Monday, November 10, 2014

Local Author Interview: Dalton Schnack

Editor's Note:  We had interviewed Dalton Schnack in late 2013.  He has since passed away.  Here is the interview, posted posthumously.  

What inspired you to write your book, Lectures in Magnetohydrodynamics?

I taught a graduate MHD course in the Physics Department in Fall 2007. Before the semester started I made the "mistake" of writing up the first few lectures for handout to the students, and then felt obliged to continue for the rest of the semester.  It was a lot of work!  After it was over I thought maybe I could send them off to a publisher, and Springer was kind enough to publish them almost verbatim. Not very inspiring, I know, but there it is!
The material in the lectures was, for the most part, actually given in a classroom setting, and is presented as close to verbatim as possible while attempting to be organized and grammatical.  With very few exceptions, if it is in the lectures, it was said in class.  I tried to strike a reasonable balance between rigor and physical intuition given the time available for the presentation.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing this book?

I learned that you can write a fairly complete 300+ page book in about 3 months if you have to; like ones' impending demise, it serves to concentrate the mind.  I had to be persistent and couldn't allow myself to get side-tracked.  It's a good lesson for lots of things.

Did you come across any unexpected challenges while writing?

One challenge was devising good homework problems, and I failed. I assigned problems about every two weeks, but I was quite dissatisfied with their quality.  They turned out to be either impossibly difficult or trivially easy, and it was hard for me to judge ahead of time. I don't think the students learned much from them, so I left them out of the book.  Maybe the second edition?

How was it different than writing a journal article?

When writing a journal article, you usually know more about the topic than almost anyone else; you can simply cite "as known" all the background information, and you are forced to be too brief to really explain things.  This makes it relatively easy.  However, when preparing lectures or writing a book (as opposed to an article) you must  be prepared to understand, present, explain, and answer questions in detail about all the background information, derivations, etc.  This is much more difficult, and requires much more work.

What are some books that have inspired you, either professionally or personally?

In no particular order:
The Feynman Lectures (
Hydrodynamic and Magnetohydrodynamic Stability by Chandrasekhar (
Methods of Mathematical Physics, Vol. I by Courant and Hilbert (
Difference Methods for Initial Value Problems by Richtmyer and Morton (
The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (
Any volume by Landau and Lifshitz.

Do you have any advice for the aspiring physicist or suggestions for the young student about further studies?

1. Show up
2. Pay attention
3. Tell the truth
4. Keep an open heart
5. Don't be attached to the outcome
"Follow your bliss."
      - Joseph Campbell

What are you reading now?

The Heartless Stone by Tom Zoellner

What do you enjoy most about Madison? Do you have a favorite restaurant, hangout spot, etc.?

Madison has an eclectic mix of university intellectualism, statehouse sleaze, downtown ambiance, and big time college sports. It has 2 beautiful lakes, sailing in the summer and ice fishing in the winter, and a real railroad that runs right through town.
It is the just about the right size; you can get from anywhere to anywhere else in about 15 minutes.  So, why are the drivers so aggressive?
The Chop House at the Hilton (Mary Ward is the best bartender in the world!) and Johnny Delmonico's are my neighborhood bars. 
L'Etoile, Harvest and The Blue Marlin are all excellent restaurants.
The best beer is New Glarus Spotted Cow ("Only in Wisconsin").

Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Secrets are Lies
Sharing is Caring
Privacy is Theft
   - "The Circle", Dave Eggers

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