Quantum Physics World

Monday, April 17, 2006

Quantum Mechanics Review: Schaum's Outline

Schaum's Outline of Quantum Mechanics
The Schaum's Outline of Quantum Mechanics promises the reader that this is the perfect supplement for the classroom. Whether or not this is true turns out to be a yes and no answer. The book has 16 chapters that cover everything from spin and the Schrodinger equation to scattering and the semi-classical treatment of radiation. Each chapter begins with a brief overview of the subject covered, with quick definitions and statements of equations and theorems. There is very little explanatory text. This is followed by solved examples, and each chapter concludes with a set of problems you can try on your own.

Quantum mechanics is a tough course for anyone to get through, so supplements to the ridiculously expenseive and often impenetrable textbooks on the market are welcome. This book is helpful for two main reasons. The first is that it is very thorough. It covers every topic that you are going to see in either a senior level undergraduate course on quantum mechanics or a first year graduate course. Second, it has a good selection of solved problems, pretty much exposing you to the standard batch of problems you're likely to encounter in the standard textbooks.

The book does suffer from several problems. The first is just the basic presentation style used in the Schaum's outlines. Granted these are not meant to replace a textbook, they are just supposed to be a classroom aid. Even so the extremely terse presentation leaves the reader hungry for more help. Difficult topics are presented in a mere page or two. There could be more explanatory text in the solved problems as well. Again the presentation seems to terse to be of use to students who are really struggling.

My advice is buy every quantum mechanics book you can since its a hard subject to master. The Schaum's Outlines are cheap, so you will only set yourself back maybe $17 picking up this title. So go ahead and add this one to your library. The best use I see for this book is in preparing for a preliminary or comprehensive exam in graduate school, after you've already gone a fair distance toward mastering quantum mechanics. If you are currently taking a course and find yourself hopelessly confused, then look elsewhere - in my opinion this book is not going to be that helpful.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Learning physics should be easy

While its true that not all of us are Einsteins, should it be so difficult to learn math, science, and engineering that only a small handful of people can get degrees in these fields?

Part of the problem is the way that math, physics, and engineering are taught. I haven't decided if there is a conscious conspiracy or not-but the truth is these subjects are generally taught in a way that is not helpful to most people. Maybe its because the vast majority of people that become professors are simply quite a bit smarter than the rest of us, and they don't realize what they're doing because they just "get it" and figure if you don't "get it" you are'nt cut out to be a physicist or mathematician.

In a typical college experience, I took "Electrodynamics" in graduate school. The professor was a great lecturer, but his lectures were really a complete waste of time. Basically, we spent our days in class listening to him spit out the book. He would recite the theorems and prove them. Had the book not been available his lectures would have been gold, but since we could buy a book, in fact since we were required to buy a book that had all this exact material in it, the lectures turned out to be no help at all.

It's important to reinforce concepts to be sure, but physics, math and engineering are about doing things. These are active fields where problems must be solved. Its not about memorizing a theorem, its about applying it or being able to derive a new one.

Rather than "lecture", I would prefer that professors assign a book they are going to follow and then use the class time to help students solve problems. They should have the students read a given chapter before coming to class, and then spend class showing students how to solve some problems. Homework can then be assigned allowing students to build on what they did in class to learn how to solve the problems on their own.

To make matters worse, physics professors of late seem to want to avoid sticking to a book at all (yet that is what they really end up doing when all is said and done). I don't know how many times in graduate school a professor would announce he wasn't sticking to a particular book, but you may want to buy these 10 different texts. Please.

Maybe physics professors like having a realm of mystery surround them. They like to feel smarter than everyone else and often aren't interested in helping people learn. So they keep problem solving tricks to themselves, and then tell the students who don't "get it" that they should become experimentalists or engineers.

In Quantum Mechanics Demystified I have attempted to provide readers with a format that makes learning physics straightforward. I show you how to solve quantum mechanics problems, and then you can try to do similar problems on your own.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


In addition to Quantum Mechanics Demystified, with Dan Topa I am the co-author of A Beginner's Guide to Mathematica, a book we hope will help introduce new users to this powerful computational tool. To help readers decide if they are interested in the book, they can download sample chapters at


Saturday, April 01, 2006

From the fringes of quantum physics and relativity theory comes Bob Lazaar, an interesting man who claims to have worked on UFO's at Area 51. Tonight on coast to coast AM, the show will be guest hosted by George Knapp, a TV reporter who broke the Bob Lazaar story several years ago.
Lazaar is a very well spoken and charismatic man, but his story doesn't add up. I am not even talking about his wild claim to have worked on UFO's and "antigravity" propulsion at Area 51. Let's just start with his basic storyline.
He claims to be a physicist that worked at several places where a clearance is required, including Los Alamos and Area 51. I don't recall where he claimed to have gone to school, it might have been Cal Tech or MIT, but something that stood out for me was he claimed not to recall any professors names.
Anyone who has gotten a technical degree will recognize this claim as absurd. Students in math, physics and engineering run into hard professors and nutty professors, and good professors that just downright torture you during the semester. At least some of the names of these professors stick to you like glue throughout your life and its something that binds you to your fellow students at the institution where you got your degree. So when I heard Lazaar make this statement it struck me as odd to say the least.

Then there is the problem of his academic record. As I recall he claimed to have an advanced degree in physics yet there was no record of him having attended any of these prestigious instituions. This was explained by the claim that the CIA wiped out his record or something like that.

It has also been difficult to verify his work record. The sole evidence he worked at Los Alamos is a single paystub for a 2 week period where he worked as a technician. Again, I believe this is explained away by the vast powers in the CIA wiping out his record.

Anyone who believes the CIA or any government entity is that powerful or that places like Los Alamos are that secretive has been spending too much time watching television! The fact is its no secret who works at Los Alamos or any other government lab. The only things that are secret are the details of the project they work on. Its easy to find out that Joe Schmo works at X national lab in department Y. To me, the fact that no such record exists for Lazaar indicates that at best he worked as a temp here and there doing contract work. He was not some top scientist that would be called upon in the extremely unlikely event that they needed someone to "reverse engineer" a UFO. In a nutshell, I basically don't buy into Lazaar or his crazy story.

If anything, the Lazaar phenomenon is an interesting study in human behavior and our wish to live in a universe inhabited by aliens. Despite my skepticism I find the story interesting and intend to tune in at least part of the evening to George Knapp on Coast to Coast AM tonight.