What's in a name? The naming of scientific principles and discoveries can be a challenging one. The need to convey concise information through a name must be balanced with the likelihood that the theory will change. Scientists draw their inspiration from a variety of sources, including literature.

At the break of the 19th century, John Dalton proposed the concept of atoms to explain why elements react in in ratios of small whole numbers. These atoms were supposedly the smallest unit of matter, and their name derived appropriately from the Greek word 'atomos', meaning indivisible. Though atoms are still the basis of chemical theory, we have since learned that atoms are not, in fact, the smallest units of matter, and that they are divisible. By the end of the century, J J Thomson had discovered electrons and shortly after that, protons and neutrons had joined the Standard Model. Far from involving a single indivisible unit of atom, there are now seventeen named particles in the Standard Model (though it's in fact a lot more complicated than that), with more expected to be discovered in the near future.

The naming of principles and discoveries in science is a delicate business, and a good name can work as an aide mémoire. Hadrons are more tentatively named than atoms, but their name still gives a clue to their nature, as it is derived from the Greek word 'hadros', meaning thick, or heavy. Hadrons are made up of two or three three smaller particles, quarks, and so are heavier than other sub-atomic particles.

New particles seem to acquire names with more caution than Dalton's bold naming of the atom. The names for individual quarks often make subtle allusion to their properties: Up and Down quarks make reference to the up and down components of isospin that they carry, and the names for Top and Bottom quarks are "logical partners for up and down quarks," according to physicist Harari, who coined them. (Top and Bottom quarks used to be referred to with the fanciful terms 'Truth' and 'Beauty'.) However, the Charm and Strange quarks seem to have been named with a touch of whimsy, as if physicists expected the discovery to be overturned in the near future.

I recently learned how quarks acquired the name 'quark' and was pleased to discover the word has a literary origin. Murray Gell-Mann, one of two physicists who independently proposed the quark model in 1964, initially had in mind just a sound by which to name his particle: 'kwork'. However, it wasn't until he came across this passage in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake that he decided on a spelling:

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.
But O, Wreneagle Almighty, wouldn't un be a sky of a lark
To see that old buzzard whooping about for uns shirt in the dark
And he hunting round for uns speckled trousers around by Palmerstown Park?
-- James Joyce, Finnegan's Wake

This passage is part of a 13-line poem for the cuckholded King Mark. There follows a great number of allusions to birds; the word quark comes from the English verb quark, meaning to 'caw, or croak', and is similar to quawk, which means to 'screech like a bird.' Yet it's hard to see what convinced Gell-Mann that he had stumbled upon the right word for his particle. As the word is clearly intended to rhyme with 'Mark' and 'bark' in the passage, it did not even have the right spelling.

In his book The Quark and the Jaguar, Gell-Mann explains how he found an excuse to pronounce the word as 'kwork'. He noted that words in Finnegan's Wake typically have multiple meanings and draw from difference sources, often exhibiting a portmanteau quality. He then guessed that Joyce intended the word to have multiple meanings, perhaps suggesting an allusion to drinking, with "Three quarts for Mister Mark". This provided justification for the word quark to have a multitude of possible pronunciations, including 'kwork'. The illusive, ambiguous quality of the word in the text is perhaps appropriate for a particle that has remained undetected (behind the model of protons and neutrons) for so many years. The lack of clarity in meaning and pronunciation suggests a lack of certainty. How knows whether some new discovery will overturn the current model, or how long we'll have to wait?

Gell-Mann also noted that the number three was important considering the way that quarks are found in nature, as the particles come in six 'flavours' and three 'colours'. Depending on their flavour, quarks have fractional electric charge values of either 1/3 or 2/3 times the elementary charge. So it seems appropriate that Muster Mark's quarks come in three. With knowledge of the origins of the word in Joyce's classic, quarks are aptly named to provide aide mémoire.

It seems scientific inspiration can come from surprising sources. It's likely that literature inspires far more scientific developments, as such concrete examples of influence are probably rare. This prompts questions about what, and why, scientists read. Perhaps navigating Joyce's ambiguous, experimental style provides an experience akin to making sense of the baffling world of particle physics?

References & Further Reading

Listing image: CERN, Particle Detector on the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) at the Large Hadron Collider