Thursday, April 01, 2010


A very long time ago, as it now seems, Murray Gell-Mann named the quark after a curious line (one of many) in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Over the years, six quarks were discovered — the prosaic 'up' and 'down' quarks, the odd 'strange' and 'charm' quarks, and the elegant (and very large) 'truth' and 'beauty' quarks. They formed part of the 'Standard Model' of particle physics.

The properties of quarks became more and more interesting the more research was carried out. Quarks had colour — red, green and blue; they also had anticolours — antired, antigreen, antiblue (or cyan, magenta and yellow). If you added coloured quarks together so that their nominal colour was 'white', you'd get a meson, baryon or antibaryon.

Philosophically, some scientists were wondering if the Aristotelian model of knowledge would hold — would we find 'truth', 'beauty' AND 'goodness'? By the time the Standard Model was established, it seemed that there was no place for 'goodness' in the world. Besides, if you had seven quarks, it would seem oddly asymmetric, not to mention probably result in 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' jokes of dubious quality and content.

The 'truth' quark alone was a beast, almost the size of a gold atom. With its partner 'beauty', some people already had visions of the Disney versions of old folk tales. Surely one had to be enough? The problem with the Standard Model, or Eightfold Path, was that it was too neat. Too tidy.

The antithesis to the Aristotelian view was of course the Zurvanite perspective, explicitly considered as a Sassanid response to Roman Christianity with its Aristotelian reasoning. If you had three quarks named 'truth', 'beauty' and 'goodness', then your Zurvanite antitrinity of quarks would be 'unimpeachability', 'passionlessness' and 'aloofness'.

Thank God that today's many interesting Large Hadron Collider news items haven't mentioned these new particles at all. Quarks with seven-syllable names just don't fit into the natural scheme of things. 'Aloofness' might just about pass.

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