A handy toolbox for quantum mechanics

Understanding Physics
March 12, 1999

This book by Michael Mansfield and Colm O' Sullivan is a tour de force - an attractive-looking text, suitable "for students who are taking their first course at university level".

The early chapters are devoted to the basic mathematics and even calculus, without which no student could progress any further. Thereafter we have a seamless progression through a large number of areas in physics, with just enough discussion to make the concepts clear, occasional worked examples to drive the point home, and a constant attempt to link specific areas to one another through the general principles that make physics such an intellectually satisfying subject.

But the worry is that surely it is too ambitious. Beginning with students for whom calculus is a new concept, it is absurdly optimistic to expect that even within one year, these same students would be capable of handling Lorentz invariance in electromagnetism, say, or the more technical details of the quark model in elementary particle physics. The material in this book covers essentially the entire three-year physics course at most universities. And it does so at a price: brevity. Just a taste here, a smattering there. Not altogether a bad thing, in that brevity can allow illumination. Endless detailed treatments can get students bogged down. It is clearly a book every university teacher ought to possess, if only as a source book. But whether it will succeed as a teaching instrument is another matter.

It does perhaps highlight the endless debate over the value of treatments that emphasise breadth at the necessary expense of depth. It is not just that the students have limited time in their courses, so much as that more necessarily means more superficial. Experience shows that the assimilation of difficult concepts, in physics and elsewhere, takes time. Most students need more than one go at relativity, quantum mechanics or whatever before they become fluent in such technical language. This book is a strenuous attempt to show that at some level such material can be absorbed in one go. It deserves to succeed.

Mike Leask is lecturer in physics, University of Oxford.

Understanding Physics

Author - Michael Mansfield and Colm O'Sullivan
ISBN - 0 471 97553 2 and 97554 0
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £65.00 and £24.95
Pages - 755

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