What is a quark and when was it discovered?

Quark is a nonsense word, coined by the writer James Joyce in Finnegan Wake. In the book, it may have referred to a cheer or the call of a gull, but these things are never completely clear when referencing the writings of the impossibly inscrutable Irish writer.

In science, of course, a quark is nearly as inscrutable. It’s believed to be a tiny particle within the nucleus of an atom that binds together with other quarks to eventually make up protons.

There are six known types of quarks, referred to as (ready for this?) up, down, charm, strange, bottom, and top. You can imagine what kind of surreal Abbott and Costello routine could’ve come from that (“Hey, Abbott, what’s up?” “Down.” “Up is down? That’s strange.” “No, no, that’s charm. . . .”).

Confusing? Yeah, well, that’s not surprising, since they are theoretical (nobody’s ever actually seen one) and so tiny they’re hard for most of us to comprehend. Simply put, they’re believed to be the cosmic LEGOs that make up all matter.

The origin of the particle’s name is rather creative, and nearly as confusing as the particle itself. In 1963 a brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist named Murray Gell-Mann offhandedly gave the particle the whimsical name kwork, in much the same way you or I would use the term gizmo or thingamabob.

Although Gell-Mann was also a James Joyce fan, he had no recollection of having ever run across the word quark in his reading. In his 1995 book The Quark and the Jaguar, Gell-Mann tells the story behind the naming:

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 Finnegan’s 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 a 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 dreams 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.