David Mermin

American physicist
(Redirected from N. David Mermin)

N. David Mermin (born March 30, 1935, in New Haven, Connecticut, USA) is Horace White Professor of Physics Emeritus at Cornell University

David Mermin


  • Over the past fifty years or so, scientists have allowed the conventions of expression available to them to become entirely too confining.
    • N. David Mermin (1990). Boojums all the way through: communicating science in a prosaic age. Cambridge University Press. p. xi. ISBN 0-521-38880-5. 
  • … coincident with the explosive growth of research, the art of writing science suffered a grave setback, and the stultifying convention descended that the best scientific prose should sound like a non-human author addressing a mechanical reader. … We injure ourselves when we fail to make our discipline as clear and vibrant as we can to students - prospective scientists - and to the public who pay the taxes.
    • N. David Mermin (1990). Boojums all the way through: communicating science in a prosaic age. Cambridge University Press. p. xii. ISBN 0-521-38880-5. 
  • An extrapolation of its present rate of growth reveals that in the not too distant future Physical Review will fill bookshelves at a speed exceeding that of light. This is not forbidden by general relativity since no information is being conveyed.
    • quoting a joke he heard from Rudolf Peierls. N. David Mermin (1990). Boojums all the way through: communicating science in a prosaic age. Cambridge University Press. p. 57. ISBN 0-521-38880-5. 
  • I would like to describe an attitude toward quantum mechanics which, whether or not it clarifies the interpretational problems that continue to plague the subject, at least sets them in a rather different perspective. This point of view alters somewhat the language used to address these issues—a glossary is provided in Appendix C—and it may offer a less perplexing basis for teaching quantum mechanics or explaining it to nonspecialists. It is based on one fundamental insight, perhaps best introduced by an analogy.
    My complete answer to the late 19th century question "what is electrodynamics trying to tell us" would simply be this:

    Fields in empty space have physical reality; the medium that supports them does not.

    Having thus removed the mystery from electrodynamics, let me immediately do the same for quantum mechanics:

    Correlations have physical reality; that which they correlate does not.

    • N. David Mermin, "What is quantum mechanics trying to tell us?", Am. J. Phys. 66, 753 (1998)
  • Quantum mechanics is the most useful and powerful theory physicists have ever devised. Yet today, nearly 90 years after its formulation, disagreement about the meaning of the theory is stronger than ever. New interpretations appear every year. None ever disappear. … The message from QBism is this: You needn't feel guilty about never getting nervous about this stuff. You were right not to be bothered. But for the sake of intellectual coherence, you had better reexamine what you wrongly may have thought you understood perfectly well about the nature of probability.
  • It is a fundamental quantum doctrine that a measurement does not, in general, reveal a pre-existing value of the measured property. On the contrary, the outcome of a measurement is brought into being by the act of measurement itself, a joint manifestation of the state of the probed system and the probing apparatus. Precisely how the particular result of an individual measurement is brought into being—Heisenberg's "transition from the possible to the actual"—is inherently unknowable. Only the statistical distribution of many such encounters is a proper matter for scientific inquiry.
  • It once made sense to exclude the scientist from scientific explanations of the physical world. This warded off superstitious, animistic, or religious explanations. But without endorsing superstition, animism, or religion, today it makes sense to insist that the scientist should not be excluded from a philosophical understanding of the nature of scientific explanation. Why shouldn't such an understanding involve the explainer, as well as the explained?

About David Mermin

  • One of the most beautiful papers in physics that I know of is yours in the American Journal of Physics.
    • Richard P. Feynman in a letter to N. David Mermin, related to his AJP paper Bringing home the atomic world: Quantum mysteries for anybody, American Journal of Physics, Volume 49, Issue 10, pp. 940-943 (1981), as quoted in Michelle Feynman (2005). Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track. Basic Books. p. 367. ISBN 0-7382-0636-9. 
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