Part biography, part textbook on quarks and other phenomena discovered by one of the great particle physicists of the twentieth century.
Johnson (a New York Times science writer) first introduces us to Murray Gell-Mann in the present day, as a likable retiree living in Santa Fe. He sets his personal experiences with Gell-Mann against Gell-Mann the legend, cutting colleagues down to size if their viewpoints didn't coincide with his own, or calling them by unpleasant and sarcastic nicknames. Gell-Mann's broad scope of knowledge started in his youth in New York City, where he would visit museums, the zoo, anywhere he could learn about the world around him. In school young Murray was always eager to show off his knowledge, winning a spelling bee at the age of seven. At fourteen, he won a scholarship to Yale, moving from there to MIT, where he reveled in the unsolved problems in physics. It was these problems, theories about particles yet to be discovered, that Gell-Mann would spend his career solving. Johnson is not afraid to present these theories in great detail, giving crystal-clear descriptions of some of the most abstract and convoluted ideas in physics. Nor is he afraid to delve into the personal side of Gell-Mann, including his relationship with his colleague Richard Feynman, a friendship at times strained by the fame that Feynman achieved from his best-selling book of autobiographical anecdotes. Gell-Mann wanted to write one, too, but for all his knowledge he was crippled by a lifelong case of writer’s block. The limited success of his autobiography once it was finished presumably led to Strange Beauty.
A must-read for anyone studying physics or its history, and for others not afraid to swim in the sometimes deep and murky waters of cutting-edge science.