Tuesday 16 August 2011

Joyce and Particle Physics

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.

Quarks, the fundamental particles from which protons and neutrons and the like are made, have two very peculiar qualities. First, they're pronounced kworks. Second, they were invented by James Joyce. The two are connected.

As any fule kno, the word atom means unsplittable in Greek. It was then discovered, to the dismay of etymologists everywhere, that the atom could be split into neutrons, protons and electrons, and then these particles were themselves subdivided into quarks, courtesy of James Joyce.

The new fundamental particle was actually thought up in the sixties, two decades after Joyce's death. But Murray Gell-Mann, the physicist who had the idea, was a James Joyce fan:

In 1963, when I assigned the name "quark" to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been "kwork". Then, in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word "quark" in the phrase "Three quarks for Muster Mark". Since "quark" (meaning, for one thing, the cry of the gull) was clearly intended to rhyme with "Mark", as well as "bark" and other such words, I had to find an excuse to pronounce it as "kwork". But the book represents the dream of a publican named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Words in the text are typically drawn from several sources at once, like the "portmanteau" words in "Through the Looking-Glass". From time to time, phrases occur in the book that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar. I argued, therefore, that 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. In any case, the number three fitted perfectly the way quarks occur in nature.

Long-serving readers of this blog will know that James Joyce also came up with Hogwarts.

You spoof of visibility in a freakfog.

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