Degenerate matter

A brief linguistic history of particle physics

I: The Classical Period

atom (ca600BC) from the Greek ἄτομος “that which cannot be cut”

electron (1847) from “electricity”, ultimately from the neo-Latin electricus, “amber-like”

proton (1919) from the Greek πρῶτον “first”

neutron (1939) from the Latin neutral and Greek suffix –ον

positron (1936) portmanteau of “positive” and “electron”

neutrino (1930s) a pun of Enrico Fermi on the Italian for neutron, neutrone

II: Alphabet Soup

muon (1936) originally “mesotron” from the Greek μέσος “middle”, then shortened to “meson”. After whole families of other mesons were discovered, it was renamed the μ-meson or mu meson in 1947. As it turns out, the mu meson was not a meson after all, and so was renamed the muon. Things go downhill pretty quickly from here.

pion (1947) originally pi-meson, after the Greek letter π

kaon (1947) originally K-meson, after the letter K

Followed by J/ψ, Σ, Λ, etc.

III: Mr Gell-Mann Has Time On His Hands

quark (1963) from the sound made by a duck, and only a reference to a phrase in Finnegans Wake by accident

gluon (1964) named after glue

Higgs boson (1964) after Peter Higgs, one of the physicists who hypothesised it, and “boson” is from physicist Satyendra Nath Bose. Many physicists at the time were working on the idea of a scalar field which imparts mass to all other particles, so it could easily have been named the Englert, Brout, Guralnik, Hagen or Kibble boson.


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