had
had an idea to explain the strange behavior of a
particular particle. But then I realized that
it wouldn’t work. I thought I had by assigning the
value i equals 5/2 to this particle that would prevent it
from disintegrating, by means of the strong interaction,
into two particles with i equals 1/2, and i equals 1,
because with 1/2 and 1, you can’t seem to make 5/2. However, it turned out that
electromagnetism can change this value of i by
a half unit. An electromagnetism isn’t
all that weak. So the idea failed. And the people at the Princeton
Institute for Advanced Study had heard that I
had had an idea, but that it hadn’t worked. And they asked me to
explain the idea, and why it was wrong. Well, I got up to do so,
and I said what I had been saying here. And when I got to this idea of
assigning to the new particle i equals 5/2, so it couldn’t
decay into 1 and 1/2, I made a mistake, a slip of the tongue. I said, i equals 1, instead
of i equals 5/2. I said, let’s assign this
particle i equals 1. And then I stopped dead, because
the electromagnetism is going to change
i by a half unit. So if it really had
i equals 1, that would solve the problem. But everybody thought that this
particle had to have half integral values of i. Well I quickly reviewed in my
mind what could be the reason for this prohibition. And then I realized there
wasn’t any reason. It was just something that
people told one another. It didn’t take long. It just took a few, half a
minute or something, for me to realize that there was no
reason for this rule. And I can freely violate it. So the rest of the seminar was
quite different from what was anticipated. Here it is written down
on a transparency. Well, we can go over to much
more important realm in elementary particle physics, or
in fundamental physics, I should say. And that is the work
of Einstein. Now we all know what kind
of techniques he used for getting his ideas. They’re described in
numerous cartoons. This is one of them. When he proposed special
relativity in 1905, he had to get rid of the requirement of
absolute space and time. Ever since Newton’s day,
everybody knew that there was absolute space and
absolute time. And here, Einstein was dealing
with space and time which transformed into each other to
some extent, depending on the state of motion of
an observer. If you run rapidly past the
system, what was previously x, becomes x and little bit of– becomes mostly x and
little bit of t. And t turns into mostly t and a
little bit of x, where t is time, and x is distance. So he was dealing with relative
space and time, not absolute space and time. But everybody knew that there
was absolute space and time. He said, well, everybody may
know it, but we don’t need it. Throw it away. And he was quite right. Another modest example from my
own experience, proposing quarks as fundamental
constituents of neutrons and protons. People are always asking me why
I chose that name, but if you think about the sound,
it’s an obvious name for fundamental constituent
of atomic nuclei. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I was
violating several rules, things that everybody knew. Everybody knew that you don’t
have objects that a permanently stuck inside
observable objects and can never come out to be
detected singly. But quarks are like that. They’re permanently stuck inside
particles like the neutron and proton, which they
compose, and they can’t get out singly. That’s why there isn’t another
route 125 around Boston– I mean 128 around Boston– with quarkonics industries. If the quarks could escape
singly, they would have all sorts of practical
uses in industry. But they can’t. They’re stuck inside. However the idea of particles
being permanently stuck inside was not a familiar one. And most physicists thought
it was impossible. Just the very fact that the
neutrons and protons are composite, and made up of
simpler things, was also not orthodox belief. They were supposed
to be elementary. Everybody knew they
were elementary. Third, the electric charges of
particles were supposed to be integral multiples of
the proton charge, so 0, 1 minus 1. The quarks, however, have
plus 2/3 and minus 1/3. Well that’s obviously wrong,
because everybody knows you don’t have fractional charges. However, despite all these
prohibitions, despite violating all these
prohibitions, it turned out that the idea of quarks was
quite correct, and was verified not very far from here
at SLAC, on Sand Hill Road, where my friends, Dick
Taylor, Henry Kendall, and Jerry Friedman took what
amounts to an electron microscope picture
of the proton. And they were able to deduce
from that that it was actually made, mostly, of three quarks. Now we mustn’t get the idea
that any challenge to scientific orthodoxy is
likely to be right. Quite the opposite is true. Most challenges to scientific
orthodoxy are wrong and very many of them are crank. What has to be verified, if
challenging some accepted idea, that it really
can be dropped. I’ve talked in these last few
minutes about certain ideas that could be dropped, but
not every one can be. You should always
ask, why not? But realize that usually
there’s a damn good reason why not. A few years ago, I was asked by
a huge company to appear in their television ad on
the theme why not. I didn’t have to say anything
good about the company. I just had to say something
about asking, why not? I appeared for just a moment,
but they paid me a reasonable fee for it. And next year, they were very
pleased– the following year, they were very pleased with
the reception of the ad. And they ran it again, which
means, according to the rules of actors equity, that I got
the fee again, and a second year’s membership in the
Screen Actors Guild. Then, they invited me to come
to their headquarters and speak to the management and
also, through their intranet, to all their employees around
the world, at least in suitable time zones,
all on the same subject, asking, why not? And I emphasized that it’s a
very productive idea, to keep asking why not, but that in
science, there’s usually a very good reason why not. I said I don’t know much about
business, but I assume it’s similar in business, that you
should always ask yourself why not about all sorts of ideas,
all sorts of proposed changes. But realize that there
is generally a very good reason why not. You have to watch out always
for certain things, I said. One of them is profit
and loss. Even if though I’m not a
businessman, I assume the profit and loss are important,
also, legal and ethical considerations. Well, they should have
taken notes. It was, of course, Enron. Fortunately the fees were
not paid in stock. Now I mentioned that there
were artists at that meeting in Aspen. What about art? Well, for the visual arts, we
can pay attention to the late Kirk Varnedoe, a splendid guy
who was the longtime head of painting and sculpture
at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He wrote a book, which I
recommend, called A Fine Disregard: What Makes
Modern Art Modern?. And his idea is that in modern
art, and also contemporary art, which is still more recent,
the artist plays with the rules, instead of always
playing by the rules. The title of his book, A Fine
Disregard, comes from the inscription on a stone next to
a playing field at Rugby School in England. Kirk Varnedoe was a former
rugby player. And he was very interested in
that commemorative stone at Rugby School. Here’s what was written on it,
what is still written on it, “this stone commemorates the
exploit of William Webb Ellis, who, with a fine disregard for
the rules of football as it played in his time, first took
the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the
distinctive feature of the rugby game. AD 1823.” So what we’re talking about, in
this connection, is problem formulation, rather than
problem solution. And I believe that problem
formulation is usually much more important than problem
solving, and in many cases more difficult. It doesn’t look more difficult,
but it turns out to be harder in some ways,
in many cases. You have to ask, what
are the real requirements in this situation? What are the real conditions
that the solution must satisfy? If you get that right, then
you can try and figure out what the solution is. There’s one place, however,
where the problems are formulated for you, school. It’s almost the only place
where the problems are formulated for you. And then you just solve them. In almost any other place,
in almost any other human activity, the challenge is to
formulate the problem and then, later, solve it. There is a very familiar
exercise that all of you have seen that can be made to
illustrate this point. Here’s the diagram. You’ve all seen it, nine
dots, forming a square. And you’re asked to connect all
the dots by drawing the smallest possible number of
straight lines without taking the pencil off the paper. And anybody can do it
with five straight lines, it’s very easy. To do it with four straight
lines, which is possible, you have to do something
like this. And you notice that the
lines are outside of the square at times. That may be, for all I know,
where the expression thinking outside the box comes from. This would be the box. And these lines, which connect
the dots, if you’re going to do it with four lines only,
get outside the box. At the Santa Fe Institute,
where I work, we have a resident cat. And there’s a cartoon posted
on the wall that has a man talking to his cat. The cat is on the floor next
to a tray of kitty litter. And the man is shaking his
finger at the cat and saying, never, never think
outside the box. Now if we’re going to solve this
problem, you can solve it in a trivial way, as we saw,
by going outside the box. But you can imagine other things
besides asking, are you allowed to draw lines that
go outside the square? But you can also ask,
do you have to treat the dots as points? In the actual picture, they’re
little round dots. They’re not points. They have widths. Can you take the widths
into account? Are you allowed to? Are you allowed to use the
thickness of the lines, as opposed to mathematical lines,
which have no thickness? Are you allowed to crumple
up the paper and drive the pencil through? We can do it in one line. Which of these is allowed? Which of these are allowed? This exercise and these
questions about what’s allowed were treated in a somewhat
different way from the way I’m treating them, but this
same general idea. They’re treated in a book by
Professor Jamew L. Adams, called Conceptual Blockbusting:
A Guide to Better Ideas. They are also emphasized in
talks by my friend Paul MacCready, who developed the
bicycle powered aircraft, and the solar powered aircraft,
and the flying, flapping pterodactyl, and lots
of other things. Here’s a letter that a 10 year
old girl wrote to Professor Adams. I’ll read it to you, but
it’s also here so you can look at it. “Dear Professor James L Adams,
My dad and I were doing puzzles from Conceptual
Blockbusting. We were working mostly on the
dot ones.” And then she has the nine dots here. “My dad said a man found a way
to do it with one line. I tried and did it,
not with folding. I used a fat line. It doesn’t say you can’t use
a fat line, like this. Actually, you need a very
fat writing apparatus. Sincerely, Becky Beagle. Age 10.” I wonder what happened
to Becky Beagle. Another thing we can say about
creative ideas with illustrations from physics, but
also illustrations from lots of other things, is that
often a creative idea involves taking an existing idea and
building on it, taking it more seriously than its original
proponent did, and using it for some other purpose. We can look again at 1905,
that miraculous year for Albert Einstein, when, working
as a patent clerk in Bern, the capital of Switzerland, he had
three ideas that he published in the same volume of the
German physics journal, Annalen der Physik– not only the same year,
but the same volume of the journal. Special relativity is one,
and we mentioned it. But we didn’t mention this
interpretation of it. One way to describe special
relativity is to say that the symmetries, the transformations
of special relativity are the symmetries of
Maxwell’s equations for the electromagnetic field. And what Einstein did was to
take those symmetries, the symmetries of Maxwell’s
equations, and apply them also to particle dynamics, to the
particles moving in the electric and magnetic fields of
Maxwell, so that the whole problem obeyed the symmetries. And the symmetries are the
symmetries of special relativity. They are just the spacetime
transformations of special relativity. Now those transformations were
known already, especially to the Dutch physicist
H. A. Lorentz. Lorentz found these
transformations, exactly the same ones that Einstein used
later for special relativity, and to this day they are
called the Lorentz transformations. Why isn’t special relativity
attributed to Lorentz? Well two things– we’ve seen already that Einstein
threw away absolute space and time, and left only
the relative space and time of relativity. Lorentz didn’t do that. He kept looking for a way to fit
absolute space and time in with the relative
space and time. And of course, he
never found it. Einstein simply took the step
of cutting the Gordian Knot, throwing away absolute
space and time. But there’s another reason– Lorentz didn’t take the
additional step of applying these same symmetries to
particle dynamics. They remained just the
symmetries is of Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism. It took Einstein to add the
additional idea that these transformations were general
and they applied to the particle dynamics as well as to
the electromagnetic fields. So Lorentz was a great man and
did very important work here, but he failed to see these two
these two important points. And so Einstein was taking
Lorentz’s idea more seriously than Lorentz himself had. That’s even more obvious and
even more striking in the case of Einstein’s work on the
photoelectric effect. In the photoelectric effect,
a bit of light hits a metal surface and knocks
out an electron. And Max Planck, in 1900,
suggested the quantum, that, for this purpose,
electromagnetic energy came in packets of energy, where the
energy was Planck’s constant, h, times the frequency of
the light, or of the electromagnetic wave. Well this was a rather
revolutionary idea, but Planck didn’t carry it far enough. He had the idea of the quantum
all right, but not in connection with the
photoelectric effect. It didn’t occur to him that
electromagnetism, in hitting the electron and knocking
it out, would come in the form of a quantum. If you do assume the quantum,
in that case, you get this simple equation of conservation
of energy– h Nv. Nv is the frequency. h is Planck’s constant. This is the energy
of the quantum. The energy of the quantum equals
the electron’s kinetic energy, plus the energy
necessary to knock it out of the metal, very, very
simple equation. But this equation worked. It explained the data. The data conformed exactly
to this equation. Planck didn’t like it. He had invented the quantum
for other reasons. He believed in the quantum
for these other purposes. But taking it more seriously
than he had originally done was not something he believed. He didn’t think that Einstein
understood what he was doing in applying the quantum to
the photoelectric effect. Nevertheless, Planck look
favorably on young Einstein. He recommended him for
membership in the Prussian Academy of Sciences, which is
a rather high honor, and eventually for the Swedish
Medal, the Nobel Prize, which Einstein didn’t win for
another 16 years. And he got it for the
photoelectric effect. Finally people stopped
objecting. Even Planck, I guess, stopped
objecting to his use of the quantum in this connection. Earlier, earlier on, Planck
said, well, Einstein is really very good. He’s a very good physicist.
We’ll forgive him this youthful indiscretion of
believing that the quantum can be used here in the
photoelectric effect. But finally, in 1921, he won the
Nobel Prize for it, just for this equation. A third thing that Einstein did
in 1905 was to study the Brownian motion. You know what that is. It was discovered by the English
botanist, Brown, around 1830 or so. You can see it yourself if you
look at something like ink in water under a microscope. You see the little particles
of ink moving, randomly, in little jerks. And Einstein, and also the
Polish theorist, Smoluchowski, the same time, suggested
that they were being hit by molecules. And Einstein worked it all out
mathematically, and figured out how many molecules per unit
volume you would get in a gas, and compared it with other
estimates of that and measurements. And it all seemed to work. And Smoluchowski did
something similar. What they were doing was taking
seriously the notion of a molecule. Everybody agreed that molecules
were useful in chemistry, a sort of chemical
bookkeeping. But that the molecule was
something that could hit you, that could hit an ink particle
and make it move, that was not believed by most physicists. But this work made it clear that
the molecule was a real thing that should be taken more
seriously than it had been taken by people who
suggested it earlier. Now let me close by discussing
very briefly the notion of teaching creative thinking. There’s nothing to tell us, a
priori, that it’s impossible to improve creative thinking
by teaching. It might work. It might not. The proof would have to
be in the pudding. One man who has ideas about
that and tries to teach creative thinking does so very
widely in many large corporations and so on
is Edward de Bono. And his kind of reasoning can
be represented this way. He doesn’t say exactly this,
but this is something that relates to the way he
looks at things. You imagine that you have a
landscape of ideas, looking like this, with shallow
holes and deep holes. And the deep hole is a great
idea that you should get eventually. The shallow holes are less good
ideas that will not solve your problems. And the objective
should be to get somehow to the bottom of this
deep hole and stay there. Now if you’re just moving
downhill, if you’re only instruction is to keep moving
downhill, because you think a better idea lies in a certain
direction, then you’re likely get stuck in a shallow hole,
because there’s lots more shallow holes than deep ones. However, if you have noise, or
heat, or simulated annealing, as is often called, so that
there’s a random motion superposed on going downhill,
then, if it’s the right amount of heat or randomness, you could
be knocked out of all the shallow hole, but not be
knocked out of the deep one, because of the tuning, the
amount of heat, or noise, or whatever it is you’re adding
to the system, so that it’s enough to knock you out of
shallow holes, but not enough to knock you out
of a deep one. Then, looking for the right idea
would involve a tendency to move downwards, modulated by
some noise that knocks you out of shallow holes, but still
allows you to explore the deep one. So that suggests, if there’s
anything to it, it suggests that you should apply that
if you’re trying to solve problems. You should try to
use something random, in addition to all the logical,
rational, reasonable inputs to your thinking. You should use something
random. So what Edwards suggests is
looking at the last noun on the front page of today’s
newspaper, and using that to solve your problem. That contributes enough noise
that maybe you’ll be thrown out of the shallow holes, but
perhaps you’ll be able to reach a deep one
and stay there. We shouldn’t think that finding
creative ideas is restricted to these
stratospheric realms of science, and art, and so on. It can also appear at any moment
in every day life. We’re all faced with little
puzzles every day, and the more we have all this equipment
in our lives, the more it’s true. At any moment, we can be faced
with something that requires a creative thought. One writer on this subject
discusses the case of a company picnic involving
a lot of cheese. No one, however, is
thought to bring a knife to cut the cheese. But a young lady pulls
out her credit card and cuts the cheese. That’s a much more modest
achievement than many of the things we’ve been talking about,
like special relativity and so on, but it does involve
a creative idea. And it involves using something
beyond the domain for which it was originally
proposed. Well I’m very happy to answer
questions and I regard this little talk just as an
introduction to a question and answer session. Thank you. AUDIENCE: Well thank
you for joining us. I guess I have a couple
things to say. One of them is that– I’m not sure how familiar you
are with computer science, but it isn’t obvious to me whether
it’s yet a science, except when it comes to debugging. And I’m sure that when
we’re debugging, we are doing science. And people talk about the
creative process in science as coming up with models or
explanations, but, at least in my observation, there’s two
other steps that are highly creative in the scientific
method. And one of them is coming up
with a specific hypothesis to test. And the third is coming
up with a test for it. MURRAY GELL-MANN: Yes, well
I included those, as well. I said that in science, you may
be accounting for some new data, or you may be proposing
a new hypothesis, or you may be suggesting a way, a
prediction, making a prediction that would allow
a hypothesis to be tested. I agree with you completely. I actually said it. You’re completely right. That’s theoretical science. There is also experimental
science. And there is also the
making of equipment. And all of those involve lots
of creative thinking. It’s just that I was talking
about theoretical science. AUDIENCE: Yeah, not
complaining. I just wanted to sort of
emphasize these areas that I think are under-emphasized
in discussions. MURRAY GELL-MANN: Yes,
you’re quite right. AUDIENCE: Thanks very
much for the talk. I’m an avid observer, amateur
observer, of particle physics and particle physicists,
without being very mathematical. And I wondered if you had any
thoughts on string theory and string theorists, who seem to
have lots of ideas, but very little experimental
evidence so far. MURRAY GELL-MANN:
Well, let’s see. I’m asked that question often. I am an important patron
of superstring theory. When superstring theory was
first developed in 1971, ’72, I thought that it would
be very important. I didn’t know for what. And I asked the people who
were doing it to come to Caltech to join my group,
especially John Schwarz and Pierre Ramond. Andre Neveu, who wrote the
original paper with John Schwarz, came for a while, but
then he returned to France. But the other two stayed. And we gradually build up quite
a group at Caltech, part of my theoretical particle
physics group. So most of the work– a great
deal of the work, anyway, that was done on superstring theory
between ’72 and ’84 was done in my shop, not by me, but
people who came there. And during that time, we
realized what the use was, what the possible use was
of superstring theory. It was originally intended to be
a theory just of the strong interaction, the hadrons,
so-called, strongly interacting particles. But it was discovered that it
couldn’t be a theory of the strongly interacting particles,
because it had a particle with zero mass and spin
two, which you couldn’t possibly have in a theory of
the strong interactions. There is no meson like that. But there is a particle like
that, the graviton, quanta’s gravitation. So what this was was a candidate
for a theory of all the interactions, including
gravitation. And it was noticed in the middle
70s that a theory based on superstrings would predict
Einstein’s general relativistic theory
of gravitation. And it would predict it within
quantum mechanics. And without the crazy, infinite
corrections, which appeared in other attempts to
unify general relativity and quantum mechanics. That’s is what, in my opinion,
made it very attractive. It had a graviton, of course,
which made it unsuitable to be a theory of a strong
interaction, but very suitable to lead, perhaps, to a unified
theory of all the forces and all the elementary particles. Well since then– it’s 30 years or so– people have been trying to
build a correct, unified theory, or a good candidate for
unified theory based on super strings. And they made an enormous
amount of progress in various spurts. They haven’t got there
yet, however. And some of the efforts
look discouraging. Some of the results of some of
the efforts look discouraging, but, in other cases, not
so discouraging. As to predictions, there will
certainly be predictions. We’ve already seen a
retrodiction of very great importance, namely the
retrodiction of Einstein’s general relativistic theory
of gravitation. It is not negligible. There’s also the prediction that
you have supersymmetry, presumably broken supersymmetry,
since we don’t observe exact supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is a symmetry
between fermions and bosons, between particles that obey the
exclusion principle, like the electron, and particles that
obey an anti-exclusion principle, like the photons. That anti-exclusion principle
is what makes the laser possible, of course. Photons love to be in the same
state at the same time. And that’s how you can
have a laser beam. The supersymmetry has to be
broken to be compatible with observation. And it has to supply, for every
elementary particle, a companion with the opposite
statistics. In other words, for every fact
elementary fermion, there has to be a boson. And for every elementary boson, there has to be a fermion. And these have received
some peculiar names. I was there when they
were named, but I did name them myself– the selectron, for the electron,
the photino company is the photon, and
so on and so on. Now these things are being
sought at accelerators. When the new, bigger accelerator
comes online near Geneva next year or the year
after, they will really step up the search for these
partners, superpartners of the known particles. And if some of them are found,
that will certainly be encouraging for theories
based on superstrings. Supersymmetry, broken
supersymmetry is also very good for an answering a number
of other theoretical problems that we have. But you could,
of course, technically have broken supersymmetry without
having to superstrings. So enemies of superstrings, who
seemed to have turned up in various places, can
always say that. But I think that finding
superpartners will be very encouraging for the possibility
that one can construct a suitable superstring
theory, based on superstrings. But attacking a theory that
hasn’t yet been constructed is a little strange. I think mostly it’s
about money. Some people would like some of
the money that goes to the smart people who work
on superstring theory to go to them. Maybe they’re right. I don’t know. AUDIENCE: Thank you
again for coming. I have a more general question,
which is the theme of creativity. You’ve described– MURRAY GELL-MANN: I didn’t
talk about creativity. I talked about creative
thinking. AUDIENCE: Creative thinking. Well I– I won’t drag you into
the difference. MURRAY GELL-MANN: I think
of it as something else. It’s some sort of probably
inborn characteristic that allows you to engage in
creative thinking, and creative projects in science
and art, and so forth. AUDIENCE: OK. So I’ll restrict myself to
creative thinking, then. The examples you’ve given of
creative thinking are, I’ll say, directed– once you have found the problem,
there is a chunk of cheese that needs to be cut, or
there’s an unexplained spin that needs to be explained, and
so you already have the problem there. And I’m just wondering
if you have– and there is a question of how
do you think outside the box, for example, to attack that
existing problem. But as you pointed out, there
is this issue of– as engineers we often have the
problem in front of us. There’s something that’s not
running, or there is something that is not running
well enough. But there’s also this– we find ourselves in the
situation of looking for a problem to solve. OK, everything’s cleared
from my desk. I’m an engineer, I’m a
scientist, I’m an artist. How do I decide– can we apply creative thinking
to figuring out, since we’re not in school, the problems
aren’t necessarily given to us, can we apply that same, or
some similar heuristics to figure out what problem we
should be attacking next. MURRAY GELL-MANN: Well,
that was the subject of my talk, really. I said that problem formulation
is usually much more important, and
in some sense– not an obvious sense– but in
some sense, more difficult than problem solution. You have to find out
what’s wrong. Where is it itching, so
I can scratch it? And that’s tricky sometimes. What rules do I have to obey in
order to get something, in order for me to be allowed
to have something new? What rules do I have to violate,
what rules can I violate, without running into
a contradiction, or running into a contradiction
with nature, and so on and so forth. So it’s precisely as you say,
that the most important time is when you are not sure
what the problem is. You have a piece of equipment
that isn’t working, maybe shouldn’t have that
kind of equipment. AUDIENCE: But when the equipment
is working– MURRAY GELL-MANN: Maybe you
should have a different kind of equipment. You’re generating energy
in some particular way. Maybe you should generate
it in some other way. Or maybe you shouldn’t generate
it at all, but save energy, and so on
and so forth. AUDIENCE: But when the equipment
isn’t working, that’s sort of a problem. It may suggest an open issue
that’s completely unrelated to the equipment not working, but
essentially that’s where something is itching. I guess what I’m finding is– MURRAY GELL-MANN: Not
necessarily, not necessarily. And even debugging, which
was mentioned, is an interesting topic. We all know of a gigantic
corporation that does no debugging. It allows the customers
to do that. That was an interesting
invention. Imagine being able to make money
by selling a whole lot of products that don’t work
and letting your customers figure out how to
improve them. It’s a great idea. AUDIENCE: I wanted to ask you
about another creative idea that’s about 30 years old, and
that can potentially change the way we work here. What is your take on the future
of quantum computing? MURRAY GELL-MANN: Quantum
computing. Well, so far, one hasn’t gotten
it terribly far with it, except for a lot of ideas. And the ideas are two
kinds, of course. One is how we might be able
to make a quantum computer that works. And the second is what kinds
of problems could it solve for us? What sorts of things
would be changed by having quantum computers? Well, originally, people thought
that it would be very, very, very difficult to maintain
the coherence for long enough, for over a big
enough range, to have a functioning quantum computer,
but that once you got it, it would be able to solve all
sorts of problems in polynomial time, which
is thought to require exponential, or worse,
time to solve. Well it hasn’t quite turned
out that way. Mr. Shor, of course, found
that one famous algorithm involving factoring huge numbers
into their prime factors, that that could
probably be reduced to a problem soluble in
polynomial time. But other than that, there
hasn’t been any proof of that. Instead, people have stopped
thinking that it’s necessarily so difficult to maintain the
coherence, because they have all these error correcting
algorithms that might succeed in canceling out the inherent
noise in the quantum computer, and allow for a situation that
would resemble a situation with a lot of coherence. So it’s just turned around,
as far as I can tell. The ideas about quantum
computers have turned around. It’s maybe not so difficult to
simulate the coherence that you need through all these error
correcting procedures. But it may be difficult to
find a problem that the quantum computer will
solve better. And people started thinking,
therefore, about quantum system. What about simulating
quantum system? Quantum computer might be
really good for that. And it’s quite different from
the kind of use that people had in mind some years ago. But so far, the quantum
computers have very, very limited capacity. And as my good friend Seth Lloyd
says, a two bit computer is a two bit computer. We’ve wondered where our
alumni of the Santa Fe Institute would get jobs. And we worried whether they
would get jobs at all, because they’re all highly
interdisciplinary. But academic jobs seem to be
available, provided you don’t try to predict in
what department. Some of our physics
trained people have ended up in sociology. One professor at Columbia, who
spent a long time at the Santa Fe Institute, a very brilliant
guy from Australia, said that the first sociology class he was
ever in was the one he was teaching as a full professor. So Seth Lloyd has become a
professor of mechanical engineering. And because he’s trying to
develop quantum computers, he says he’s a professor of
quantum mechanical engineering. It satisfies everybody. But he is the one that says that
the two bit computer is a two bit computer. That’s all we have so far. I don’t think I’ve answered
your question, but– [INTERPOSING VOICES]. AUDIENCE: No, it’s okay. My question actually
ties into that. One focus of creativity would
seem to be interdisciplinary in applying things you’ve
learned, or approaches from one field, to a very
different field. And again, speaking as an
amateur in physics, it seems like the two things that at
least get the most publicity outside the field right now are
superstring theory and the whole dark matter, dark
energy issue. I never hear anything about
how those combine. Is there any sort of combination
of those? MURRAY GELL-MANN: Well, let’s
say what dark matter and dark energy are. They’re not very good names. Especially dark energy is a
really dumb name, especially because people could mix it up
with dark matter, with which it has almost nothing to do. Dark matter refers to the fact
that galaxies and clusters of galaxies are made up mostly of
different material from what we’re accustomed to discussing,
not stars and planets, ordinary molecules, and
so on and so forth, made of something else. That’s called dark matter. And the superpartners of known
particles may well make a major contribution to so-called
dark matter. I used to walk by the
astronomers table at the faculty club at Caltech while
I was still teaching there. And I would say to them, don’t
you guys realize you’re talking just about 4%
of the universe? Everything else is photinos. They didn’t like that. However, it was perfectly
true. We don’t know if it’s photinos,
but it’s something. There may be several kinds
of dark matter. Now dark energy is a really dumb
name for the discovery that the recession of galactic
clusters, that’s called the expansion of the universe,
is accelerating. The expansion of the universe,
you have to realize, if you’re a lay person in this business,
doesn’t mean that atoms receded from one another, or
that rocks recede from one another, or planets and stars
recede from one another. Not even galaxies recede
from one another. It’s clusters of galaxies,
gravitationally closed, that undergo a recession
from one another. And with the discovery that this
recession is accelerated, we’re back to the old question
of the cosmological term in Einstein’s general relativistic
equation for gravitation. He introduced this cosmological
term because he wanted a static universe. He didn’t realize that there was
observational evidence for an expanding universe. He wanted a static universe, and
since the universe would collapse under gravitation,
which is purely attractive, he had to introduce something else
that would stabilize it. So he introduced this extra
cosmological constant, a single constant, added to the
equation for gravitation. And then he realized, through
the work of Hubble in Pasadena, that the clusters of
galaxies were receding from one another and you had
an expanding universe. So he then said, oh, this
is a terrible mistake. I’ve committed this terrible
error of introducing this extra term marring the beauty
of my equation. And it’s not necessary, because
we have an expanding universe, and it will either
keep on expanding, or eventually contract, and we
don’t have to worry about this extra term. But now it’s back, apparently,
or something like it, either that or something very like it,
in order to explain the acceleration of the expansion
of the universe. The question is, why does it
have the value that it has? The funny thing isn’t
that it’s non-zero. If you look at it in the light
of particle physics, there has to be such a term. It’s the average energy the
vacuum or something. It’s a fairly obvious thing,
and it must be there. The question is, why
is it so tiny? Because if you try to estimate
from particle physics what kind of a value you might have
for it, the discrepancy between that and what is seen,
assuming that what is seen really is a cosmological term,
the discrepancy is by a factor of 10 to the 118th, which is
the largest fudge factor in the history of physical
science. And that’s a really
good question. I would like to know
the answer to that. AUDIENCE: Thank you so much
for coming, Dr. Gell-Mann. I’m curious, having spent
a lot of your career in something called theoretical
physics, what are the applications of your work
that have given you the biggest thrill? MURRAY GELL-MANN:
Applications? AUDIENCE: Yeah, for instance
the laser, microwave oven. I mean, are there things, are
there pieces of technology that we have in the real world
that you, knowing the physics behind them, you look at that
and say, wow, that’s really need, and I helped contribute
to that. MURRAY GELL-MANN: I can’t think
of any applications. But it takes a while,
you know. I mean, I’m very, very,
very old now. If you want to think of me as
a child prodigy, I’m a very old child prodigy. Anyway, nevertheless, not old
enough to see the applications of the things I worked on. Take the laser, for example. It came out of Bose Einstein
statistics, as I said, the fact that photons like
to be in the same state at the same time. And this was proposed
theoretically in 1917 and 1920, by Einstein and by the
Indian, the Bengali physicist, Bose, or Bose. But it wasn’t until 40 years
later that we got the laser. And the same kind of time
interval may apply to lots of other fundamental ideas and
fundamental discoveries, that they don’t lead to gadgets until
much, much, much later. Now if the quark had been able
to escape singly from it’s prison, we would have
quarkonics, for sure, lots and lots of applications,
including mediating thermonuclear fusion. But, sorry. AUDIENCE: I’m curious. I’ve noticed that the
experimental physics is getting increasingly expensive,
for example at the LHC, where they’re building
something very large which may or may not discover
a stop particle. MURRAY GELL-MANN: May
not discover what? AUDIENCE: The stop, super top. MURRAY GELL-MANN:
Oh, I see, yes. AUDIENCE: I’m curious what you
think about computational approaches like lattice
gauge theory or– MURRAY GELL-MANN: Oh, that’s
very good, of course, but it doesn’t substitute completely
for experiments. No, at Santa Fe Institute, we
do a lot of simulation, and modeling, and so on,
with computers. And computer experiments are
extremely important. But they extremely important
usually when you have some model or theory of what’s
going on and you want to understand it’s consequences. But we also need to know
what’s actually happening out there. We waste a lot more money on
a lot of other things. I wouldn’t worry about wasting
money on particle accelerators. If there is another one, it will
be for the whole world, a single one for the whole world,
an electron-positron collider, like SLAC, here
at Stanford, but much, much, much bigger. That would be a world machine,
with contributions from all the countries involved. And that’s still for a number
of years ahead. AUDIENCE: So one anecdotal,
I wish we could get the US patent office to have the– I wish we could get the US
patent office to have the hiring standards of the
Swiss patent office. But in 2000, Michael Crichton,
an author, observed that there were a number of anomalies in
physics that were, in theory, going to be explained by simple
changes to the standard model and whatnot. And he likened it to the period
of physics between the 1890s and early 1900s, where
quantum mechanics and all these changes occurred in the
way we thought about things. I was wondering– MURRAY GELL-MANN: No, they
didn’t occur, is what you are trying to say. There were all these
contradictions of classical theory that people didn’t take
the step of dropping a whole lot of ideas and substituting
entirely new ones. They did that a couple
of decades later. AUDIENCE: Right, so I was
wondering what anomalies– I mean, i read in
the late press– MURRAY GELL-MANN:
I don’t know. I don’t get my scientific
education from this very tall, medical student. AUDIENCE: What questions do you
think will be important to be answered in this
couple of decades? MURRAY GELL-MANN: What
questions will be– AUDIENCE: What questions
in physics. MURRAY GELL-MANN: Well,
I just listed some. Do we really have
superparticles, so we have approximate supersymmetry, and
super Yang-Mills theory, super gauge theories? Do we actually verify
all that? Do we get to understand the
size of the cosmological constant, or whatever replaces
it, in explaining the acceleration of the expansion
of the universe? And what about constructing
a unified theory based on superstring ideas? Will that be successful? Will we verify the existence of
an actual Higgs particle, one or more Higgs particles,
rather than finding some kind of Higgs-like mechanism that
doesn’t involve a new particle, in order to explain
the masses of otherwise massless particles, and so on
and so forth, lots of very well known questions. I don’t know what this
guy has in mind. AUDIENCE: Well someone has
to ask this question. Dr. Robert Boussard was
here a few months ago. MURRAY GELL-MANN: Who was? AUDIENCE: Robert Boussard. MURRAY GELL-MANN: Oh, really? The twin person? The twin guy? The guy with the twins studies,
identical twins separated at birth? AUDIENCE: He may have done that
as well, but he was here for another reason. MURRAY GELL-MANN: No, no, this
is a different person. OK, who is it? I don’t know who it is. AUDIENCE: He was talking about
an extension of the Farnsworth containment mechanism
for fusion. MURRAY GELL-MANN: The what? AUDIENCE: For fusion. MURRAY GELL-MANN: I’m sorry,
I just don’t understand. I don’t know what you’re
talking about. You’re talking about
some field with which I’m not familiar. AUDIENCE: Electrostatic
containment of fusion. MURRAY GELL-MANN: Pardon? AUDIENCE: Electrostatic
containment of fusion. MURRAY GELL-MANN: Oh,
containment of plasma? Containing milk in
rubber bands? It’s hard. AUDIENCE: Well, I was going to
ask you if you evaluated his– [LAUGHTER] MURRAY GELL-MANN: I’m sorry. I didn’t hear. AUDIENCE: I was going to
ask you if you had evaluated his work. MURRAY GELL-MANN: I don’t
know any of this. I’m sorry. I did follow some developments
in the attempts to achieve practical thermonuclear fusion,
some years ago. It’s been going on
for a long time. It’s 56 years, I think, the US
that has been working on this, and probably a bit
longer elsewhere. It was a highly classified
to begin with, in 1951 or so, ’52. While it was very highly
classified, they had a meeting at Berkeley of people working
on various approaches to thermonuclear fusion. And it was held in
a movie theater. And the project was called
project Sherwood. People brought pads of paper
into the meeting to take notes, but then they had to turn
the pads of paper over the security guards as they
left, even if they were blank. However the owner the theater
was a wag, and a wag with access to some knowledge,
because the marquee of the theater had two movies listed,
which weren’t playing at all. But the titles were up there. Men of Sherwood and
Top Secret. That’s all I know. I’m sorry– AUDIENCE: Thank you very much,
Dr. Gell-Mann, for your contributions, and for
your talk here. There’s a fine line between
being a creative innovator and being a disruptive nuisance. It can be argued that it is
equally or more important to communicate persuasively, as
it is to think creatively. What are your thoughts
along these lines? MURRAY GELL-MANN: Oh, I think
it’s always good to do that, to persuade people. But there are some people
whom it’s very difficult to persuade. And to waste one’s energy on
perpetual debate with those people is probably
not a good idea. But there are other people who
are accessible to reasonable arguments and so on. And once you deal very
gently with them, and try to persuade them. Or maybe they’re right and
you’re wrong, in which case, you should let them
persuade you. AUDIENCE: I’ve read that
you had interest in a number of languages. MURRAY GELL-MANN: I’m interested
in relationships among language. [INTERPOSING VOICES]. MURRAY GELL-MANN: I have a
project of that kind involving some brilliant Russian
linguists. AUDIENCE: And you’re
fluent in 13 or so? MURRAY GELL-MANN: No. You know you can’t trust
things like that. AUDIENCE: Is there any
interaction between– MURRAY GELL-MANN: I mean, I’m
not recommending that you burn all copies of this, but it
doesn’t contain only things that are true. AUDIENCE: Is there any
truth at all to that section of the page? MURRAY GELL-MANN: Well, I don’t
speak languages other than American English
correctly. But I know a little bit about
languages, and I’m sort of an honorary linguist, an honorary
amateur linguist. And I’m very interested in the relationships
among languages. And I’ve learned quite
a bit, as a result. Naturally, I know a few
words of various languages as a result. But that I speak correctly some
large number of languages is just not true. AUDIENCE: Is there any an
interaction between creative thinking and languages, or
learning languages, that you’ve come across in your
study, in your amateur study? Thank you. MURRAY GELL-MANN:
I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’m not sure about that. I haven’t– I’m not sure whether there
is such a connection. Well, I guess that’s it. Thank you.