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Intro Physics Suggestions for conceptual E&M and modern physics reading

  1. Oct 21, 2015 #1
    I'm looking for suggestions of resources to learn introductory E&M and "modern physics" (I'm thinking relativity, QM, particle) conceptually. This learning is out of self interest.

    While my focus is for conceptual understanding, this doesn't mean any suggested resources should be devoid of math... I just don't plan on spending too much time reading/doing sample problems (I did those in college for E&M) and fussing over the details of derivations, so a resource should still be understandable even when skipping most of those.

    My only experience learning E&M was via the typical calculus-based physics sequence in college (no E&M in high school as far as I can remember) using Tipler's text. However, it was during a 6-week summer session, so naturally it was accelerated and my learning was more focused on how to solve the problem types that could possibly be on the exams. Thus this education didn't stick and I feel that like I have no real "intuitive", conceptual understanding of E&M. I have no previous experience trying to learn modern physics, other than what concepts may overlap with an first college course in chemistry.

    I think I still have Tipler's book stored somewhere and may be worth digging that one out. I think my brother may still have Young and Freedman's University Physics that he used in college, so that may be an option too. The "Free Physics Books" thread is partially useful, but I don't know which ones are appropriate for me. From that thread, Crowell's Conceptual Physics is short and thus may cover the topics as much as I would like, but hey, it is free to try out. The author also has a free calc-based book. OpenStax also has a free college physics book.

    I see Hewitt's Conceptual Physics suggested in other situations. I can probably find older editions on the cheap if that's really recommended for my E&M needs. Though seems like I'll need to go else where for modern physics.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 21, 2015 #2


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    Have you looked at A Student's Guide to Maxwell's Equations by Fleisch? It has plenty of math, but the focus is definitely on conceptual understanding. Walecka's Introduction to Modern Physics also has a lot of math but focuses on conceptual understanding. Finally, you might have a look at Penrose's Road to Reality.
  4. Oct 21, 2015 #3
    My first reaction to looking at Penrose's Road to Reality at Amazon: "The first half of the book is covering mathematics; how is this conceptual?" But from the sample pages I looked over, it seems pretty light relative to a dense definition/theorem/proof math text. First impression is that I think I'll enjoy this one, but I'll read more sample pages later before pulling the trigger on purchase (and it is quite cheap too!). An informal review of math I've studied before (e.g. abstract algebra) and intro to math I haven't (e.g. complex analysis) wouldn't hurt.

    Thanks for the other suggestions as well. I'll need to spend more time reading sample pages, but they seem to be on track with what I'm looking for. Walecka's is a bit pricey though, so I'm going to have to really like the samples for that one. Well, at less it isn't as high as some of the books I had to get in college (I'm looking at you econometrics and practically every biology book!).
  5. Oct 21, 2015 #4


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    Since you've already been exposed to calculus-based E&M, you might consider the Feynman lectures. He's always worthwhile reading.

    http://feynmanlectures.info (click "Read" on the left side, then choose Volume II)
  6. Oct 21, 2015 #5
    Feynman is free online? Sweet! Feynman is actually what prompted me to want to revisit physics when I watched a recording of one of his lectures a few years back. But I didn't commit to it since I was in the middle of graduate school studying comp. sci. I needed all the time I could get to finish my dissertation! Now that I have time... well, here I am. I'll definitely give Feynman a shot since it is free. I hesitated to purchase because I was under the impression it was a difficult read.

    On a side note, I've been interested in Feynman's lectures on computation also. Curious about his view of my field, but that's for another time...
  7. Oct 24, 2015 #6


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    I don't know, what "conceptual" means. If it means "without math" it's the contrary to what I understand under "conceptual". You cannot understand physics without math. You cannot even start doing physics without it. Already measuring a distance in the real world needs a mathematical model of space (and time!). In the US I've encountered that there are lectures called "calculus free physics" or something like that. I had to substitute for a colleague for 1 or 2 lessons within this lecture, and I can tell you, it's very hard to explain things like velocity and acceleration without being allowed to use derivatives! It's more complicated than learning first what derivatives are than avoiding them all along!
  8. Oct 24, 2015 #7
    I saw Crowell's free Conceptual Physics book online that seemed to be more descriptive and indeed minimal math and so I thought "conceptual" was the term I should use here. That said, poor choice of word on my part since I do know some analysis and algebra, so there isn't a reason to work around as if I didn't. What I really meant was further described in my post: that I was resource focused on example problems and solutions, which is what I felt like my college course of physics was like (especially E&M). I felt like my E&M course was too much time spent on exercising say solving iterated integrals, for example, than actually learning the physics concepts well. I've always felt I learned the least about the subject matter from my college physics courses (only took the intro sequence) than any other science. Hence I thought it worthwhile revisiting the subject.
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