Quirky quarks

One of the great attractions of being a scientist is that, like the early explorers, you get to name what you discover.

As a student I was excited when our lecturer announced his expedition had found a 10 metre long fossil python at Riversleigh, Queensland, and it had been called  Montypythonoides rivereleighensis in a rather silly reference to the Monty Python comedy group. Sadly, only a few years afterwards the fossil was found to be part of an existing genus and was renamed. Not to worry, though, the Monty Python members still each have an asteroid named after them and John Cleese is immortalised in the name of a living species of long-legged, woolly lemur (Avahi cleesei).

The fundamental particle the quark, was also given its quirky name by one of its discovers, Murray Gell-Man, who was given the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1969 for discovering it. George Zweig who independently discovered the particle had called the particle an ace, which did not catch on (and Zweig did not receive a Nobel prize).

Gell-Mann (born September 15, 1929) was a clever child and entered Yale when he was only 15 years old and had his PhD in physics by the time he was 22. Amongst his other interests are birdwatching, collecting antiquities, and most notably linguistics. He assisted in the  reconstruction of the Proto-Human language a theoretical language that very early man may have spoken.

Gell-Man has explained how he named the particle. He had a sound in his head, kwork, which he had not spelled out. Soon afterwards he came across the word quark in James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake:

Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he has not got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

Gell-Man, in his book, The Quark and the Jaguar, explained that he had to find an excuse to pronounce it as “kwork”:

… the book represents the dream of a publican named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker … [and] … perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry “Three quarks for Muster Mark” might be “Three quarts for Mister Mark”, in which case the pronunciation “kwork” would not be totally unjustified.

We are lucky that a man such as Gell-Man, with an interest in words, discovered the quark or it might have ended up with a far less quirky name.