Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


PROFESSOR MURRAY GELL-MANN died, age 89, on May 24, 2019. He was an American physicist who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles. I remember him for assigning the literary word “quark” to one of these fundamental constituents of matter. And this got me thinking of other scientific/literary etymologies.

The Quark. Briefly, quarks answer the question whether protons, neutrons, and pions are the most elementary of particles. They’re not.

A proton, for example, is composed of three quarks, two “up” quarks and one “down” quark. Image by Jacek rybak.

The “up” and “down” describe two of the six “flavors” of quarks, the others being “strange,” “charm,” “bottom,” and “top.”

The theoretical existence of quarks arose in independent proposals, both made in 1964, by Murray Gell-Mann and Russian-American physicist George Zweig. Four years later, experiments at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center identified that the proton contained much smaller objects and, therefore, was not an elementary particle.

Murray Gell-Mann, 1929–2019, American physicist. He was the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at the California Institute of Technology.

Zweig used the word “ace” to describe the small particle; Gell-Mann chose the word “quark.” And therein lies a tale tracing back to James Joyce.

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, 1882–1941, Irish novelist, short story writer, and poet.

Gell-Mann wrote, “In 1963, … I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been ‘kwork.’ Then, in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word ‘quark’ in the phrase ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark.’ ”

Joyce wrote, “—Three quarks for Muster Mark!/ Sure he hasn’t got much bark/ And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.”

And don’t you respect people having “occasional perusals” of Finnegans Wake? (I’m thinking of you too, Greg.)

A Robot. Another literary origin, this one theatrical, lies in the word “robot.” Already appearing here at SimanaitisSays in “Čapek’s Robots”, the word came from R.U.R. (Rossumovi universálni roboti), a 1920 play by Czech playwright Karel Čapek.

Karel Čapek, 1890–1938, Czech author, playwright, publisher, ardent anti-fascist, anti-communist.

The Czech word traces back to a Proto-Slavic word meaning “slave work.” The anglicized “robot” has cognates in other languages as well.

An early production of R.U.R., the play set in the years 2000–2010.

And Pandemonium. According to Merriam-Webster, the word “pandemonium” describes “a wild uproar” or “a chaotic situation.” Its synonyms including chaos, fracas, havoc and hubbub. The mathematical term chaos prompted pandemonium’s inclusion here.

John Milton, 1608–1674, English poet, polemicist, and civil servant during Oliver Cromwell’s time.

John Milton concocted the word “pandemonium” from the Greek: παν, pan, meaning “all” or “every,” and δαιμόνιον, daimonion, meaning “little spirit,” whence our word “demon.”

Title page from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1667.

Pandemonium was the capital city of Hell in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. The poem is more than 10,000 lines of blank verse recounting the biblical tale of the Fall of Man, the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Alas, I have never occasionally perused Paradise Lost. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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