Judge a (Physics) Book by its Cover, Part I: QFT


Libraries and bookstores are some of my favorite places–they are repositories of information, perhaps a coffee shop, and are filled with the smell of books (and perhaps coffee). I’ve spent a good part of my summer visiting new libraries (Santa Monica, Berkeley, San Francisco) as well as many of Berkeley’s characteristic used bookstores, and have noticed that I judge books based on their covers. How else do you decide which book you peruse through while skimming a bookshelf of books on roughly the same topic? I’d like to offer some of my thoughts on a few book covers, focusing on high energy physics books since I feel slightly more competent at judging those books versus any others. I will start off with quantum field theory books, since I have been looking at those most recently.

Note, these are not reviews of the contents of these books, only the things one notices passing by them in a bookstore/library.
I apologize in advance, images are borrowed from Amazon.com (and so have their funny “search inside” graphic attached).

An Introduction to Quantum Field Theory, M. Peskin

Michael Peskin’s classic text is an excellent starting point. Besides being remarkably durable, the cover actually says something about the contents. It’s a sequence of Feynman diagrams, with each successive diagram describing higher order effects/corrections to the previous diagram. This touches some of the central ideas of quantum field theory: perturbation theory and renormalization.

I must raise an objection, however, to the color of the textbook. A good physicist can estimate how many years a theory student has been in graduate school based on how worn out his/her copy of Peskin is. The shiny white cover is begging to pick up scratches, dirt, and stains from being carried everywhere. (I mentioned in a previous post that a friend of mine had blood stains on his copy.) The text also sticks out as a bit of an albino compared to other hardbound books.

As a final critique, I note that I’m slightly put-off by the choice in typeface for the front cover. Why italicized text with capital letters non-italicized?

Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell, A. Zee

Anyone who doesn’t appreciate the pun in Tony Zee’s choice of cover art is either too high brow (in which case one is better served with Weinberg’s texts on the subject) or too incredulous that an author would do such a thing. Zee explains his choice in one of his lectures for the African Summer Theory Institute, available free online (where he notes, among other things, how much trouble it was to get the ‘Q’ to be in just the right font). While the cover is less technical than Peskin’s text, it’s not quite inviting–somehow images of wheat fields are just as foreign as Feynman diagrams to a budding theorist.

Anthony Zee’s choice of abbrevating his name to “A. Zee” is also somewhat cute, ranking slightly behind Edwin Abbot Abbot’s (no typo) charm in naming the main character of Flatland “A. Square.” Given the off-white paper, dimensions of the text (roughly the size of a Harry Potter book), and its tendency to pop up in Barnes and Noble, I would have thought this was an oddly-named sci-fi novel had I not known better.

Bottom line: if it weren’t for the title, I wouldn’t be convinced this was a textbook on physics.

The Quantum Theory of Fields, S. Weinberg

The three-volume set (each featuring a different colored stripe) by Weinberg is one of the most definitive and notoriously difficult to read books in the field. I’ll extend my judge-the-cover-only rule in this case to include idle flipping through this book’s pages. One will notice ridiculously curly (“super-duper-serif”) characters appearing in equations. While being completely off the wall unrecognizable (and otherwise unfound in standard literature), these curly variables are a headache to jot down in notes.

I really don’t understand the cover art Weinberg chose. It reminds me of atomic spectra, but your guess is as good as mine. It’s nice to have each volume color-coded: Volume I, “foundations,” is blue… which is how you feel after trying to read the first few chapters. Volume II, “Modern Applications,” is red… which is the color of your cheeks when you realize that you understand even less of this book than the previous one. Volume III, “Supersymmetry,” is bright green, the color of the lime you stick into your mixed drink now that you have all three volumes and have decided they can sit on your bookshelf and read-their-own-damn-selves.

The books, which have just came out in paperback, do look very nice sitting together on the bookshelf.

Quantum Field Theory, C. Itzykson and J. Zuber

This is what I mean by judging a book by its cover. It doesn’t matter that it’s an inexpensive, encyclopedic text on QFT. The one thing I see is “Dover.” This isn’t a negative or a positive statement in itself–Dover does a great job of publishing books that are dirt cheap. However, they’ve acquired a bit of a “brand name” for technical books with small print and that don’t stay open by themselves when you lay them flat on a table. Dover does win the award for the most colors on their cover, however.
A Modern Introduction to Quantum Field Theory, M. Maggiore

Whereas Dover has the reputation of “thrift edition” books, the Oxford Master Series has a reputation of small, comprehensible, reader-friendly texts. Along with the QFT text’s pink cover, one might notice other Oxford Master Series texts on the bookshelf in other colors, including blue (general relativity), green (particle physics), light green (magnetism), and orange (statistical mechanics). The text is nicely shaped (suggestive of the ample margins available inside for notes) and paperback–which makes it slightly less expensive and lighter than other texts (and much less expensive than other Oxford texts).

Quantum Field Theory: A Modern Perspective, V. Nair

Springer-Verlag is the German publishing company for technical books. Their bright yellow mathematics books are the Nikes of that section of the bookstore: they must be good because every mathematician has a zillion (a mathematical term) of them in his/her office. Springer’s more peach-colored physics texts haven’t reached that level of brand name recognition yet, but you can tell this book is in the same spirit as its no-nonsense mathematical cousins. A “simple” (as long as you’re not the one calculating it) Feynman diagram on the cover along with standard embellishments associated with the “Graduate Texts in Contemporary Physics” series tells a shelf-browser that this book saves all of its good stuff for the inside. A slightly more pragmatic browser would also note that the texts are relatively heavy for their size.

2 Responses to “Judge a (Physics) Book by its Cover, Part I: QFT”

  1. 1 frank

    fun, interesting and witty

  2. 2 A. Zee

    I was much amused by this and sent you a email but it was returned (twice).

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