Quarks and The Eightfold Way

There is nothing physicists love more than a mess of puzzling, apparently contradictory experimental results. Physicists are convinced that nature is fundamentally simple, and that they can discover hidden principles which bring order to the chaos—if they just think about it hard enough. Nobody was better at finding order amid apparent chaos than Murray Gell-Mann, who died on May 24.

The 1950s and 60s were a Golden Age of particle physics, as accelerators produced a plethora of new particles with unpredictable properties. This presented a problem: There were too many of these new particles, which appeared in collisions without any evident rhyme or reason. They didn’t look anything like the kind of simple, elegant structure scientists expect from the laws of nature.

With a series of brilliant strokes, Dr. Gell-Mann revealed the secret pattern that made everything snap into place. His Eightfold Way, mischievously named after a Buddhist doctrine of liberation, made sense of the new particles that had been discovered and predicted ones that hadn’t been. The Eightfold Way is to elementary particles what the Periodic Table is to chemical elements. Ultimately, he proposed “quarks,” unobserved particles that are bound together in groups of two or three, to account for almost all of the new discoveries.

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