The naming of the quark

Happy Bloomsday!

Each year on this day, June 16, literary geeks worldwide honor the life and work of Irish writer James Joyce.

Bloomsday is a commemoration of events in his novel Ulysses, all of which took place on the same day in Dublin in 1904. Joyce chose the date because his first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle happened on that day. Bloomsday is named after Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses.

James Joyce: Blooming

In celebration, artist and writer Jonathon Keats shared his essay on NPR on the naming of the quark — a name inspired, in part, by Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I share part of it here for your edification.

“The quark first came into the world in 1964 as a mathematical entity rather than a physical one. The physicists Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig independently speculated that protons and neutrons might be construed as different combinations of a more fundamental form of matter coming in three varieties.

Zweig called them aces. Gell-Mann preferred the sound of kwork or quork, which to his ear sounded like the noise made by a duck.

Exactly what theoretical physics had to do with ducks he never explained, but the weird sound he’d chosen was almost Joycian: In one of his “occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake” (as he relates in his memoirs), he happened upon the nonsense poem “Three quarks for Muster Mark”. Noting the coincidence that the number of quarks in Joyce’s book matched the number in his own theory, he adopted that spelling, lending his particles a literary pedigree with which aces couldn’t compete (even when it was later determined that quarks – Gell-Mann’s, not Muster Mark’s ­– came in more than three varieties).”

So now you know.

The essay is from Keats’  book, Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology.

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