The Quark and The Jaguar

‘The quarks are basic building blocks of all matter. Every object that we see is composed, more or less, of quarks and electrons. Even the jaguar, that ancient symbol of power and ferocity, is a bundle of quarks and electrons, but what a bundle!’

Murray Gell-Mann in ‘The Quark and the Jaguar’

A couple of weeks ago I came across a book in the Open University library by Murray Gell-Mann called ‘The Quark and the Jaguar’. It was published in 1994, so I’m a bit late if I wanted to review it (nevermind…). Plenty of others have done so, and it is somewhere between entertaining and painful to read some of the existing reviews (especially the Amazon ones…). One of the more entertaining ones begins with

‘I picked this up because I thought it was going to have some information about Ecuador (the Jaguar section) in it. It does–about one whole pages worth. The rest of the pages concern Gell-Mann’s ideas on the inter-connectedness of things.’ (…)

The central theme of both positive and negative reviews is that many things are touched upon in the book. This is either noted as incoherent/jumbled/confused/superficial/uneven/strange/overambitious or as rich with meaning/panoramic/courageous/refreshing/thought-provoking. What attracted me to the book was its title which suggested that Gell-Mann would present his view on the world – how the quark and the jaguar make one world (or universe) for him (I was especially interested in the ‘how’ and why he chose the jaguar of all possible ‘macroworld’ examples). And this is mostly (the transition from quark to jaguar was not as fluent as I expected) what I got, and although it was not always easy to follow his rules-orientated thinking (he seems to think a lot about rules, whether it is obeying or violating them), I appreciate that Gell-Mann has shared his thoughts in such detail. By detail I mean both his examples from a variety of subjects, as well as the multitude of anecdotes that illustrate the issues he raises for him (and the reader). He also draws on the same kind of (often highly entertaining) anecdotes in a talk that can be found on youtube, in which he employs them to illustrate what is of main importance to him: problem-posing (in fact, in the post-talk Q&A people seem to milk him for exactly that!).

The youtube talk is actually on the subject of creative thinking. In it, he gives examples for ‘thinking outside of the box’ (there are two great anecdotes connected to that – watch the video!). One could say that he advocates the use of the question ‘why not?’ (yet at the same time humorously cautioning that one should ‘realise that usually there’s a damn good reason why not’), the consideration that one can also play with the rules, and not only by them, and, lastly, that problem formulation is in most cases more important that problem solution. And this is how I have come to view his book: as a ‘why not?’ statement or a ‘problem’ that he wants people to respond to, the problem being that we don’t perceive things to be interconnected and especially ourselves being connected with other things/people/etc (as correctly noted in the above review extract). While Murray Gell-Mann’s experience or way of describing interconnectedness is not necessarily ours, I feel that the quark and the jaguar as a combination of images make a suitably weird, creative, thought-provoking (and energising) contribution to thinking around interconnectedness and our future (whatever ‘our’ means to you). Roooarh!


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