Shame about the title

Principles of Condensed Matter Physics
November 8, 1996

Father Brown laid down his cigar and said carefullyy "'It isn't that they can't see the solution. It is that they can't see the problem'" (G. K. Chesterton). This is a brilliant book but unfortunately it has the wrong title. What problems and topics are absolutely central to condensed matter physics? Surely free-electron theory, band theory, pseudopotentials, phonons, metals, semiconductors and superconductors. In this substantial book of 699 pages entitled Principles of Condensed Matter Physics, the index does not even feature free-electron theory, pseudopotentials, metals and semiconductors. It is not that the index is poor: the book does not feature them either. Other topics central to condensed-matter physics such as band theory occupy one page, phonons one page and superconductivity four pages.

However, the topics the book does address are covered brilliantly, lucidly and with a real depth of understanding. How can such a beautifully written book have such a misleading title? The preface provides a key clue. The book is based on a one-year course in condensed-matter physics at the University of Pennsylvania, given to graduate students. However, its contents cover only one semester of the course. Another semester treats "electrons, phonons, magnetism and superconductivity", but this semester's lectures are not covered in the book. It seems this is the reason why topics most scientists would regard as being at the heart of condensed-matter physics have been omitted.

What does the book cover? It starts with an elegantly written overview chapter that takes water in gaseous, liquid and solid states as an example and illustrates how the principles of condensed matter physics apply to it. Chapter two is on "Structure and Scattering". A good test of a book is how it treats simple topics. In this chapter, Braggs Law and the basics of crystallography are treated simply but with rigour and insight. Sentences are beautifully and carefully constructed and the chapter is a joy to read.

The other chapters cover thermodynamics and statistical mechanics; mean-field theory; field theories, critical phenomena and the renormalisation group; generalised elasticity; dynamics; hydrodynamics; topological defects; walls, kinks and solitons. These chapters are also very clearly written and highly informative. It is evident from the chapter headings that this is an advanced text, and as indicated above it is a graduate-level text, primarily for physicists. It is also a superb reference text on the topics listed above for researchers in physics, materials science, chemistry, engineering and earth sciences. Parts of the book are suitable for parts of undergraduate courses, and in particular are highly suitable reading for lecturers giving relevant undergraduate courses. Each chapter concludes with a set of problems of varying levels of difficulty. Answers or clues are helpfully provided for the more difficult problems.

This is an outstanding book that is well worth buying and which I shall keep on my shelves and refer to frequently. My only concern is that potential readers may be attracted by its title, pick it up in a bookshop, take a quick look at how it treats electrons in metals, for example, find that this mainstream condensed-matter physics topic is not even mentioned, and put the book down again. An old pop song has the line "nice legs, shame about the face". The contents of this book are excellent. Shame about the title.

Colin Humphreys is professor of materials science, University of Cambridge.

Principles of Condensed Matter Physics

Author - P. M. Chaikin and T. C. Lubensky
ISBN - 0 521 43224 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 699

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