Text(s) for Relativity for Poets course?

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bcrowell
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text(s) for "Relativity for Poets" course?

I teach physics at a community college in California, and I've initiated the process of creating a new gen ed course titled "Relativity for Poets." The math prerequisites will be algebra and geometry. There will be no lab. The hope is that we can get it approved so that it will satisfy a gen ed physical science requirement in the UC and/or Cal State systems. (If that doesn't happen, it won't be viable.) Similar courses seem to be offered at places like UC Riverside and Cornell.

The catalog description: "This course is intended for non-science students seeking general education credit in a physical science course without a laboratory. It presents Einstein's bizarre universe, from black holes to the Big Bang. Relativity's role in everyday life is discussed, including GPS and the magnet stuck to your fridge. The emphasis is on concepts rather than manipulating equations."

I've been looking around for appropriate books, and these are the best candidates I've found so far:

Will, Was Einstein right?
Geroch, General Relativity from A to B
Coles, Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction
Mermin, It's About Time: Understanding Einstein's Relativity

These are all very inexpensive paperbacks, by authors who are experts in the field, aimed at about the right level. The combination of the four of them seems like it would basically cover what I want to cover.

Does anyone have any other suggestions I should look at?

For SR, I like Taylor and Wheeler's Spacetime Physics, but it's not at the right level for gen ed students.

I love Gardner's Relativity Simply Explained, but it's out of date. Even if I were willing to work around the fact that it's out of date, I wouldn't be allowed to.

Although Mermin and Geroch are the best candidates I've found so far for SR and GR, I don't think they would work well with community college students. Neither assumes math skills that are higher than the prereqs for this course, but both are basically wall-to-wall mathematics. Neither has what I would consider an acceptable amount of discussion of experiments and applications (although the Will book would make up to this for some extent for GR). Both are very dry, about as entertaining as reading Euclid's Elements.

What I like about Mermin is that he takes a modern approach of regarding SR as a theory of spacetime, rather than using the hoary 1905 Einstein postulates.

-Ben
 

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  • #2
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I think Goldbeetle had several suggestions for intro Relativity books. Mermin may have been one he mentioned. I think he also discussed Lieber, which is quite unconventional (I have only glanced through it). However, it may also be too mathematical for your use.

http://www.bookdepository.com/Einstein-Theory-Relativity-Lillian-Lieber/9781589880443

I agree with Geroch's book being a bit dry for "poets." For something completely non-mathematical, could you use Kip Thorne's "Black Holes & Time Warps"? At 500+ pages, it may not be focused enough for a course.

Disclaimer: I am not knowledgeable enough in this field to be give reliable suggestions.
 
  • #3
bcrowell
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Thanks, Sankaku, for your suggestions!

I've heard people say good things about Lieber, but from the descriptions I think it's probably too far out of date and too mathematical.

Black Holes and Time Warps is an interesting suggestion for GR. I like the book, but I'm not sure how well it would work as a college text.

-Ben
 
  • #4
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For SR, Tatsu Takeuchi's An Illustrated Guide to Relativity looks very good.

Mermin's would be challenging. As you say, it requires as much attention as Euclid. I think a course from it could work though, if students had plenty of support. I'd certainly at least steal ideas from it.

The problem with Geroch is it really is only "from A to B" and not very satisfying.

I'd suggest Wheeler's A Journey into Gravity and Spacetime instead.

The Leiber & Leiber book is very old-fashioned GR pedagogy: learn enough Ricci calculus to state the Einstein Equations and then cover a few classical applications. But it has charming illustrations.
 
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bcrowell
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The Leiber & Leiber book is very old-fashioned GR pedagogy: learn enough Ricci calculus to state the Einstein Equations and then cover a few classical applications. But it has charming illustrations.

I didn't know there was a more modern GR pedagogy! Example?

-Ben
 
  • #6
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I didn't know there was a more modern GR pedagogy! Example?

Hartle is an example. He introduces enough math to cover a wide variety of applications, and only later develops the mathematics for the full Einstein Equation.

See the document "Pedagogical Strategies" at the website for his textbook:

http://www.physics.ucsb.edu/~gravitybook/

Of course, at the time of the Leiber & Leiber book there weren't many applications.
 
  • #7
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I'd suggest Wheeler's A Journey into Gravity and Spacetime instead.
That looks very interesting - do you know if it is still in print somewhere?
 
  • #8
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That looks very interesting - do you know if it is still in print somewhere?

Sorry, I didn't realize it was out of print. There are plenty of cheap hardback copies on Amazon Marketplace, which is where I got mine. But doesn't look like it can be used as a course text unless the publisher can supply it.

It's in the Scientific American series of science books, by the way. It's a very nicely produced book.

EDIT: Here's http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2011/01/an_illustrated_guide_to_relati.php.
 
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  • #9


Relativity Visualized by Epstein. I read that book really early in college (before I knew what I was doing) and loved it. Might be too light, however, it's packed with insight.
 
  • #10
bcrowell
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The Takeuchi book looks pretty good as an SR book. It fits my preferred pedagogy pretty well. It's intended as a college text for the type of course I want to do, and it has appropriate exercises. I would probably not use his treatment of dynamics. The main problem I see is the complete lack of applications and contact with experiment, but I guess I can work around that if I have to. I would probably use its treatment of relativistic kinematics for 6 or 8 weeks at the beginning of the semester.

-Ben
 
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bcrowell
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Relativity Visualized by Epstein. I read that book really early in college (before I knew what I was doing) and loved it. Might be too light, however, it's packed with insight.

Hmm...thanks for the suggestion, but a price of $96 for a 206-page book doesn't seem like a reasonable thing to impose on my students.

I also don't think I can get away with using a book from 1985 as my main text.
 
  • #12


Hmm...thanks for the suggestion, but a price of $96 for a 206-page book doesn't seem like a reasonable thing to impose on my students.

I also don't think I can get away with using a book from 1985 as my main text.

$96?! I just looked it up and cannot believe it. Wow I got mine for $2 at a library sale---my bad. It's old, but so is Spacetime Physics (which I agree is a bit much for "poets")

If nothing else you can peruse it (perhaps online for free) and use some of the material. It's a book that no one seems to have read, but is full of insight and well written (It's the guy who wrote Thinking Physics).
 
  • #13
George Jones
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Does anyone have any other suggestions I should look at?

I can't think of any other suggestions that are in print, but I'll keep this thread in mind.
Hartle is an example. He introduces enough math to cover a wide variety of applications, and only later develops the mathematics for the full Einstein Equation.

See the document "Pedagogical Strategies" at the website for his textbook:

http://www.physics.ucsb.edu/~gravitybook/

As well, both Hartle and Wald have arXiv articles about teaching general relativity,

http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0506075

http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0511073.
 
  • #15
robphy
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Last semester, I taught a modern physics course for gen-ed students
using Geroch [plus my own notes and activities] for the relativity-part.
It is one of the few books that really develops the spacetime-viewpoint
using spacetime diagrams, causal structure, and radar-methods.
It does not follow the usual intro textbook sequence of paradoxes, effects, and transformation formulae.
(It is much deeper than Mermin's treatment [which covers only special relativity]... although Mermin's recent papers has some interesting features.)

Alternatively, this may look interesting
https://www.amazon.com/dp/067402611X/?tag=pfamazon01-20
 
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  • #16
pervect
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It is horribly out of date now, but I've always had a fondness for Bondi's "Relativity and common sense", and the K-calculus approach.

Also, "The physical foundations of General relativity" (Sciama?). It appears hard to find nowadays, and it's probably not as good as Geroch, which is a good choice, I think.
 
  • #17
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Schutz "https://www.amazon.com/dp/0521455065/?tag=pfamazon01-20"? It is a bit expensive, but could potentially cover a lot of what you are looking for. I found it broad and deep, delegating the parts with more math to special boxes that can be skipped without missing the overall message. Not sure it is what you are looking for though.
 
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  • #18
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Schutz "https://www.amazon.com/dp/0521455065/?tag=pfamazon01-20"? It is a bit expensive, but could potentially cover a lot of what you are looking for. I found it broad and deep, delegating the parts with more math to special boxes that can be skipped without missing the overall message. Not sure it is what you are looking for though.

I thought of recommending Schutz, but it seems more of an astrophysics book -- which might overlap too much with astronomy courses -- than specifically a relativity book. It seems at the right mathematical level, though, with most of the math in optional boxes.
 
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  • #19
bcrowell
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Thanks, Mkorr, for suggesting the Schutz book. I could probably get some good pedagogical ideas from it, but I think it's both too expensive and not at the right level for a gen ed course.
 
  • #20
atyy
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For something completely non-mathematical, could you use Kip Thorne's "Black Holes & Time Warps"? At 500+ pages, it may not be focused enough for a course.

I liked that very much too.

Two other books that may be useful, not so much about relativity, but how it's used are
Veltman, http://books.google.com/books?id=CNCHDIobj0IC&source=gbs_navlinks_s"
Padmanabhan, http://books.google.com/books?id=Ty...he+First+Three+Minutes&source=gbs_navlinks_s"

Probably too old, but Gamow's http://books.google.com/books?id=TMSnBgPMExMC&source=gbs_navlinks_s" is a classic

Wheeler's "https://www.amazon.com/dp/0716760347/?tag=pfamazon01-20" of MTW retains the latter's poetry, but definitely isn't easy.

@bcrowell, BTW, I really liked your story about the dog :smile:
 
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  • #23
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If nobody has suggested yet check out "A Traveller's Guide to Spacetime"
 

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