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Jun. 16, 2011

The Quark’s Literary Origins

by Katherine

Click to enlarge images

James Joyce in Paris. By Patrick Tuohy

Happy Bloomsday! Each year on June 16, literary geeks worldwide honor the life and work of Irish writer James Joyce (Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).

In celebration, artist and writer Jonathon Keats shares his essay on the naming of the quark — a name inspired, in part, by Finnegans Wake. The essay is from Keats’ gem-filled book, Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology. You can listen to our 2010 interview with him on scientific etymologies here.


UNPARTICLE
A subatomic particle that by any conventional definition isn’t one.
by Jonathon Keats

“All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” So claimed Ernest Rutherford, the British physicist who discovered the atomic nucleus in 1910, touting the explanatory power of physics over the busywork of classifying elements or planets or animals. One hundred years later, the endless variety of matter postulated by physics – within the nucleus and throughout the universe – has far surpassed the inventories of the periodic table and solar system, leading particle physicists to refer to their domain as a bestiary, and one textbook to be aptly titled A Tour of the Subatomic Zoo.
There are electrons and protons and neutrons, as well as quarks and positrons and neutrinos. There are also gluons and muons – the unexpected discovery of which, in 1936, led physicist Isidor Rabi to quip, “Who ordered that?” –­ and potentially axions and saxions and saxinos. In this menagerie, it’s not easy for a new particle, especially a hypothetical one, to get attention. The unparticle, first proposed by American physicist Howard Georgi in 2007, is therefore remarkable for garnering worldwide media attention, and spurring over 100 scholarly papers, especially considering that there’s no experimental evidence for it, nor is it called for mathematically by any prior theory.
What an unparticle is, exactly, remains vague. The strange form of matter first arose on paper when Georgi asked himself what properties a “scale invariant” particle might have, and how it might interact with the observable universe. Scale invariance is a quality of fractals, such as snowflakes and fern leaves, which makes them look essentially the same at any magnification. Georgi’s analogous idea was to imagine particles that would interact with the same force regardless of the distance between them. What he found was that such particles would have no definite mass, which would, for example, exempt them from obeying special relativity. “It’s very difficult to even find the words to describe what unparticles are,” Georgi confessed to the magazine New Scientist in 2008, “because they are so unlike what we are familiar with.” For those unprepared to follow his mathematics, the name evokes their essential foreignness.
The highly technical field of particle physics may seem a strange realm to find such linguistic whimsy. Yet the technicality encourages fanciful terminology precisely because it defies verbal description, the result of which is a vocabulary worthy of Finnegans Wake.
Consider the 1964 naming of the quark. Like the unparticle, the quark first came into the world as a mathematical entity rather than a physical one. The physicists Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig independently speculated that protons and neutrons might be construed as different combinations of a more fundamental form of matter coming in three varieties. Zweig called them aces. Gell-Mann preferred the sound of kwork or quork, which to his ear sounded like the noise made by a duck. Exactly what theoretical physics had to do with ducks he never explained, but the weird sound he’d chosen was almost Joycian: In one of his “occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake” (as he relates in his memoirs), he happened upon the nonsense poem “Three quarks for Muster Mark”. Noting the coincidence that the number of quarks in Joyce’s book matched the number in his own theory, he adopted that spelling, lending his particles a literary pedigree with which aces couldn’t compete (even when it was later determined that quarks – Gell-Mann’s, not Muster Mark’s ­– came in more than three varieties).
Read the poem
The language of quarks has since expanded in a way that Joyce would likely approve. Quarks can have six different flavors: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. And they come in three colors: red, blue, and green. Quantum chromodynamics accounts for how these colors interrelate, mandating that quarks be bound together in color-neutral combinations corresponding to how red, blue, and green light can be mixed to make white. The color names are metaphorical, naturally, quarks being imperceptible. Quark colors help us to grapple with what we cannot see, while flavor names such as charm remind us to take nothing for granted given quantum strangeness.
That strangeness easily trumps anything ever conjured in fiction. Alfred Jarry’s absurdist 19th Century pataphysics (which he claimed was to metaphysics what metaphysics was to physics) seems downright reasonable compared to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and the sci-fi worlds of Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick have nothing on Schrödinger’s Cat. It isn’t for lack of writerly imagination. Descriptions of quantum phenomena leave written language in a tangle. The science fiction of the future will be written in mathematical equations.
In a sense, that’s what Howard Georgi has already done. Like a sci-fi writer, he’s had the audacity to ask what if…? and to let that be the premise for a fantasy which may yet (like so many sci-fi ideas of the past) turn out to be reality. The name that he’s chosen, unparticle, captures this quality of play, which characterizes so much of quantum physics and differentiates it from the stamp collecting branches of science.
Stars are numbered as they’re discovered, and new elements are subject to strict standards of nomenclature. Even plants and animals, which have been named after presidents and rock stars, must be assigned Linnaean binomials, suitably Latinized. This makes sense because the purpose is to catalogue such entities in perpetuity. It isn’t as clear as that in the case of quantum physics. Particles such as quarks are often named before their existence is known, and may for years persist in this subatomic purgatory. The axion, for instance, was first postulated in 1977, and named after a popular cleaning detergent in the hope that the particle would “clean up” a problem pertaining to the strong nuclear force. While still not detected in any experiment, and probably useless for its original theoretical purpose, the particle has suggested to researchers the possibility of saxions (“superpartners” of axions according to supersymmetric theory, experimentally unverified in its own right) as well as axinos and even saxinos. To an outsider, quantum mechanics begins to resemble an advanced case of Tourette’s. For an insider, though, the mutability of nomenclature is complimentary to its informality. Unlike the names of elements, which sound almost sacred, the terminology of particle physics feels provisional, transitory.
That helps keep the field open to new possibilities. If unparticles exist, they may be the stuff of dark matter. If so, their addition to the subatomic zoo might oust several other hypothetical particles. In fact, most physicists would be thrilled to kill off the entire menagerie in favor of something more fundamental – perhaps strings or loops – as stunningly simple as the atoms proposed by Democritus in the 5th Century BCE. This is the basic distinction between stamp collecting and physics that Ernest Rutherford insisted upon. The ambition of physics isn’t additive but reductive. The paradoxical hope that more particles may lead to less is encoded in the language.

For more on Jonathon Keats, listen to his SciFri interview here, and watch a video about his latest art installation (based on quantum physics) here.

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About Katherine

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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