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How long does it take a textbook to become obsolete?

  1. Aug 27, 2012 #1
    Recently, I bought a number of cheap Dover textbooks on (mathematical) topics I am going to study coming semester, including Abstract Algebra, Differential Geometry and Functional Analysis. I found some of the books remarkably clear and well-written, but as I was reading through them and looked at the publication date I wondered whether the material was still relevant for my university studies. Of course, experts may say that great textbooks will always continue to be great textbooks, but my question concerns the link with present-day courses and research. How much value is there in studying old texts if one is mainly concerned with understanding the material so as to do well in university and later on? Also, how long does a textbook go along before the material becomes irrelevant? Would it still be worth looking through Soviet era textbooks from the 1950s?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 27, 2012 #2
    It depends on the subject. Some books last 50 years easily, especially if the field is not evolving too much anymore, or if they describe the basics which would have remained unchanged. I use the 1962 ed. f Milne-Thomson's theoretical hydrodynamics and it's still a great book. Same goes with some physics books. Feynman's lectures are still top material.

    What you are studying is fundamentals. You will probably get the chance for modern applications in later courses, so it's a good idea to just focus on learning the mathematical framework you need to advance to the more complex topics. I wouldn't worry too much about the book date if I were you, unless you have reason to believe that something big has changed since then.

    For instance, if you are reading functional analysis it may be worth getting a newer book, since Perelman and others made great contributions to the field not too long ago. Still, that is only the case if the writers have bothered to include extra info on the subject :biggrin:
  4. Aug 27, 2012 #3
    The last edition of Whittaker & Watson was printed in 1927 and people still swear by it (the first edition was issued in 1902!)

    For basic physics not much has changed in the last 60 years. There may be several topics that, for example, a modern QM book might add, like Berry Phase or Bell's Theorem. And some of the oldest books will not use Dirac notation (except for Dirac, of course).

    The 50s and 60s of the last century were a great era for physics books, including the quality of the bindings and typesetting. You might want to look for older hardcover copies before buying a Dover edition.

    For, say, QFT or GR, some of the older books may be useful, but there are better introductions.
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2012
  5. Aug 28, 2012 #4
    A good rule of thumb is how mature the field is. For instance, you wouldn't want a book on relativity that was written close to Einstein's time. A calculus book at that time however could still be great since calculus had already been around for about 200 years :biggrin:
  6. Sep 7, 2012 #5


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    euclid is still the best book on geometry and euler's algebra book is still the best on algebra, the book of courant and even the cours d'analyse of goursat are still outstanding on calculus, and i may be odd, but I even rather like einstein and pauli on relativity. And I never understood how simple the Riemann Roch theorem was until I read Riemann. My friends in number theory highly recommend Gauss's Disquisitiones,......
  7. Sep 7, 2012 #6


    Staff: Mentor

    as a side note have you tracked your math lineage to see if any of the great mathematicians taught you indirectly?

  8. Sep 7, 2012 #7


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    clemens, griffiths, spencer, hardy, littlewood, cayley, waring, newton, galileo, tartaglia,......
  9. Sep 7, 2012 #8

    I like Serena

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    New books usually are not better - they are just new.
    If you have courses that follow a book closely, it's best to have the related books.
    In university that is usually not the case in my experience - lecturers usually swear by their own notes, which you will need.
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