The spectacular success of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a shard of the true cross that has sold more than five million copies since its publication in 1988, touched off a speculative frenzy among book publishers suddenly willing to back just about any scientist-author who might duplicate Hawking’s ascent to the best-seller lists. Of these perhaps the most celebrated is Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate, theoretical physicist, and polymath who thought up and named the quark and has been described as “the smartest man in the world.”
Nevertheless, news of the book raised a few eyebrows among observes of the science-writing scene. Of Gell-Mann’s erudition there was no doubt. In addition to his mastery of physics, Gell-Mann is at home in botany, evolutionary biology, cosmology, and many other sciences. He is said to speak thirteen languages. He can discourse at length on cuisine, etymology, ethics, ornithology, South American pottery, Caucasian carpet-weaving, literature (he came across the word “quark” in Finnegans Wake), and enough else to make a complete recitation of the subjects of his expertise read like the spines of a set of encyclopedias. Certainly a book that surveyed even some of the interests of so commodious a mind would be worthy of wide attention.
His erudition aside, however, there were doubts that Gell-Mann, who had never written a popular book or even an especially well-composed nontechnical article, could reach an audience of general readers. Part of the concern had to do with his legendarily combative personality. Gell-Mann is not one of those geniuses who wears his learning lightly. He dismisses many of his colleagues as ignoramuses, and is less charitable when it comes to nonscientists. On striking up an acquaintanceship he will argue with you about everything from the street map of your home town to the pronunciation of your grandmother’s surname. He likes to steer conversation to one of the many subjects he knows well, then stage an intellectual fireworks show that leaves his audience dumbstruck with awe. This sort of thing can be a liability when it comes to popularizing science, which calls for a certain solicitude toward the anxieties of nonscientists, who are unlikely to read very far if they sense that, just as they had feared, the author is a wizard and they are hopeless dolts.
And, indeed, The Quark and the Jaguar has its flaws. It is littered with self-congratulatory phrases like, “Through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, of which I am a director,” and “the World Resources Institute (which I am proud to have played a role in founding).” GellMann mentions the Santa Fe Institute, which he also helped found, so often—ten times in eleven pages, at one point—that in the book’s preface he apologizes for “what amounts to a glorification of Santa Fe” and “for what must seem like advertising” of it. At the same time Gell-Mann is disappointingly reticent about describing his own life. Early in the book we …