Superiority of the Latke: The Unexpected Convergence of Quantum Mechanics and Common Sense


Back in February, I gave a talk with the above title at the Annual MIT Latke-Hamentaschen Debate.  I’m pleased to announce that streaming video of my talk is now available!  (My segment starts about 10 minutes into the video, and lasts for 10 minutes.)  You can also download my PowerPoint slides here.

Out of hundreds of talks I’ve given in my life, on five continents, this is the single talk of which I’m the proudest.

Of course, before you form an opinion about the issue at hand, you should also check out the contributions of my fellow debaters.  On the sadly-mistaken hamentasch side, my favorite presentation was that of mathematician Arthur Mattuck, which starts in at 56 minutes and lasts for a full half hour (!! – the allotted time was only 8 minutes).  Mattuck relates the shapes of latkes and hamentaschen to the famous Kakeya problem in measure theory—though strangely, his final conclusions seem to provide no support whatsoever for the hamentaschen, even on Mattuck’s own terms.

Finally, what if you’re a reader for whom the very words “latke” and “hamentaschen” are just as incomprehensible as the title of this blog?  OK, here are some Cliff Notes:

  • Latkes are fried potato pancakes, traditionally eaten by Jews on Hannukah.
  • Hamentaschen are triangular fruit-filled cookies, traditionally eaten by Jews on Purim.
  • Beginning at the University of Chicago in 1946, many universities around the world have held farcical annual “debates” between faculty members (both Jewish and non-Jewish) about which of those two foods is better.  (The reason I say “farcical” is simply that, as I explain in my talk, the truth has always been overwhelmingly on one side.)  The debaters have invoked everything from feminist theory to particle physics to bolster their case.

Thanks very much to Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill for moderating, and to MIT Hillel for organizing the debate.

Update: Luboš has a new blog post announcing that he finally found a chapter in Quantum Computing Since Democritus that he likes!  Woohoo!  Whether coincidentally or not, the chapter he likes makes exactly the same points about quantum mechanics that I also make in my pro-latke presentation.

22 Responses to “Superiority of the Latke: The Unexpected Convergence of Quantum Mechanics and Common Sense”

  1. Luboš Motl Says:

    The Jews clearly have bizarre arguments! The hamentaschen may resemble the Czech kolache (search via Google Images or Wikipedia) except that the kolache are round, correctly built upon the quantum mechanical 2-norm.

    Latke looks like a potato pancake, a bramborák, to me. 😉

  2. Scott Says:

    Luboš: Yes, much of what Americans think of as “Jewish food” is basically just Eastern European food that Ashkenazi Jews took with them when they emigrated. I recently went to a Polish restaurant in Boston and found the menu filled with (what I would call) latkes, blintzes, lox, knishes…

  3. Luboš Motl Says:

    Not to mention that the music of 1878 Hatikvah was directly inspired by Smetana’s 1874 The Moldau (Vltava). And I don’t have to explain what the Yiddish Motl the Operator (Motl der Oprejtr) was inspired by and whether he was Hermitian. 😉

  4. wolfgang Says:

    >> basically just Eastern European food

    I am surprised that Lubos let it slip that you imply the Czech are Eastern European – when indeed they are central to Europe (and perhaps the whole world).

  5. Carl Lumma Says:

    No comment on the “he applies the prime number theorem incorrectly to compute how many prime numbers with at most N bits are there” claim?

  6. Scott Says:

    Carl #5: I already answered that claim over on Lubos’s blog! Let me reprint my answer here for convenience:

      yes, I’m perfectly aware that there’s a prefactor of 1/ln(2) that I omitted. I should clarify that, when theoretical computer scientists use the word “about” (as in, “about 2^n^2 / n^2”), we generally MEAN “ignoring irrelevant constant prefactors.” To us, constant prefactors are just “obnoxious, bureaucratic details” that we barely even notice. But you’re right: we should probably put them back in sometimes, to facilitate communication with our more plodding, hairsplitting friends in physics. ;-D

    (Some crucial context: in the discussion of my book, Lubos had previously been attacking computer scientists and mathematicians as pedants obsessed with “obnoxious, bureaucratic details,” who simply lacked the mental dexterity to be physicists.)

  7. Vadim Says:

    I’m amazed that the hamentaschen side can even find enough people willing to debate for them. At least no one’s arguing for matzo.

  8. Scott Says:

    Vadim: I read that in one latke-hamentasch debate, an intrepid maverick tried to make the case for matzo, but was immediately shouted down.

  9. eitan bachmat Says:

    The winner in any reasonable latke-hamentaschen debate is clearly the Sufganiya (“sponge”).

  10. eitan bachmat Says:

    Forgot to note, sufganiya would be ponchkes in yiddish.

  11. Māris Ozols Says:

    If you intersect the 8-dimensional qutrit Bloch sphere with a 2D plane, you can get a latke as well as a hamentaschen (and many shapes in-between). Check out the pictures on page 11 here:
    Hence, just like Yin and Yang, so can latke and hamentaschen co-exist in one unified form. This is observation is known as the Latke-Hamentaschen duality and it reveals the deep beauty of quantum mechanics.

  12. ppnl Says:

    Anyone have any experience with the Kindle version of the book? I have been holding off buying worrying if I should get the kindle version or the dead tree version.

  13. Pseudonym Says:

    I can’t believe that physicists are complaining about computer scientists playing fast and loose with mathematics. I’m floored.

  14. Matt Austern Says:

    There’s an obvious similarity between Hatikvah and The Moldau, but I’ve never been sure whether it’s inspiration or coincidence. Is there evidence of a direct causal connection?

  15. Luboš Motl Says:

    Dear Wolfgang, a good point. I normally oppose the “Eastern” adjective but it just didn’t drive me up the wall intensely enough to protest in this case.

    I viewed the situation as a guy ethnically from the Middle East boasting that he’s currently located on the West side from me and I wanted to keep him happy about it. 😉

    Matt Austern: It is no coincidence at all but the two compositions aren’t the only ones that are in the game of the causal relationships. The melody may originally come from La Mantovana, by the Italian renaissance tenor Giuseppe Cenci, but it also became a theme of the folk songs in countries such as Czechia and Sweden. In the Czech case, children know the theme from the song “The Cat Is Crawling Through the Hole, the Dog [is Crawling] Through the Window” (the lyrics sound smoother in Czech!).

    So the influences could be traced longer into the past except that given the proximity in time, Hatikvah appeared 4 years after Vltava, the Israeli song was “directly” inspired by the publication of Vltava.

  16. A researcher Says:

    For the record, I’m quite surprised, and even slightly shocked, that you consider the Latckes better than the Hamentaschen. For me the opposite is obvious. Both from taste and health reasons.

  17. Scott Says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that the Czech Republic was “Eastern” per se, but I also have no idea why that would be an insult. My own great-grandparents came from (areas that are now part of) Belarus, Poland, Russia, and Romania. (And “ethnically,” I probably have plenty of ancestry from there as well as from the Middle East; otherwise I wouldn’t have blond hair and blue eyes.) And looking at the map of Europe, it seems perfectly plausible that whatever people were eating in Poland and those sorts of places might also have made its way to the Czech Republic. 🙂

  18. Luboš Motl Says:

    Dear Scott, it would be an insult because for 1000 years or so, the Czech lands were qualitatively more developed and cultural and Western than Belarus, Poland, Russia, and Romania, among others.

    As you correctly say, Poland is the next in the row in your list to insist that it’s a Central European country and not a part of the East although their case is at least 300 km plus most centuries within the Roman Empire and Habsburg Empire weaker.

    Also economically, Czechia has 2-3 times higher GDP per capita than the countries you mention.

    I just read the Penrose chapter – here I would subscribe to 100% of your statements.

  19. Kenneth W. Regan Says:

    Spinach samosas all the way for me, my wife too…they have both triangular and circular aspects.

  20. Kenneth W. Regan Says:

    If they’re not cooked just right, though, they do have a tendency to “decohere”…

  21. Michael Sweney Says:

    When I was young, we had a daschund that we named Ziporah Karnatzeleh Hamentasch! We kids called her “Zippy”

    Note that “Latke” shows up nowhere in this name even if it is a 2-norm God-sanctioned entity.

    I suppose if I didn’t have to run to catch the bus now, I could come up with a coercive argument for the 1-norm in dog-naming!

  22. mike t Says:

    I like that the ppt creates an arbitrary line between loosely associated objects, calculates a potential with a Feynman, graphs some paths, illustrates indeterminable boundaries and blurs the locality line between probability and popularity…

    While not a fan of hamentashen, the criticism in the ppt seems a bit harsh. Unlike the latke, a semi-secular holiday treat and inspirational to the all-american breakfast, the hamentashen is historically illustrative.