>One big problem is that a lot of the popular books written about physics (especially those by famous physicists) are incredibly speculative and tend to present an unrealistic view of what the study of physics is all about. When you're learning physics, it's good to avoid these types of speculative books, and stick to the good ones that talk about the real physics we know exists.
Oh god yes. Why is it that whenever a lay person wants to talk about physics they talk about "11 dimensions", "string theory", or "time dilation", or any similarly crazy-sounding term that they read in a massively incorrect pop-sci article. Basically it makes it sound like physics is about all this crazy complicated and far-fetched ideas, rather than simple and beautiful principles to understand reality, which is what it is.
I don't know if I managed to convey what I mean.
I also would like to argue that it doesn't have to "garner attention rapidly on a large scale" to be recognized by the masses, but rather just spark their imaginations in general.
I disagree. My opinion on whether you might get the impression is that you need to argue with "sexy knowledge" in research proposals.
The whole quantum mechanics philosophy crossover is a huge messy confusion as a result of this (many worlds shroedingers cat) - and that even affects even many physicists.
One of these things is not like the others...
I'm curious what topics you have in mind? My everyday life is like 90% Newtonian mechanics, 9% thermodynamics, and 1% fluid mechanics (percentages completely made up). Or are you thinking like E&M for phones and stuff?
For me, the more annoying aspect to this is that the "it's all relative man" has infected even more techincal discussions to the point where engineering and settled science is treated as just more "woo woo" by people who could know better.
*I do not remember nor care what it's called. I'm sure you know what I mean anyway.
Because those things sound exotic and interesting. Just like (statistically) nobody goes to the natural history museum to look at chicken-sized dinosaurs.
Physically scaling up small things may indeed be problematic, but with the assistance of VR or AR, one might be able to digitally scale it up. [Here I'm remembering my love of The Magic Schoolbus series.]
Even less exciting things like seeing how the doppler effect led almost directly to the concept of the big bang is something that seems critical. That it's not (or, hopefully was not) a normal part of curricula seems odd. Even things like the mind boggling implications of the various conservation laws are just incredible. That topic is at least covered in lower education, but rarely if ever in such a way as to really elucidate how incredible these rules are, and all that can be derived from them.
I do think that everyone should have access to such a syllabus though. More realistic if less transformative might be a program of teaching people very basic critical thinking skills. Use advertisements and Instagram posts to analyze deceptive languages and images. Show people that the world they think they live in, that’s projected all of their screens isn’t a very accurate representation of reality. Drive map-territory relations into them via the medium of political, corporate, and interpersonal deception they experience multiple times every day. Maybe half of them would get that, if it was made interesting enough to hold their attention.
So you can get still get the wonder by dropping the rigor, and you end up with What the bleep or The secret
It's kind of the same way that more people would be interested in computer science because of strong AI rather than binary search trees.
I mean when you study Physics you learn to use apparently confusing tools - theoretical or experimental - with confidence. Sometimes in areas that only few people find interesting/appealing, like for instance complex problems in classical mechanics or thermodynamics. Only 1% of the studies is about crazy, absolutely counter-intuitive stuff that sounds like Sci-Fi. But isn't that what differentiates the amateur from the Pro? ;)
I mean if people want to do actual Research Physics, they must either go to a University (offline or online) or be mega disciplined. In the latter case they need a few more books though/adjust them also to personal taste.
I think, though, that if you want to understand physics, it probably makes sense to devote some of your time to understanding what physicists are excited about.
I have a feeling (and this is heavy speculation) that a lot of strong physicists were fed on pop physics and science fiction before they learned the hard science. This helps approach the subject with an inborn curiosity, which can focus your attention when learning technical subjects.
Pop physics books may not be the ideal way to do this, but it's probably better than nothing at all.
On the other hand, they are very harmful to serious, but "boring" research proposals.
Would you mind giving some examples of what kind of "simple and beautiful principles" you have in mind?
- Advanced high school: You can use conservation of energy or other "conservation laws" as a guiding principle. This lets you solve a problem with just a couple of lines of simple algebra. On the other hand, using the "naive" approach of studying the forces that act on the system would require heavy algebra and some calculus.
- College: Instead of calculating the path of a ray of light through some inhomogeneous piece of transparent matter by doing some form of raytracing, you can use Fermat's "minimization principle". They are equivalent, but a rigorous definition of the minimization principle is a single sentence, while the other approach takes a lot of work to express clearly.
- Advanced college: Conservation laws are actually consequences of symmetries. Instead of thinking in terms of a complicated expression for energies and momenta, you can say that they are consequences of the fact that the laws of the universe do not change from today to tomorrow.
Yes, the more simple and beautiful a principle is, the more abstract it is. However, the simplicity and ease of working with it makes the abstraction worth it.
Just like in C you can have your own weird struct that implements objects and higher order functions, but using a functional or object oriented language makes everything safer and easier and more readable.
For those unfamiliar, this is essentially the content of Noether's Theorem. One of many beautiful contributions of Emmy Noether.
I've heard several physicists describe it as one of the most beautiful theorems in physics.
what would u recommend in its place?
I have some bad news for Susan.
My few years of study and general interest in computing has already given me a huge advantage in solving certain types of problem. I think computing science (not just software engineering) is slowly but surely becoming an essential part of many areas of modern physics research.
Now imagine dozens of people with a PhD in physics doing the same. (Earning a degree in physics is hard.)
Also, this means that fundamental assumptions and the calculations are hidden from view. Recently, some physicists questioned the findings of LIGO but if I understand correctly all is decided by data analysis software and outside teams have a disadvantage to decipher it.
I don't know how open the LIGO hardware is, but it's very unlikely you would build one yourself to verify.
I like to say that physics, mathematics, and computer science are the three pillars of human knowledge. There's some overlap between each pillar, and we don't yet fully understand how each of them fully relate to the others, but each is essential to gathering a full picture of any phenomenon.
Physics is not math because it's an empirical rather than a priori exploration. We are trying to reproduce the function governing natural laws, where in mathematics we are exploring the properties of functions. Computer science in turn is concerned with the construction of mathematical structures via algorithms, and so physics will be one such construction.
I think trying to place humanities and the arts under "knowledge" is a category error. These fields don't produce knowledge as its commonly understood, as a corpus of mind-independent facts and their relationships. Certainly facts appear in these fields, such as historical facts and authorship, but I don't think building a corpus of facts is not the main purpose.
This fallacy is called "reductionism."
Of course, so are chemistry and biology, so blithely dismissed in the parent comment.
I didn't dismiss them at all, I explicitly said they are epistemically useful, but that doesn't entail we should accept them into our core ontology.
This is the only way. It's I how I moved from an EE undergrad to a theoretical physics PhD. As I come back to material it's a lesson I need to painfully relearn. (Something I re-re-re-learned in 2015 http://nbodyphysics.com/blog/2015/02/28/learn-physics-with-t...)
This is irritatingly common in economics also though with economics it's less often speculation and more often simplification to the point that it becomes misleading.
e.g. "black holes suck in matter around them". Many pop science physics books will make black holes sound unique in the way they are able to attract matter which misleads readers as it is just gravity being applied to a massive object.
Though I think Susskind's lectures and books
are truly the best starting point for say, an engineer who wants to go back and do physics from the ground up.
1. The Feynman Lectures on Physics
2. The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman
3. Deep Down Things: The Breathtaking Beauty of Particle Physics by Bruce Schumm
4. The Particle Odyssey by Frank Close
5. Weinberg's The First Three Minutes
IMO someone who seriously wants to learn physics should read these books after they have gone through the typical undergraduate university books (classical, E&M, quantum, stat-mech, etc.) I would not recommend reading popular books until after you already understand the basic ideas of physics. Popular science books are like dessert.
Also strange that the author warns against exotic topics and then 3/5 of these recommendations are exotic things 99.9% of readers will never encounter.
All that is to say- The Feynman lectures are wonderful, but I would not recommend them as a first text.
Every time this topic comes up, someone says they heard nth-hand that the lectures didn't work. I suspect it's folklore that grew out of Feynman's disappointment expressed in his preface. I studied them together with the official text in my undergrad courses, and found them helpful, FWIW.
Tidbits like this are not a substitute for a working knowledge of physics. The Feynman Lectures are not a substitute for undergraduate courses. You'll get more out of the Feynman Lectures after completing the main undergraduate courses.
What I disagreed about in the post I replied to was the position that it wasn't "intuitive" or a good first text for beginners.
I kind of think the whole OP should be subject to the same caveat: Susan Fowler is probably not just hardworking but very very smart, and you shouldn't necessarily expect comparable results. It may go like the guy who tried to become a golf pro on the 10,000-hours theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_McLaughlin_(golfer)
I don't think you understand what "exotic" means in this context. Literally everything on this list except QFT is something pretty much every physicist will study. (And every theorist will study QFT.) No coincidence that it's almost topic for topic what I studied in grad school. This is "how to actually learn physics", not "how to learn a subset of physics."
Exotic topics would be quantum loop gravity or supersymmetry; things which sound cool but aren't foundational in the same way.
Yes I admit my physics knowledge is already rusty, and would like to refresh it. On a glance, The Feynman Lectures looks pretty doable...
She is world-renowned for MeToo/Time Person of the Year, but her achievements in physics through sheer will and hard work, even though her upbringings did not give her much in that direction, makes me think there is a movie in it.
At least, that's honest advice!
Draft of the book is available here for free:
Warning: this is very advanced material... I'm still on Chapter 1.
Released to public domain on archive.org: https://www.reddit.com/r/Physics/comments/1dmxq7/our_beloved...
Maxwell - Matter and motion. Written by THE Maxwell, what more do you need to know? long out of copy-write and available on the web for free
Born - The restless universe. discusses atomic theory and describes some of the more down to earth parts of quantum theory, especially how the theory explains quantitative properties of atoms and the periodic table.
Einstein & Infeld - The evolution of physics. pseudo-Historical exposition taking us from the mechanical universe to fields to quanta, and from Galilean relativity to Einstein relativity.
Reichenbach - the philosophy of space and time. technically philosophy of science, not pop science, from the logical positivist school of the Vienna circle. very readable discussion of abstract mathematical geometry and various relativity principles, if you don't mind skipping some of the more bloviating bits.
Pask - Magnificent Principia. Fantastic overview of Newton's Magnum Opus, although it doesn't give enough historical context to what newton was building on. Assumes some knowledge of calculus.
The Physics of Light (1959) John King-MIT-Electromagnetic Radiation
 - https://www.recode.net/2018/11/2/18053424/elon-musk-tesla-sp...
My advice is to find a teacher. If they are any good they will speed up the process by one or two (or more) orders of magnitude. Even the professionals do this.
Find other books. There's a reason why university libraries have old editions of the same books and very similar books on the same topic.
There are often interesting discussions under each video on Khan Academy, I know this one too https://www.physicsforums.com/, and this one in French https://zestedesavoir.com/forums/savoirs/sciences/
(Can't comment on the books, I learned in a different language where other books tend to be used).
I've noticed that I mostly read English textbooks on all kinds of subjects, because it's easier to get recommendations on HN or sites like chicmath.
I think I liked the Gerthsen, our Profs also recommended Demtröder, which was OK, but somehow I never liked it as much.
In theoretical physics, Nolting and Fließbach were good -- though I cannot remember which topic I learned from where.
I did my Diplomarbeit on spin transport in mesoscopic systems, and really liked "Electronic Transport in Mesoscopic Systems" by Datta, which at the time seemed to be the only accessible and clear writing on the subject.
Disclaimer: I tended to go to the lectures very regularly, and mostly learned from there, so the books very mostly supplemental material for me.
Some notes/links below:
> Before you begin studying physics and working through the topics in the sections below, you have to be familiar with some basic mathematics.
That is very true and often a big obstacle for people who have been out of school for some time. Note it's not enough to just be familiar with the concepts—you must achieve fluency with the procedures so you can use them as building blocks for later studies. For example, it's not enough to just read about the quadratic formula (-b ± sqrt(b^2-4ac))/(2a) and use it a few times, spending 5 minutes each time to think about the steps, plugging in the vars, etc.
Because solving quadratic equations is used so much in math and physics, you have to package that procedure as a reusable routine that you don't think about anymore and you can apply almost without thinking, in under 30 seconds. This "fluency with the basics" will ensure you're not slowed down when you reach the more advanced topics where solving quadratic equations is used.... and there is only one way to build fluency...
> Regardless of your learning style, you'll still need to solve the physics problems in each textbook. Solving problems is the only way to really understand how the laws of physics work. There's no way around it.
This. A thousand times this. I wish someone told me that when I was studying. It may not be fun to get stuck, go down the wrong path, doubt your abilities and feel stupid along the way, but that's what growth looks like. If every time you read a solution to a problem provided by someone else you gain one "knowledge unit," then finding the solution on your own is > 10 knowledge units. Forget 10x engineer, be a 10x learner—solve some problems!
> 1. Introduction to Mechanics [...] the basics of motion in a straight line, motion in two dimensions, motion in three dimensions, Newton's Laws, work, kinetic energy, potential energy, the conservation of energy, momentum, collisions, rotation and rotational motion, gravitation, and periodic motion.
> You'll need to learn calculus while working through University Physics.
Shameless plug, I wrote a book called No Bullshit Guide to Math and Physics that covers these exact topics. It would be a great starting point for someone who wants to review high school math and learn mechanics and calculus in an integrated manner. Here are some links if anyone wants to check it out:
- preview: https://minireference.com/static/excerpts/noBSguide_v5_previ...
- condensed printable tutorial: https://minireference.com/static/tutorials/mech_in_7_pages.p...
- reviews: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0992001005/noBSmathphys
But you do not need to study physics for 25 years in order to understand how the world works. Academic physics that she wants us to learn to undersdand the world is just a new academic subject invented or formalized in the 19. century. Archimedes knew 0 (zero) physics and made huge discoveries. Galileo was not a physicist in the modern sense of the word. Even Newton was not a physicist but a natural philosopher. Physics today is a professional field. By studying physics textbooks you will only gain enough knowledge to pass physics exams. It's much better to go out and look at nature directly. If you need specific mathematics just learn that part, solve your problem and move on. But academic physics, as she clearly mentions,claims to build on previous knowledge. This is the way of scholasticism. Scholastics claim that without spending two years studying calculus you cannot invert a matrix. (Because they make a living teaching you calculus.) This is not true. Knowledge is not linear. I can study and learn matrix operations with zero calculus knowledge. The opposite of scholasticism is just-in-time knowledge. Whatever I need I can look it up.
But thanks for posting this. There are good resources in it.
The other extreme is as problematic, though. Knowing certain formalism in mathematics can really help in expressing a physics principle - and at times it takes a fair amount of seemingly pointless formalism to get to that point.
>Scholastics claim that without spending two years studying calculus you cannot invert a matrix. (Because they make a living teaching you calculus.)
I have no idea where this is coming from. In my education, we were taught matrix inversion a full year before calculus. I've studied matrix inversion multiple times in my academic career, and I don't remember calculus being invoked once.
And to be frank, I'd be extremely wary of anyone claiming strong physics knowledge without learning calculus. Physics gained by leaps and bounds after calculus was introduced. It is the subject one can apply calculus most easily to, and is perhaps the reason we know more physics than any other discipline out there.
Thanks for correcting that. I need to find a better example. What I’m trying to say that is that, the academia or scholasticism teaches you a set curriculum. I think this is not the most productive way of learning. As an analogy, I don’t need to understand and memorize all the symbols of a programming language to write a program. I can have a basic understanding and then I can look up the rest as needed. Scholasticism doesn’t allow this.
Well, that depends. Faraday was a great physicist (his claims, whatever they may have been, notwithstanding).
I understand the temptation to think this way but I really disagree. Scholasticism has serious problems but the solution is not 'just-in-time knowledge'.
Scholastacism has been such a successfull approach for physicists exactly because the human mind is simply not equipped to approach much of modern physics. The scholastic traditions are in place to augment and fix our inherent mental deficiencies and prepare us to be able to understand physics.
Approaching physics is not a knowledge problem. Its an understanding problem and true understanding takes work, not informaation delivery.
True, that. But to each their own, and so everyone has a different requirement as to the depth of such knowledge to be considered an understanding. A squirrel knows enough about "how the world works" in order to survive - more, perhaps, than we humans do (because we couldn't survive in those conditions). Likewise, a blacksmith may have more firsthand knowledge about the properties of iron and its alloys than a highly-trained theoretical physicist...