When Murray Gell-Mann proposed the existence of a kind of sub-atomic particle in 1964, he came up with the name ‘quark’ after a phrase in Finnegans Wake: ‘Three Quarks for Muster Mark!’ A new kind of genetically modified flax resistant to herbicides has been developed in Canada and christened ‘triffid’, allegedly in honour of a nebula – Alan McHughen, the scientist responsible, may be a mild-mannered biologist by day, but at night he’s an amateur astronomer. He’s dismissive of fears that the association with John Wyndham’s 1950s novel won’t do the controversy-strewn world of GM any favours; and he’s done that clever thing of appropriating an opponent’s discourse: the Canadian triffid is an ironic (and more modern) riposte to all the talk about Frankenstein foods and the like. Anyone looking for a good reason to distrust genetic science, however, need look no further than Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable. It’s not published till November, but Cassell have sent out a taster of sample entries, including one for Dolly, ‘the world’s first cloned sheep, born on 5 July 1996 at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh’. Perhaps Gell-Mann would have called her Molly, but the depressing fact is that she was named after the ‘full-figured country singer Dolly Parton’ because she was cloned from a cell nucleus taken from another sheep’s udder. And this, we are supposed to believe, is progress; though the hopelessly optimistic or paranoid might see some cosmic connection in the fact that ‘quark’ is a variety of low-fat, soft cheese made from skimmed milk.
Vol. 22 No. 18 · 21 September 2000
From Paul Pfalzner
Did Murray Gell-Mann take the word ‘quark’ from James Joyce? This origin, as related by Thomas Jones (LRB, 24 August), may be apocryphal. But if Finnegans Wake is indeed the source, there arise two questions: where did Joyce get the word, and how should it be pronounced? As an old German word still in use, the masculine noun, Quark, has the meaning: ‘curd(s)’; and, figuratively: ‘trifle’, ‘trash’, ‘filth’, ‘slime’. In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles, conversing with God in the ‘Prologue in Heaven’, says contemptuously about humans: ‘In jedem Quark begräbt er Seine Nase.’
As to pronunciation, there appears to be a variant in English. It may rhyme with ‘mark’, as in the Joyce quote, or with ‘quart’. Purists prefer the first, though the second appears to predominate today. Joyce may well have been familiar with the German Quark, but Gell-Mann may have known this word independently as well.
Vol. 22 No. 20 · 19 October 2000
From Bryn James
Paul Pfalzner is clearly right about James Joyce and the word ‘quark’ (Letters, 21 September). Every self-respecting grocer’s shop in Zürich, during Joyce’s time here, would have had quark on offer, pronounced to rhyme with ‘mark’, as Pfalzner says. This cheese is still a favourite dish of the burghers of Zürich, mixed with chives, in this land of milk and honey.
From Julian Bradfield
Paul Pfalzner asks whether Murray Gell-Mann took the word ‘quark’ from James Joyce. According to Gell-Mann in The Quark and the Jaguar (1995), he had the sound ‘kwork’ in his head, and later noticed the line in Joyce: he liked the spelling, and invented a reason why one might be able to pronounce ‘quark’ as ‘kwork’ instead of the ‘kwark’ that Joyce’s rhyme requires.
Vol. 22 No. 21 · 2 November 2000
From David Ridge
Paul Pfalzner doubts whether Murray Gell-Mann took the word ‘quark’ from the phrase in Finnegans Wake: ‘Three Quarks for Master Mark!’ (Letters, 21 September). But one of the things about quarks (in quantum physics) is that they come in threes. Earlier in Finnegans Wake we have: ‘Talis … (I am working out a quantum theory about it for it is really most tantumising state of affairs)’ – which may have caught Gell-Mann’s attention. Presumably, Joyce knew about the German Quark, meaning ‘curds’. I had always assumed assonance, and association, with ‘quarts’, in spite of the apparent rhyme with ‘Mark’.