Yuval Ne’eman 1925-2006

Yuval Ne’eman died yesterday, from a brain hemorrhage caused by a recent fall. Science magazine has a story about this.

Together with Murray Gell-Mann, in 1961 Ne’eman co-discovered the SU(3) classification of strongly interacting particles. At the time he was both an Israeli military attache in London, as well as a graduate student of Abdus Salam (who was a devout Muslim). For some amusing stories of that period, see this web-page of fellow student Ray Streater.

In later years Ne’eman continued his research in theoretical physics, was president of Tel Aviv University, played an active role in the Israeli nuclear weapons program, and was the head of a far-right political party. He was definitely one of the most colorful characters in particle theory during the second half of the last century.

Update: There’s an obituary from the AP in the New York Times. It’s only comment about Ne’eman’s work in particle theory is that:

The Technion credited Dr. Ne’eman with discovering the principles of tiny subatomic particles, called quarks, although another scientist received the Nobel Prize for that discovery.

Ne’eman and Gell-Mann both realized that mesons and baryons could be classified as representations of SU(3), and some of the physics of the strong interactions could be understood this way. Gell-Mann won the Nobel because he later identified the fundamental representation of SU(3) with new particles, quarks.

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13 Responses to Yuval Ne’eman 1925-2006

  1. Arun says:

    “Abdus Salam (who was a devout Muslim)” – since you brought up religion, I think the following is pertinent:

    Abdus Salam belonged to a sect called “Ahmaddiya” which has been deemed non-Muslim by Abdus Salam’s native country, Pakistan. The following is an excerpt of a law that went into effect in 1984:

    Any person of the Quadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name), who, directly or indirectly, poses himself as Muslim, or calls, or refers to, his faith as Islam, or preaches or propagates his faith, or invites others to accept his faith, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, or in any manner whatsoever outrages the religious feelings of Muslims, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.”

  2. knotted string says:

    Yuval Ne’eman certainly stands out as a an interesting character, because he was prepared to do what he felt was for the best. I’m glad that the assassination attempts failed.

    It’s fascinating to read in the Science story that he inspired the spy Ne’eman in Frederick Forsythe’s novel The Odessa File. I know Einstein was once offered the Presidency of Israel, but he declined it.

    The page Science links to, explaining the eightfold way, is nicely illustrated: http://fafnir.phyast.pitt.edu/particles/conuni6.html

    A link from there has a nice history of the Standard Model http://fafnir.phyast.pitt.edu/particles/smt.html which ends in 1995:

    ‘After eighteen years of searching at many accelerators, the CDF and D0 experiments at Fermilab discover the top quark at the unexpected mass of 175 GeV. No one understands why the mass is so different from the other five quarks.’

    It’s sad that the subject has become so stagnant since 1995.

  3. MathPhys says:

    Abdus Salam was not a devout Muslim. In his later years, he put on the devout Muslim thing, but surely not when he was a young professor at Imperial College, which is the time when Ne’eman became his student.

  4. Subhash says:

    I apologize for not sticking to the main subject of this post, but since Abdus Salam, Ne’eman’s supervisor, has been mentioned in two comments with different assessments, perhaps this column on him would be of interest:


  5. D R Lunsford says:

    A great physicist. And don’t forget George Zweig.


  6. Tony Smith says:

    Yuval Ne’eman (with Yoram Kirsch) wrote a book, The Particle Hunters (Massada 1983, Cambridge 1986 and second Cambridge edition 1996), intended to provide a text on particle research for non-professionals.
    The preface to the second edition says “… we were encouraged by warm responses of readers from all over the world, who have read the book either in English or … Spanish, Italian, Japanese, or Hebrew … A poet sent us a poem in which she recounted dreams she had after finding out what the world is made of … Their … comments made them partners in creating this revised edition. …”.
    Having had the pleasure of meeting with Yuval Ne’eman some years ago, that passage reinforces my feeling that he was a genuine humanitarian in the deepest sense.

    As to the subject matter of this blog, the book is not silent, saying:
    “… The enthusiasm …[for]… superstring theories … cooled off … when the theory was taken from ten dimensions down to our prosaic four-dimensional world. It turns out that this can be done in myriads of ways, each yielding a different GUT, in contrast to the uniqueness of the E(8)xE(8) which had impressed physicists so much. It means that one can put almost anything into the six dimensions (out of ten) which have to fold up. Thus, the theory seems to contain a correct formulation of quantum gravity and to fit the requirements of a TOE, but is much too flexible and therefore has very little predictive power.
    The hope is that an equation for all possible superstring theories can be formulated, and that it will single out one specific theory, as the TOE selected by nature to describe our physical world. Several theorists have expressed the hope that this theory, if found, would be the ultimate and final theory of physics. The authors of this book hold a different view. We think that Hamlet’s words ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dream’t of in our Philosophy’ (I, v. 167) are closer to the lessons of the past. …”.

    As to policies for the future of particle physics, the book concludes by saying:
    “… In the beginning of this book we mentioned the atomic theory of Democritus, who lived in the Greek city of Abdera in the fifth century BC. The citizens of Abdera awarded Democritus with five hundred talents of gold for his idea, as if their eyesight could sense the view at a distance of twenty five centuries and see the atomic theory in its glory. Can we afford to be less far-seeing? …”.

    Tony Smith

  7. sunderpeeche says:

    Democritus expounded the atomic hypothesis (5th century BC?), but he had no testable predictions to back it up. Even in the 19th century people like Ernst Mach disputed the atomic hypothesis. (Ludwig Boltzmann had trouble his whole life convincing people about the existence of atoms.) Surely, then, Democritus’ idea of atoms was not even wrong?

  8. knotted string says:

    Democritus’ atom was predicted to be impenetrable and unsplittable. Hence it was wrong in detail. (But so were later efforts, eg Dalton’s atomic explanation of chemistry was ridiculed for the non-integer mass numbers of elements, because he didn’t know about isotopes or binding mass-energy effects.) The Greek atomic concept was grossly oversimplified, which is the exact opposite of the problem with string theory today…

  9. I met Yuval Ne-eman with Max Jammer in 1980 at the Fairmont Hotel at a Reverend Moon Unity in Science Conference. Henry Stapp was at this conference. Ne-eman spent at least 10 minutes lecturing me on the importance of my name “Sarfatti” to Jewish History via Rabbi Rashi de Troyes 1040-1105 AKA “Solomon ha-Sarfatti.” Murray Gell-Mann also had some obscure things to say about my name in Jewish thought at a Santa Fe Complexity fund-raiser at the San Francisco Ferry Building. Murray was attracted to the woman I was with who had no idea who he was and this got Murray even more interested.

  10. MathPhys says:


    When was that encounter with Gell-Mann that you mentioned? What year?

  11. Eluard says:

    “Democritus’ atom was predicted to be impenetrable and unsplittable. Hence it was wrong in detail.”

    This should be called the Spinal Tap the-amp-goes-to-11 fallacy. Why not just think that the real atoms are the fundamental particles? What does it matter that someone jumped the gun and called the wrong things ‘atoms’?

  12. Anonymoose says:

    I think I’ve heard of Abdus Salam before. It was column about how many scientists manage to remain strict followers of a particular religion, yet peacefully reconcile their faith with their work in science. Salam mentioned how there was no necessary conflict with his Islamic faith and scientific exploration, but I wonder what it was like for Yuval Ne’eman, given his Zionist background. This could provide interesting feedback on Muslim-Israeli relations.

  13. Today, May 8, 2006 I read that Yuval Ne’eman passed away. Last time I contacted him, we agreed on writing a book on General Lie Invariants (beyond of those called Casimirs). I had the pleasure of being one of his students. In an attempt to quantize gravity (Gauge Affine Theory) Ne’eman and I came to the discovery of a general method to calculate Lie invariants. Because his oustanding work in other areas this work is barely known. Yuval and I had nice expectations on writing the best book on Lie Invariants. Rutwig Campoamor from The Universidad Complutense of Madrid planned to join us on this task. Rutwig and I will pursue this titanic task to honor the memory of this great physicist and dear friend.

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