The way that most physicists teach and talk about partial differential equations is horrible, and has surprisingly big costs for the typical understanding of the foundations of the field even among professionals. The chief victims are students of thermodynamics and analytical mechanics, and I’ve mentioned before that the preface of Sussman and Wisdom’s *Structure and Interpretation of Classical Mechanics* is a good starting point for thinking about these issues. As a pointed example, in this blog post I’ll look at how badly the Legendre transform is taught in standard textbooks,I was pleased to note as this essay went to press that my choice of Landau, Goldstein, and Arnold were confirmed as the “standard” suggestions by the top Google results.^{a } and compare it to how it *could* be taught. In a subsequent post, I’ll used this as a springboard for complaining about the way we record and transmit physics knowledge.

Before we begin: turn away from the screen and see if you can remember what the Legendre transform accomplishes *mathematically* in classical mechanics.If not, can you remember the definition? I couldn’t, a month ago.^{b } I don’t just mean that the Legendre transform converts the Lagrangian into the Hamiltonian and vice versa, but rather: what key mathematical/geometric property does the Legendre transform have, compared to the cornucopia of other function transforms, that allows it to connect these two conceptually distinct formulations of mechanics?

(Analogously, the question “What is useful about the Fourier transform for understanding translationally invariant systems?” can be answered by something like “Translationally invariant operations in the spatial domain correspond to multiplication in the Fourier domain” or “The Fourier transform is a change of basis, within the vector space of functions, using translationally invariant basis elements, i.e., the Fourier modes”.)

#### The status quo

Let’s turn to the canonical text by Goldstein for an example of how the Legendre transform is usually introduced.… [continue reading]