Friday, 1 April 2011

The unsightly row that has thrown physics into confusion

Joyce's incoherent rambling that gave
a particle's name its spelling

When the Finnish Academy of Sciences named a hypothetical quark this week, they kicked off an unsightly row that has shaken the physics world.

Quarks are the fundamental particles at the heart of some of the more familiar inhabitants of the nucleus. Protons and neutrons are each made up of three quarks. The odd name 'quark' was dreamed up by physicist Murray Gell-Mann. It's often said he took the name from Irish author James Joyce, but Gell-Mann always denied this. He came up with a verbal name that sounded like 'kwork' (some purists still pronounce 'quark' this way). Gell Mann then spotted the quote from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and because the word looked a bit like his particle name, plus it came in threes, he adopted it as the spelling.

Quarks come in six varieties, quirkly known as 'flavours' - up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom. Now a group at the University of Helsinki have proposed that there may be a seventh flavour, which they have given the name looflirpa - and here's where the controversy rages.

Particles generally have made up names, but the properties of particles and the sub-types of particles, like the flavours of quarks, are usually named in English. The Finnish team feel that it is entirely appropriate that their hypothetical particle should have a Finnish name. The word, literally 'run master', is a homage to the famous 'Flying Finns' - runners of great distinction through the twentieth century, most recently Lasse Viren. the word has no significance in terms of the putative nature of the quark, but the team point out that words like 'charm' and 'strange' have no connection to those particles' properties either.

As yet the jury is out. We once had imperial weights and measures, but the Finns suggest we now have imperialist naming of particles. In this case, the particle may well not exist, so there may be no decisive outcome. But perhaps it is time that the physics community thought a little more about its naming conventions.
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