Why Quark Rhymes with Pork: And Other Scientific Diversions
By N. David Mermin
Cambridge University Press (January 2016)
The content of many non-fiction books can be summarized as “the blurb spread thinly,” but that’s a craft which David Mermin’s new essay collection Why Quark Rhymes With Pork cannot be accused of. The best summary I could therefore come up with is “things David Mermin is interested in,” or at least was interested in some time during the last 30 years.
This isn’t as undescriptive as it seems. Mermin is Horace White Professor of Physics Emeritus at Cornell University, and a well-known US-American condensed matter physicist, active in science communication, famous for his dissatisfaction with the Copenhagen interpretation and an obsession with properly punctuating equations. And that’s also what his essays are about: quantum mechanics, academia, condensed matter physicists, writing in general, and obsessive punctuation in particular. Why Quark Rhymes With Pork collects all of Mermin’s Reference Frame columns published in Physics Today from 1988 to 2009, updated with postscripts, plus 13 previously unpublished essays.
The earliest of Mermin’s Reference Frame columns stem from the age of handwritten transparencies and predate the arXiv, the Superconducting Superdisaster, and the “science wars” of the 1990s. I read these first essays with the same delighted horror evoked by my grandma’s tales of slide-rules and logarithmic tables, until I realized that we’re still discussing today the same questions as Mermin did 20 years ago: Why do we submit papers to journals for peer review instead of reviewing them independently of journal publication? Have we learned anything profound in the last half century? What do you do when you give a talk and have mustard on your ear? Why is the sociology of science so utterly disconnected from the practice of science? Does anybody actually read PRL? And, of course, the mother of all questions: How to properly pronounce “quark”?
The later essays in the book mostly focus on the quantum world, just what is and isn’t wrong with it, and include the most insightful (and yet brief) expositions of quantum computing that I have come across. The reader also hears again from Professor Mozart, a semi-fictional character that Mermin introduced in his Reference Frame columns. Several of the previously unpublished pieces are summaries of lectures, birthday speeches, and obituaries.
Even though some of Mermin’s essays are accessible for the uninitiated, most of them are likely incomprehensible without some background knowledge in physics, either because he presumes technical knowledge or because the subject of his writing must remain entirely obscure. The very first essay might make a good example. It channels Mermin’s outrage over “Lagrangeans,” and even though written with both humor and purpose, it’s a spelling that I doubt non-physicists will perceive as properly offensive. Likewise, a 12-verse poem on the standard model or elaborations on how to embed equations into text will find their audience mostly among physicists.
My only prior contact with Mermin’s writing was a Reference Frame in 2009, in which Mermin laid out his favorite interpretation of quantum mechanics, Qbism, a topic also pursued in several of this book’s chapters. Proposed by Carl Caves, Chris Fuchs, and Rüdinger Sachs, Qbism views quantum mechanics as the observers’ rule-book for updating information about the world. In his 2009 column, Mermin argues that it is a “bad habit” to believe in the reality of the quantum state. “I hope you will agree,” he writes, “that you are not a continuous field of operators on an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space.”
I left a comment to this column, lamenting that Mermin’s argument is “polemic” and “uninsightful,” an offhand complaint that Physics Today published a few months later. Mermin replied that his column was “an amateurish attempt” to contribute to the philosophy of science and quantum foundations. But while reading Why Quark Rhymes With Pork, I found his amateurism to be a benefit: In contrast to professional attempts to contribute to the philosophy of science (or linguistics, or sociology, or scholarly publishing) Mermin’s writing is mostly comprehensible. I’m thus happy to leave further complaints to philosophers (or linguists, or sociologists).
Why Quark Rhymes With Pork is a book I’d never have bought. But having read it, I think you should read it too. Because I’d rather not still discuss the same questions 20 years from now.
And the only correct way to pronounce quark is of course the German way as “qvark.”
[This book review appeared in the November 2016 issue of Physics Today.]