Back in the 1930s the few known particles included the small squad familiar to many of us from required high school courses—primarily the protons, neutrons, and electrons. By the time of the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960s, more than 50 particles had been counted. There are finally more than 150 toted by the 1990s, including such things as muons and taus. Naturally this glut called into question the very notion of “elementary.”
The scientist who made sense of it all was Murray Gell-Mann, who by age twenty-six spoke eight languages, apparently well, and was a full professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech. As cheeky as he was intellectually nimble, Gell-Mann was often called the smartest man in the world.
Taking a cue from classical biology, he began classifying subatomic particles into families in the late 1950s, the better to understand their characteristics. His lists predicted the existence of an unknow particle, the omega-minus. At Brookhaven National Laboratory, after years of tediously reviewing photographs taken in accelerators, the young physicist Nicholas Samios finally discovered the omega-minus in 1964 on experimental photograph No. 97,025. Gell-Mann’s classifications were on target.