Research Notes · 03/15/2013

The Quantum Manual of Style

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Brian Mihok writes about The Quantum Manual of Style (Aqueous Books).

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Here are some questions I asked after purchasing and partially reading a book called Cosmology: A Class Manual in the Philosophy of Bodily Being by Paul J. Glenn:

  • Is this really for a class?
  • What is wrong with Paul J. Glenn?
  • Is he still alive?
  • Does he write everything like this?

I found the book by accident. Really I was looking for something with which to begin an erasure project. As it turns out Cosmology is full of fantastic and beautiful language — turns of phrase that can be at once overly grand, and at another technical and opaque. It feels scientific without really being scientific. I though it was a perfect fit.

Unfortunately my erasure project went nowhere, but a different idea I had had was to write a book of stories as a style guide, like the guides graduate students use in their pursuit of academic success. Using Cosmology and those style guides as, well, guides, I started to work on a something. It somehow dealt with science. Used it sort of. You should know I have no background in math or science, but I think they are wonderful ideas. Also, I read a lot of pop science. Magazines like SEED, Wired, Ars Technica. I follow the work of physicists like Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking. I watch shows like NOVA.

In writing The Quantum Manual of Style I read many articles on physics but also referenced Cosmology to develop the voice. For example, this is from the start of Chapter 1 of Glenn’s book:

bq. Article I. The Marks of Bodily Being a) Meaning of Marks of Bodies b) Bodies and their Characteristics c) The World not Divine a) Meaning of Marks of Bodies The term marks serves, in the present instance, to indicate those realities which are constantly manifested by the bodily world in which we find ourselves. We learn what bodies are by studying what they consistently present to our notice, — that is, their properties or consistent marks. Out of this study emerges our deeper knowledge of what bodies are in themselves.

I find this type of writing to be amazing. By amazing I mean preposterous. My creative brain was wowed by it. I kept the book close by for the first half of writing the manuscript.

I also read some style guides like the Harbrace College Handbook or the Little, Brown Essential Handbook or Diana Hacker’s A Pocket Style Manual. I didn’t read read them, but I looked at them to see how they did things. I remembered Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and actually reread it. I ultimately used Elements as a guide for organization because it is impeccably done. It’s like a person with incredibly correct posture.

As for articles that I read, I noticed the more I learned about quantum physics, the more I realized its principles are strangely analogous to everyday American life. Here are some ideas that I was taken with and which, in some way, show up in the book:
The Big Bang
http://phys.org/news203097805.html

Black holes and singularities
http://phys.org/news189065222.html http://apod.nasa.gov/htmltest/rjn_bht.html http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spacetime-singularities/

Quantum entanglement
http://arstechnica.com/technopaedia/2008/03/quantum-entanglement/
http://phys.org/news/2012-07-quantum-entanglement-notification.html

Higgs Boson
http://arstechnica.com/science/2011/12/rolling-the-dice-understanding-how-physicists-hunt-for-the-higgs/

Other assorted helpful and interesting sites/articles:
http://www.higgo.com/quantum/laymans.htm
http://arstechnica.com/science/2011/10/another-example-of-the-weirdness-of-quantum-mechanics/
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm/
http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2013/02/alan-friedmans-astonishing-hd-photographs-of-the-sun/

I was also watching a lot of Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi films at that time. There are 26 of them. This may not qualify as research directly, but my writing definitely gets infected by the things I fill my brain with and that is research enough as I understand it. Here are other things that were indirect research during the writing of The Quantum Manual of Style, many of which are actually referenced in the book at some point:

  • Saved by the Bell
  • Sesame Street
  • Edward Scissorhands
  • Little Red Riding Hood
  • Star Trek: TNG
  • Quantum Leap
  • macaroni and cheese
  • hot tea
  • Nebraska (Springsteen album)
  • The Beatles
  • “Animal Minds” episode of Radiolab
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • The Velvet Underground
  • Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman series
  • San Francisco
  • Superman: The Movie
  • baking fresh bread
  • internet comments
  • local news
  • Veckatimest (Grizzly Bear album)
  • having no health insurance
  • Back to the Future
  • fencing

Literature I was reading or re-reading at the time:

  • All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • the Bible
  • The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail by Gregory Sherl
  • Pee on Water by Rachel B. Glaser
  • How They Were Found by Matt Bell
  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
  • Abbot Awaits by Chris Bachelder
  • The Ghost Soldiers by James Tate
  • The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God by Etgar Keret
  • If I Falter at the Gallows by Edward Mullany
  • The Man Suit by Zachary Schomburg

I do almost no research for most of my fiction and I didn’t set out to do a lot for this book, but it happened and I will not deny it if asked directly. Really it still isn’t “a lot” of research but it is not “no research” either and there is at least some difference between the two.

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Brian Mihok was born in New Jersey. When he was twelve his family moved to Florida. Since then he has also lived in California, Massachusetts and New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming from journals in print and online including Hobart, Tarpaulin Sky, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Necessary Fiction, >kill author and Bartleby Snopes. He is co-founder and editor of matchbook, a literary journal of indeterminate prose, and is an associate editor of Dark Sky Magazine and Sunnyoutside Press. He holds a BA in English from the University of San Francisco and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His work can be found at brianmihok.com.