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I Seminal physics books offer something more than textbooks?

  1. Apr 21, 2016 #1
    I was reading the lists of required books to read at certain colleges who offer Great Books programs, and I noticed that such Great Books programs frequently require students to read seminal physics and seminal mathematics and science books. The following list gives many different examples of the seminal physics and seminal science/mathematics books covered in a Great Books program: Michael Faraday's The Chemical History of a Candle and Experimental Researches in Electricity, James Clark Maxwell's A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field and A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, or Isaac Newton's book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or Albert Einstein's The Theory of Relativity. Before I researched this on the internet, I knew about the existence of great books programs, but I thought that they just consisted of classic works of fiction such as Homer's Iliad and The Odyssey and the great works of Philosophy such as Spinoza's Ethics. I didn't think that they would include seminal science books because I thought it would be much more efficient to learn science by reading regular textbooks like you would use in a science or math class at the average university without a Great Books program.

    Do you think that a person could better learn and understand scientific principles from reading a seminal science books such as the ones I mentioned by Newton and James Clark Maxwell and Faraday and Einstein than from reading a regular textbook? Also a slightly different question: Do you think that a person could better learn anything more worthwhile from reading a seminal science book instead of a regular textbook?
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  3. Apr 21, 2016 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    No and no,
  4. Apr 21, 2016 #3
    Then why do so many colleges' Great Books programs require students to read the seminal science books?
  5. Apr 21, 2016 #4


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    I never heard of a Great Books program at the college before.
  6. Apr 21, 2016 #5


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    I do not. I think that textbooks are a better approach.

    The seminal authors introduce great ideas, but they often make mistakes that are corrected by later scientists and even more often they express things using inferior notation and mathematical constructs compared to what is developed later.
  7. Apr 21, 2016 #6
    Good pithy post.

    I think that a student will best learn science from the standard textbooks used in the average university, not the Seminal books published by the famous scientists who made the original discoveries. In my opinion, a student might learn more about the history of science (not the science itself) from reading the Seminal books.

    Edited for this: I also think a student might learn how a scientist made their discoveries by reading the seminal books than from a textbook. For instance, a student might best learn how Einstein found out that E=M X C-squared from reading Einstein's book than from reading a textbook.
  8. Apr 22, 2016 #7


    Staff: Mentor

    That is true. But if the aim is to learn history then they will be better off with a history text book.

    I agree. Science textbooks typically talk about scientific facts and knowledge rather than the scientific process.
  9. Apr 22, 2016 #8
    Couldn't learning the scientific process potentially have some benefits?
  10. Apr 22, 2016 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    No, but that's not the point of a Great Books program. Reading source literature is great for a liberal arts program, because it exposes students directly to the people who wrote the books and their modes of thinking at the time of writing.
  11. Apr 22, 2016 #10


    Staff: Mentor

    Yes, such as being better prepared to do science and write scientifically.
  12. Apr 22, 2016 #11
    Also, I think learning the scientific process would help a person have more faith (or conversely, learning the scientific process could help a student appropriately have less faith if the scientific process if what is presented did not prove the author's case) in the veracity of whatever discoveries of science are presented in the seminal science book.
  13. Apr 22, 2016 #12


    Staff: Mentor

  14. Apr 28, 2016 #13
    Whenever an idea is re-worded, re-interpreted, or a theory re-axiomatized, mistakes can be made, so a small advantage is that, when you know what the original discoverer said or meant, you would then also recognize when he's being misquoted.
  15. May 3, 2016 #14


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    I think it simply belongs to the education of a scientist to have read some seminal texts. Very often, history in text books is a gigantic clutter and also theories have been mutilated until becoming unrecognizable and even the original authors are blamed nowadays for erroneous interpretations by other people.
    It also helps to understand why some topics are taught as they are taught. As a student I often had the impression that text books discuss some examples which I considered odd or far fetched. In many cases, this is simply due to this experiment just having been done at the time the theory was developed and it's results were the first confirmation of a theory.

    Usually, these papers contain also some odd observations which the original author could not explain. Many scientists were lead to new discoveries when trying to resolve these questions with new methods.
    For example, Sir Michael Berry, the discoverer of the Berry phase in quantum mechanics, has used modern theory of asymptotics to explain very old optical observations made by Newton e.g. concerning the rainbow.

    Another interesting example is Feynman's lost lecture, where he shows how difficult it is to prove Newton's Laws on planetary motions with the elementary mathematics available to Newton:
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