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Classical works in physics for the autodidact

  1. Oct 18, 2012 #1

    I read a lot of autodidacts/self learners posts on here on good materials to begin with. Right now I am reviewing all of high school math and working through lots of problems to secure my math foundations.

    Afterwards I'd like to start working through some of the more classical works in maths and physics. I enjoy greatly reading the 'first formulations' as it shows the train of thought of the originator. Here is my tentative plan:

    Euclid - Elements
    Newton - Principia
    Maxwell - A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field‎
    Einstein - Special Theory of Relativity (1905)

    I'd like to have a few more nice works on classical mechanics and electromagnetism. Can anyone recommend books that might be considered 'foundational' or cover the material in a 'from first principles' kind of manner?

    Also, what kind of maths will I need for SR? Thanks for your suggestions!
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 18, 2012 #2
    Good luck learning from those obsolete books (except Einstein's, which is a short Journal article).
  4. Oct 18, 2012 #3
    Wow. You think Euclid is an obsolete book?? When it comes to Euclidean geometry, Euclid is still one of the best books there. It has been a source for education for over 2000 years, and I feel it should still be a source of education now. All high-school geometry books take their material from Euclid and basically just dumb it down. If you want to see how geometry should really be done, then Euclid is an awesome choice. It is NOT obsolete at all.

    That said, Euclid sometimes does things in a way that is not acceptable now (for example: he assumes that two circles intersect when that should be an axiom). This is a minor problem, but you should be aware of this. You should absolutely read Euclid's book acompagnied with commentary from modern mathematicians.
  5. Oct 18, 2012 #4
    Why would you post such a snarky negative comment? Do you think I'm mentioning these books because I think they are up-to-date references?

    I'm interested in learning the content of humanity's intellectual heritage. For about 2500 years every scientists introduction to geometry was Euclid. Einstein would have learned his first geometry from Euclid - that was still the standard textbook in the subject right up until the late 1800s.

    Unless the content of those books is actually wrong, or incorrect, I don't see the harm in learning from them. If there are things to watch out for, like micromass mentioned, then let me know and I'll keep it in mind.

    Also, in my OP I said I'm actively soliciting recommendations. thats the purpose of the post. Dickfore if you seem to be so savvy with what books to use, why not mention some?
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2012
  6. Oct 18, 2012 #5


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    Staff: Mentor

    I think your Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein references are great as supplements to more modern presentations, but I think you would get the most benefit from studying them after you have already gained basic knowledge in those subjects.

    Newton's geometric formulation is almost completely different from the mathematical formalism that we use for classical mechanics today.

    Maxwell and Einstein assume that the reader already knows a lot of physics. Their mathematical notation is different from what is commonly used today, especially with Maxwell, who pre-dates modern vector calculus notation.

    And in all three cases, physicists and textbook authors have learned a lot about pedagogy during the past century.

    Physics isn't like literature or history, where primary sources take precedence over secondary sources.
  7. Oct 18, 2012 #6
    +1. This is very true. Don't attempt to read those historic documents without a good grasp of the physics already. You will find it very hard to understand Newton even if you know the physics already. But it is also very enlightening to see how things were done in the past.
  8. Oct 18, 2012 #7
    I see, thank you very much for mentioning this. I thought perhaps it was logical to start at the very beginning.

    For introductory material, I have heard that Kleppner and Kolontrow are good for mechanics and Holliday and Resnick are good for electromagnetism. Are there other authors you can recommend for these topics, or even, presentations of Newtons and Maxwell's work using more modern mathematical descriptions?
  9. Oct 18, 2012 #8
    Kleppner and Kolenkow are very awesome physics books, but also very difficult. First of all, you will need a sound knowledge of calculus and differential equations to be able to tackle the book. Second, the problems are very challenging. I think it is a book that every physics major should read, however it might not be the first book that one should read.
    Halliday and Resnick is much more suitable for a first introduction to physics. The book does requires a basic knowledge of calculus. But the problems tend to be easy (but annoying).
  10. Oct 18, 2012 #9
    Right now I am re-learning my calculus in addition to other math fundamentals. Is multivariate and partial differential knowledge needed before I tackle Halliday and Resnick, or Klepp. and Kol.?

    thanks for your advice!
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