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Good History of Physics book?

  1. Feb 1, 2010 #1
    I'm looking for a good history of physics book for use as a textbook in a history of physics course. something not as basic as Roger Netwon's From Clockwork To Crapshoot, but something not specific to one event or one era. something that gives a decent account of physics from the early Egyptian and Greek times to modern particle physics today. has anybody come across anything good in your studies that come to mind?

  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 2, 2010 #2


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    There are the two volumes:
    "from falling bodies to radiowaves"
    "from x-rays to quarks"

    by Segre. They don't go back to the ancient Egyptians, but it gives you a good read.
  4. Feb 2, 2010 #3
    My suggestions are the Stephen Hawking book "And God Created the Intergers..." which is all about the mathematicians who shaped math/physics.

    Then, for the more modern physics, Roger Penrose - "The Road to Reality". This book has everything, it has plenty of the early greeks in the first few chapters & quickly develops into the pretty modern aspects of physics, string theory, particle physics, spinors etc... Oh, and he includes a load of math with it!
  5. Feb 2, 2010 #4
    Have you read "The road to reality" sponsoredwalk? Is it accessible to someone with only a B.S. in physics and a minor in math? I am fine with seeing some math I don't understand, in fact I find it interesting just to see what it looks like, but will it just be completely incomprehensible?
  6. Feb 2, 2010 #5
    I have this book, it is crazy...

    The seventh chapter starts talking about complex calculus & such, the 8th and 9th chapters go on to talk about complex mapping & Fourier Analysis.

    It extends on to talk about manifolds & such until around chapter 17 where General Relativity & Maxwells equations come in...

    Then the 20th chapter is about Lagrangian Dynamics...

    After all that it goes on to Quantum Mechanics, Particle Physics, String Theory, Spinor theory, Cosmology and god knows what else...

    The book is advertised to be accessible to everyone. I personally haven't read past the 8th & 9th chapters until I'm really really confident with that math but I do believe you could read it.

    The first chapters are all about Greek geometry & the developments of things such as complex numbers etc, with lots of interesting things thrown in.

    I really advise getting this book, but do not expect to finish it quickly lol, I bet it will get you interested in some crazy math you never thought about before though lol...
  7. Feb 2, 2010 #6
    Just ordered it that book sounds awesome. Sorry for thread hijack.
  8. Feb 2, 2010 #7
    haha I have read Road To Reality and even with my math major I struggled through the last half of it. has anybody actually read that whole book without quitting?

    I do appreciate your suggestions and I will check them all out. *pulls Hawking off his shelf* let me know if you have any other thoughts and comments. thanks.
  9. Feb 2, 2010 #8
    definitely a good choice, especially if you don't understand everything (and if you do come teach me).
  10. Feb 2, 2010 #9
    Woah, I'm sorry I didn't read the original question properly, sorry...

    I didn't realise you were teaching a course in the subject!

    My serious recommendation for that - or at least as a supplement for those curious students - is to watch the Mechanical Universe.

    It is a 52 part, half-hour series that explains introductory physics for freshman-level students. It uses vectors & calculus but nothing out of reach to anyone who applies themself, it shows how to use these things in the early lectures.

    It goes through a lot of the history. There are visual aids to how Calculus was developed, about putting all those triangles into a circle to square it - (even into a teapot lol).

    It will describe, in visual & mathematical detail, how Gallileo came to his conclusions, how Descartes erred in some of his thoughts. How Copernicus & Kepler came from Epicycles to Ellipses. They are fascinating graphics, it gets into real detail about how Kepler plotted the orbit of Mars.

    It takes scenes from some 1973 German movie about Kepler that I'm dying to see!!! :tongue:

    Furthermore, Newton's thought process is detailed, & not just with an Apple falling on his head :tongue2: It is all about momentum, cannons shooting balls into orbit, escape velocity from the moon & one of the most elegant things I'll remember for the rest of my life - showing by the use of the Pythagorean theorem how Newton calculated that the moon falls, deviating in it's path in the exact amount he calculated (wrong only because of incorrectly assuming the earth to be bigger than it is but they give the right figures lol).

    There is also a huge section on waves and resonance, including why some bridge collapsed due to resonance (including the video).

    Then, it goes on to describe how Faraday came to his conclusions, how Maxwell formulated his equations & found the speed of light.

    Then it goes on to describe the theory of Relativity (with an incorrect derivation of Gamma I believe because of frame-jumping but I'm not 100% on that yet).

    Finally, it describes the rudiments of Quantum theory & even making a brief foray into particle physics (brief!).

    I sincerely can't recommend this course enough. Each episonde is 30 mins long, you could have the class watch each episode and then proide concluding remarks afterwards & have not only an easy workload for yourself but teach the students in more detail than I've read in most books on any history. I can only imagine how strong this show would affect them, it would certainly show them the beauty behind the science.

    It's free to use, check their website. Maybe you'd have to register for legal purposes but as far as I know it's pretty much free. Check it out for yourself, I'm assuming ideal conditions that you have the time and all lol but hopefully you'll like it enough or it's appropraite enough for your aims.


    All the best, :)
  11. Feb 4, 2010 #10
    interesting. thanks.
  12. Feb 4, 2010 #11
    I took a history of science 3 semesters ago an it was one of the most unsatisfying course I ever took. The reason was that the teacher had this notion that he should begin in 10000 BC or something. After a few long weeks of ancient natural philosophy he managed to get to Newton then the industrial revolution than in the last lectures we found out that Einstein came up with some cool theories in 1905. What i am trying to say is that you should not make the course so broad that it in the end has no point. Recently i come across this set audio lectures http://webcast.berkeley.edu/course_details.php?seriesid=1906978529
    I think its very well structured and the teacher seems to have a very clear goal in teaching the course. This is very important in a history course. She start at Newton.

    As for a book i think the best thing you could do is make your own course pack.Include a lot of excerpts from primary sources and make the students read them. From a history course point of view this makes more sense, since it develops the skills that history supposedly should help develop,better then reading a very polished textbook.
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