Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

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.

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