Top critical review
Utterly disgraceful! May be the worst in the physics canon.
on July 31, 2003
(Disclaimer: All my criticisms are directed against Stephen Thornton, who prepared this edition when Marion died. I haven't seriously examined the earlier editions.)
Let it not be said that this book is utterly without virtue. It does have a good store of challenging, interesting problems. Also, the introductory chapter includes a unique (for this level) discussion of the Levi-Civita notation, which is great for managing complicated expressions in vector and tensor analysis (if you're currently taking junior or senior E&M, use this if your teacher asks you to verify all those crazy vector identities on the inside cover of your book!). But beyond this, I can see no redeeming virtues. In a genre which is littered with astoundingly bad books, this book is a standout, and is among the "hated classics" like Reif's statistical mechanics book or J.D. Jackson's E&M book. But even those books, which are admittedly overly-difficult and often obtuse, do contain a lot of quality thought and valuable knowledge. A good book, when re-read, will reveal greater and greater depths of insight and knowledge.
But rereading this book only revealed greater levels of sloppy thought. Only the more elementary derivations are comprehensible; the rest are befuddling, and I found that I had to write my own derivations and look up alternatives because the examples were either unconvincing, incomprehensible, or seemed to be based on incorrect physical reasoning. Ironically, I found that this book improved my confidence in mechanics because I had to spend so much time trying to compensate for the enormous failings logic, calculation, and pedagogy. But I'd still give it zero stars if I could.
This book is just plain bad (a judgement I very rarely make), and I am very curious as to whether the reviewers who defend the book really thought about its contents or tried to follow all of its logic step by step, as one should do during any serious examination of a science text. Now some reviewers had good teachers, in which case they probably paid more attention to their lecture notes than the book. An individual skilled with mathematical manipulation can do surprisingly difficult problems without thinking very much about the underlying physical concepts or looking at any part of a derivation other than the part in the box. Finally, a very bright person may simply think through matters for themselves during and after a class, not taking time to examine the book. So I am not insulting the readers who gave it good reviews; I'm sure they did well in class, since students who get good grades don't write vitriol-filled reviews about the required text on Amazon.com. But I know they didn't really read it carefully.
Instructors often choose this book because they were taught from previous editions (which may be superior), and may be too lazy or recalcitrant to change their ways. Although I often got cross looks from my professors for complaining about it, they generally agreed with my criticisms when I pushed the issue. But I didn't need to convince them. I overheard one professor bashing Chapter 4 as "just hacked together at the last minute because the material is sexy and fashionable." And right he was, for that chapter contains the worst explanations of nonlinear dynamics concepts I have ever seen (even if you discount the wrongly-printed Poincare sections towards the end). This same teacher admitted that he had spend over twenty minutes trying to understand the explanation of a very simple formula (and he is a theoretician who knows far more math than the average physicist).
Another fellow I knew, a Ph.D who was teaching an advanced mechanics class at my school for the first time, and was asked to use Marion, rewrote just about every example and explanation in the book for his students because he found them incomprehensible or too obtuse for beginners.
So don't feel bad if this book befuddled you. You're not alone, either among the great (Ph.D theoreticians and experimentalists) or the small (bile-spouting nobodies with undergraduate degree only).
Finally, a bit of advice for students: If you were made to buy this book, I recommend that you go to your library and find books about classical mechanics. Pick up a book or two that doesn't have the name "Thornton" on the cover. Now, it may be too easy (French's "Newtonian Mechanics" is less mathematical, but I still recommend it) or too hard (Goldstein is for highly motivated and prepared undergrads only), but I can tell you in all confidence that the random mechanics book you pick out will be better than the one you have now.