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Essential Physics

AuthorFrank Firk Entered2000-12-24 13:16:51 by bcrowell
Editedit data record FreedomPublic domain (disclaimer)
SubjectQ.C - Physics
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Fails to connect with reality and experiments
by Ben Crowell (crowell09 at (change 09 to current year)) on 2000-12-24 17:10:12, review #42
Dr. Firk writes in the introduction, It should be obvious that this book is intended for a a very elite group of students.

The choice and order of topics is unusual:

Note that special relativity (including four-vectors) is introduced before Newton's laws.

Although in some ways this book seems intended to be the hardest introductory physics text ever written, it should be noted that Dr. Firk covered this material at the rate of only one chapter every two weeks. Also, many of the homework problems are fairly straightforward.

The first chapter is likely to be a big barrier to entry, even for the best prepared and most highly motivated students. Differential geometry comes on page 5 (!), and vector calculus is introduced via quaternions, for reasons that were unclear to me. This chapter exemplifies my main complaint about the book, which is that new mathematics is introduced without sufficient physical motivation, and often without much mathematical motivation either.

Another example of this tendency is the introduction of the Lorentz transformation in ch. 3. The perfectly straightforward approach to its introduction, used in every other book I've ever seen, is to start from the constancy of the speed of light and derive the Lorentz transformation. Firk, however, chooses a strange procedure based on the expectation that space and time will be treated symmetrically. After some less than convincing manipulations, he displays the Lorentz transformation, and then points out that "the difference of squares is an invariant: (ct)2 x2 = (ct')2 x'2." The connection of this fact to the constancy of the speed of light is not made clear. No experimental evidence for or tests of relativity are discussed (except for a single phrase referring to the Michelson-Morley experiment, which assumes that the student already knows what it is).

In fact, the whole book is so lacking in discussion of experiments and real-life applications that it tends to a kind of navel-gazing platonism. Other problematic points include a claimed proof of conservation of angular momentum based on Newton's laws (which fails because it assumes center-to-center forces) and the introduction of mass-energy equivalence and relativistic dynamics simply by the assumption that momentum must be a four-vector.

Although there's nothing wrong with creating an introductory physics text aimed at the very best students, I can't recommend this book for that purpose. The Berkeley physics series would be more appropriate.

I should mention that I knew Dr. Firk, although not well, when I was a graduate student at Yale.

Information wants to be free, so make some free information.

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