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Schools Great Books Physics University?

  1. Nov 30, 2009 #1
    "Great Books" Physics University?

    Is there a "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Books" [Broken]" physics undergrad and/or grad university? Viz., is there a physics department that reads the original works—e.g., the Principia when studying Newtonian mechanics, Einstein's 1905 papers when studying special relativity, Maxwell's A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism when studying Maxwell's equations, etc.—instead of using modern textbooks? Thanks
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 30, 2009 #2
    Re: "Great Books" Physics University?

    One thing that you find a lot in physics is that newer concepts make things much, much *easier* to teach. Most of the things in Principia were written without calculus, and most physicists would find Maxwell's original Treatise to be completely incomprehensible because he didn't use vector calculus.

    Something that is more useful is less "Great Books" and more "interesting conversations." It is interesting to go back and look at old papers and see all of the false starts, red herrings, and dead ends that people go into before coming up with a consensus.

    One other thing about "Great Books" is that there is an underlying set of philosophical assumptions associated with it that has some tension with the set of philosophical assumptions that most scientists operate under.
  4. Dec 1, 2009 #3
    Re: "Great Books" Physics University?

    What are these "underlying set of philosophical assumptions," specifically?
  5. Dec 1, 2009 #4
    Re: "Great Books" Physics University?

    Three of them that I can think of are:

    1) there is a core canon of knowledge
    2) "great thinkers" exist, and should be emulated
    3) there are timeless truths which are can be derived from classical learning

    There is some tension between these assumptions and the way that some of the assumptions of scientists operate under. In Great Books mode, older tends to be better, whereas most scientists operate in a world in which newer is better and older tends to be useless. Also scientists tend to like to tear ideas down, so in talking about Newton and Einstein a lot of the discussion will be about how they got it wrong, and you can't really discuss how Newton and Einstein got it wrong, without pulling in material from outside the canon.
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2009
  6. Dec 2, 2009 #5
    Re: "Great Books" Physics University?

    The way I would put it: The ultimate arbiter of Science is nature, not literature.
  7. Dec 2, 2009 #6
    Re: "Great Books" Physics University?

    When I took undergrad E&M a few years ago, the professor had us read a few of Einstein's original papers. While it was an interesting exercise, they were extremely difficult to read... not because of the content, but because of the notation.

    I don't think that a "Great Books" of physics would really fly because of this.
  8. Dec 3, 2009 #7
    Re: "Great Books" Physics University?

    I am sure modern printings would correct for notation issues. I know there is a modernized "translation" (really a commentary) of Newton's Principia by Chandrasekhar. There are even translations of the Almagest and I have this really nice one-volume translation of Euclid's Elements, so it is possible. I have even seen a modernized version of Einstein's paper on the "Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies."
  9. Dec 3, 2009 #8
    Re: "Great Books" Physics University?

    Sure, but at that point you are reading a textbook that is based on the original work rather than the original work itself. "Translating" a 19th century text on E&M to use modern vector calculus notation isn't a mechanical formal process, you basically have to rewrite the entire work.

    Sure, but at that point, you really have to ask what is the original "text." You also have to ask what is it that you are trying to do, and what exactly you are trying to teach. For example, it's very useful to try to read Maxwell *after* you've mastered basic EM because it gives you a lot of appreciation for the work that has been done since Maxwell.

    The other thing is that I'm a fan of "new historicism". To really get an appreciation of what Einstein did, you have to time travel back to Vienna 1905, and understand the society, the politics, and world that Einstein lived in, with the idea that if you understand Vienna-1905 and what created Einstein, you can create new Einsteins, if that's what you really want to do. The problem here is that "new historicism" schools of thinking that emphasize social context, often find themselves at odds with advocates of "Great Books." I think very highly of Mortimer Adler. I don't think very highly of Allan Bloom.
  10. Dec 3, 2009 #9
    Re: "Great Books" Physics University?

    Well, if the approach is to study Vienna to understand what Einstein was doing in Bern, then I can see why some historians might disagree with the approach!
  11. Dec 3, 2009 #10
    Re: "Great Books" Physics University?

    The reason I mentioned Vienna was that Vienna was the capital of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Einstein was in Switzerland, but he was part of a large circle of central European scientists (a lot of them Hungarian), and the center of all of that cultural and scientific activity was Vienna.
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