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Physics Textbook structured by History?

  • #1

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Once in the university library I came across an incredibly fascinating physics textbook different from pretty much every other I've encountered. It wasn't for general readers, but (in my opinion) tailored for undergraduate level students.

The philosophy of the book was to develop not only an understanding of physics (the big name areas such as Classical, Quantum mechanics, Special (but not General) Relativity and very basic cosmology), but also the historical and social context that led to the ideas and breakthroughs within each field. It would detail experiments that were not only successful in proving theories, but also those that were critical to disproving or refining others. The book would sometimes begin developing a model of mechanics with equations that were incorrect, only to be corrected after explaining the experiment that catalysed this revision.

Once again, this was not for general readers; it had exercises and didn't hold back on complex equations. It was for learning, but what was great about it was how it showed you the development of the physical sciences.

Unfortunately I didn't have the time to borrow it, and as it was for undergraduate students, it was at quite a low level.

I am wondering if anyone knows of this textbook, or a similar textbook, ideally one that goes up to a masters level, but I wouldn't complain about a challenge :)
 

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  • #2
Simon Bridge
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That is how pretty much all science text books used to be written ... we are talking a couple of decades ago now ... but it fell out of fashion since some of the historical statements (like who discovered what when) became contentious (mostly for being culturally specific). They also tended to promote the myth that science history is very linear - one idea leading to the next in progression - rather than then mess that actually happened.
 
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  • #3
TSny
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I am wondering if anyone knows of this textbook, or a similar textbook, ideally one that goes up to a masters level, but I wouldn't complain about a challenge :)
Your description reminded me of the book Physics for the Inquiring Mind by Eric Rogers. Chances are, this is not the particular book you had in mind. But it might be of interest to you. The book was written for non-science majors. It might not be at the level you want.

You can see the table of contents and read the first chapter here: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/1818.html
 
  • #4
vanhees71
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I'm a bit doubtful concerning the "historical approach" to teaching physics. On the one hand, I believe that one should first learn physics from the most recent point of view, including the classical subjects (point and continuum mechanics, classical electrodynamics and general relativity), without reference to outdated historical concepts. That's most important for quantum theory. The historical approach is poissoneous to the mind of physicists, because you have to unlearn almost everything taught in the first quarter of the lecture taking such an approach, particularly the introductory treatment of the photoeffect based on Einsteins paper (1905), which is completely wrong from a modern point of view. The same holds true for Bohr's atom model, which is not only conceptually but also empirically wrong (a hydrogen atom in the ground state is not disk like but spherically symmetric).

On the other hand, one cannot have a full understanding of the modern concepts without knowing anything about their historical development. In this sense, I strongly recommend to read about the history of science, but not as an introduction but as a complementary point of view on the modern concepts, helping to deepen the full understanding of their meaning.

That's why I think the ideal kind of textbooks are the ones written by Weinberg (Quantum Theory of Fields (3 vols.), Quantum Mechanics, Gravity and Cosmology, Cosmology), usually having an introductory historical chapter and afterwards developing the concepts in a coherent (deductive) way from the latest point of view.
 
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I often agree with Vanhees71, but I think he puts his objection too strongly. I do not think the historical approach is poisonous to the minds of physics. Vanhees is fair-minded in his later paragraph regarding the placement of a introductory historical chapter in some books.
I think physics books that use history to give life to their science is motivating. I like to see the blemishes as well as the beauty of the science as it developed. Mathematics books more commonly use the axiomatic approach referred to, but I hope that physics is less dry than mathematics. (Exception: I found Simmons, Differential Equations with Historical Notes, a good textbook, especially his historical notes)
It may be only my view but there seems to be many forum contributors who praise Morin, over Resnick and Halliday (as one example), and wonder why RH include pictures of the cyclotron, or pictures of Lissajous figures on an oscilloscope etc. Couldn't that space be used to present one more example or pose another problem. Yes, but RH was written to motivate, as well as challenge the student. I find Morin challenging but not so much motivating. I find the history motivating as well.
 
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vanhees71
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Ok, I must correct myself. I abhorr mathbooks written in the style of Bourbaki. This is such a unloving exhibition of math that it takes all the fun out of the subject. That's not what I mean. I only think one should avoid teaching out-dated models to the students like Einstein's light-quantum picture (wrong), the Bohr-Sommerfeld atom (wrong and contratdicting simple facts about atoms, which was already known when the model was discovered), first-quantized relativistic wave mechanics (overcomplicated compared to relativistic QFT, which is complicated enough). Nevertheless, as I stated before, knowledge about the history of science is very important for a full understanding of the subject. I only think it should be studied after the most modern picture is understood.
 
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