The centerpiece of this book is the collected Reference Frame columns written by Cornell University theoretical physicist N. David Mermin and published in Physics Today from 1988 to 2009. Many of these columns bear titles that begin as “What's Wrong With…,” providing a hint of the critical and somewhat iconoclastic eye with which Mermin regards the physics community, its activities, and its peculiarities. In addition to the columns, the book contains unpublished excerpts from lectures and reminiscences about Mermin's interactions with colleagues. I would have to say that despite Mermin's remarkable wit and style, in overall impact the book is for the practicing physicists rather than the non-specialist reader interested in science. As examples, it contains criticism of the attempts of sociologists to apply cultural anthropology arguments to physics, an extended discussion of the systematic misspelling of the word lagrangian in the physics literature, satirical accounts of the activities of one Professor Mozart, who suffers at the hands of NSF proposal reviewers and has other Mermin-like adventures, and it also contains meandering inquiries probing the foundations of quantum mechanics. While the physicist readers may find these discussions interesting, the non-physicist interested in physics is likely to find them peculiar and parochial. Further, I confidently predict that Chapters 23 and 28–33, a sizable part of the book, will be unintelligible to the non-physicist (and to many physicists as well).

Mermin's book takes its title from his December 1993 column discussing the pronunciation of the word quark. In the afterword of that chapter, Mermin mentions that Victor Weisskopf told him the column was silly. I would have to agree, since in the multiple pages of discussion about the word quark and its pronunciation, Mermin fails to mention how Murray Gell-Mann came up with the term in the first place. It is well known that the inspiration came when Gell-Mann found the word quark in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake:

Three quarks for Muster Mark!

Sure he has not got much of a bark

And sure any he has it's all beside the mark.

From Joyce's alliteration, it is abundantly clear to me (and should be even to Mermin) that quark must rhyme with bark, and mark. Certainly in two decades of attending physics meetings in which the quark-gluon plasma was the focus of discussion, I never heard even one physicist pronounce quark to rhyme with pork. On the other hand, as the writer of a regular column mainly about physics, I understand how hard it is to come up with something clever to say in print every month or so, and I suspect that Mermin was scraping the bottom of the barrel here. That, however, does not explain the use of this peculiar piece as the title for his book.

On the other hand, there are many things to be learned from a careful reading of Mermin's essays. In my recent book, I used “Shut up and Calculate!” as the message implicit in the Copenhagen interpretation, but I had not realized that Mermin was its originator. Mermin explains the famous Schor algorithm for factoring large numbers into primes using a quantum computer as based on the facility with which a quantum computer can produce and recognize patterns in modular arithmetic. He clarifies the Greenberger-Horne-Zeilinger scheme for demonstrating nonlocal correlations in systems of three entangled photons, showing that it leads to a more unambiguous demonstration of quantum nonlocality than do EPR two-photon correlations. Mermin's description of his stress-filled attendance as a guest at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremonies in Stockholm is enlightening and entertaining. Unfortunately, that account gratuitously appears twice in the book, suggesting that his editor should have intervened. I should add that the book contains an excellent joke about the difference between theoretical physicists and mathematical physicists, which I have unapologetically lifted and used in the science fiction novel that I am presently writing.

My main complaint about Mermin's book is the mantle he assumes as a Bayesian Pied Piper, leading the naive and unsuspecting children of Quantum Town down the rodent hole of Bayesian quantum mechanics, which Mermin and others call QBism (for quantum Bayesianism). It is bad enough that the Copenhagen knowledge interpretation requires us to believe that the solution of a simple second-order differential equation relating mass, energy, and momentum somehow miraculously becomes an encoded description of knowledge in the mind of a hypothetical observer measuring the system. Now Mermin wants to double down on this dubious assertion by splitting up that general Copenhagen observer and his knowledge into specific individual observers, each with his or her own expectations and predictions to which Bayesian probability and statistics must be applied. This QBism goes on for several chapters of the book. Its main virtue is that it is quite unconvincing as a way of understanding what is going on in quantum systems.

The real strength of Mermin's book lies in his descriptions of his interactions with several major figures in condensed-matter physics: Daniel Fischer, Walter Kohn, Ken Wilson, and Sir Rudolph Peierls. These chapters are gems, and they are well worth the price of the book for their clear and insightful descriptions of truly excellent physicists at work.

In conclusion, I think this is a somewhat flawed book that nevertheless should be of interest to practicing physicists and to those interested in the tribal customs of the physics community. The curious non-physicist would certainly find parts of the book interesting, provided he or she was willing to “surf over” the opaque technical parts and the wrongheaded quantum mechanics.

John G. Cramer is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Washington, Seattle. For five decades he has taught physics and done experimental and theoretical research in nuclear and ultra-relativistic heavy ion physics. He is the originator of the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, the subject of his new book The Quantum Handshake—Entanglement, Nonlocality, and Transactions, Springer (2016). He has also written two hard-SF novels, Twistor and Einstein's Bridge, and his bi-monthly science column is published in Analog Science Fiction/Fact Magazine.