This is the last day before the new semester starts here at USC. I’ve been wandering around the house a bit slowly. One reason is probably the excellent dinner party last night, which involved a lot of cooking for a lot of Saturday. That went well, and people seemed to enjoy themselves a lot. Good reason for a slow day the day after. The other reason is that it is simply nice to enjoy the calm before the storm of the new semester begins in earnest… So slow wandering around the house doing various simple tasks seems about right.
At some point I decided to start looking for my materials for tomorrow’s class. I teach graduate level electromagnetism again this semester (part two of a two part course) and so it is a good time to start looking into old folders and so forth, trying to see what I’ll re-use, what I’ll re-do, and so forth. It seems that last Fall was the first time I did a complete scan of all my hand-written notes into pdfs to allow me to deliver them from my iPad, and so that’s good news right there. I can annotate right on top of those and add new pages if I want to… but it is nice to start with a base of good material to hand right at the starting gate.
While I’ve been looking through materials I’ve also been making bread. I’ll need some for the week, what with sandwiches and all that, and it is a also a pleasantly slow and endlessly rewarding thing to do. I decided to make a more moist final dough than I have in recent times. I think that this will give both a nicer crust and crumb. That blob in the bowl in the picture above left is the result of a very successful first rise. Most of bread making is waiting, and so it is perfect for when you are doing slightly mundane but time-consuming tasks like looking at old files of course notes.
I rolled everything out into 12 rolls and a good slicing sandwich loaf and put them to rise again and went back to tinkering with files (analogue and digital). The picture to the right shows the result of that second rise. The oven is being preheated and they are nearly ready to go in. Already the smell is great, even though right now it is just a yeasty-doughy smell.
I’ve been wondering whether to jump ship and abandon Jackson as the main text for the class (shock! horror! – Jackson is a staple of so many graduate courses in physics) and go with something new. There have been two texts of note (that I know of) in the last couple of years that have risen to challenge Jackson’s supremacy, the one by Anupam Garg (“Classical Electromagnetism in a Nutshell”, Princeton), and the one by Andrew Zangwill (“Modern Electrodynamics”, Cambridge). My feeling is that both these books (I’ve looked at Garg more than Zangwill [update: see later remarks]) do a good job of making the subject seem alive and modern. Jackson has a great deal of useful material, presented in a firmly sensible way that is hard to argue with, and it will always remain a classic, but sometimes I think it suffers a bit from feeling somewhat old. I like that, for example, there’s a nice treatment of the beam of a laser in Garg as an interesting solution (of some importance) of the field equations, and it might help students feel that this course is relevant to a lot of what they are doing in some of their laboratory training (lasers are used a lot in the modern graduate lab). [Update: Looking more at Zangwill shows that there's a lovely and extended treatment of beams, and quite beautifully presented]… By contract, as far as Jackson is concerned, the laser has not been invented yet.
[Update: Having spent a bit more time looking at Zangwill, I've also got to remark that I like the presentation a lot from cover to cover. There are a lot of lovely examples, careful discussion of ideas that connect to contemporary phenomena and experiments, and many historical anecdotes and reflections that really bring the subject to life. The later chapters also constitute a very readable first pass at ideas and techniques that come later in courses on field theory, gravitation, etc. A valuable resource indeed.]
Jackson also suffers from the tendency of a lot of the problems needing a good dose of physical insight at the front end, and then a lot of dry algebra for the rest of the problem to do what is required for the result. I think it is fantastic for students to learn to calculate with rigour and tenacity… But I do think that a lot of students get turned off by the tone of some of those problems. So a new text with a different balance of problems might be nice to have, where the physical insight can be sprinkled throughout the stages of problems a bit more. I don’t yet know if these new texts have a better balance in that regard. I also don’t want to give up all that Jackson has to offer – there are some really excellent problems in Jackson that I really like a lot (and have used a lot, sometimes with modifications, over the years).
(Ah, on the left is the finished bread. Delicious, and my anticipated results were right on the money. I’ve already devoured one of the rolls, but hidden the fact in the picture a bit.) Since there is no reason I need to stick to one text I will probably list all three on the syllabus this year, but it is important to be able to point to one as the recommended text since that is the one the bookstore wants to buy in quantity. Well, since I had to specify that quite some time ago (in the Spring) and since I’d not had a conversation with my colleagues (for example, the person who teaches part one of the course) about changing a text the department has used for so long, I stuck with Jackson as the recommended text for now. But I think I’ll be reading these two new texts more carefully and using sections from them from time to time. If I end up liking them so much that I am returning to them more and more, I might start the discussion about making the change. (Also, I think that electromagnetism is a good place for students to learn various computer methods, both symbolic and numerical… I need to start working some of that in to the teaching, and perhaps find a supplementary text that helps students learn something like MatLab or Maple or Mathematica using electromagnetism as a core example. Last year I started thinking about this and got as far as spending some time in the library looking through examples of books that might work, but in the end did not really get very far… If you’ve recommendations or such books, let me know.)
Ok. I’d better go now. Apparently in about an hour I am going to be interviewed on film by a cat, and an owl… You now know almost as much as I do about this, so I’ll let you know more when I know more.