Three Quarks For Muster Mark – Who Is Murray Gell-Mann?

Who is Muster Mark? Here’s the ringing passage from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

“Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he hasn’t 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…”

Finnegans Wake is a book meant for the common reader (Here Comes Everybody), as accessible and fun as the above quote, surely about an Irish barroom scene, and then some. But the book has acquired a notorious reputation for its difficulty and complexity for good reason—easy to read but difficult to analyze. And that makes it great bedside reading: in a few (random) lines it would take one to a whole different world, along with the ringing music of its rhymes, and rowdy humor. In it, Joyce had mixed “words from sixty or seventy other languages [to] its ‘basically English’ vocabulary; and to adopt an incessantly allusive style that refers to everything from the content of the 11th Britannica to popular songs and jokes and gags…”

And so it was that when the Nobel physicist, Murray Gell-Mann  (American b. 1929) was looking for a name for his baby—a theoretical particle that is a fundamental building block of the nucleus of the atom—he just happened to be doing his “occasional perusing of Finnegan’s [sic] Wake” back in the 1960s. When he came upon the above quoted passage, the rich complexity of the word ‘quark’ captured his imagination, and that is what he named his particle.

After all, finders are keepers—of naming rights—in science. Gell-Mann decided to eschew pompous Greek or Latin roots like so many scientific terms. The sound ‘Kwork’ came to him first; he then tried to figure out how to spell it. He read the first line as possibly a call for drinks in a bar: ‘three quarts for Mister Mark’. (One could read ‘quirk’ in it too, as quarks can also be ‘strange or charm’; and of course, Joyce’s poor Muster Mark probably often misses the mark in his bark). See here Gell-Mann telling how he decided on ‘quark’ for the name of this peculiar particle in an interview with Bill Moyers; and later in his own recollection.

Quark has to be the most imaginative of all new scientific terms. This is because of all the art that is in it.

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