The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   112

A Unified Grand Tour of Theoretical Physics

by Ian D. Lawrie

Bristol: Institute of Physics / Adam Hilger, 1990

Bon Voyage!

This is an excellent presentation of the core theories of modern physics: special and general relativity; quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, and the "standard model" of elementary particles and their interactions; equilibrium statistical mechanics and phase transitions; spontaneous symmetry breaking; and cosmology and the early history of the universe, where all the other theories come together. Moreover the word "unified" in the title is not just an in-joke. Through heavy emphasis on differential geometry and the use of action principles in his exposition of these theories, Lawrie brings out their underlying conceptual and structural kinship. Whether these similarities owe more to Nature's economy of means than to the feebleness of physicists' powers of invention, who can say?

The presentation of the tensor calculus is somewhat old-fashioned, but compact, sufficient and self-contained, as is that of the elements of Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics. Still, familiarity with classical mechanics, electromagnetism and thermodynamics at the undergraduate level is a must, and prior exposure to quantum mechanics probably very helpful. This would make for a superb --- but very demanding --- survey course for final-semester undergraduates. Since all these topics are covered in the physics graduate curriculum, at roughly one class per two chapters of Lawrie's book, it is otherwise perhaps best suited to self-study by those who have completed their coursework and now want to see the essentials of their subject from a single, illuminating, elegant point of view.

Hint to friends and relations of physicists: This book makes a fine gift.

xiv + 380 pp., glossary of notation, bibliographies for further reading and references, abundant diagrams
The first edition is currently (November 2004) out of print, but a second edition (2001; unseen by me) is in print as a paperback, ISBN 0750306041 (US$49.95) and a hardback, ISBN 0750306033 (US$189).
5 January 2000; with thanks to Zmarak Shalizi and Isa Bernardini