Built on Facts

The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics

When this book appeared in my mailbox I judged it by its cover and was a little concerned. The problem with the cover is the name of one of the authors: Leonard Susskind. He’s an extremely talented physicist and writer, to be sure, but he’s a string theorist. Worse, he’s one of the major names behind the string theory landscape idea. Though not a high-energy physicist myself and thus not really being terribly qualified to judge, I tend to classify the string theory landscape as somewhere between speculative and pseudoscience.

Beyond the cover, I am happy to report that my initial worries were absolutely incorrect. This is a charming and erudite instance of a genre with very few members – a pop-physics book with partial differential equations on a good fraction of the pages. The goal of the book according to the forward by Susskind (a physicist) and Hravovsky (an engineer) is to give a substantive but not-textbook-detailed introduction to physics. Not just to teach about physics, as is the typical pop-physics book’s goal, but to actually teach physics.

The title refers to a slightly notorious requirement the great Soviet physicist Lev Landau put on his students before they could join his group. There was a level of knowledge of physics he called the “theoretical minimum”, which for him meant exhaustive mastery of theoretical physics. In the more limited goal of this book, the theoretical minimum is to understand physics as it actually works mathematically – beyond just the Scientific American level. Not to the level where you’re actually solving graduate textbook problems, but to the level where you know what the concept of a Lagrangian actually entails.

More impressive still is that the book entirely resists the temptation to skip to the good stuff – quantum mechanics and so on. This is a book which is purely about classical mechanics. More volumes are planned on electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, but for now this is the true basics. These basics of course turn out to be built into the fabric of electrodynamics and quantum mechanics, aside from the minor fact of the vast importance of classical mechanics in the world of practical problems.

The succeeds admirably in its goal. It presents classical mechanics in all its glory, from forces to Hamiltonians to symmetry and conservation laws, in a casual but detailed style.

Hawking famously suggested that each equation halved the sales of a book, so the question here is whether or not you might be interested in reading The Theoretical Minimum if you haven’t learned calculus or don’t remember it. It’s a judgement call. I suspect you won’t get the whole experience if you haven’t at least seen calculus at some point in your life. But even a half-remembered course years ago is probably good enough – there’s a pretty substantial bit of mathematical refresher material presented in a visual and intuitive way. If in doubt, give it a try. On the other hand, a reader without any calculus background could probably pick up some of the flavor of the physics but I don’t think I recommend starting with this book.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the books in this series. They address a niche that sees very few solid attempts to fill.

 

[Standard disclosure: the publisher sent me a free copy of the book to review. I am not otherwise compensated for this review.]

Comments

  1. #1 Joe B
    February 13, 2013

    If you haven’t yet looked at Suskind’s courses on the Stanford Continuing Education site, you should. As understand it, this book resulted from one of those courses. One of Suskind’s other courses on the site is about string theory. The first few lectures (which requires some knowledge of Field Theory, perhaps, like me, dimly remembered from many many years ago) will at least convince you why so many great physicists were drawn to those ideas.

  2. #2 George Hrabovsky
    Madison, WI
    February 13, 2013

    I am not an engineer, I am an amateur physicist.

  3. #3 Magpie
    February 20, 2013

    Hey, I *like* calculus, I’ve just been too lazy to get my teeth into physics, despite my interest.

    Sounds abolsutely perfect.

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