Relax, you're in your element

Contemporary College Physics. Third edition - The Elements of Physics. First edition - 200 Puzzling Physics Problems
November 29, 2002

These three books are appropriate for university physics courses. Two are introductory "compendium" texts providing essential basic material: Contemporary College Physics is in the US tradition of such texts; The Elements of Physics is aimed principally at the UK market.

Until recently, compendium texts were not much used in British universities because the UK tradition is different from that of the US, with lecture courses tending to be constructed eclectically according to the interests of individual lecturers. Increasingly, however, course directors in British physics departments recommend that, for background and reference, first-year students purchase a specific compendium text, rather than buy a selection of books, each covering a single topic.

This is a natural reaction to the increasing reluctance of students to purchase textbooks, and to changes in A-level syllabuses, with consequent changes in first-year physics courses. However, although there has been some convergence, the level of American compendium texts has generally been rather low for use in the UK.

The Elements of Physics is written by two Manchester University physicists. It is in six parts - on mechanics, vibrations and waves, quantum physics, properties of matter, electricity and magnetism, and relativity - and thus covers most of the material for first-year physics courses. These authors wrote a text on electromagnetism 25 years ago in the Manchester Physics series, which continues to be a valuable component of university physics teaching in the UK.

The new text is elegantly produced and maintains an excellent standard. It is well illustrated, but not as profusely as American texts; this economy is welcome. The knowledge of physics assumed is that covered in the final year of science studies at school. The authors are fully aware of the difficulty that students often have with the level of mathematics needed and they include a final chapter, "Mathematical review", which covers, among other topics, complex numbers, differential equations and vector products.

In mechanics, for example, there are four pages on gyroscopes, leading to calculation of precession rates, and a treatment of centrifugal and centripetal forces but not Coriolis forces. The section on quantum mechanics extends to a quantitative treatment of the Schrodinger equation for the hydrogen atom, including a short treatment of spherical harmonics.

Each of the 20 chapters have many worked examples and about 30 problems with solutions. Each of the six parts is followed by a summary of important concepts and key equations. Following US practice, the illustrations are available for downloading free of charge from the publisher's website, which will be further developed to feature additional material associated with the book.

Contemporary College Physics is similar in style and coverage to many other US texts. It assumes no previous background in physics, using algebra and trigonometry but not calculus. Some appendices deal with things such as simultaneous equations and the exponential function (coming perilously close to calculus).

This book would be useful in teaching subsidiary physics in areas other than those requiring substantial mathematics. The coverage is vast, from "Blood flow in arterioles" (as a worked example) to laser diodes and CD systems. There are three pages on general relativity, a timely account of cosmic background radiation and mention of the Higgs particle. Biomedical applications of physics are highlighted. There is emphasis on problem-solving, with 340 worked examples and over 2,000 problems with numerical answers supplied. A free CD-Rom, available with textbook purchase, contains reference material, a simulation library and practice problems. This text is testimony to the effort in US universities to teach at least some physics to non-physicists.

200 Puzzling Physics Problems is aimed at "strengthening a student's grasp of the laws of physics by applying them to situations that are practical and to problems that yield more easily to intuitive insight than to brute-force methods and complex mathematics". Some large physics departments require third-year students to sit "general" or "comprehensive" papers and much effort is given to preparing students by using questions of this type.

Shortened versions of a dozen of the problems decorate the book's cover and include "How long would it take to defrost an eight-tonne Siberian mammoth?" and, more profoundly, "How does a positron move when dropped in a Faraday cage?" This book offers a source of inspiration not only to exceptional school students and good undergraduates, but also to academics. It is a welcome addition to a few such texts, including one published in 1982 by one of the authors (Ken Riley), which was aimed at a lower level. (The other two authors are leaders of the Hungarian team taking part in the International Physics Olympiad.) Buy this book even if you are not under the shadow of a "general paper" - it is a lot of fun.

Trevor Bacon is senior research fellow, Blackett Laboratory, Imperial College, London.

Contemporary College Physics. Third edition

Author - Edwin Jones and Richard Childers
ISBN - 0 07 118090 7
Publisher - McGraw-Hill
Price - £30.00
Pages - 1,025

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