Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hark! The Quark

Be warned: this is going to get messy.  Any time I attempt to discuss a scientific topic—especially one that deals with physics—the words turn to gibberish the moment they hit the page.  Nonetheless, today’s lesson is about the quark.  What is it and why is it called that?

What-is-it is the hard part.  As best I can figure it out, a quark (rhymes with pork) is a little-bitty piece of something that gets together with other little-bitty pieces to form a little bit bigger piece of something called a hadron, a word that includes protons and neutrons.  Having found these little-bitty pieces, scientists discovered there were six types (or “flavors” as they like to say)—up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange.  Okay, that’s all the science you’re going to get out of me. 

Why is it called a quark?  That’s slightly easier to explain.  The little-bitty pieces were discovered along about 1964 by a physicist named Murray Gell-Mann, who decided to name them after the sound a duck makes.  Why a duck?  Your guess is as good as mine.  But a duck sound is a quack, not a quark.  At about the same time, however, Gell-Mann was reading James Joyce’s unintelligible novel Finnegans Wake, and he came across the phrase “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” As Gell-Mann himself tries to explain it:

            I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been “kwork.”  Then 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.”…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.

Uh-huh. Excuse me, Professor--will this be on the final? 
Harald Frietzsch, a student of Gell-Mann’s, offers a novel explanation of why the word “flavor” is used to denote the various kinds of quarks.  One day, he says, he and Gell-Mann stopped at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop and remarked that the 31 flavors were more than the three kinds of quark that were then known.  Gell-Mann picked up on the word “flavor” and used it for his quarks.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is full of quirks, but he is willing to set them aside long enough to consider the quark.

            An up quark in upstate New York
            Wed a down quark on the farm.
            The stork brought them a baby quark,
            And it was such a charm.
            A top quark and a bottom quark
            Their marriage did arrange.
            This time the stork was just a dork,
            And their baby quark was strange.


  1. And just to make a stranger quark
    I now append this brief remark
    In Germany, or so I deem
    "Quark" is the word for sour cream.

  2. That makes one more "flavor."

  3. And now -- with your title -- you have left me with Schubert's version of Spokeshave's "pome" stuck in my head as an earworm. THANKS A LOT.