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How do I teach myself undergrad physics?

  1. Nov 30, 2008 #1
    Right now, I'm in the third year of my degree in Computer Engineering. Though I'm extremely fond of my subject, I've realised that for far too long, I've neglected one of my first loves - physics. I genuinely miss the fun I used to have solving complex physics problems. So now, having mastered all the mathematics that engineering has thrown at me, I'm trying to get back into the physics scene for the challenge it used to provide me with.

    Thanks to the ridiculously hard engineering mathematics syllabus of our university, I can consider myself pretty proficient at whatever is needed. We are expected, in our first three semesters, to master traditional calculus on the real line including series expansions of functions, complex algebra and calculus, vector calculus, linear algebra, the solution methods for linear differential equations, Fourier analysis, the Z transform, and the Laplace transform. Hopefully this will be sufficient. If not, I'll study whatever additional mathematics is needed. As for the introductory physics needed, I've essentially covered the contents of Young and Freedman's University Physics as part of our school syllabus, so that shouldn't be a problem. I know that Resnick and Halliday is considered a more thorough treatment, so I'll check it out if necessary.

    I'm looking for books which will allow me to master the traditional branches of physics at an undergraduate level (classical mechanics, including the Hamiltonian and Lagrangian formalisms, classical electrodynamics, basic quantum theory, and basic relativity). However, I need books which I can use to learn on my own without any external support of any kind. I'll essentially be studying in complete isolation. I cannot approach any professor or mentor for help. The books will be my only refuge.

    So are there any recommendations? The study plan goes thus: a quick review of basic school physics (Resnick and Halliday), followed by classical mechanics including the formalisms, then classical electrodynamics, then basic relativity, and finally the basics of quantum theory. I want to do mechanics and electromagnetism in their full, rigorous glory, and the latter two only for purposes of understanding the nature of the new reality.

    Also - have no qualms about cost. I'm in India, and we get books very, very cheaply. For example, a book costing $150 (Principles of Mathematical Analysis) cost me less than that amount in Rupees - and a rupee is around one fiftieth of a dollar. As they are also one of the few luxuries I allow myself, I can afford to buy multiple books for the same subject and refer to different books for different topics. So feel free in recommending multiple books - I am lucky enough to be able to afford them.

    Any suggestions for how to structure my study and what books to use?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 30, 2008 #2
    Since you aren't interested in a full, rigorous discourse on relativity or quantum mechanics, you might want to look into a book on "modern physics" (e.g. Tipler) which should cover both those topics in enough detail to be intellectually satisfying (though not complete by any stretch!)

    To do mechanics in it's full rigorous glory, nothing beats Goldstein, and for rigorous E&M, absolutely nothing beats Jackson... However Jackson is quite difficult, especially for a first reading. Griffiths is a more undergraduate oriented book and is very enjoyable to read.
  4. Nov 30, 2008 #3
    Thanks for the recommendations!

    I would appreciate some further comments, however, if you have the time.

    Currently, my plan goes something like this:

    Review single-variable calculus, complex algebra, and linear algebra. Also review the basics of mechanics (the Y&F/RHW level) (Two months)
    Review double and triple integrals, and complex and vector calculus. Simultaneously review basic E&M using the same book(s). (Two further months)
    Do mechanics using Kleppner. (Three months)
    Do electromagnetism using Purcell (another three months)
    Then, do rigorous classical mechanics - this is where Goldstein comes in.
    Finally, do rigorous E&M using either Jackson or Griffiths.

    I've chosen to do Kleppner and Purcell before doing the fully rigorous treatment because I also want to develop a better intuitive understanding before jumping into full formalism.

    Therefore, I must ask - do Goldstein and Jackson/Griffiths provide a good intuitive understanding of their respective subjects? I know Griffiths is pretty intuitive. However, I don't know about Goldstein or Jackson. Also, is there any "intuitionist" textbook for rigorous classical mechanics, the way there is Griffiths for E&M?

    Secondly, do you think this is doable? Given that I already know all the mathematics and physics to be done in the first four months, is the idea of a review feasible? Or should I pace myself more slowly?

    The reason I ask for books which will build intuition is because I'm alone - I have no teacher, no mentor. If I get stuck, I'll either have to think about it myself and solve it, or come here for help. So it would be difficult for me to learn from a book which assumes that the bulk learning will take place in the lecture hall.

    Lastly - is it doable? Is it possible for a lone learner, working alone, to learn physics like this?
  5. Dec 1, 2008 #4


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  6. Dec 4, 2008 #5


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    Hi Aneesh,

    Your math background is sufficient to learn all the topics you listed.

    For mechanics, I recommend Lev Landau's "Mechanics" which is the first volume of his Course of Theoretical Physics. It is much much better than Goldstein, and is 1/3 the size. Lev Landau is one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, and his books are known to be masterpieces of exposition. Full of intuition.

    For electrodynamics, I recommend Richard Feynman's "Lectures on Physics", Vol II. The same comments apply to Feynman, too. He was one of the best teachers of physics, and one of the greatest physicists of the century. You may not be prepared for Jackson yet, since it's mathematically quite demanding.

    For special relativity, I recommend John Wheeler and Edwin Taylor's "Spacetime Physics". It would be hard to find a better introduction than this to relativity.

    For quantum mechanics, I like the book "Introduction to Quantum Mechanics" by P. T. Matthews. It's short and to the point, making full use of the Dirac notation. Once you read this, you'll have a good understanding of the formalism of quantum mechanics. Then you can learn about the details and applications from a bigger book such as Landau's "Quantum Mechanics".
  7. Dec 4, 2008 #6


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    Griffiths is at more or less the same level as Purcell, i.e. undergraduate. The choice between them is a matter of personal preference. Jackson is graduate level.
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