Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sakurai's Modern Quantum Mechanics

This is a pure joy to read from, and I can't say this for any other physics graduate textbooks I've ever read. Just from reading Sakurai you are simultaneously learning something and being entertained by the author's wit. Especially notable is the so-called "shock treatment" in introducing QM in the first chapter --- Sakurai is really brilliant in being the first author to come up with that arrangement in teaching QM, so much so that even Schwinger adopted this idea in his own book on quantum mechanics (which is a little advanced). I would say, if I teach a course in QM to an undergrad class, I would not proceed with the usual historical treatment in the introduction to the course (blackbody radiation, photoelectric effect, etc.), instead I would go through the first two chapters of Sakurai. The latter parts are more algebraic and thus I would switch to something like Liboff or Griffiths for an undergrad class, as one still needs to know how to solve the harmonic oscillator with Hermite polynomials and the hydrogen atom with Laguerre polynomials, etc. But for a graduate course treatment, that is exactly the algebraic approach in Sakurai that I like very much, it is extremely elegant and powerful. The problems are just to the right level with the main text and is very useful. One thing to note is that, since the latter chapters on perturbation theory and scattering were written by another author (the editor used Sakurai's own notes to write that part), they are not as lucid and fun to read than the first few chapters, but with some hard work one can still manage to understand most of those latter chapters. I would highly recommend anyone who want to learn QM seriously to go through the entire Sakurai, what you will gain is a very solid understanding of the subject. Also, if you are an aspiring theorist in high energy physics or nuclear physics, learning QM in the algebraic approach adopted in this book will be very useful in particular.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Jackson's Classical Electrodynamics

Given this is a "classic" graduate textbook for E & M, it seems one doesn't need to say anything about this since everyone is using it. I'd think this book is overrated. As is often the case in the academic community, this textbook has been unjustly passed on from one generation to another generation as an unrefutable "bible" of E & M just because of its encyclopedic contents, not particularly of pedegogical or inspiring exposition. The text is very dry, with a lot of formalisms and little accompanying physically intuitive discussions. And of course the notorious sets of problems --- everyone who has ever used Jackson will know a lot of the problems are really hard --- I personally like this feature though, provided one is fully devoted to solving the problems, one would be able to improve on one's problem-solving skills. However I must also add that some problems are just mathematical drills, and you'll gain little physical insight from those kinds of problems. In all, it's good for use as a reference book (after you've gained mastery of the subject or at least have a good feeling of it), but not as good as a textbook for learning. For that I recommend Griffiths' Introduction to Electrodynamics (I'll review that in a separate post). That good old book that you used in your undergraduate course is still useful, and serves as a good company with Jackson. Another little known gem is Smythe's Static and Dynamic Electricity, for which you can still find it in Despite the age of this book, it covers materials in considerably more detail than in Jackson, and most importantly, with a lot of useful examples dispersed throughout.