PASADENA, CALIF. — RESPONDING to the question ``What are the most important ideas in particle physics?,'' the late, irrepressible, generally iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynmann quipped, ``Those of Murray Gell-Mann.'' Colleagues describe Dr. Gell-Mann as ``intimidating'' and remarkably knowledgeable in a variety of fields. Interviewed in his fourth-floor office in the Lauritsen Laboratory building at the California Institute of Technology the day before the opening of a conference being held in his honor, Nobel laureate Gell-Mann did not seem unduly intimidating. An energetic, engaging man with an ironic sense of humor, he was confident, articulate, focused, and precise. He was clearly concerned with getting his ideas across, strongly and accurately, whether explaining the nature of his work in theoretical physics, outlining his positions on issues like ``star wars'' and nuclear power plants, reflecting on the role of scientists in society, talking of one or another of his interests, pondering the current state of culture, or recalling aspects of his boyhood.
``Physics,'' he says, ``was the only course in high school that I almost flunked. It was the dullest course I'd ever taken. It involved stuff like counting the number of strings on pulleys. But my father said there'd be more interesting material later on, like quantum mechanics and relativity.''
Gell-Mann received his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951. He went on to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and came to Caltech in 1955. His work in physics has been seminal, opening up new vistas in the almost unimaginably ``small'' world of subatomic nuclear particles. He won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1969 for work leading to his discovery of quarks, the fundamental particles of which protons and neutrons (and other, less familiar, subatomic nuclear particles) are composed. He named them after a phrase in ``Finnegans Wake'': ``Three quarks for Muster Mark.''
``I believe there's even a book out that argues that James Joyce actually prophesied the discovery of quarks,'' he says with a grin.
Gell-Mann's wide-ranging interests are something of a legend: archaeology, anthropology, history, exploring, bird watching, conservation - almost every aspect of culture except sports.
Even conservation? Growing up in New York City in the mid-1930s, Gell-Mann explains, he couldn't help noticing the encroachments on the landscape: ``Concrete was being poured everywhere. New York, as you may know, was once a hemlock forest.''
Gell-Mann's youthful interests were shared and encouraged by his brother Ben, nine years his senior, who went on to become a journalist. Judged by the lucid style and wit of some of his own articles, Murray Gell-Mann is a talented writer himself. According to the stories told by his colleagues at the conference and in more casual settings, he knows languages ranging from Swahili to Mandarin Chinese. Gell-Mann says he is reasonably familiar with at least eight foreign languages, but he carefully qualifies this by adding that his abilities are limited in all of them but French. He's also interested in linguistics, ``Not the Chomskyan kind, but the kind involving etymology and the history of language.''
Gell-Mann believes scientists have a twofold role to play in the political process: as experts providing advice in their areas of special knowledge and as concerned citizens, entitled like other citizens, to express their opinions and values. ``But,'' he cautions, ``we also have a responsibility to distinguish between these two roles, making it clear when we are acting in which capacity.''
DURING the 1960s and '70s, Gell-Mann played an active part in arms control, trying to persuade people on both the United States and Soviet sides that the notion of antiballistic missile defense of large areas, such as cities, was not only ``very difficult and extremely expensive,'' but also ``extremely dangerous,'' because it is destabilizing, increasing the incentive for a first strike. He was disheartened by the reappearance of this destabilizing plan in President Reagan's ``star wars'' proposal.
Gell-Mann, who describes his political position as ``fanatic centrist,'' also takes a middle-of-the-road stance on nuclear power plants. On the plus side, he notes, ``they can be environmentally benign - there's no greenhouse effect or ozone depletion.'' On the minus side, he observes that long-term storage of nuclear waste has proved ``more difficult than expected,'' and that management of the industry has been a problem. ``Unnecessary lying'' has reduced public confidence.
Conservation and energy efficiency are important issues for Gell-Mann. ``That's why I was so upset by Reagan's campaign slogan in 1980: `No nation ever conserved itself into greatness.' That's just not true. Conservation is efficiency.''
Looking at broader cultural trends, Gell-Mann disputes the idea that we are living at a time of cultural decline. ``We're actually at a high point in our history, but we don't see it. You have to remember we live at a time when the ordinary person - the mass man, as Ortega y Gasset wrote in ``La Rebeli'on de las Masas'' - has broken through.''
In the short run, he concedes, we are seeing some discouraging developments: ``The bonds of our society are loosening: values like peace, quiet, cleanliness, and civility - all the things that distinguish us from a banana republic.'' But he thinks this may be a sort of temporary optical illusion: ``In the long run, it's a remarkable thing to be living at a time when the ordinary person has a chance to be educated, to shape his own life, and take a part in political and even cultural affairs.''