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The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics

Leonard Susskind and George Hrabovsky
Basic Books
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Tom Schulte
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To “start doing physics” one can go to the force board or the chalkboard. On the dust jacket one sees erector brackets, fasteners, a model robot, and a lattice tower built with the erector Build & Play Construction Tub kit. That can easily suggest that this is the force board approach and that this book is a passport for the hands-on hobbyist into physics insight. Ignore that dust jacket, however, as this is the chalkboard-ready deep dive into Laplace, the Lagrangian, and Liouville’s Theorem. As such, the best preparation is comfort with calculus, differential equations, and all the fundamental physics models such as the pendulum, the mechanics of waves, and the damped spring. This book goes straight to the double pendulum, and only as an aside.

The chapters are called lectures, like the YouTube Modern Physics: Classical Mechanics lectures by Susskind that Stanford makes available. The first few lectures use less than one hundred pages to recap trigonometry, vectors, integral calculus, and partial differential equations. It was generous of the authors to provide a refresher, but that does not make this a self-contained work. This work has all the prerequisites of a university physics course and can also be an excellent, clarifying supplement to any such course’s required text.

For someone who either regretted not taking university physics, is taking it, or wants to know how a physicist thinks, Susskind and Hrabovsky offer a brief first course in physics and its mathematics. There is not enough space to include Maxwell’s theory of electrodynamics, Einstein’s theory of gravity, or the Standard Model of elementary particles. The book focuses on classical mechanics, including conservation laws, Hamiltonian mechanics, and planetary orbits. This is appropriate for a book under two hundred fifty pages.

Omitting relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory allows room for the clear description of advanced classical physics concepts. Somewhat surprisingly, the authors also use that room for the breezy and humorous. I challenge anyone to show me a book that can skip from a groaner joke about George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men discussing physics to Poisson brackets in a single page.

This is an excellent work for its intended audience and the authors succeed in making the material concise and easy to read. I am very glad to see that future volumes are promised. I do have to say that in the age of LaTeX typesetting it is surprising to see how careless some of the mathematical typography is. Dots notating differentiation are absolutely untethered from their functions and exponents drift about in a disconcerting manner.

Tom Schulte is a software engineer that teaches mathematics at Oakland Community College and is in the market for a discount force board.