The Theoretical Minimum, or How One Physicist Rediscovered His Love of Teaching

By Leonard Susskind on at

I’ve always enjoyed explaining physics. For me it’s much more than teaching: It’s a way of thinking. Even when I’m at my desk doing research, there’s a dialog going on in my head. Figuring out the best way to explain something is almost always the best way to understand it yourself.

About ten years ago someone asked me if I would teach a course for the public. As it happens, the Stanford area has a lot of people who once wanted to study physics, but life got in the way. They had had all kinds of careers but never forgot their one-time infatuation with the laws of the universe. Now, after a career or two, they wanted to get back into it, at least at a casual level.

Unfortunately there was not much opportunity for such folks to take courses. As a rule, Stanford and other universities don’t allow outsiders into classes, and, for most of these grownups, going back to school as a full-time student is not a realistic option. That bothered me. There ought to be a way for people to develop their interest by interacting with active scientists, but there didn’t seem to be one.

That’s when I first found out about Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. This program offers courses for people in the local nonacademic community. So I thought that it might just serve my purposes in finding someone to explain physics to, as well as their purposes, and it might also be fun to teach a course on modern physics. For one academic quarter anyhow.

It was fun. And it was very satisfying in a way that teaching undergraduate and graduate students was sometimes not. These students were there for only one reason: Not to get credit, not to get a degree, and not to be tested, but just to learn and indulge their curiosity. Also, having been “around the block” a few times, they were not at all afraid to ask questions, so the class had a lively vibrancy that academic classes often lack. I decided to do it again. And again.

What became clear after a couple of quarters is that the students were not completely satisfied with the layperson’s courses I was teaching. They wanted more than the Scientific American experience. A lot of them had a bit of background, a bit of physics, a rusty but not dead knowledge of calculus, and some experience at solving technical problems. They were ready to try their hand at learning the real thing -- with equations. The result was a sequence of courses intended to bring these students to the
forefront of modern physics and cosmology.

Fortunately, someone (not I) had the bright idea to videorecord the classes. They are out on the Internet, and it seems that they are tremendously popular: Stanford is not the only place with people hungry to learn physics. From all over the world I get thousands of e-mail messages. One of the main inquiries is whether I will ever convert the lectures into books? The Theoretical Minimum is the answer.

The term theoretical minimum was not my own invention. It originated with the great Russian physicist Lev Landau. The TM in Russia meant everything a student needed to know to work under Landau himself. Landau was a very demanding man: His theoretical minimum meant just about everything he knew, which of course no one else could possibly know.

I use the term differently. For me, the theoretical minimum means just what you need to know in order to proceed to the next level. It means not fat encyclopedic textbooks that explain everything, but thin books that explain everything important.

The above is an excerpt from The Theoretical Minimum's preface.

From Stanford professor and father of string theory Leonard Susskind and citizen-scientist George Hrabovsky, The Theoretical Minimum provides the essential skills the ordinary science enthusiast needs to understand basic, introductory physics. In Susskind's words, this is not one of those 'fat encyclopedic textbooks that explain everything', but one of those 'thin books that explain everything important.'

The Theoretical Minimum is based on Leonard Susskind's wildly popular physics course at Stanford, which is recorded online. After receiving thousands of emails from people all over the world, he decided to turn the course into a book. This is the result. Unlike most popular physics books -- which give readers a taste of what physicists know, but not what they actually do - The Theoretical Minimum teaches the skills you need to start doing physics yourself.

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