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Electricity and Magnetism Book

  1. Feb 23, 2010 #1
    I'm a first year undergraduate taking my first electricity and magnetism class, and going through all the classic material: Coulomb's law, electric fields, flux, capacitors, etc. And the book I have explains the material relatively well, but I feel like I'm missing out on so much by just being given the postulates/empirical claims and doing ridiculous amounts of calculation with them (for instance, being told Coulomb's law is true, and deducing the electric field on, say, an infinitely charged plate by a little integration). I've always thought of physics as a lot more vibrant than that. How do we know Coulomb's law is true? What were the past experiments that verified the law? Why is the closed integral in Gauss's Law equal to the charge inside the Gaussian surface divided by the permittivity constant? What were the first capacitors made of? What was the exciting process of discovery for those pioneers who learned new things about this incredibly fascinating subject?

    It just seems to me like the textbooks I'm using (Halliday and also Serway) just give you definitions and do a couple of proofs from those definitions or laws. There's no history, no context, no intuition, just a bunch of equations. That's fine for the engineering monkeys that want to bash numbers into the formulas to pop out answers, but for physics majors and the engineers who care to get a more full understanding of the material and the foundation's it's based on, it'd be nice to have some background, some more 'meat' to the material. I can't go to the original sources most of the time, because the language they use or the mathematical tools they use are too advanced or technical, and often too overwhelming in scope. Is there a book out there that isn't a hard textbook full of formulas and how to think about them, but something with history, context, how former generations thought about certain concepts and how our viewpoints changed, et cetera? I've tried reading Isaac Asimov's Understanding Physics, but it's very layman oriented and doesn't offer but a very brief synopsis of the material and it's history (understandable for such a broad book), and I didn't much like the second volume of Feynman's lectures. I hope you can direct me to something similar to what I'm looking for. Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 23, 2010 #2
    The first physics E & M book I used in undergraduate physics was in cgs units. It made little sense because the units were statvolts, statamps, and statohms, and the only things I could buy at the local electronics store were in volts, amps, and ohms. So take an E & M course using mks units. Secondly, take an EE lab course in electronics so you can put volts and amps into lots of interesting things. I even learned about pentodes and amplidynes!!

    Bob S
  4. Feb 23, 2010 #3
    Thank you for your reply, Bob S. However, I think you may have misunderstood my question. It is not the case that I am having trouble with the units for quantities. Indeed, both of the textbooks I cited use the MKS system (though I don't have trouble with CGS, either). I have to take the lab with the class, though this is not the problem I am having (I quite like the lab, as it makes concrete some of the abstract concepts we learn about). What I was getting at was the books we use, and the lectures, give us little to no history, context, or philosophy behind what we learn, and I wished someone could point me to a book I could study which would fulfill these gaps. I hope such recommendations can be given. Thanks!
  5. Feb 24, 2010 #4
    Let me first congratulate you on your aim of reading around the subject.

    Years ago undergraduates used to say they were 'reading philosophy' or 'reading the physical sciences' or whatever.

    I have my doubts that you will find one such textbook as you seek although the book

    'The Road to Reality' by Professor Roger Penrose comes close.

    But look further afield as well. Many Engineering texts contain interesting snippets and prefaces. Engineering is, after all, the real world face of Physics.

    Have a look at 'Engineering in the Ancient World' by J. G. Landels

    Now Penrose is a weighty tome at the other end of the scale look at

    'Cats' Paws and Catapaults' by Steven Vogel. A wonderful reading on the train book.

    I know that last two are not E & M but hey Physics is a wider subject.
  6. Feb 24, 2010 #5
    Hello Pupil...interesting issue..I like you already!!!
    The Penrose book IS excellent....but the mathematics is PHD level after about a hundred or 150 pagesso beware...

    Only you can decide how much theory and how much application is appropriate for your interests...One thing to keep in mind..original work often involves new ways of thinking and innovative approaches that USED TO BE revolutionary, like Einsteins, but are everyday approaches now.,Who provides keen new work: those who ignore their peers and balst thru new ideas on their own or with a like thinking collaborator...

    Here are two derivations of Ohms law....neither is likely to enhance your application of this work, but only you can decide...often a simple derivation as explained today is based on advanced mathematics that you might not understand as an initial undergraduate...in addition "experimental verification" is never irrevocably fixed...and the original derivation might be based on old fashioned, outmoded, antiquated "insights"....


    and a very similar one,

    Whether you learn the derivations first, then apply them, or choose to learn the application, then the derivation and history is your choice....It is not common that the original derivation and struggle for a new insight will add much to your understanding TODAY as very often the original work involved a lot of mistakes, wrong turns and a general knowledge base that cannot match that of today...today's "derivations" are often shortcuts that represent new insights from current theory...and I don't personally know if going way back to a time when a lot of current theory was not available is a good use of your time...you have to set some limits...but reading some histroy IS interesting..

    For example, would you want to go back and immerse yourself in science at the time of Euclid?? I happen to enjoy that sort of thing now, as a matter of historical interest, but it does NOT give me new insights in, for example, Riemannian geometry, which is where more of my current interest resides.

    Again, only you can set the parameters or your personal interest. Maybe your real passion is scientific history?? A fun place to start might be "man made global warming" and the science and politics that are behind it???
  7. Feb 26, 2010 #6

    Right. I'll bet you really put that knowledge of pentodes and amplidynes to good use in your life! Not! Yeah, I remember studying how great analog computers were too!
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