Auditing Quantum Mechanics

Why? Well it’s been 48.5 years since I took the course in grad school. Calculations were done by hand back then, and the results were heuristic rather than anything concrete. Even so, it was still very impressive to see quantum numbers arise from recursion relations imposed on series solutions to the Schrodinger equation, so the series would go to zero at infinity.

There are now books on computational organic chemistry, and the chemical and to some extent the molecular biologic literature is full of calculations based on QM. I’d like to see what they’re based on, rather than accept results on faith alone, even though Michelle Francl tells me that some calculations are good enough to predict electron densities, therefore to predict shielding and thus the chemical shifts in NMR.

Then there is the protein folding problem where the potentials used are presumably based on quantum mechanics. Also, apparently the programs by which potential drugs are docked into proteins, aren’t purely steric, but also involve electrostatic potentials, which implies (to me) that in some way electron distributions must be calculated.

So I’m auditing a course at an elite woman’s college, along with 13 others. The big difference so far between then and now is that we’re going to calculate lots of things, using Mathematica. It’s an incredibly powerful program, and the non-academics among you should know that since March, a home edition with all the bells and whistles is available for $300 — as opposed to the $2500 it costs institutions (but you must pay for it by personal check, and they may want a blood sample). I’m really looking forward to figuring out a way to watch Fourier series slowly converge to a discontinuous function, instead of laboriously calculating a few points here and there. There’s got to be a way to do it in Mathematica.

It’s been even longer since I took basic physics and I’m going to spend the next 3 months going through a physics 101 type book. I’m planning to use Halliday 6th edition (which I own). The problems seem to be of the plug and chug rather than the think and blink variety. If any of you know of something better, let me know. This means that the great book of Clayden et. al. will be put aside — hopefully the 2010 edition will be available early next year. He said they’re working on it.

I can’t believe how expensive textbooks have become (along with everything else). The tuition room and board where the course is given is TEN times what my father laid out for me back in the late 50s and THREE times what I paid for my kids in the late 80s. The composition of the student body is also radically different, but that’s for another time.

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  • Wavefunction  On September 14, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Quite a coincidence. I just started going through Halliday (5th ed.) about two weeks back with the same goal of catching up on some fundamentals. I agree that many of the problems are of the “plug and solve” type but I think that it’s still one of the best volumes for learning about the application of physics to real life. I have also heard that the book by Cutnell and Johnson is not too bad; a professor and friend used it for teaching freshmen at Tulane.

    When I was an undergrad me and a friend derived immense satisfaction from trying to understand material from the Feynman Lectures on Physics. I doubt whether the mental challenge and satisfaction have been matched by anything else since.

    I am also glad to hear about Mathematica and the new edition of Clayden.

  • Michelle  On September 17, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    For sure you can calculate electron densities well enough to tell you many things — including the calculation of electrostatic potentials!

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