Jurvetson, flickr.com

BEFORE my interview with Murray Gell-Mann officially begins, we have lunch. We are at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in the foothills of New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo mountains, and here, lunch is a communal affair.

We sit down at a table on the patio with a miscellaneous group of physicists, biologists and computer scientists. Between mouthfuls I field questions from the diners about the future of science journalism, prompting Gell-Mann - one of the titans of 20th-century physics, and the man who discovered quarks - to proclaim his distinctly low opinion of science journalists. Nods of casual agreement ripple around the table. Turning to me, Gell-Mann cracks a thin smile and says, "But I'm sure you're an exception."

I've been warned Gell-Mann can be rather prickly when he feels his time is being wasted. To my relief, once we retire to his office he is amiable and gracious.

Gell-Mann's work revolutionised our view of how matter works at the subatomic scale. In the 1950s and early 60s, when the catalogue of elementary particles was spiralling far beyond the familiar trio of proton, neutron and electron to reveal a menagerie of bizarre newcomers, particle physics was in desperate need of an organiser. No one did more to clear up the confusion than Gell-Mann, who came up with a tidy classification scheme that placed the particles into octets - groupings of eight...