Monday, December 19, 2016

Book Review, “Why Quark Rhymes With Pork” by David Mermin

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Reference Frame columns published in Physics Today from 1988 to 2009, updated with postscripts, plus 13 previously unpublished essays.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 Several of the previously unpublished pieces are summaries of lectures, birthday speeches, and obituaries.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.]


  1. It's an Irish word so the Irish must be the judges.

    Thanks for telling us about this book.

  2. Not really Irish. It was coined by Joyce, who was from Ireland but wrote in English and lived a large part of his life on the Continent, speaking (and teaching---no way this guy could live off his writings---other languages).

    There is a German work "Quark" which Sabine alludes to. It is something between milk and hard cheese. Translation is difficult because both "Quark" and its translations very in meaning depending not only on language but also on location. (By the way, there is a huge spectrum of things between milk and cheese. My guess is that more are available in Sweden than anywhere else. There is a colour-coding common to all dairies so that it is difficult to buy the wrong thing by mistake.) "Quark" is also used as a term for "rubbish" in the sense of "nonsense" or "bullshit" or "poppycock".

  3. Kvetch! So now we'll have the Quark Wars? Thanks, Mermin is an extremely good writer, I will definitely buy his book.

  4. "My only prior contact with Mermin’s writing was a Reference Frame in 2009" — You mean you've never read Boojums All the Way Through? But you must! It's delightful.

  5. "Have we learned anything profound in the last half century?" Physics (macroeconomics, political science, psychology) parameterizes fundamental prediction versus empirical failure. Sine waves are odd polynomials failing outside a parameterized interval. Use sine waves.

    "What do you do when you give a talk and have mustard on your ear?" Tell people it brings you luck. Sabotage leviathan bureaucracies of the coercive state. "8^>)

  6. We suffer the ohno! second.
    Luce Irigaray sources physics' defects.

  7. Some history of the word:

  8. Mermin's issue with Physical Review's "Lagrangean" is nothing compared with Lewis H. Ryder's otherwise excellent book Quantum Field Theory, in which "Langrangian" persists in both the first and second editions. In English we say "Mistakes were made."

  9. "And the only correct way to pronounce quark is of course the German way as “qvark.”" Since, I believe "v" in German sounds like "W" in English, the German pronunciation of "Quark" is close to the way I'm used to pronouncing it, versus rhyming with "pork" or "fork". I'll have to look at some Youtube videos that discuss quarks in each language, to see what the difference is.


  10. If you recommend a book, I read it (if it doesn’t cost $50!) – and I’m so enjoying this one. In the chapter that gives the book its title, Mermin says, “To this day I have found no ark word that is also a war word with the accent on the ar.” Not only is there such a word, but he already mentioned it! He thanks his graduate students for providing “Newark” as an example of an English w-ar-k word that rhymes with “pork.” Right, but that’s not the whole story. I’m in Philadelphia, 125 km south of Newark, New Jersey, which indeed sounds like “pork.” But 55 km south of here is Newark, Delaware, which the locals steadfastly pronounce like “park” (lest anyone think for a minute they’re associated with New Jersey). The word doesn’t have the unaccented second syllable that disqualifies “bulwark” and “Newark” (NJ) (although in fairness it’s not quite accented on the second syllable either – the two syllables are stressed about evenly). Thus, when x = “k,” Mermin’s “warx” rule doesn’t apply (or is violated 50% of the time, which amounts to the same thing). There’s no logic to it after all: “quark” only sounds like “quork” because of a quirk.
    [Please forgive if this is duplicated, I got a 400 error the first time, no clue if it went through or not]

  11. Interesting to see that Newark is derived from a contraction of "New" and "Ark", by its early Puritan founders. Being a native born New Jersean, who lived for a while in Newark, we pronounced the city's name, as if you were saying those two words in rapid succession, emphasizing the "W" as it rolled off the tongue. Could sure use some of that balmy 20 F (-6.7 C) warmth in Newark this morning, with our corner of New England at -10 F (-23.3 C), currently.


    A good example of Mermin's writing. On an important subject to boot! This article brought attention to Entanglement to the larger community.


  13. @ David Schroeder

    Just a minor quibble: Newark is not a contraction of "New" and "Ark"; it is merely a concatenation. A contraction is a concatenation with an elision of a letter.

  14. Like Newton (the town), from New Town.

    By the way, photographer Helmut Newton was originally Helmut Neustädter.

  15. "Since, I believe "v" in German sounds like "W" in English"

    No, no, and a thousand times no!

    This doesn't mean that you haven't heard it. What you refer to is probably the result of hypercorrection. There is no "w" sound in German. The German letter "w" sound like English "v", and the German "v" sounds like English "f" (as does German "f", and "ph" for that matter).

    Take "Wolf" (German) and "wolf" (English). The German term sounds like (English) "volf", more or less. So some Germans get the idea that "German w is not pronounced like English v but like English w". Thus you might here someone say "the wolf was seen on the edge of the willage", even though "village" is not a German word nor is there any cognate.

    Hypercorrection is an interesting topic.

  16. To further add to your VW debate, I originally wrote "qwark" but the Physics Today editor changed it to "qvark", and I thought they probably know better...

  17. Wow...look at all these qvarkian comments! Goes to show the book title is genius at the very least.


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