Saturday, February 23, 2013

Book review: "The Theoretical Minimum" by Susskind and Hrabovsky

The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics
By Leonard Susskind, George Hrabovski
Basic Books (January 29, 2013)

Susskind made his lecture notes into a book and did a great job. His book is explicitly not aimed at students but at everybody with an interest in physics who wants to expand their toolkit and start speaking the language of physicists.

The book primarily covers classical mechanics: momentum and forces, energy and potentials, up to the principle of least action, Hamiltonian mechanics and poisson brackets. In content it is very similar to the lecture notes that I learned from, it might also remind you of Goldstein's classical book on classical mechanics. However, what's special about Susskind's book is that he introduces along the way all the mathematical concepts that are needed, starting with vectors and functions to integration and differentiation. The book is thus very self-contained and yet really brief and to the point, which is quite an achievement.

It seems pretty obvious that there will be a sequel to this book that continues this educational effort.

I appreciate this book very much. It would have been dramatically useful for me when I was a teenager, because there is a gap in the physics literature between high school level and the level aimed at students, a gap this book can bridge. However, if you think this book will bring to up to speed with modern physics, you got it wrong. It's a long way to quantum field theory and there really are no shortcuts. Susskind's book, and the ones that will probably follow, however might be the shortest route, the one of least action so to say.

That having been said, I'm not a teenager anymore and frankly don't have much use for the book. Which is why I'll give away my copy for free. The book will go to the first person who has a mailing address in Europe and leaves a comment to this blogpost telling us why you want the book and what is your interest in physics.

Update: The book is gone.

20 comments:

Pedro Rebelo said...

Hello Professor Hossenfelder,

I have been following your blog for some time. Myself I' m an engineer although in my last years I have working on numerical methods applied to fluid dynamics. The main goal of our research is that the resulting numerical methods we achieve preserve basic physical laws, such as conservation of energy and momentum.

As you can see this book I believe will be very useful to my research!

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Pedro,

Excellent, the book is yours :o) Please send your mailing address to hossi[at]nordita.org and I'll send it on the way next week. Best,

Sabine

Plato Hagel said...

Hi Bee,

Along with the book, Leonard Susskind has many lectures out of Stanford University that may be appealing as well.

Best,

Celal Birader said...

I have been trolling the internet for years trying to find someone who explains the concept of the Lagrangian to me in an understandable way -- without success UNTIL i checked out Susskind's book on Amazon using the 'Surprise me' feature. It happened to take me to the section explaining what the Lagrangian is about. It blew my mind how accessible he has made it. If only for that bit alone the book is worth buying. It's a shame that physics education is MADE unnecessarily inaccessible to the intelligent and interested masses . Anybody wanna guess why that is ?

Phillip Helbig said...

Once again, Blogger blogs force at least some users to wait for 10 minutes for the first page to load: "waiting for apis.google.com". This occurs every couple of weeks then goes away.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Phillip,

I've asked you before, what browser are you using? I'm using Google Chrome and I have no problems neither with this nor with other blogger blogs. It's probably some widget that isn't loading properly, but unless I know which it is I can't tell what's going on. Are you using some privacy protection that might block Google analytics or the stat counter, that might cause the long load time. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Thanks again for taking the time to write this review. As it happens the day you’d written this post I was out buying a birthday present for a family member at a store which also had a Chapters book store nearby. Since I had read your review that morning I thought I’d take the opportunity to have a peak at Susskind’s book you mention here to see if it might be of interest. After checking the computer there I find there was one in stock which also reported it was to be found in the science section, being of no surprise. Anyway I found it and opened it up to have a look, yet decided that this one wouldn’t give me anything much past what Penrose’s “Roads” provides, even within the shortened scope Susskind’s book is meant to address. Of course this was only a cursory assessment and was wondering if any of your readers would have a better opinion in being more familiarity with both. I would have addressed this question directly to you, yet I recall you reporting you having an unfortunate accident respective of your copy :-)

Just as perhaps a interesting side note, this Chapters store, which I’d visited before, had moved the science section to the very back corner of this huge premises; a store complete with a Starbucks and comfy couches where people can relax and purview the books. Not only had they moved it but the section itself was drastically reduced, with the physics subsection so tiny (just a few small shelves) it had me to wonder why the even bothered to have one. This had me to recall Carl Sagan’s lament to wish this would be one time a fine scientist would be proved incorrect. It also has me grateful there are still people such as you who continue to attempt to have him found wrong.

“We've arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements — transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting, profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”


-Carl Sagan, “The Demon-Haunted World : Science as a Candle in the Dark”, p 29, Random House publishers


Best,

Phil

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Phil,

Well, I never read Penroses book. Let me just say that Susskind's has the merit of brevity :o) Best,

Sabine

Laurent Stern said...

Hi all.

I'm an 40 years old IT engineer but I've studied non-theoretical physics in university: not much analytical mechanics (only the minimum for QM), not much special relativity, no field theories in general so no general relativity. As you can see I'm not a "pro" like many of you. I really enjoyed the Susskind book. You can read my review and comments to reviews at Amazon.com

To Phil: I've read Penrose's "Road to Reality" and I prefer the Susskind/Hrabovsky book a lot more. For me Penrose's book isn't a book about physics but about physical mathematics (the maths required to modelize physical phenomena). I think that Penrose is a mathematician (of the geometer kind) who talks about physics while Susskind is a physicist who uses maths as a tool. The approach is fundamentally different to me.
Also the Penrose book isn't a course but an essay: he talks of what he likes and dislikes, he presents unorthodox things (his little diagrams for tensors manipulations for example). It's difficult to compare the two books.

Laurent

Phillip Helbig said...

I normally use Firefox, but when the problem occurs it occurs in IE as well. And when it occurs, all Blogger blogs are affected, which makes it pretty clear that it is not a problem at my end. Or, at least, that whatever changed did not change at my end.

It might be possible that Blogger periodically changes some global settings which affect some but not all browsers (considering that Google owns both, maybe this is an attempt to make sure that it works only in Chrome and not in other browsers in order to get people to move to Chrome; certainly, similar tactics have been employed by various companies in the past). Ideally, all web pages should work in all browsers. If something doesn't work in all browsers, or at least in all browsers which are a) reasonable new and b) reasonably common, then it is broken. I realize that bloggers don't have control over the details of Blogger, but if you can reproduce the problem and complain, it might help. (WordPress also has a problem in that the comment box is now only one line in some (but not all) browsers.)

Laurent Stern said...

Oops forgot to comment on Sabine's review.
When I was in university we were taugh analytical mechanics in 3rd year. It was introduced only for QM in order to present hamiltonians, commutators, etc. For me the book doesn't fill a gap between high school physics and university physics. If it could have filled a gap for me, it would have been between perhaps the 2nd and 3rd year of university.
What I like a lot about the book is that it explains clearly what's a symmetry and its relation to conserved quantities. It also explains what's gauge invariance. When I was a student I didn't understand why the notion of vector potential was introduced in electromagnetism. After reading the book I understand better (way to introduce the magnetic field in a lagragian).

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Phillip,

Well, if you have the same problem with all blogger blogs, it is clearly not a problem that I can solve. If you cannot find any record of the problem online, it is probably an issue on your end, maybe an overactive firewall/virus protection or an outdated browser version. Best,

Sabine

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,


Brevity, I guess there is some merit in that yet only as far as not leaving anything important out ;-)


“The supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”


-Albert Einstein, “On the Method of Theoretical Physics" p-9


Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

Laurent,


Thanks for your assessment and yet what I find as your objection to Penrose’s approach on things are precisely why I like them. That is I find it as important to explore why a method works as to know how and when to have it applied. Then again it might just mark the difference between what you look to have physics have made sense for you and what I happen to. Anyway I found Penrose’s chapter 20 discussion of the Lagrangian method in Roads as explanatory as well as thought provoking.

Best,
Phil

Laurent Stern said...

Yes Phil I fully understand you. I just think that the target audiences of the Susskind/Hrabovsky and Penrose books aren't the same. To really appreciate the Penrose book the reader needs to have some knowledge on functions of complex variables, differential geometry, topological spaces, etc. The Susskind/Hrabovsky just needs some calculus, trigonometry and it's better if the reader knows some basic physics (div B = 0, etc). The learning curve of the Penrose book is very steep, not the one of the Susskind/Hrabovsky. I perfectly understand that the later will bore you to death if you are already a theoretical physicist but perhaps not if you are a teacher. Penrose is a book to discuss, Susskind/Hrabovsky a book to learn from. If you know already, it's probably worthless.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Laurent,

At least as far as formal education goes you most likely have more than myself and yet I still appreciate the approach of Penrose, as it can be of some value to nearly anyone who reads it. In fact Penrose offers a way to have it read by which nearly all mathematical solutions can be avoided. From the cursory assessment of Susskind’s book I would agree that for someone primarily concerned with how physicists incorporate mathematics to arriving at solutions it’s most likely far superior and therefore perhaps a better primer in such respect. However in respect to being a book that also has the ability to provocate questions by lending a spatial degree of reality to the math Susskind’s effort seems to be almost intentionally having it avoided. I think it might come down to what type physicist one is trying to end up with, or even what has each instructor finds a physicist to be in respect to what they wish to have understood of nature; or perhaps more so what can be understood.


Best,

Phil

Nemo said...

I like the first mathematical part of Roger Penrose's book a lot.

Concerning the second part starting at about Chapter 19 (The classical fields of Maxwell and Einstein), I would probably not have understood all of it if I had not known about the topics from somewhere else. For example his explanations about LQG and Twistors I did not get, I had to look for a "gentle but mathematical introduction" to these topics elsewhere.

Concerning Roger Penrose's personal views I often disagree, for example with respect to all these quantum interpretations, I prefer the "shut up and calculate". And I do not like everythings he says about QFT and "advanced topics in QFT" for example ...
But I highly appreciate and respect him for, conversaly to some sourball blogger (and commenters on physics blogs) for clearly stating that these are only his personal opinions and that other people and physicists have the legitimate right to disagree with him or see it different.

Lenny Susskinds video lectures I like a lot, his way of thinking and explaining things is in exact resonance with my mind.
I have seen all of his video lectures, starting from the mechanic course up to some very advanced topics in cosmology2 :-P.
Of course, concerning topics I have taken courses at university, the Lenny Lectures might have been a bit too basic, but they give nevertheless a nice consistent summery about the most important ideas and concepts of a topic. As it came to topics I had no clue about before, the videos were very approriate for me to learn about stuff for the first time.

I guess the book nicely presented in this article must be a good reading, even more if it probably contains additional material not presented in the video lecturse.

Laurent Stern said...

To Nemo: There's some additional material in the book but it doesn't come from Leonard Susskind. It's George Hrabovsky that added the introductory calculus and central forces chapters.

Plato Hagel said...

Most definitely, in context of the book there is always more and not knowing who George Hrabovsky is would definitely help to me to further see the idea of what such a collaboration may mean.

So definitely, I am going to have to buy the book.

Best,