Bookanalia

The annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is always a great event, I highly recommend it to anyone in the area. This year’s edition is on April 20-21. I have a special honor, which really should be reserved for someone older and more distinguished but there you have it: I’ll be presenting the prize for science/technology book of the year. The real honor would be to win the prize, but I’ll take what I can get.

There was no prospect of winning the prize, even though I did write a book, for the sensible reason that my lovely wife was serving on the panel of judges. That’s the bad news; the good news is that, as the spouse of a judge, you benefit from the constant stream of new books arriving on your doorstep. At least you benefit for a little while. Once the number of new science books from the year hits the triple digits, your response is closer to despair. There are a lot of good books out there. Great if you’re a reader, sobering if you’re an author. It’s kind of shocking that anyone found my humble little book at all.

books

One book I can’t help but mentioning, which I don’t think is eligible for the prize since it came out in 2013 rather than 2012 — The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics, by Leonard Susskind and George Hrabovsky.

minimum Amidst the veritable deluge of science books, Susskind and Hrabovsky have done something simple but radical: they explain introductory physics for real, with all the equations, in a book that is not actually a textbook. This volume (everyone hopes there will be more) covers the principles of classical mechanics, with extraordinary concision but wonderful clarity. The fact that they are trying to explain major concepts rather than cover every detail means they can get much further than a textbook would; a hundred pages in you’re learning about the Principle of Least Action, and not long after that it’s on to Poisson Brackets. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and follow the authors along, this is a book from which you can learn a great deal.

This book, needless to say, is not for everybody. But no book is for everybody; the question should be whether there are enough people in the appropriate niche that a book like this might be commercially viable. The answer is a resounding yes, apparently. Released just a few days ago, The Theoretical Minimum zoomed to #4 on the Amazon.com bestseller rankings, which is truly amazing. (The highest I ever got was around #100, but I’m not jealous!)

I wonder if now we’ll see a slew of copycat books that throw conventional wisdom to the wind and try to boost sales by having equations on every page. Perhaps not, but readers would certainly benefit. While I am obviously a firm believer in explaining science to as wide an audience as possible, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there is more than one audience out there. Many people might be interested in brushing up on some subject they last took seriously long ago in high school or college, or they might want to fulfill a deferred dream of studying something they regret not taking. The lesson shouldn’t be “equations are okay after all”; it’s “there’s an audience out there for challenging material if it’s presented in an engaging way.”

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21 Responses to Bookanalia

  1. Bob F. says:

    OMG. As a judge, did Jennifer have to read all of those? Or did the judge panel divide up who reads what? Just reading all the entries could be a full-time occupation.

    As for The Theoretical Minimum, your review convinced me to read it, but I’ll wait for the Kindle edition. My shelf is (not nearly as) crowded.

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  2. Sean Carroll says:

    She was responsible for every book. In practice, that means reading enough of every one to determine whether it might make the short list, and then reading every possible short list entry. She hasn’t read a non-science book in two years. :)

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  3. I am reading The Theoretical Mininum now, and doing all the problems. I love it. This is the kind of science book I have wanted for a long time. I earned an M.S. in Applied Physics from Stanford in 1974, but have since been away from the field since then. So I fit right into the target audience. It feels great to flex the old muscles. Looking forward to more books like it.

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  4. Scott Morrison says:

    It was just released few days ago, and Amazon says this: “Usually ships within 1 to 2 months.”

    That makes me sad.

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  5. Jeff Ahrens says:

    I’m looking forward to reading The Theoretical Minimum. It’s funny, looking back at my formal training I’ve often wished I had the higher level view provided in popular science books to better illuminate concepts and their implications. I tended to get mired in the equations. Now in my informal reading I wish popular science writers would add more math to provide deeper comprehension. It must be a difficult balance to achieve and it sounds like Susskind and Hrabovsky have made a good attempt. I’ll be ordering it soon.

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  6. Carlos Ponte says:

    Sean, I found your little book and enjoyed every page. I am not a scientist (far from it; the most complex math that I am able to use is basic trig and Pythagoras which I use every day in my design work) but I have read quite a few books (65 of them, actually) and my love for the subject of physics grows with each book I read -many, more than once.

    I never watch television so I was very pleased to find this blog and all the videos it contains. I intend to view as many as possible.

    Thank you. I look forward to future titles.

    Carlos

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  7. Carlos Ponte says:

    I just ordered The Theoretical Minimum. T Hanks for mentioning it. I’ve read two of Leonard Suskind’s books and quite enjoyed them.

    I have to agree with Jeff, it is much more fulfilling when equations are included.

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  8. Marshall Eubanks says:

    How does it compare to Landau and Lifshitz ?

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  9. Brett says:

    I’ve noticed a disconnect between physicists (well, authors of physics books) and readers. It would appear that physicists look at the general public as though they are not keen on math or equations or formulas (which they honestly aren’t). But the general public LOVES learning formulas and equations because they are viewed as really cool stuff. People don’t necessarily want to be confused, but people do like substance. And most of the fundamental formulas aren’t that complicated, yet they are mind blowing in their depth. Physics and math equations are a much cooler form of those inspirational calendars that have some sort of philosophical phrase; except the equations actually say something. The fortune cookie sayings tend to have the sole purpose of being mystical (confusing). It’s a good idea and a good book. I can think of a few math and science teachers I’ve had over the years who could really benefit from studying the format.

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  10. Brett says:

    The only real downside I can see to it is the enraged physicist syndrome. In those first years of learning about physics, everyone tends to act a bit like an ass and get extremely arrogant. Maybe that’s just a college thing…or a British/Scottish thing. That’s all we need; a populace swarming with the belief that each individual has a mind blowing theory of everything.

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  11. Laurent Stern says:

    To Marshall Eubanks: it doesn’t compare. Landau and Lifshitz are textbooks. If you’ve studied enough already to understand the content of the Landau and Lifschitz courses the Susskind and Hrabovsky book will bore you to death.

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  12. Laurent Stern says:

    To Lev (Okun ?) : I’ve browsed though “ABC of physics” and it looks way too short and written by a particle physicist (not a lot of stuff about gravitation and GR). It looks like a short popular science book with formulas in it but Okun doesn’t doesn’t work them out unlike Susskind+Hrabovsky: the reader doesn’t feel involved, he’s just a spectator. Oh Zeldovich+Yaglom “Higher Math for beginners” given in reference looks great for autodidacts !

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  13. Anonymous says:

    @Brett

    It’s not the physicists, but their publishers. There’s a famous anecdote from Hawking explaining that only E=mc^2 appears in his books because his publisher forbade him from including more equations. The publisher claimed that each equation in a popular science book drops the sales by a factor of 2, if I remember correctly.

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  14. Brett says:

    The music industry has a similar saying about what happens to a well written song once a famous singer decides to buy it; “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”.

    I can understand the reasoning behind restricting equations because some of the most knowledgeable are also some of the worst teachers. I guess when you know a subject so well that you can do the world’s most complex equations in your head, then it becomes hard to find the appropriate balance between too simple and too complex.

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  15. Charles Morrison says:

    I recently downloaded the iBooks version from iTunes and noticed that a significant number of equations and symbols do not appear correctly in the text. This would appear to be a formatting problem of sorts and hopefully it can be corrected in an updated download via iTunes. There are at least two reviews on iTunes which point out the same problem.

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  16. lev says:

    To Laurent Stern: Chapter 16 of “ABC of Physics” contains formulas which are needed to calculate most of gravity effects by using only Feynman diagrams and not using General Relativity. To work with Feynman diagrams please discriminate between real and virtual particles. Start by the effects 1) and 2) in section 16.1.

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  17. Just read your book ‘The Particle…” and wanted to ask what you thought of Dr. Peter Plichta’s suggestion that the space around a nucleon being ‘quadrate’ (x2y2) versus 3D (xyz)? He makes the suggestion in his book “God’s Secret Formula” Element Press, early 1990′s

    Also, Dr. George Michlo, in his book suggests that virtual particles are more likely to ‘pop’ into existence in the vast interstellar voids, and when they do, they bring ‘dimension’ into existence as well. He makes that suggestion in his book “The Push of Gravity”, Federal Books, early 1990′s.

    Thank you, this seemed like the best place to pose the questions and cite the books.

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  18. fco says:

    How does it compares to Penrose’s The Road To Reality?
    I’m reading it now and it seems to have a similar approach to the one described here, getting the reader aquainted with the math first, and then giving a more complete description of the physics

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  19. Sean Carroll says:

    Mostly, it’s way shorter than Penrose. And doesn’t try to go nearly as far.

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  20. lev says:

    To Sean Carroll: Unfortunately the book by Penrose supports the equation E=mc^2 (see $18.6 and $187) and thus does not support the definition of real and virtual particles given by Feynman diagrams.

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