Discussion of PF Policy on Valid References

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In summary, the conversation revolves around the topic of pop science books and their validity as a basis for understanding science. One person argues that pop science is not a reliable source and suggests reading textbooks or peer-reviewed papers instead. Another person points out that not everyone has the background knowledge to understand these sources and defends the use of pop science as a starting point. The conversation also touches on the issue of asking questions about advanced topics and the importance of understanding the actual science rather than relying on simplified versions. Ultimately, the consensus is that while pop science can serve as an introduction to certain topics, it is not a substitute for studying the actual science through primary sources such as peer-reviewed papers.
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AndreasC
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[Moderator's Note: Spin off from previous thread due to topic/forum change.]

PeterDonis said:
This is a pop science book. You would be better served by reading actual textbooks or peer-reviewed papers.
That's honestly sort of a weird reply but it's an attitude I've encountered a lot on this site. There is a reason pop science exists. Say you hear about a major discovery in some branch of science you know nothing about. What do you do to learn more about it? There is 3 options. You either start reading papers (which is a surefire way to not understand anything), you read pop-sci accounts, or you chose to ignore it completely since you won't "properly" understand (which I can't see as preferable).

If OP is reading pop-sci books, it's probably because they don't understand the legit textbooks, let alone papers.

"But it is an I-level thread". Well ok but most undergrads can't read complicated papers on these advanced subjects, and who knows if OP is even an undergrad. The B, I, A system on this site is a bit weird sometimes because really only "A-level" people can usually judge correctly what the level of a subject is, and the rest are often not sure whether to use what describes themselves or what describes the subject. For instance maybe a beginner wants to learn something about string theory, but string theory is an A level topic, so what do they chose?

My point is that I'm not even sure OP is really I-level, and even if they are it doesn't mean they can just read the papers and understand, and they shouldn't be blamed for reading pop-sci. And honestly I don't believe people should not be allowed to ask questions on subjects that are supposedly beyond their level.

[Moderator's note: Comment relevant only in context of original thread has been removed.]
 
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  • #2
AndreasC said:
There is a reason pop science exists.
Yes, we know that. And there are also good reasons why pop science is not considered a valid basis for discussion in our science forums.

AndreasC said:
If OP is reading pop-sci books, it's probably because they don't understand the legit textbooks, let alone papers.
And if that is the case, they won't be able to understand actual science. Sorry, but that's just the way it is.

AndreasC said:
most undergrads can't read complicated papers on these advanced subjects
Many peer-reviewed papers are really "A" level, yes--they assume the reader already has a graduate level understanding of the subject matter. One of the main functions textbooks serve is to fill the gap by giving "I" level (or in some cases "B" level) presentations of subjects.

However, since science is an ongoing enterprise, there are many areas of current research that textbooks do not cover, so the only possible sources are peer-reviewed papers. That means either you build up your understanding so you can follow at least a portion of what the papers are saying, or you won't be able to understand that area of research. Again, sorry, but that's just the way it is.

AndreasC said:
For instance maybe a beginner wants to learn something about string theory, but string theory is an A level topic, so what do they chose?
Either they build up their own understanding of the relevant subject areas to "A" level, or they accept that whatever they "learn" about string theory will not be the actual science of string theory. Maybe that's ok with them: maybe all they really wanted to know about string theory was something like "string theory is a quantum field theory based on strings instead of point particles", which is a true statement as far as it goes but tells you nothing useful unless you already know something about quantum field theory, which is also generally considered an "A" level subject. Or maybe they really just want to ask something like "is string theory a valid theory of everything?", in which case the answer would be "many of its proponents claim it is, but at present there is no valid basis for the claim". Which, again, doens't really tell you anything about the science of string theory, but the question wasn't really about that anyway.

AndreasC said:
I don't believe people should not be allowed to ask questions on subjects that are supposedly beyond their level.
Nobody is saying that. All I am saying is that it is simply a fact of life that you can't learn actual science from pop science sources. Pop science sources do not magically make "A" level subject matter into "I" or "B" level subject matter. Pop science sources can be very good for getting people interested in particular areas of scientific research. They just are not good for actually learning the actual science.

The only way to learn the actual science is by looking at the actual science. The primary sources for actual science are peer-reviewed papers, so if you really want to see the actual science, that's what you need to look at. Textbooks can be useful secondary sources for areas that are established enough to have good textbook treatments. Textbook treatments are more likely to be "I" level (or in some cases even "B" level), if such a treatment is possible for the subject matter.

If you ask a question about an ongoing area of current research, it's quite possible that the only meaningful answers available will be "A" level answers. Again, that's just a fact of life: nobody can magically make "A" level subject matter into "I" or "B" level subject matter. So you might not be able to really understand the answer. But if that happens, saying "well, just look at a pop science source" won't help anything.
 
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PeterDonis said:
And if that is the case, they won't be able to understand actual science.
It's perfectly valid for people to want to get a level appropriate, intuitive general picture of things to the extent that it is possible. Maybe sometimes it's just not possible, but here I don't think that's the case.

I don't see what's wrong with someone coming here and saying "I read this in pop-sci, what does it mean?" or "what more is there to this?". Worst case, it's something completely wrong so you can tell them it's completely wrong.

PeterDonis said:
Either they build up their own understanding of the relevant subject areas to "A" level, or they accept that whatever they "learn" about string theory will not be the actual science of string theory. Maybe that's ok with them: maybe all they really wanted to know about string theory was something like "string theory is a quantum field theory based on strings instead of point particles", which is a true statement as far as it goes but tells you nothing useful unless you already know something about quantum field theory, which is also generally considered an "A" level subject. Or maybe they really just want to ask something like "is string theory a valid theory of everything?", in which case the answer would be "many of its proponents claim it is, but at present there is no valid basis for the claim". Which, again, doens't really tell you anything about the science of string theory, but the question wasn't really about that anyway.
Well there you go then. You just answered some questions about string theory in a way that people can understand without having to read Polchinski! Yes, it's not the "actual science", but as you said, most people who read pop-sci aren't interested in the "actual science", and if they are, it's out of reach. But that doesn't mean they can't get answers, albeit in a "not-actual-science" manner. People shouldn't have to learn all the intricacies of convection, conduction, radiation, planetary climate models and whatnot to know that if you pump the atmosphere full of CO2 bad things happen. If they are really interested in the "actual science", then maybe they can eventually pick up a textbook, but it can't wait until then!
 
  • #4
AndreasC said:
I don't see what's wrong with someone coming here and saying "I read this in pop-sci, what does it mean?" or "what more is there to this?"
That's because you don't have to moderate the forums. For every question along these lines that's actually coming from a pop science source that gives reasonable (if limited) information, there are a hundred or more that are based on sources that are so off base that it's not even worth trying to answer the question. That's why our standard answer to all such questions is "if you're really interested, do the work to find a valid reference". Often just looking at the references on the Wikipedia page for a subject will give you multiple valid sources.

It's possible, of course, as I've already said, that the subject area is an ongoing area of research so the only valid sources are "A" level sources. But again, in cases like that going to a pop science source instead won't help--areas of ongoing research, where there isn't yet a single established theoretical model that is mainstream, are also areas where pop science sources are the worst and the most misleading. In such cases, if you aren't willing to build up your own understanding to the point where you can at least follow some of the "A" level papers in the field, you simply won't be able to understand that area of research. There is no way to "fix" that--certainly pestering PF to allow discussions based on pop science sources won't do it.

AndreasC said:
You just answered some questions about string theory in a way that people can understand without having to read Polchinski!
And the answers I gave you were useless if you actually want to learn what string theory says, let alone try to judge for yourself the many extravagant claims that string theorists make. If you are happy with that answer, that's fine, but that just means you don't actually want to learn anything useful.

PF's mission is not to give half-baked useless answers. PF's mission is to help people understand mainstream science, and, to the extent possible, to help people understand at least a portion of what is going on in ongoing areas of research (that's why we have, for example, the Beyond the Standard Model forum). String theory falls in the latter category. As does the topic of this thread.
 
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  • #5
AndreasC said:
I don't see what's wrong with someone coming here and saying "I read this in pop-sci, what does it mean?
The problem is when people respond to correct explanations with "You're wrong! I read something else in a pop-sci book."

Another problem is that people try and come up with a broader model by stitching together multiple incompatible pop-science explanations. That never works.
 
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Vanadium 50 said:
The problem is when people respond to correct explanations with "You're wrong! I read something else in a pop-sci book."

Another problem is that people try and come up with a broader model by stitching together multiple incompatible pop-science explanations. That never works.
Well, sure. But that just sounds like people being confidently wrong, not an honest question prompted by pop-sci....
 
  • #7
AndreasC said:
that just sounds like people being confidently wrong, not an honest question prompted by pop-sci....
It's neither: it's people mistakenly believing that reading pop science allows them to actually understand the science.
 
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  • #8
PeterDonis said:
And the answers I gave you were useless if you actually want to learn what string theory says, let alone try to judge for yourself the many extravagant claims that string theorists make. If you are happy with that answer, that's fine, but that just means you don't actually want to learn anything useful.
It seems to me like you believe the only "useful" kind of knowledge is the full weight of detail and formalism. In my opinion this kind of thing just makes sure more or less everything in science is completely inaccessible not just to people outside science, but also scientists working in slightly different branches.

There is certainly a lot of bad pop-sci, but there is also good pop-sci and good "half baked answers" which don't just help beginners see what the fuss is all about, but can even help those who are more advanced gain better intuition, and a "big picture" view, even though they don't directly reference the "actual science".

I don't have to know graduate level biology to learn they found a new frog. I don't have to know advanced genetics to learn they cloned a sheep. I don't have to know the nitty gritty of climate models to learn climate change is bad and caused by humans. I would have to know all these things if I wanted to gain a proper understanding and especially if I wanted to contribute. But that doesn't mean I didn't learn anything useful or interesting.
 
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  • #9
AndreasC said:
It seems to me like you believe the only "useful" kind of knowledge is the full weight of detail and formalism.
Useful in the sense of actually understanding the science, yes. That's what PF's mission is: to help people understand science. If that's not what you're after, then posting here will most likely not meet your needs.

AndreasC said:
there is also good pop-sci and good "half baked answers" which don't just help beginners see what the fuss is all about, but can even help those who are more advanced gain better intuition, and a "big picture" view, even though they don't directly reference the "actual science".
I challenge you to give a specific example.

AndreasC said:
I don't have to know graduate level biology to learn they found a new frog. I don't have to know advanced genetics to learn they cloned a sheep.
Neither of these things are understanding science. They're just factoids.

AndreasC said:
I don't have to know the nitty gritty of climate models to learn climate change is bad and caused by humans.
Neither of these things are true as you state them. What is true is that some impacts of climate change are bad (in the sense that humans have to pay significant costs to deal with them, for example sea level rise), and that a portion of the climate change we observe is caused by human activities. But there are also impacts of climate change that are good (for example, the current warming is expanding the land area on Earth that is suitable for human habitation and food production), and there are significant causal factors involved with climate change that have nothing to do with human activities.

So if what I quoted above is what you learned from reading pop science, then you have given an example of why pop science is not a good source to learn from.
 
  • #10
AndreasC said:
there is also good pop-sci and good "half baked answers" which don't just help beginners see what the fuss is all about, but can even help those who are more advanced gain better intuition, and a "big picture" view, even though they don't directly reference the "actual science".
PeterDonis said:
I challenge you to give a specific example.
How about
Quantum Chance by Nicolas Gisin
or
The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter
 
  • #11
gentzen said:
How about
Quantum Chance by Nicolas Gisin
or
The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter
How do these help those who are more advanced?
 
  • #12
AndreasC said:
help beginners see what the fuss is all about
I have seen cases here at PF where, in response to a "B" level (usually) thread where the OP is really just asking "what's all the fuss about", a good pop science book has been given as suggested reading. If you want to say that is an edge case of "understanding", I won't object.
 
  • #13
PeterDonis said:
How do these help those who are more advanced?
The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter
helps those more advanced by providing the bigger picture, also including visualization and communication of results, and of course also emphasizing the importance of the entire problem solving cycle, including planing of experiments, data collection, ...

Quantum Chance by Nicolas Gisin
helps those more advanced by focusing on one specific aspect which is especially counter-intuitive, and illuminates this aspect with intuitive pictures and sharp analyses. It also sets this aspect into its historical context, and hints at some of its possible future developments.
 
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  • #14
On that subject, the math channel 3Blue1Brown makes videos giving basic explanations of math concepts which are equally if not more useful for people who already learned the topics elsewhere. For instance I had learned linear algebra but I didn't know until his video that you could think about determinants as volumes, which was extremely useful.
 
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AndreasC said:
the math channel 3Blue1Brown makes videos giving basic explanations of math concepts
I would not classify these as "pop science" sources. I would classify them as attempts to make Internet-era equivalents of basic textbooks, taking advantage of all the technologies we now have for doing pedagogy in different ways.
 
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  • #16
gentzen said:
helps those more advanced by providing the bigger picture, also including visualization and communication of results, and of course also emphasizing the importance of the entire problem solving cycle, including planing of experiments, data collection, ...
Wouldn't those more advanced already know these things?

gentzen said:
helps those more advanced by focusing on one specific aspect which is especially counter-intuitive, and illuminates this aspect with intuitive pictures and sharp analyses.
Wouldn't those more advanced already understand this aspect (I assume you mean nonlocality)?

gentzen said:
It also sets this aspect into its historical context, and hints at some of its possible future developments.
These can be useful but they're not the same as understanding the subject itself as it is.
 
  • #17
gentzen said:
helps those more advanced by providing the bigger picture, also including visualization and communication of results, and of course also emphasizing the importance of the entire problem solving cycle, including planing of experiments, data collection, ...
PeterDonis said:
Wouldn't those more advanced already know these things?
I don't know. I didn't knew those before, or at least I didn't prioritized them appropriately. But of course, this only shows that I am not sufficiently advanced in this subject. But I had three one-semester courses about such topics at university, so I am not a complete beginner in this subject either.
But probably your other "objection" has even more force against Spiegelhalter:
PeterDonis said:
I would not classify these as "pop science" sources

PeterDonis said:
Wouldn't those more advanced already understand this aspect (I assume you mean nonlocality)?
Yes, of course. But by reading this book, their understanding of this specific aspect might still become more rounded and complete. They might find it easier to explain it to those less advanced after reading this book.
 
  • #18
The "it can't be explained" thesis seems to me often a rationalization for failure. My view is that the ability to explain esoteric things in a way that is both accurate and accessible is quite rare but nevertheless in some cases exists. I found Yau's book on string theory a good example. But what do I know? Maybe he's full of beans and I'm too naive to know it, but I have faith in Yau.

I find the "go away and come back when you have a master's degree in physics" unrealistic. Though being helpful is apparently not the goal with that. Whatever might the goal be?

I find perfectly acceptable the "I can't explain it but I'm a credentialed expert so take my word for it" stance. Though Michio Kaku stands as a counterexample, it is usually the best option. If readers won't accept that and persist in their pestering, to sci.physics with them.
 
  • #19
Hmmm, I don't see why the title is about the valid reference policy. I don't think anyone on this thread argued pop sci should be regarded a valid reference to back up your point or answer or whatever. Personally, I was arguing that it's fine for people to read pop sci and come here with questions prompted by it, and that when they clearly can't possibly understand original literature or advanced textbooks, it should be at least attempted to give a more basic, level appropriate, "pop-sci-like" digested explanation. Of course you can't cite pop sci to back up a claim, but that's a different thing.
 
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  • #20
AndreasC said:
I was arguing that it's fine for people to read pop sci and come here with questions prompted by it
And that means you are arguing for pop sci sources to be considered valid references for a PF discussion. So you are arguing for PF to change its current policy, which is that pop sci sources are not valid references for PF discussion.
 
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  • #21
Hornbein said:
I find perfectly acceptable the "I can't explain it but I'm a credentialed expert so take my word for it" stance.
In other words, you find arguments from authority acceptable. But that is not how science is supposed to work, nor is it a way to get actual understanding of the subject matter. If you believe something simply because some authority told you, you don't understand it. PF's mission is to help people understand mainstream science, not to make assertions from authority.
 
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  • #22
Hornbein said:
I find the "go away and come back when you have a master's degree in physics" unrealistic.
But you find it realistic to read a book on string theory and believe everything it says even though, by your own admission, you don't have the background knowledge to judge anything it says for yourself?

Hornbein said:
being helpful is apparently not the goal with that.
If understanding something requires a certain body of background knowledge, then the most helpful thing you can tell someone who doesn't have that background knowledge is that they need to acquire it if they want to understand that thing. Nature does not care how hard it is to understand something, and ultimately our scientific theories have to accurately predict what Nature does. If the only way our theories can do that is to require a certain body of background knowledge to understand them, then that's the requirement Nature has set, and ignoring it does not help anyone.
 
  • #23
AndreasC said:
it should be at least attempted to give a more basic, level appropriate, "pop-sci-like" digested explanation.
What if there is no such explanation? What if every possible "pop-sci-like" attempt at an explanation is wrong, or leads to misunderstanding instead of actual understanding?
 
  • #24
PeterDonis said:
And that means you are arguing for pop sci sources to be considered valid references for a PF discussion.
This kind of hardline attitude is a great way to dampen people's enthusiasm for science and discourage curious people from actually studying science. Where should people go with questions about what they read in pop sci? Should we rely on the "go read a real textbook" faction of PF to sort them out?

PeterDonis said:
What if every possible "pop-sci-like" attempt at an explanation is wrong, or leads to misunderstanding instead of actual understanding?
Why limit it to pop-sci? PF has an entire section on physically meaningless quantum interpretations populated by very smart professional scientists.

Honestly, @PeterDonis, in this thread it just feels like you're trying to win an argument rather than consider other viewpoints. And you're very good at arguing, so people are more often than not going to give up getting their point across, even if they're ultimately right.
 
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  • #25
TeethWhitener said:
This kind of hardline attitude is a great way to dampen people's enthusiasm for science and discourage curious people from actually studying science. Where should people go with questions about what they read in pop sci? Should we rely on the "go read a real textbook" faction of PF to sort them out?
It's worth noting that @PeterDonis 's reply in the subject thread was just "You would be better served..." The thread was not locked or deleted. Nobody was turned away, so they need not necessarily go anywhere else.

Should we be more willing to give half-baked answers to quarter-baked questions? That's a tough one. Most(all?) of the hard science mentors here are professionals/professors and it goes against the job description to do that, so it will be a hard sell. And even if we do, it is still important to make people aware that they aren't getting the real story, but rather a comic-book version of it. Because we also still get a lot of people posting comic book science they need our help to get published. Maybe nobody's ever told them? It's a disservice to not tell people when you/they are glossing-over the "science" part of the science.
 
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  • #26
TeethWhitener said:
Honestly, @PeterDonis, in this thread it just feels like you're trying to win an argument rather than consider other viewpoints. And you're very good at arguing, so people are more often than not going to give up getting their point across, even if they're ultimately right.
I point out that this is an ad hominem attack and should be recognized as such. I don't think it mean spirited but care should be taken to recognize such arguments as obfuscatory and seldom useful.
 
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  • #27
PeterDonis said:
And that means you are arguing for pop sci sources to be considered valid references for a PF discussion
Maybe I'm misunderstanding what "reference" is supposed to mean in that policy, because to me someone asking a question about something they learned from pop sci is completely different to someone using pop sci as a reference for an answer or to make a point.

PeterDonis said:
What if there is no such explanation? What if every possible "pop-sci-like" attempt at an explanation is wrong, or leads to misunderstanding instead of actual understanding?
Then you say "I can't possibly explain this to you at any capacity unless you understand x". But more often than not that is not the case.
 
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  • #28
Do we now report threads that do not originate from valid technical sources? Will the mentors close them?
 
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  • #29
Frabjous said:
Do we now report threads that do not originate from valid technical sources? Will the mentors close them?
We get reports all the time for unacceptable references in the technical forums. If they are being used as the basis for a technical discussion, then we'll probably do something about it (ask for better references, or maybe close the thread).
 
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  • #30
berkeman said:
We get reports all the time for unacceptable references in the technical forums. If they are being used as the basis for a technical discussion, then we'll probably do something about it (ask for better references, or maybe close the thread).
Suppose I do not understand something that Hawking said in A Brief History of Time. Given that it is a pop science reference, should a thread on the topic be blocked until I reference one of his technical papers?
 
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  • #31
Frabjous said:
Suppose I do not understand something that Hawking said in A Brief History of Time. Given that it is a pop science reference, should a thread on the topic be blocked until I reference one of his technical papers?
Short answer: Until you reference a valid source, yes.

Longer answer: Depending on what was said, you might be able to find an easier source than one of his technical papers. Much of that book was not about his personal research on things like Hawking radiation, it was just about our best current model of the universe, which any basic cosmology textbook will cover. For that matter, even the Wikipedia articles on the subject have been used as references for PF discussion, because those particular articles aren't contentious enough to have been the subject of Wikipedia "edit wars", and the articles (at least the ones I've seen referenced on PF) have copious references to textbooks and peer-reviewed papers, so the sources for the content of the articles are clear.

In fact, a big part of the message of PF's policy on valid source is: If you read something in a pop science source, look for valid sources before you ask about it. Very often a quick Internet search will find you a useful reference: a Wikipedia page, or university course notes (there are lots of these online), or something similar.

One note: For books like Hawking's, because of his stature, you might well be able to ask a question about something he said in a Brief History of Time and get an answer on PF before anyone spots that it's a pop science reference. But you will still find that, if you try to follow up with further questions, you will very soon reach the point where someone points out that you're using a pop science source and you can't learn science from pop science sources. That's because that statement is true. It's often an inconvenient truth, but that doesn't make it any less true.

(In some cases, a particularly generous poster might even give you a better reference instead of asking for one. PF does not forbid people from exercising generosity. But you should still be aware that it's generosity.)
 
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  • #32
I hope PhysicsForums will not shut out current members if they are only at the undergraduate level in physics and mathematics. In a local university library, I attempted to read in Gravitation, by Misner, Thorne and Wheeler. I will never be able to understand the mathematics of general relativity presented in this book, yet I would like to continue to ask questions about gravity. Many members will need physicists and mathematicians of PhysicsForums "to explain the results of these equations" in a verbal format.
 
  • #33
KurtLudwig said:
I hope PhysicsForums will not shut out current members if they are only at the undergraduate level in physics and mathematics.
Undergraduate corresponds to "I" level, so no, we definitely won't do that.

KurtLudwig said:
I attempted to read in Gravitation, by Misner, Thorne and Wheeler. I will never be able to understand the mathematics of general relativity presented in this book, yet I would like to continue to ask questions about gravity.
Have you tried Sean Carroll's online lecture notes?

https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/grnotes/

He also has a book published which is basically an expanded version of these. They are probably a much better choice for an "I" level treatment. MTW is a classic, but I would agree that it's way too heavyweight for many; it's an "A" level treatment of the subject.
 
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  • #34
PeterDonis said:
What if...
What if???? Straw man maybe?
PeterDonis said:
you're using a pop science source and you can't learn science from pop science sources.
Well, some learn enough to ask questions about something new to them.

Is it time to put this thread out of its misery?
 
  • #35
Tom.G said:
Straw man maybe?
If you think so, please make an argument for your apparent belief that there must be a "pop-sci" level explanation for everything in science.

Tom.G said:
Well, some learn enough to ask questions about something new to them.
My experience as a moderator of this forum has been that the rare cases where a pop science source actually sparks a good question are outweighed by orders of magnitude by the cases where a pop science source spawns a thread whose signal to noise ratio is so low that it has to be shut down. That is one of the main reasons for PF's current policy about valid references.
 
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