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The depth at which physics was discovered

  1. Dec 27, 2012 #1

    I realize that there are many levels of physics that are taught to students (introductory, intermediate/advanced, then graduate)

    But I was wondering, when the famous physicists like Newton and Maxwell, etc, discovered their respective phenomenon, did they know it at a graduate level of knowledge? Or when they learned it, was it more elementary? Or is it that they discovered it at a very advanced level, then later on it was simplified to what is now introductory level physics so that the masses of people could at least begin to grasp it?

    Did Maxwell understand his theory at a depth of the almighty Jackson book?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 27, 2012 #2


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    Contemporary physicists benefitted from the body of knowledge from those who came before.

    I recommend reading Steven Hawking's "On The Shoulders Of Giants"


    Maxwell's obiturary by Maxwell's friend and colleague Professor P. G. Tait - http://digital.nls.uk/scientists/pageturner.cfm?id=74629600
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2012
  4. Dec 27, 2012 #3
    I don't know about physics, but I do know the answer for mathematics. The great mathematicians almost surely did not know the theory to the extend we teach it right now. They usually discovered things that were a very special case and their proofs were usually awfully complicated. Later, other mathematicians made significant generalizations and simplified things a lot.

    For example, when Galois discovered Galois theory, he did not know anything about groups and fields. Yet, groups and fields are the tools which are used today to do Galois theory. Galois made his discoveries for the special case of the field of rational numbers. Right now, we teach Galois theory in a much general setting. I even doubt that Galois would recognize his theory if he read a current textbook on it.

    As another example, it is well-known that Newton and Leibniz discovered calculus. But a lot of students who completed a calculus sequence (or analysis) right now have a much better grasp on calculus than Newton and Leibniz did. For example, the calculus that they did was very much non-rigorous. They had no idea what epsilon-delta definitions were (they were invented hundreds of years later). And many people back then made very elementary calculus mistakes that students right now wouldn't make.
    Of course, this does not diminish their accomplishments. It is always much easier to learn about something than it is to discover it. I do believe that a lot of students know calculus better than Newton and Leibniz did back in their days, but I doubt that those students were capable of discovering calculus on their own.
  5. Dec 27, 2012 #4


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    Well a typical non - honors introductory EM class, for example, is definitely very, very dumbed down IMO compared to say what Maxwell wrote in his original treatise on electrodynamics as well as his later works. Of course at the graduate level things might not be so black and white. A typical graduate GR class now would probably introduce differential geometry using index - free notation and exterior calculus \ take a more modern geometric approach rather than use the index based classical tensor calculus methods around when Einstein first formulated GR.
  6. Dec 28, 2012 #5
    In the old days the tools were very crude. I once read an ancient manuscript about how to multiply by 7. It was very complicated and I could not understand it. So the mental challenge to someone like Archimedes to invent his methods was the same as advanced math today.

    What Galileo and Franklin did seems simple now. The difficulties were convincing yourself that the subject was worth studying, getting enough time to work on science as opposed to working hard to survive, and avoiding being burned at the stake by the Church. All in all scientists have it easier today.

    When Maxwell came up with his equations it was expressed in terms of quaternions. I think he had a mechanical model in mind that involved gears. Vectors were not much used, much less vector calculus.

    The world then did not have the material wealth we have today. Abel had difficulty affording stamps to mail out his manuscripts, then died young of tuberculosis.

    Most new things these days are quite complex. It is like mining or drilling for oil in that the easy-to-get stuff is found first. The big exception is the theory of relativity, which is simple but conceptually very weird.
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