Friday, January 31, 2014

Beauty bare


In the bookcase by my desk is what is almost certainly the heftiest book in my possession here on the island: Sears and Zemansky's University Physics. Sixth edition, circa 1981, with co-author Hugh Young. I must have lugged the book here back when I was still writing for the Boston Globe. A handy reference in the days before the Internet.

A classic! How many thousands of students were instructed in physics using this text, beginning in the middle of the last century. Sear and Zemansky are both long departed but their text goes on, now in the 10th edition, with new co-authors. Few college texts, I suspect, can claim such endurance.

I used Sears' textbooks in university. I taught from Sears and Zemansky. And now I have just pulled that two-inch-thick doorstop off the shelf for the first time in 15 years (at least) and it's like opening a family Bible. On this scripture Barry and I will probably agree.

I remember something my colleague Mike Horne used to tell his students: "If it's not simple, it's not physics." They must have wondered what he meant as they worked their laborious way though the theory of incompressible, non-viscous fluids. But of course the answer is in those words "incompressible" and "non-viscous." Like "frictionless pulley" and "weightless string," Sears and Zemansky is a stick-figure sketch of the world, a mathematical rendering of the armature on which the world is made, an armature we never experience directly, but which is simple, elegant, and immutable. Two or three semesters with Sears and Zemansky is a look behind the curtain of the world's irreducible complexity, a glance at the eternal beauty that Euclid looked on bare.

(The answers to the odd-numbered problems were in the back of the book. Some enterprising students of every generation managed to get their hands on the booklet of even-numbered answers available to instructors only. I grew accustomed to knowing only half of the answers; good preparation for an agnostic. Nowadays, I would guess that all the answers and worked-out solutions are available on the Internet. There goes all the fun.)