What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics
By Leonard Susskind, Art Friedman
Basic Books (February 25, 2014)
This book is the second volume in a series that we can expect to be continued. The first part covered Classical Mechanics. You can read my review here.
The volume on quantum mechanics seems to have come into being much like the first, Leonard Susskind teamed up with Art Friedman, a data consultant whose role I envision being to say “Wait, wait, wait” whenever the professor’s pace gets too fast. The result is an introduction to quantum mechanics like I haven’t seen before.
The ‘Theoretical Minimum’ focuses, as its name promises, on the absolute minimum and aims at being accessible with no previous knowledge other than the first volume. The necessary math is provided along the way in separate interludes that can be skipped. The book begins with explaining state vectors and operators, the bra-ket notation, then moves on to measurements, entanglement and time-evolution. It uses the concrete example of spin-states and works its way up to Bell’s theorem, which however isn’t explicitly derived, just captured verbally. However, everybody who has made it through Susskind’s book should be able to then understand Bell’s theorem. It is only in the last chapters that the general wave-function for particles and the Schrödinger equation make an appearance. The uncertainty principle is derived and path integrals are very briefly introduced. The book ends with a discussion of the harmonic oscillator, clearly building up towards quantum field theory there.I find the approach to quantum mechanics in this book valuable for several reasons. First, it gives a prominent role to entanglement and density matrices, pure and mixed states, Alice and Bob and traces over subspaces. The book thus provides you with the ‘minimal’ equipment you need to understand what all the fuzz with quantum optics, quantum computing, and black hole evaporation is about. Second, it doesn’t dismiss philosophical questions about the interpretation of quantum mechanics but also doesn’t give these very prominent space. They are acknowledged, but then it gets back to the physics. Third, the book is very careful in pointing out common misunderstandings or alternative notations, thus preventing much potential confusion.
The decision to go from classical mechanics straight to quantum mechanics has its disadvantages though. Normally the student encounters Electrodynamics and Special Relativity in between, but if you want to read Susskind’s lectures as self-contained introductions, the author now doesn’t have much to work with. This time-ordering problem means that every once in a while a reference to Electrodynamics or Special Relativity is bound to confuse the reader who really doesn’t know anything besides this lecture series.
It also must be said that the book, due to its emphasis on minimalism, will strike some readers as entirely disconnected from history and experiment. Not even the double-slit, the ultraviolet catastrophe, the hydrogen atom or the photoelectric effect made it into the book. This might not be for everybody. Again however, if you’ve made it through the book you are then in a good position to read up on these topics elsewhere. My only real complaint is that Ehrenfest’s name doesn’t appear together with his theorem.
The book isn’t written like your typical textbook. It has fairly long passages that offer a lot of explanation around the equations, and the chapters are introduced with brief dialogues between fictitious characters. I don’t find these dialogues particularly witty, but at least the humor isn’t as nauseating as that in Goldberg’s book.
All together, the “Theoretical Minimum” achieves what it promises. If you want to make the step from popular science literature to textbooks and the general scientific literature, then this book series is a must-read. If you can’t make your way through abstract mathematical discussions and prefer a close connection to example and history, you might however find it hard to get through this book.
I am certainly looking forward to the next volume.
(Disclaimer: Free review copy.)