Three Short Book Reviews

Unfortunately I don’t have time now to write about the three following books at the length that they deserve, but here are some quick comments on three books worth your attention:

  • A carefully produced detailed write-up of Sidney Coleman’s Harvard Physics 253 quantum field theory course has now been published by World Scientific. This course was taught by Coleman off and on from the mid-seventies until 2002, and the book is based on various sets of video recordings and lecture notes (including a copy of my lecture notes from when I attended the class). A huge amount of work by various people has gone into producing a very high quality book. David Derbes has some comments here, and he is perhaps the main person to thank for seeing this project through to completion.

    David Kaiser has contributed an introduction to the book (available here, or, if this doesn’t work, try here) which does an excellent job of putting the material in historical and intellectual context, as well as describing what Coleman was like and why he had a huge influence on several generations of Harvard students. If you’ve already spent a lot of time learning QFT from various modern textbooks, your reaction to much of this one may be “that’s the standard way of explaining that point, nothing unusual here.” Keep in mind that often the reason that’s now the standard way of explaining things is that many authors of modern textbooks learned the subject from Coleman (or from someone who learned it from Coleman…).

  • Jim Baggott has a very good new book out, entitled Quantum Space, which could roughly be described as a popular account of loop quantum gravity at the level of the account of string theory in books like Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. Baggott has spent a lot of time talking to Carlo Rovelli and Lee Smolin, and one of the best aspects of the book is the way it conveys their personal stories, intellectual journey, and current outlook on the subject.

    One unavoidable topic that Baggott covers is the relation of string theory and LQG as competing (or perhaps someday collaborating?) approaches to the problem of quantum gravity. Due to long ago experience (to get an idea, watch this), I’ve long ago lost patience for arguments about which approach is “better”. Baggott’s take on the issue seems fair to me, but if you really want to engage in that argument it will have to be elsewhere than the comment section here.

  • Finally, the new book you really should buy a copy of is my brother Steve’s Fly Fishing Treasures. He has been working on it for years, and it includes the most amazing beautiful pictures of antique fly fishing equipment in existence, as well as a wealth of information about those who collect these things. OK, if you, like me, aren’t especially excited about the topic of fly fishing, then buy a copy as a present for someone who is.

Update: I should have included links to postings about Coleman here, here and here.

Update: If you’ll be at the March APS meeting in Boston, I hear there’s a book launch for the Coleman book, 1:30pm-2:15pm Weds. March 6, at the World Scientific booth in the exhibition hall.

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11 Responses to Three Short Book Reviews

  1. David Derbes says:

    Many thanks for the kind remarks, Peter. I would remind your readers that the videos of the Coleman lectures from 1975-76 are up at Harvard’s site. I think the fair division of credit is equal shares (as in splitting the bill for a meal in a crowd). There are six names on the cover as editors. I wanted a seventh, but that contributor wished to remain anonymous. So I’m happy to take one-seventh of the credit for editing, but no more. See my earlier remarks or the book’s preface for more details if you wish. I, too, think David Kaiser did a wonderful job on the Coleman foreword; he also did a terrific foreword to the reissue of Misner, Thorne and Wheeler. I would recommend to anyone putting together a book with an interesting history that she or he ask David K. to consider writing a foreword to her or his book!

  2. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    “…early encouragement from Hoagy Carmichael…”

    Seriously? That’s amazing.

  3. sdf says:

    The link to the foreward does not work for me.

    Can you give a comparison of how this compares with other intro books to QFT? I am totally unaware of Coleman’s lecture notes up to now.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Others have also noted this. Was working for me, now I also see a problem. Looks like something on the publisher’s end. I’ve added another link to try to the posting. From the publisher’s webpage for the book, you are supposed to get free access to the frontmatter, including the Kaiser piece.

    For more about the Coleman book: the topics covered are not unusual. There’s a lot of influence of Bjorken-Drell and the point of view on QFT of the 1960s. This is combined with influences from the more modern point of view (gauge theories, path integrals, renormalization group) that the SM brought into vogue starting in the mid 1970s. The really unusual thing about the book is that it is very much based on Coleman’s lectures, as opposed to being written as a usual textbook. So, there’s a lot that comes through of the details and the spirit of a (very high quality) live lecture, while at the same time careful attention to the details of how to do calculations.

  5. Andre says:

    I took detailed notes on Coleman’s lectures from the videos available when a graduate student at Harvard. The lectures were great, though not live, and my notes were extremely useful the first time I taught QFT, because as you said, there were almost no books available at that time. Consequently, I’m more interested in the fly-fishing book, as fly fishing is a one of my favorite activities!

  6. Mark Weitzman says:

    Is there an errata page for the book (or some place I can email corrections for a future edition) ?

    For me the high points of the book are that you can read it without pencil and paper in hand. Additionally there are 25 problem sets with detailed solutions (which fills in many of the places where in other QFT books, you would need the pencil/pen and paper).

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Mark Weitzman,
    For the Coleman book, you could email David Derbes ( On the other hand, if you find typos in the fly fishing book, email me and I’ll forward them to my brother…

  8. Mark Weitzman says:

    Peter Woit: Thanks, I actually went fly fishing once in Whitefish, Montana about 25 years ago.

  9. Anonyrat says:

    I just received the paperback version of Sidney Coleman’s QFT Lectures, and though perhaps not as nice as the hardback, it is very nicely produced indeed. (Purchased it through Amazon). My thanks to the editors for putting this together.

  10. João Paulo Cardoso says:


    I will soon start studying QFT, and I intend to use Coleman’s lectures. I don’t plan to purchase the book published by World Scientific, but to use his material available on arXiv. The problem is: these lectures do not have exercises at the end of each chapter. Do you recommend any set of exercises to do along Coleman’s lectures? It can be from any book or online course or similar stuff.

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