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Q & A: Good introductions to quantum mechanics?

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Most recent answer: 07/09/2011
Q:
I took business math in college and very little science: no physics. However, I've been an avid reader of speculative fiction and have always been interested in physics. How many classes, or how many years because you can't take five math classes at once, would it take for me to understand quantum mechanics?
- Charlie Kurtz (age 54)
Fairport, NY, USA
A:
John has some suggestions below for a fairly serious effort to learn how to use QM in practice. I can think of some more introductory material to get you started. That would include one of the lectures in Feynman's "Character of Physical Law",  a little book you're sure to enjoy. There's also volume 3 of Feynman's Lectures on Physics. Thomas Moore's "Unit Q" is a another nice beginning intro, intended for undergrads.  Mike W.

Charlie,

"Understanding" quantum mechanics is quite a different task than understanding the language in which most quantum mechanics is written! I'm assuming the latter is your true question.

At the very least you need a basic understanding of linear algebra, multivariate calculus and differential equations (up to a rudimentary understanding of partial differential equations). If you're really serious about understanding the mathematics I would either purchase or borrow or acquire by some other means a copy of "Introduction to Quantum Mechanics" by David Griffiths. Griffiths is an excellent writer of undergraduate-level physics textbooks and his introductory text on QM is no exception. It will give you a sense of the mathematics behind basic quantum mechanics. It includes a brief review of linear algebra as an appendix. It's helpful but not most likely not an adequate substitution for a linear algebra class.

More advanced understanding branches, understandably, into more advanced mathematics. However, a thorough understanding of those three subjects will take you far.

3 or 4 semester-long mathematics classes and probably 4 semester-long physics classes (covering basic physics and, later, Griffiths) will give you a pretty decent understanding of basic quantum mechanics. That's anywhere from 2-4 years. If you're clever and able to teach yourself, the time range can be anything from days (if you're extremely clever) to months to years to decades.

John



(published on 07/09/2011)

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