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Pre-requisites to study Relativity?

  1. Dec 17, 2008 #1
    What are the pre-requisites to study Relativity thoroughly? Can I directly study it without mastering the concepts of mechanics, thermodynamics, optics etc.? I mean I have studied these things but not on advanced level. Besides, I have studied Calculus as well.

    Detailed help would be really appreciated.

  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 17, 2008 #2


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    You don't need any of those things for special relativity. A little calculus and linear algebra is enough (and you may not even need that). General relativity on the other hand, that's a different story.
  4. Dec 17, 2008 #3
    Thanks for your reply.

    Yeah, well, I'm going to start from Special Relativity and I understand General Relativity is quite advanced and complex with a lot of mathematics. I'm basically an EE undergrad so I don't think so I would have problem with math as they teach a lot of math in EE. As for Physics, I've taken a couple of Physics related courses and now I'm continuing it on my own. I'm gonna soon finish this undergrad book "Fundamental of Physics", by Halliday, Resnick, Walker and after that move on to a bit advanced level in theoretical physics. Hopefully that would work.
  5. Dec 17, 2008 #4
    I've been studying relativity since I was a sophomore in highschool. I had no clue what any of the math meant and I didn't care. What intrigued me was the concepts, not the math. So I suppose the pre-reqs for studying it (the concepts at least) is just... curiosity. If you want to actually understand the math behind the concept, then I suppose you need as much math as you need, but I don't know how many hours I spent reading about the Lorentz factor and the paradoxes associated with it (glossing over the advanced mathematics). I found it wasn't incredibly difficult (with time and patience) to understand the concepts and highschool mathematics of SR. Hope I've been helpful.
  6. Dec 17, 2008 #5


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    The most important thing to study SR is to accept geometry as the concept behind it. The math is not difficult, it's the way of thinking you have to adopt.
    Draw spacetime diagrams, make an excel sheet or something to transform to another frame of reference (the Lorentz transforms are available on the internet). Keep in mind that the view in the other reference frame is just a different view of the same situation, that nothing really has changed, even if it looks different on euclidean paper. It's merely a rotation, all lengths (t²-x²) stay the same.
    Learn to state problems in terms of events and the lines connecting them. You can't draw diagrams without translating the problems to spacetime coordinates properly.
    What does a point, a meter stick, look like in the diagram?
    What is measured when they talk about time dilation and length contraction? What does it look like in the diagram? Why is it reciprocal?
    Draw the twin paradox, transform it as you like, and measure the constant distances between the events. They correspond to proper time.
    Try the barn and pole paradox and Einsteins train and embankment. You can understand it only if you can draw it. That's the real challenge.
  7. Dec 17, 2008 #6
    Peon ...
    Daytripper's comments are right on...You can learn a LOT about special and general relativity along with the basic concepts of string theory, quantum theory,etc, from popular physics books by Michio Kaku, Lee Smolin, Brian Greene,Peter Bergmann, Charles Seife, Martin Rees, and others...I've been reading them for several years now while away summers with lots of time...several hours a day and by the end of a summer you'll make substantial progress.
    I buy these, paperback and used at Amazon.com...Have six more on the way right now..two from George Gamow on relativity...If you get their Amazon credit card you may still be able to get $75 in books FREE via a credit from Citibank ...I'm awaiting my first statement....am will look for the credit...

    As noted regarding math, you don't have to go thru all the gory and formal mathematical detail of matricies,tensors, Riemann curvature,etc but an explanation of those IS helpful...for example, the description for observing a black hole from infinite distance is understandable,in concept, but once you have seen the simple equation for proper time versus coordinate observer time it's easy to see why this observation is used. And if the math interests you, go for it!!

    But if you REALLY mean thoroughly, math is a necessity....

    One website I found which I like for an introduction to tensors is at NASA:


    it's 24 pages and I was able to get thru 10 pages initially just fine...seemed logical so I hope the last part is as well....I'm saving it for this summer!!!

    I also have Roger Penrose's THE ROAD TO REALITY, a heavy mathematical approach, I think about 1000 pages and while I managed to get thru the first 100 pages or so ok, the remaining 800 were too advanced...but it's been a LONG time since I was an undergraduate EE student....He describes simple things in detail then makes what appears to be huge mathematical leaps without explanation...I am not a fan of this publication...
    but I may return after digesting the NASA publication above....

    Good luck!!
  8. Dec 17, 2008 #7
    Naty1: HyperSpace by Michio Kaku is the only physics related book that I've read at leisure (if you don't count wikipedia) and it was great. I feel I understood and retained about 85-90% of the material (if not more) and the way he writes it keeps you reading (and steers clear of overly esoteric material). It's like a good fiction, as it introduces a topic and then foresees your questions and answers them while introducing more. Very good book. Just thought I'd throw out that recommendation... now to figure out exactly what a tensor is. haha.

    Ich: your advice is sure to help me solidify my understanding. thank you.
  9. Dec 17, 2008 #8
    Hey Fellas!

    Thanks a lot for your kind help, all of you.

    The first book that I read on Relativity was Bertrand Russell's "A B C of Relativity". That was only theory and was intended for layman. I've also read Hawking's "A Brief History of Time", but that, of course, is not an exclusively relativity-related book. Now, I want to get into real stuff rather than popular books for common layman.

    It as good to know that I can start right away without advanced Maths and all that and I hope to gradually advance in it while studying more maths as well. I have a couple of books on Relativity. One is "An Introduction of Relativity", (I don't remember the writer's name) and the other one is "Gravity: An Introduction to Einstein's General Relativity" by James B. Hartle. Hope to go through them coming vacations!

  10. Dec 18, 2008 #9

    George Jones

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    Sean Carroll?
    I would start with a solid introductuction to special relativity, like A Traveler's Guide to Spactime: An Introduction to the Special Theory of Relativity by Thomas Moore or Spacetime Physics by Taylor and Wheeler, and then move on to Hartle's book
  11. Dec 21, 2008 #10
    The other book that I have deals with only Special Relativity (I'll tell the name when I see it. I have it at home and I'm at my friend's apartment these days, exams going on!) so I guess I would have a good foundation of Special Relativity after reading it so that I would be able to move on to Hartle's book?
  12. Dec 23, 2008 #11
    I am not sure how good of a suggestion this is, but I really liked Chapter 12 of Griffith's Electrodynamics for an intro to Special Relativity. SR really only requires some basic geometry and algebra. It's much more concept driven with the gedanken (thought experiments) than GR which requires some basic partial differential equations, basic differential geometry, tensor calculus and the field theory formulation of Newtonian mechanics (variation formulas, etc.)
  13. Dec 23, 2008 #12
    From glossing over MTW, you need to know differential geometry and a little analysis on manifolds, great mind boggling material, after this material you start giving your wife taking care of the money in the house, and we know that this ain't good.(-:
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