Insights on Injustice via Gell-Mann

This post starts with an exchange with my friend Kirsten Hacker regarding Murray Gell-Mann. It ends with a jumble of thoughts related to injustice and remedies.

Dear Kirsten,
I thought you might be interested in this historical paper that was recently published: Gell-Mann in His Own Words ( Most of it is Greek to me, but it may provide you some insight physics during the war and post war periods. I’d love to know what you make of this.
Best Regards, Mark

Dear Mark,
Thank you for the paper. It looks like one could find a lot of threads to follow up on in there. At first glance, I’m struck by his interest in money (selling his work) and his distrust of women (black widow spiders). Then there is his concern with legacy and his invention of various concepts that either stood the test of time or faded from popularity. I find that singularly delusional and myopic, but that’s just my distrust of the male ego talking. I don’t know much of the history since I didn’t come from a community of theorists and it looks like he comes straight from the bomb-building community of theorists — an insular bunch, I imagine. A very confused bunch, it looks like. Yet they seem very concerned with who gets credit for what. I would think that credit would ordinarily just be a way to index certain ideas so that you could find them in a library, but they turned it into a huge waste of time game, like an attempt to distract themselves from what they were really doing and what they’d really done. Boom. In the long run, they’ll get credit for that, at least, even if the rest fades into the obscure fate of all private, insular languages.
Best, Kirsten

Dear Kirsten,
Similar to your impression, the part that stood out to me was the ongoing resentment and jealousy due to perceived injustices related to the competition of ideas.  It was as if with all of Gell-Mann’s accomplishments he still wanted to have priority and precedence adjudicated based on dusty papers in a box in his garage.  This is an insidious part of the scientific world where so many people are on the Easter egg hunt for the winning ideas and are sharing ideas at the same time. So the exercise becomes a dysfunctional competition that blends both the best and worst characteristics of humans.  It is very distasteful.  I have some experience with this from my career where the engineering architects were always competing for funding and executive approval of new projects. 
Best, Mark

Dear Kirsten,
I’ve been watching a “Web of Stories” interview playlist about Murray Gell-Mann where he talks about his history from childhood onward.  I think I now have a better understanding of why Murray was so concerned about injustices related to ideas. It turns out that when things did not go as he wished, he imagined conspiracies and still believes that may have happened.

For instance after gaining his undergraduate degree in physics from Yale at age 19, why didn’t he get into the Yale graduate physics department? Why didn’t he get into Princeton for graduate physics? He thought of himself as a prodigy. And he frankly was. He was admitted into Harvard for graduate physics but they did not offer a full scholarship which he desperately required. Gell-Mann feels he was not appropriately recognized and valued for his accomplishments and potential. He was forced to settle for MIT Physics which could employ him for a living wage. Gell-Mann considered MIT to be beneath him, but he went there because it was the only viable option.

That all said, it is certainly possible that Murray was a victim of some type of discrimination. It is also possible that Yale did not admit him to their graduate physics program because they prefer that students gain the experience of different schools. Note that Yale mathematics did admit Murray for its graduate program. But what about Princeton physics? And why did Harvard physics not offer a scholarship? He was the child of Jewish immigrants after all. His history is rife with suffering. There are may possibilities as to why things occurred as they did.

Gell-Mann goes on to discuss how he never really understood when the work he was doing merited a paper and he admits he did not like to write, even detailing how he procrastinated for months on his dissertation.  Yet, Gell-Mann takes pains in this casual interview to point out wherever someone published in relation to his ideas without giving him the proper credit. With Murray’s recollections and general knowledge of the era, we can not ascertain the truth. It is possible it is a mix of innocent to malevolent decisions that denied Gell-Mann his Ivy League doctorate in physics and his credit for certain ideas. It’s fascinating that someone who ended up being as lauded as Murray Gell-Mann still felt stung from injustice at age 86 some three score years after his early academic and early career experiences.

How would someone of the modern era of physics, who is at entry level on the rungs of physics, with competition fierce, low pay, power structures that are impossibly unfair, feeling used and abused by those in power in academics, and in life in general, would react to Murray Gell-Mann’s trials and tribulations.  It is convenient to say ‘cry me a river’ or discount his experience as a white male who clearly did reach the top of the field and reap the benefits. However, Gell-Mann’s suffering was very real to him, as will become evident in this Wikipedia excerpt. Note that Gell-Mann is not joking when he talks about the remedy he considered. He follows that up with a pretty good gallows humor joke about commutable operations.  It’s the remedy he considered first that shows you how tragic and wounding this was to him.

“Gell-Mann graduated from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1948 and intended to pursue graduate studies in physics. He sought to remain in the Ivy League for his graduate education and applied to Princeton University as well as Harvard University. He was rejected by Princeton and accepted by Harvard, but the latter institution was unable to offer him any of the financial assistance that he needed. He was accepted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and received a letter from Victor Weisskopf urging him to attend MIT and become Weisskopf’s research assistant, which would provide Gell-Mann with the financial assistance he needed. Unaware of MIT’s eminent status in physics research, Gell-Mann was “miserable” with the fact that he would not be able to attend Princeton or Harvard and considered suicide. He stated that he realized he could try to first enter MIT and commit suicide afterwards if he found it to be truly terrible. However, he couldn’t first choose suicide and then attend MIT; the two were not “commutable”, as Gell-Mann said.


This is a fascinating subject to me.  I think I now understand why my Dad admired Gell-Mann.  My Dad also experienced challenges reaching the upper echelon while he studied divinity at University of Chicago. Dad also came from a relatively poor background.  Dad’s falling out with University of Chicago always bothered him, although he was proud that he was on the principled side of the injustice. Still he did not get to complete his dream the way he had envisioned.

As an aside, this all makes me wonder if the hierarchical structure of academics, or any field or government for that matter, leads to a tyranny or oligarchy. The few rise on the backs of others.  “Shut up and calculate.” Operate this machine on a floating 24×7 schedule for a decade or more.

If you ever are into it, it would be fun to brainstorm post-hierarchical structures that would be far fairer to participants. I mean why is it pre-ordained that there be only a small handful of people at the top in each organization?  Not to get communist or democratic given that both those systems have tremendous flaws,  but is there a better way for humans to organize that optimizes the good of all as well as the degree of contribution to the field, however that is measured.

I hope my gibberish makes at least some sense. There are a lot of concurrent ideas involved. I certainly don’t have the answers for these.

Best, Mark 

As I think further on this topic, I relate back to one of my core principles that I also recommend to others:

We have many ways to define groups of people. In social media and news we frequently see generalized categorizations of aggrieved or advantaged sets of people : {women}, {women subjected to sexual harassment, discrimination, or violence}, {black or african americans}, {LGBTQ+}, {poor}, {unskilled}, {low wage workers}, {white males}, {the 1%}, {executives}, {the wealthy}, {blue collar}, and so on. Then of course we have people who are members of multiple groups. These categorizations can be good to help identify a general problem area, but they do not reach the ultimate specificity of the individual. Broad generalized categories are intended to indicate “a subset of the members of {group}” may have a certain issue, but not all members of the group. Strident use of the categorical terminology also leads to resentments from some individuals who do not identify with the group category or the issue that appears to be a problem at large in that group. At the extreme, the act of creating these categories can cause discrimination themselves because people may feel they are placed in a category to which they do not belong or maligned for something they do not espouse.

For these reasons discussed above, when it comes to making laws and policies the objectives are often expressed in abstracted generic categories such as {individual}, {all citizens}, {legal non-citizen immigrants}, {illegal non-citizen immigrants} and {legal visitors}. Let’s call this the ‘population taxonomy’ for a domain such as a country.

We need to define and agree upon a population taxonomy that allows us to express our principles via the rights and legal/justice system for each major category in the taxonomy. Our federal government should protect this abstract set of principles, favoring no sub-grouping of {citizens}, while at the same time ensuring that {non-citizens} in-country are guaranteed a set of rights as well, not to exceed those of {citizens}.

That all said, how do we as a citizenry identify the individuals who suffer and then how do we prioritize forms of suffering in our appropriation of aid? These are difficult problems. We can use science to identify groups that contain many people who are suffering as well as individuals who are suffering. Knowledge of the group may help to inform approaches to problem solving. We can design programs to help the {individual} thus focusing only on those who are suffering.

We must also be wary of those who are not reciprocal in honoring the dignity of each individual. These are the people who seek advantage at the downfall of others. The win-lose people. There is nothing wrong with fair competition of course. It is those who scheme and manipulate, even going as far as exploting the legal system, that cause enormous challenges to progress in the effort to reduce suffering and improve well-being.

Furthermore, when government applies it’s fundamental laws equally to both {individual} as well as {group of individual} this is destined to cause trouble. We already have enough competition within the group {individual}. Enabling {group of individual} which could mean business, corporation, or super-scalar corporation to have the same rights as {individual} is a poor idea. In the U.S. today we have hints of a narrow set of individuals co-opting the U.S. government. We need to design out or render-aligned {group of individual} entities relative to the {individual}.

In an era of decline of the Earth’s environment, political corruption and upheaval, pandemic, economic crisis, and much worldwide injustice and suffering it is often difficult to imagine a future where intelligent life has moved beyond this stage. We can only hope that intelligent life will harness nature so as to produce an abundance that enables elimination of many forms of suffering and improved well-being for all.

Dear reader, I realize my thoughts have jumped all over the place in this post, and I am certainly well outside my knowledge and comfort zone. I am clearly deeply troubled by the way we design our institutions in government, academia, and corporations in relation to individuals. Hopefully my jumbled, non-linear musings have made some sort of sense.

J Mark Morris : San Diego : California

p.s., Kirsten recommended this Atlantic article about Gell-Mann.