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The Quantum Menagerie - James Stone ***

This is a well-structured introduction to the mathematical basics of quantum mechanics, highly recommended for the right readers. Stone wisely, in terms of introducing the physics, avoids a purely chronological approach, instead aiming to fit together a picture in the way that makes it easiest for readers to get their heads around, building mathematically through the book.

Stone does a good, solid job of this. In the book's preface, he tells us 'Books on quantum mechanics come in two basic formats: popular science books and textbooks. By contrast, this book represents a middle way between these formats, combining the informal approach of popular science books with the mathematical rigour of introductory textbooks... The material in this book should be accessible to anyone with an understanding of basic calculus.' The approach and the resultant impact on its audience is interesting.

Providing something in-between popular science and a textbook is an interesting concept, but such a middle way is likely to exclude a lot of potential readers of either genre. A popular science book uses historical and personal context to tell a story. It is rare that is requires any maths at all. A physics textbook gives a structure to build an understanding of physical phenomena in a technical fashion, with a strong foundation in mathematics. While this book doesn't have the typical structure of a textbook with its exercises, it does unashamedly present the maths. (And the pricing reflects its academic leanings.) James Stone may think that by limiting the maths to basic calculus he is opening up the book to a wide audience, but, realistically, the approach limits the audience to someone with A-level maths - which is maybe 1 per cent of the population (some of whom will definitely not be interested in physics).

This would be a great book for A-level physics students who wants to stretch themselves, or for those intending to start a physics university course. It gives a real insight into the way quantum mechanics is handled. That 'tutorial introduction' subtitle describes the book very well. In the end, it does what it says on the tin. Is it a middle way? Not really. There's relatively little popular science content, but the handling of the science itself is arguably significantly more approachable than a typical textbook - so it is a great recommendation for the appropriate audience.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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