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A book on the historical development of physics?

  1. Apr 29, 2014 #1
    Hello everyone,

    I am not a physicist (I'm an economist), but I'm interested in physics.
    What I'm particularly interested in is what the empirical and theoretical/mathematical junctures were in the development of our understanding of physics.

    • What were the empirical observations that motivated Newton to formulate his principia?
    • What were the empirical observations that (later) confirmed his theory?
    • Same for electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, etc.
    • What were the theoretical hurdles that Einstein had to overcome to formulate relativity? same for quantum mechanics, etc...

    In other words, I am looking for an (extensive) book/series of books on the development of physical theory, empirical physics and their interplay, from Newton (or earlier) onwards to modern physics.

    Does such an overview work exist? I think this would be extremely interesting, whether it's a popular science book or a more scientifically rigorous book, to get an overview of what we know and why we know it. Most popular overviews of physics tend to focus on the juicy results (nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, quantum leaps, etc..), without explaining what the logical reasoning and empirical evidence behind them is.

    I cannot be the only one who would find this fascinating, right? :)

    Kind regards. :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 29, 2014 #2


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    Newton relied on a great deal of earlier work; for example, the parallelogram rule for the addition of forces pre-dates Newton. However, he also discarded a great many ideas, including some from Galileo and Descartes. Newton did carry out all of his own experiments - and built many clever devices, such as the first reflecting telescope.

    Thus Newton was a philosopher, a theoretician, and an experimentalist - as well as being a top-rated mathematician, an optician, and a chemist! He also dabbled in a few other areas - I'd recommend reading a good modern scientific biography for Isaac Newton.

    I have some books in my personal library which cover the pre-Newtonian period; I'm away from home for a few weeks, but if you poke me after May 15 I will provide titles and publishers.

    Concerning Maxwell's work - he relied extensively on Michael Faraday's experiments, which are wonderfully well described. Maxwell goes over the experimental support and how it fits with his ideas in his famous "Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism"; most easy to find is the third edition.

    For Einstein I recommend the scientific biography "Subtle is the Lord ...". You will find that it answers your questions and more.

    I don't know if there is a single book which addresses all of this - it would be a massive tome, and would have to cover a massive amount of physics. I know that I looked for such a magic book when I first became interested in physics - the pop science books whet the appetite, but are often less than filling!
  4. Apr 29, 2014 #3
    Not exactly what you are looking for, but check out "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn.
  5. Apr 30, 2014 #4
    interestingly, yesterday i was going to make a thread with the same topic. :)

    here's what i found

    From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves: Classical Physicists and Their Discoveries - Emilio Segre
    From X-rays to Quarks: Modern Physicists and Their Discoveries - Emilio Segre
  6. Apr 30, 2014 #5


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    There is a truly wonderful book of the sort that you're asking about I believe: Károly Simonyi's Cultural History of Physics. He describes the experimental methods and theoretical interpretations that created scientific knowledge, from ancient times to the present day, within the cultural environment in which it was formed.
  7. May 2, 2014 #6


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    "The parallelogram law in the works of d’Alembert and Kant" by Carmen MARTÍNEZ ADAME


    "We compare two approaches given to the parallelogram law as a fundamental notion in eighteenth century mechanics. The authors we study are Kant and d’Alembert and we use the context created by Newton’s Principia as our point of departure."


    The references point to the original literature, but the article will prove to be interesting - if you are interested in the history of physics, and how ideas were interpreted over time.
  8. May 2, 2014 #7

    Andy Resnick

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  9. May 3, 2014 #8


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  11. May 5, 2014 #10
  12. May 8, 2014 #11


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    I encountered this book while looking at others:

    The Oxford Handbook of the History of Physics

    Table of Contents

    Introduction, Jed Buchwald and Robert Fox

    Part I: Physics and the New Science
    1. Was there a Scientific Revolution?, John Heilbron
    2. Galileo's Mechanics of Natural Motion and Projectiles, Noel Swerdlow
    3. Cartesian Physics, John Schuster
    4. Physics and the Instrument-Makers, 1550-1700, Anthony Turner
    5. Newton's Principia, Eric Schliesser and Chris Smeenk
    6. Newton's Optics, Alan Shapiro
    7. Experimentation in the Physical Sciences of the 17th Century, Bertoloni Meli
    8. Mathematics and the New Sciences, Niccolo Guicciardini

    Part II: The Long Eighteenth Century
    9. The Physics of Imponderable Fluids, Giuliano Pancaldi
    10. Physics on Show: Entertainment, Demonstration, and Research in the Eighteenth Century, Larry Stewart
    11. Instruments and Instrument-Makers, 1700-1850, Anita McConnell
    12. Mechanics in the Eighteenth Century, Sandro Caparrini, and Craig Fraser
    13. Laplace and the Physics of Short-Range Forces, Robert Fox
    14. Electricity and Magnetism to Volta, Jed Buchwald

    Part III: Fashioning the Discipline: from Natural Philosophy to Physics
    15. Optics in the Nineteenth Century, Jed Buchwald
    16. Thermal Physics and Thermodynamics, Hasok Chang
    17. Engineering Energy: Constructing a New Physics for Victorian Britain, Crosbie Smith
    18. Electromagnetism and Field Physics, Friedrich Steinle
    19. Electrodynamics from Thomson and Maxwell to Hertz, Jed Buchwald
    20. From Workshop to Factory: The evolution of Instrument Making Industry, 1850-1930, Paolo Brenni
    21. Physics Textbooks and Textbook Physics in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Josep Simon
    22. Physics and Medicine, Iwan Morus
    23. Physics and Metrology, Kathy Olesko

    Part IV: Modern Physics
    24. Rethinking 'Classical Physics', Graeme Gooday and Daniel Mitchell
    25. The Emergence of Statistical Mechanics, Olivier Darrigol and Jurgen Renn
    26. Three and a Half Principles: The Origins of Modern Relativity Theory, Daniel Kennefick
    27. Quantum Physics, Suman Seth
    28. The Silicon Tide: Relations between Things Epistemic and Things of Function in the Semiconductor World, Terry Shinn
    29. Physics and Cosmology, Helge Kragh

    It is a bit expensive, but perhaps worth it given the breadth of topics.
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