Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Book Review: The Theoretical Minimum

Susskind, L., & Hrabovsky, G. (2013). The theoretical minimum: What you need to know to start doing physics. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Last year I discovered a set of excellent YouTube video lectures on introductory general relativity, by the well-known Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind. In them Susskind works very hard to present the content of the theory while developing the necessary mathematics from scratch along the way. I greatly enjoyed watching many of these lectures. Later I discovered that these lectures are part of a long series of night-time lectures Susskind has given on many topics--classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, field theory, modern physics. The overall collection he terms the "Theoretical Minimum". Those interested in the history of physics recognize that phrase as coming from the Landau school; a student wish to pursue theoretical physics in Landau's institute was required to pass a set of rigorous examinations known as the "Theoretical Minimum".

Susskind's idea is to present a set of lectures that, if mastered, would in principle bring a student to the verge of being able to do serious physics research. Little if any mathematical preparation beyond calculus is assumed at the beginning, but by the end the lectures become fairly sophisticated. The lectures I have seen are quite nicely done, even if he does talk with his mouth full during a number of them…

Apparently the lectures are now going to be summarized in a set of books, the first of which is titled "The Theoretical Minimum". This first volume covers classical mechanics. The book starts off, as the GR lectures did, with nice descriptions using almost painfully basic mathematics. The first half of this book teaches integration and partial differentiation, for crying out loud! Halfway through I found myself thinking I'd wasted my money--I'd donate it to the physics library so Kerry wouldn't have to fork out for it from the physics library acquisitions budget. Then Lecture 6 came along, on the principle of least action, and suddenly it all became worthwhile. The rest of the book presents Lagrangian, Hamiltonian, and Poissonian versions of classical mechanics, with wonderful discussions of symmetry and plenty of allusions to quantum mechanics. Again, the mathematics is developed as needed, but in the end becomes fairly sophisticated. Beautifully done.

I'd recommend each and every 311/711 student to read this book. It would be a wonderful supplement to those courses. I'm hoping it doesn't take too long for Susskind and Hrabovsky to put out the subsequent volumes. I'd particularly like to have a quantum version for 448/9. 

By the way, Susskind's co-author, George Hrabovsky, is known to many of us around the UW Physics department. I'll leave it to our intrepid physics librarians to add an entry to the "Author Interviews" section of the blog revealing the details of how George came to co-author this book with Susskind.

Submitted by Thad Walker.

Copies of this book at UW-Madison Libraries

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