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Murray Gell-Mann: Quark and the Jaguar: A Moment of Illumination

  1. Dec 24, 2009 #1


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    In the course of reading the "Quark and the Jaguar", http://www.osti.gov/accomplishments/gellmann.html" relates a moment of insight that applies not only to elementary particle physicists, but to artists, musicians and all creative people. In attempting to explain the behavior of new "strange particles", produced in great numbers as though strongly interacting, yet decaying slowly as though weekly interacting, conventional wisdom at the time said the fermions should have fractional spin angular momentum values, like 1/2, 3/2, etc... while bosonic strongly interacting particles should have whole integer spin values.

    In a speech given at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, excerpt from page 263, Gell-Mann writes, "By a slip of the tongue I said "I=1" instead of "I=5/2". Immediately I stopped dead, realizing the I=1 would do the job. Electromagnetism could not change I=1 into I=3/2, or 1/2, and so the behavior of the strange particles could now be explained by means of conservation of I".

    He realized the alleged rule that fermionic strongly interacting states was a superstition, an unnecessary baggage that came with the concept of isotropic spin I. Isotropic spin now has a wider application than was thought possible at the time.

    Gell-Mann credits the insight to three stages of problem solving:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_von_Helmholtz" [Broken], a noteworthy german physician and physicist, who classified this activity over a century earlier.

    The last stage, Verification, is credited to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Poincar%C3%A9" [Broken]", by Morton Hunt.

    Saturation Period: Extended period where one confronts/examines/studies sources needed to solve a problem.​

    Incubation Period: Period of time when further conscious thought is useless, but you continue to carry the problem around with you.​

    Moment of Illumination: Suddenly, when not engaged in thinking about the problem, a crucial idea or insight comes.​

    Verification: Documenting or proving the solution to the problem.​

    There is some disagreement about what actually happens at the "moment of illumination", Gell-Mann is inclined to believe that somehow the "preconscious mind" just outside awareness is responsible. However, some psychologists believe that real creative thinking occurs just before the moment of insight.

    Now to the heart of this thread:

    At what moment do you remember an insight or important breakthrough in trying to solve a difficult problem ?
    Was your experience similar to what Gell-Mann presents, or different, and if different, how so ?
    Finally, what was the time period after stages 1 and 2 where the important insight suddenly came, hours, days, months, weeks, years ?


    Below are other links to Gell-Mann's contributions that may be useful.
    These can be found by using the Gell-Mann's link at the top of the page as well.

    BTW... Merry Christmas...

    http://prola.aps.org/abstract/PR/v125/i3/p1067_1?qid=cb679a695b397b47&qseq=25&show=30" [Broken]
    http://www.osti.gov/cgi-bin/rd_accomplishments/display_biblio.cgi?id=ACC0114&numPages=10&fp=N" [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 21, 2010 #2
    Interesting thread. What Gell-Mann had was a stroke of genius. Which is what makes genius, genius.

    Einstein talked a lot about this:

    "There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.."

    "The only real valuable thing is intuition."

    "The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it Intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don't know how or why"
  4. Jan 22, 2010 #3


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    The way to think about this at the neural level is to remember that states of awareness are as much about the "knowledge" that gets suppressed.

    So if I ask you to think about "cows", then that area of your memory banks has primed and enhanced activity. Neurons fire faster. And you experience cow imagery.

    But at the same time, the non-cow regions of your memories would have a lowered firing rate. Neurons are always firing at some baseline rate, but now they would fire slower. (Actually they would "slow" in many ways, such as losing synchrony, etc, but that's just complication here.)

    So thinking vividly about something makes awareness of other things more difficult.

    Creative leaps are then all about jumping to some new mental outlook. Which is why you get the classic story of hard study to create a landscape of knowledge, then the period of relaxation in which the existing crisp state of enhancement~suppression is allowed to ease enough to permit some new state of organisation to crystallise. And this transition can be sudden enough to produce an emotional aha! of recognition. We realise we have found what we knew we were looking for.

    It would be preconscious in the sense that answers do seem to swim into view. Like finding the fit for a jig-saw piece, you get the feeling it is starting to fit before you can see it completely fits. The new state of neural organisation has to spread across the whole brain, so everything that needs now to be part of the suppressed, or part of the enhanced, across multiple levels of the brain hierarchy, gets tied into the new view.

    The nucleus accumbens would be the lynchpin of the aha! moment of recognition and consequent emotional alert.
  5. Jan 24, 2010 #4


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    The idea for this thread came from an experience I had solving a problem at work, under stress and sleep deprivation more than twenty years ago. Gell-Mann's description provided the "proper" framework to express it.

    I will leave it up to you to interpret with whatever neurological and or psychological mechanism you wish. I will state what happened in short form: This example is about solving a difficult problem, not coming up with new insight to a theory in physics.

    1. Successfully delivered software about 1/4 way around the world for communications based facility. Spent a week there in a crowded laboratory setting, with manager, co-worker. The site is needed 24/7 to be up and on-line.

    2. One year later repeated the same scenario with very different results. After getting off the plane, went straight to the facility. Backed up and installed new software. Right away there were intermittent problems with the software/communications. Before the trip, everything has checked out fine in our lab with CM'd deliver media. Spent time on the phone and with the customer trying to isolate the problem for 32+ straight hours with no sleep (catnap's here and there)

    3. Customer upset with my boss (because of downtime) who is at wits end as to what to do about the problem. We patched in debug code to try to isolate the problem, reloaded the software, ran checksums on the media we brought, the works, and then some.

    4. After taking a break for some food 32+ hours into the ordeal, with time to relax I noticed in the same lab where the equipment rack stood one year before the whole assembly had been moved (marks left on the floor about 3 feet from where it was the year before).

    5. I inquired with on-site tech support when the move occurred and was told a few days before we arrived and that nothing seemed amiss since the move. Subsequent investigation of the equipment found two cables with indented pins, and a card in our processor failed diagnostic testing and was replaced. The new software we brought was correctly built and installed but exercised the hardware in a slightly different way, causing the intermittent communication problem.

    6. The combination of these three factors contributed to the intermittent failure. In the end my boss was given an apology by the customer and in turn thanked and apologized to myself and a co-worker for identifying the root cause for the problem.

    7. I remember distinctly when I first walked into the lab after being gone for the year and seeing the mark on the floor, but paid little attention to it since the equipment was as close to where I figured it was the year before.

    I spent time in that lab with that stored in my brain, but it didn't register until that moment, after removing myself from the situation and not thinking about any of it, more likely because of exhaustion. I can't tell you the chill I felt because I knew that this mark would be the sign that we would soon isolate and fix the problem. It felt really good...

    I will leave it for you to decide if that sudden insight was due to what apeiron suggests. It seems possible to me...

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