Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Holmes, Sir Isaac Holmes

December 18, 2009

If you’re looking for some fun reading for the coming holidays, and like physics and detective stories, you’re in for a treat: Thomas Levenson‘s book Newton and the Counterfeiter. I’ll let Thomas himself tell you what it’s about. Here’s a short promotional video:

And, much more interestingly, this talk at MIT, where Levenson glosses over the story and offers some interesting thoughts on how scientific knowledge influenced society during the late seventeenth century and beyond. And all that by way of telling you a good and true detective story!

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Lisa Randall talks with Charlie Rose

December 29, 2006

The first half of this Charlie Rose Video (hat tip Edge) is devoted to an interesting, if introductory, interview with Lisa Randall where she talks about physics and higher dimensions. Entertaining.

(I guess Rose is famous in some part of the world, but i’d never heard of him before. He is a good interviewer, and i like the minimalist stage with its zen-like black background, and the use of full-screen slides every now and then.)

Quantum Theory at the Crossroads  Conference

September 29, 2006

Guido Bacciagaluppi (from Berkeley’s Philosophy Department) and Antony Valentini (from the Imperial College of London) are about to publish a 500 pages long book entitled Quantum Theory at the Crossroads: Reconsidering the 1927 Solvay Conference, and they’ve been kind enough to make a draft copy publicly available: just follow the link. Not that i’ve had time to read it yet, but its abstract looks all but promising:

We reconsider the crucial 1927 Solvay conference in the context of current research in the foundations of quantum theory. Contrary to folklore, the interpretation question was not settled at this conference and no consensus was reached […] [W]e provide a complete English translation of the original proceedings (lectures and discussions), and give background essays on the three main interpretations presented: de Broglie’s pilot-wave theory, Born and Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics, and Schroedinger’s wave mechanics. We provide an extensive analysis of the lectures and discussions that took place, in the light of current debates about the meaning of quantum theory. The proceedings contain much unexpected material, including extensive discussions of de Broglie’s pilot-wave theory (which de Broglie presented for a many-body system), and a “quantum mechanics” apparently lacking in wave function collapse or fundamental time evolution.

Chances are this book will make its way into any recommendation on required QM readings in no time!

Nature’s nifty tricks

July 10, 2006

Herman BondiA few weeks ago, and thanks to this post over at A Neighborghood of Infinity, i discovered a little jewel: Herman Bondi‘s book Relativity and Common Sense, an insightful and original introduction to special relativity for the layman. The above mentioned post gives an overview of Bondi’s approach, based on what is known as k-calculus, arguably simple enough to be taught at highschools. Bondi makes the case for an understanding of SR as an evolution of Newtonian ideas, rather than as the revolution we all thought it was. Whether successful or not, this attempt leads Bondi to start his book with a delicious review of classical physics, illustrating the concepts and principles with very well chosen common life phenomena and their corresponding explanations. You know, trying to come to grips with quantum mechanics interpretations or finding a unified theory of everything is all very well, but it’s the marvel of being able to explain those other nature’s nifty tricks what draw me to physics in the first place. These little and easy to understand principles convey in a very real and fun sense the magic of ours world’s understandability. Bondi touches a lot of these magic things in the first fifty pages of his book, and i thought some of you may amuse yourselves finding (or just remembering) the explanations to these down-to-earth phenomena:

  • Conservation of momentum. Your baby is sleeping in her pram. Would you put the brakes on or off to ensure she will still be there when you come back and find that she awakened in the meantime?
  • Spinning cats. Can you think of a way of exploiting angular momentum conservation to explain how a cat manages to land always on all fours? (For extra score, how’s this problem related to Yang-Mills theory?)
  • Coriolis force. Can you explain it in simple terms (involving, say, a disk and a little ball)? Does it have anything to do with kitchen sinks? And what about weather? How does it explain cyclones and anticyclones?
  • Wave phenomena: the sonic boom. Can you explain how the explosion associated with a plane travelling at ultrasonic velocities is produced?
  • More on waves: Doppler effect. You surely know about the proverbial band on a train wagon, but what about putting the band on the station and yourself in the train? Will be the frequency shift identical? Why or why not?

These look like simple, even basic, questions, but their solution does not lack subtle points. I’m with Bondi in that one should better understand everyday physics before jumping to the unification of forces or even, more modestly, special relativity. At least in my case, and with the benefit of hindsight, i regret having jumped too early into mathematical physics and abstract stuff, only later learning about funny things like those above: i’m sure i’d be a better physicist had i spent more time in the wonderful world of understandable experiments… but, oh well, you already know the line: you’re never too old… ;-)

Turning back to Bondi’s book, never mind some of the unfavourable comments at Amazon. Even if you don’t buy his claims about SR being common sense (i don’t), the book is just excellent.

Parenthetical geometry

June 25, 2006

sicmIf i were asked for my preferred field in physics, i’d have a really hard time choosing just one, but it would surely relate in one way or the other to differential geometry. Picking up a programming language, on the other hand, would be far easier, for i feel at home among Scheme’s lots of infuriating, silly parenthesis. Jack Wisdom and Gerry Sussman have managed to bring together the best of both worlds in their book Structure and Interpretation of Classical Mechanics, freely available on-line. The book, aptly dedicated to the Principle of Least Action, is an amazing journey through modern classical mechanics, using two apparently different languages: differential geometry and scheme. There you’ll find all the expected topics: Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formulations, the rigid body, phase space structure, canonical transformations and a very complete treatment of perturbation theory in non-linear systems. What makes this book different (and extremely fun) is what one may call its computational stance: in the authors’ words,

Computational algorithms are used to communicate precisely some of the methods used in the analysis of dynamical phenomena. Expressing the methods of variational mechanics in a computer language forces them to be unambiguous and computationally effective. Computation requires us to be precise about the representation of mechanical and geometric notions as computational objects and permits us to represent explicitly the algorithms for manipulating these objects. Also, once formalized as a procedure, a mathematical idea becomes a tool that can be used directly to compute results.[…]
Our requirement that our mathematical notations be explicit and precise enough that they can be interpreted automatically, as by a computer, is very effective in uncovering puns and flaws in reasoning.

As i mentioned, the computer language chosen is Scheme, for pretty good reasons (besides the obvious one of Sussman being one of the language’s inventors). To begin with, Scheme’s syntax is so simple that one can learn it on the go, although that simplicity does not preclude in any way powerful abstraction means and natural expression of symbolic computations. As a matter of fact, it favours it, as testified by the book’s accompanying library, scmutils. Thanks to it,
expressing mathematical equations in a way understandable by a computer is often a natural exercise. On the other hand, Scheme is an interpreted language, which means that you have at your disposal an interactive environment to play with. The convenience of it for exploratory purposes is hard to overstate.

Wisdom and Sussman have been using SICM for teaching classical mechanics at MIT during several years, and you can find additional material in the course’s website. But the fun does not end there. The 2005 booklet Functional Differential Geometry is an unconventional introduction to differential geometry using SICM’s schemy approach, which is also being followed and extended to Lie Groups by Will Farr, who has started an effort to port (part of) scmutils to PowerPC architectures [1]. Finally, there’s a SICM reading group in sore need of contributions and discussion (hint, hint), but with some potentially useful tips.

Happy hacking!


[1] Those of you who enjoyed my swimming post will probably be interested in this article by Wisdom that i found in Will’s blog,

Nobody expects the Strings Inquisition

June 13, 2006

The Spanish InquisitionThe recent comments by you-know-who against the positive press that Peter Woit’s book Not Even Wrong is receiving just reminded me (by some weird association of ideas) of this epoch-making gag by Monty Python. I was about to write an entry on my recently ordering this book and planning to read it on a trip next week, but now i’m scared of confessing having bought it! (and, anyway, Christine Dantas has recently put quite nicely almost my exact feelings on this matter). Imagine, i might even like it, and got immediately classified as a crackpot and a nincompoop by the theoretical physics community!

I’m trying hard to respect string theory and theorists (and even plan on reading Zee, Weinberg and Zwiebach’s books, already waiting on my shelf). Why, i even admire several string theorists. But it would help if someone told me that Motl is not the string community’s spokesman. Or to read every now and then a bit of self-criticism from said community (something in the vein of Smolin’s comments in, say, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity). For if the (so to speak) dialectic battles between those two are to be taken as the kind of discussion we theoretical physicists favour these days, poor Monty Python are just out of business. Paraphrasing Erwin Schrodinger, i wouldn’t like it, and i would be sorry i ever had anything to do with it.

Update: Christine’s again right on the spot. And this is much, much closer to the kind of discussion i was asking for!

The cyclist team

May 29, 2006

 Fieldtheory Figs FeynmancovGeorgia Tehch’s Pedrag Cvitanovic’ and friends write physics and maths books under the nome de guerre of The cyclist team. These books are interesting in many ways. First of all, they are comprehensive and of excellent quality, although, fortunately, these are not extremely rare in the field. What is not so common is the dose of humour and engaging wittiness distilled in their pages. And, besides, they’re being written over a span of many years in a totally public manner: you can view and download them in PDF of Postscript and are frequently updated. As they explain in their webbook rationale, they don’t even plan to ever publish them:

The relevant parts of a good text will be printed and perused, no less than a good electronic preprint. A bad text should be junked anyway. If a student in Buenos Aires or Salamanca reads a chapter and is wiser for it, that is all it takes to make us happy. The webbook has done something to further little piece of wisdom that we know and love.

The oldest book is Pedrag’s (Quantum) Field Theory, and its companion (and more modern) lecture notes: Quantum Field Theory, a cyclist tour. In Pedrag’s own words:

Relax by reading Classics Illustrated, diagrammatic, Predragian vision of field theory. The exposition assumes no prior knowledge of anything (other than Taylor expansion of an exponential, taking derivatives, and inate knack for doodling). The techniques covered apply to QFT, Stat Mech and stochastic processes.

As is a norm, the book’s site contains many other bits of additional information, including the delicious fable of Quefithe.

Next comes the Group Theory Book, which, under the subtitle of Birdtracks, Lie’s and Exceptional Groups and spanning almost 300 pages, will tell you all you’ll ever need about Lie Groups and Algebras. This nice PDF presentation makes for a good summary of its contents, or, as Pedrag says, of “most of the Webbook at a cyclist pace, in 50 overheads” (see also here for more short intros). In case you’re wondering, birdtracks are to Lie Groups what Feynman’s diagrams to QFT, and then more. As you can see, Pedrag loves diagrams and pictures, in a way that reminds me of Penrose’s fondness for geometrical descriptions (actually, birdtracks have many a point in common with Penrose’s diagrammatic tensor notation, who even wrote a letter claiming his precedence on it). And, again, don’t miss the book’s site for lots of additional goodies.

Finally, there’s the Chaos Book, probably my favourite. Again, the authors introduce it far better than i would:

Quite a few excellent mathematics monographs on nonlinear dynamics and ergodic theories have been published in last three decades. On the whole, they are unreadable for non-mathematicians, and they give no hint that the theory is applicable to problems of physics, chemistry and other sciences.
By now, there are also many physics textbooks on “chaos”. Most lack depth, and many of them are plain bad, emphasizing pictorial and computer-graphics aspects of dynamics and short changing the student on the theory. That’s a pity, as the subject in its beauty and intellectual depth ranks alongside statistical mechanics and quantum field theory, with which it shares many fundamental techniques. The book represents authors’ attempt to formulate the subject as one of the basic cornerstones of the advanced graduate physics curriculum of future.

The amount of additional information for this book is almost overwhelming, including computer programs, additional exercises (the book itself contains many) and a long list of projects written by students. I won’t try to summarize the wide range of themes covered by the book (here you have the table of contents of its three volumes–classical chaos, quantum chaos and appendices), but a very good way of getting a glimpse of its scope and fun style is reading its Overture (PS). An amazing way to become acquainted with an amazing subject!

The cyclist team

The third policeman

May 28, 2006

I’ve just finished The Third Policeman, my discovery of Flann O’Brien‘s hilarious and extremely witty work. I’ve enjoyed so much this novel that i had to find an alibi for posting it here. But that was easy. Let me introduce to you the prolific and sadly forgotten Irish physicist and philosopher de Selby, whose highly original theories constitute a reference frame of sorts in The Third Policeman’s plot. We learn in there, for instance, how de Selby foretold modern ideas about the problem of time:

Human existence de Selby has defined as ‘a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief’ […] From this premise he discounts the reality or truth of any progression or serialism in life, denies that time can pass as such in the accepted sense and attributes to hallucinations the commonly experienced sensation of progression as, for instance, in journeying from one place to another or even ‘living’.

Granted, other ideas of his were much more debatable, as his theory about night being caused by black air accumulation, but to err is the mark of genious. Other characters are also prone to philosophical digressions. For instance, one would say that policeman MacCruiskeen is well acquainted with some of our modern theories of quantum gravity:

That is the real point, said MacCruiskeen, but it is so thin that it could go into your hand and out in the other extremity externally and you would not feel a bit of it and you would not see nothing and hear nothing. It is so thin that maybe it does not exist at all and you could spend half an hour trying to think about it and you could put no thought around it in the end. The beginning part of the inch is thicker than the last part and is nearly there for a fact but i don’t think it is if it is my private opinion that you are anxious to enlist.

And there’s more, including a theory of everything based on a single, possibly relational, entity: the omnium. But i won’t spoil the fun by giving up the plot, which, to tell the truth, has nothing to do with physics, but rather with the Carollian travels of an unnamed murderer through a surrealist, almost quantum world. (In case you’re not yet convinced, here you have yet another excerpt from the novel; or see here for more about O’Brien.)

Update: MacCruiskeen’s needle seems to have been finally found!

Connes and quantum statistics

May 22, 2006

Alain ConnesI just noticed (hat tip Not even wrong) that Alain Connes has made available his book on non-commutative geometry, one of the third roads to quantum gravity. Not an easy reading, by any account, but surely an interesting one. Not only that. He’s also making available (in his downloads page) most of his recent articles and lecture notes, which make for an impressive list. A very interesting and enjoyable reading i’ve found there is Connes’ highly original View of Mathematics (PDF), which makes for a good introduction to NCG. And there is also a brief essay, Advice to the beginner, where, besides guidelines to young mathematicians, Connes gives his particular view of the physics community:

I was asked to write some advice for young mathematicians. The first observation is that each mathematician is a special case, and in general mathematicians tend to behave like “fermions” i.e. avoid working in areas which are too trendy whereas physicists behave a lot more like “bosons” which coalesce in large packs and are often “overselling” their doings, an attitude which mathematicians despise.

The bit about overselling rings a bell, doesn’t it?

Update: Also of note is this interview with Alain Connes (PDF), mentioned, again, over at Not Even Wrong:

The interview also contains quite a few amusing stories. In one of them Connes tells about a well-known string theorist who walked out of his talk at Chicago because he wasn’t very interested, but two years later was paying rapt attention to the same talk when Connes gave it at Oxford. When Connes asked him about this, the physicist told him that the difference was that in the meantime he had heard that Witten had been seen reading Connes’s book in the library at Princeton.

How to write papers

May 20, 2006

I’ve just found a brief but very well written Guide to Writing Papers by S. Majid (of quantum groups fame). He makes many a good point, specially for those of us whose mother tongue is not English. And you’ll find also useful advice on contents and organization.

When it comes to writing good English prose, Strunk and White’s classic “The Elements of Style” (also available and searchable online) is, of course, required reading, but i find Dupré’s “BUGS in Writing: A Guide to Debugging Your Prose” much more fun and equally insightful. Also worth a look is the online Researcher’s Bible (hat tip Jocelyn Paine), which is similar in scope to Majid’s tutorial. And for a good, thought-provoking laugh, don’t miss the indispensable How to Write a Scientific Paper, over at Improbable Research.

Let me take the opportunity to recommend two of my all-time favourite essays on scientific writing: the classic How I Write by Bertrand Russell, and the recent A parallel tradition, where Ian MacEwan beautifully makes the case for a scientific literary tradition. So much for the science/humanities divide!

Finally, lest you had not enough, this blog entry by W. Zinsser is, in my opinion, an excellent guide to improving your writing skills (scientific or otherwise), and contains links to several other interesting books on the subject.