Thursday, December 6, 2007

Three quarks for Muster Mark!

He's been called "the man with five brains" -- and Murray Gell-Mann has the resume to prove it. In addition to being a Nobel laureate, he is an accomplished physicist who's earned numerous awards, medals and honorary degrees for his work with subatomic particles, including the groundbreaking theory that the nucleus of an atom comprises 100 or so fundamental building blocks called quarks.
Wielding laypeople's terms and a sense of humor, Murray Gell-Mann drops some knowledge about particle physics, asking questions like, Are elegant equations more likely to be right than inelegant ones? Can the fundamental law, the so-called "theory of everything," really explain everything? His answers will surprise you.

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.

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