It is now half a century since William Hume-Rothery pointed out, with astonishing farsightedness, that metallurgists must get to grips with quantum mechanics in order to continue to develop their field.
The metallurgy department that he founded at Oxford is now known as the department of materials to reflect the wider range of solids embraced within the discipline, but he would be more than delighted to see the extent to which quantum mechanics now plays an integral part in the theory of materials.
John Vail is a physicist who seeks to extend the overlap between the traditional disciplines of physics, materials and chemistry, although mutatis mutandis there is now also a need to ensure a thorough grounding in classical theory.
The title of the book was chosen carefully and deliberately. It is designed as a series of case studies at a level for third or fourth-year undergraduate courses, or for first-year graduate courses, mainly for condensed-matter physicists, and also for materials scientists and chemists, provided they have a strong background in mathematics.
Within the first three pages, the reader is introduced to vector, tensor and matrix representations of strain. Let us hope that this is revision for the readers: it would be pretty heady stuff for anyone encountering this material for the very first time.
The book contains a rich cocktail of classical and quantum physics - from surface acoustic waves to molecular cluster computations - with the first ten chapters being almost entirely classical physics. Only five chapters require the level of quantum mechanics that is usually associated with an advanced physics course.
Some of the chapters contain new approaches that have been developed by Vail himself, but the book largely covers topics stimulated by specific instances of his own research, extending beyond traditional solid-state physics. This gives the book a freshness and enthusiasm that stems from first-hand discovery; however, it also leads to a somewhat eccentric selection of material.
To me, it is inconceivable that anyone other than the author teaching courses in this area could possibly come up with the same choice of topics and, in that sense, this can scarcely be regarded as a textbook. But other teachers may well find inspiration in Vail's new approaches to areas that they want to teach, and from time to time they will also find themselves recommending students to consult individual chapters.
Andrew Briggs is professor of nanomaterials, University of Oxford.
Topics in the Theory of Solid Materials. First edition
Author - John M. Vail
Publisher - Institute of Physics Publishing
Pages - 368
Price - £29.99
ISBN - 0 7503 0729 3