Monday, June 10, 2013

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

One of the questions I get asked a lot online by members of the public is "what do I need to know if I want to be an amateur physicist?" There are many people who obviously are interested in "doing physics" without making a career out of it. While I am not quite sure what an "amateur physicist" actually do, or what they can accomplish, I can certainly understand why those who have a keen interest in physics but with an already-established career, might want to know that they need to be equipped with to continue trying to understand physics. This is especially true if one wants to know beyond the superficial level all the interesting discoveries and news from the world of physics.

So it is with that in mind that I'm highlighting a new book written by Leonard Susskind and George Hrabovsky that attempts to address that very issue. A review of this book appears in this month's issue of Physics Today.

Enjoyable it was, but its utility is narrower than I might have hoped. In fairness, it seems to be excellent for its stated purpose: as a first textbook for the “ardent amateur” who is perhaps taking a continuing education course or seeking to learn about physics at a level a bit higher than in the usual gee-whiz, calculus-free course. I, however, was eager to analyze the book as a supporting resource for mechanics courses for two different classes of amateurs: life-science students taking physics as a premedical requirement and engineering or physics students with a comparatively weak background. There is a chronic need for a clearly written “theoretical minimum” textbook to help the many students who try to learn physics but cannot remember, or who never properly learned, the necessary elementary math skills—not to mention students whose high school physics course was so poor it actually obstructed their conceptual understanding.

A few minor issues notwithstanding, it does sound as if this is a worthwhile book to have especially if one is a physicist in academia.



Oz Ramos said...

I was just holding this at the bookstore a few hours ago, and I couldn't make up my mind on getting it.

Looking through it I couldn't find many exercises or problems. I know this is a primer on physics, but I feel I would really need to work some problems out...I want to work problems out.

Notwithstanding, Z, I'm surprised you haven't turned your "So You Want to be a Physicist" essay into a book. Now THAT's something I would get!

ZapperZ said...

Thank you for the compliment. I am not sure I have enough material to turn it into a book. I certainly will need help for a good editor to weed through all the stuff I wrote and have it organized in a better fashion. I also think that there are holes in there that I need to fill to make it more complete.

But all those require time and effort, something I don't have much of lately. Maybe I'll just do a self-publishing and sell it online for $0.99 each! :)