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Courses Why are there so few General Relativity courses?

  1. Dec 8, 2009 #1
    Why is it that colleges offer very few courses in General Relativity at the upper div or grad level?

    Seems like 2 quarter to year long sequences are always offered for Classical Mechanics, E/M and Quantum, but only 1 or so courses on G.R.

    Is G.R. treated as a topic in Classical mechanics and special relativity covered in Q.M. courses?
     
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  3. Dec 9, 2009 #2
    Re: A question to those with B.S. in Phys and/or M.S./PhDs

    Usefulness. In most areas of physics, you can model the system without using GR, or with GR as a correction, but it's pretty much impossible to do anything even as a rough approximation without quantum.
     
  4. Dec 9, 2009 #3
    Re: A question to those with B.S. in Phys and/or M.S./PhDs

    Also the mathematical background required for GR is quite specialized and most physics programs do not go too in depth in to the mathematics required for GR outside of GR courses. The course would not have much interesting content since the majority of the course would be learning the basic mathematic mechanisms used rather than intersting GR stuff.

    There are some formulations of basic GR that is done with nothing more than trig an a bit of calculus. There is a book by Wheeler which does this; i feel it is perfect for undergraduate students who want to get as much out of GR as they can without spending the entire quarter learning a years worth of tensor analysis.
     
  5. Dec 9, 2009 #4

    f95toli

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    Re: A question to those with B.S. in Phys and/or M.S./PhDs

    Just to add to what twofish-quant has already said. GR might be interesting but it is completely useless to 95% of all physicists (as opposed to SR which IS used and is usually covered in e.g courses mechanics).
    Quite a few student take an introductory course in GR just for fun, but unless you do a PhD specializing in e.g cosmology it is unlikely that you will ever learn GR "properly".
     
  6. Dec 9, 2009 #5

    Andy Resnick

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    I disagree with the above responses. GR (or continuum mechanics in general) should indeed be more frequently taught. Unfortunately, continuum mechanics is (unfairly) given over to engineering, and GR is a nonlinear theory. The mathematics of differential geometry is enormously applicable, and there really is no excuse for physicists not knowing it.
     
  7. Dec 9, 2009 #6

    George Jones

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    Re: A question to those with B.S. in Phys and/or M.S./PhDs

    Exploring Black Holes by Taylor and wheeler
    At a slighter higher level, but still at an undergraduate level (prerequisites: second-year calculus; special relativity; elementary Lagrangian mechanics) there is Gravity: An Introduction to General Relativity by James Hartle. This book waits until until page 427 to start its treatment of tensors. Look at what is covered before this!

    http://www.pearsonhighered.com/educ...nsteins-General-Relativity/9780805386622.page

    Unfortunately, the table of contents given at this link does not list the individual sections of chapters.
     
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2009
  8. Dec 9, 2009 #7
    This really highlights what physics education is about -- usefulness to the military-industrial complex rather than cultural education of the student. Anyone who has read Greene or Hawking or Einstein's popular works knows how important GR is, which makes it a real shame that students can't easily get to study GR up to the level of, say, understanding Einstein's serious papers. I took an MSc in astronomy and even that didn't teach GR! After the 'powers that be' tried to force me to do some drudge project, I insisted on doing something involving GR. I was encouraged out of the field soon after my MSc :) But at least I got somewhere near the intellectual frontier of physics. So, if you *really* want to learn the nuts and bolts of GR, see if you can do a project in GR and learn it while doing the project - just realise it might not help your physics career. GR isn't any help in building new weapons or the latest hi def TV, so there aren't many jobs in GR.
     
  9. Dec 9, 2009 #8
    It's probably worth noting that many of the higher level courses offered in university will bear a strong resemblance to the research interests of the department. If the department is strong in condensed matter, instrumentation and solid state would you really expect a high level of expertise in general relativity?

    Many institutions with strong research interests in general relativity, gravitational physics and areas of astrophysics will often have courses running for advaned undergraduate and postgraduate students.

    Saying that it seems fairly typical for an undergraduate to have studied GR up to the level of Hartle/Schutz by the end of their degree in the UK.

    Much like f95toli alluded to.
     
  10. Dec 9, 2009 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    And just to add: the basic physics of curved surfaces can be taught in an introductory physics course. We all have seen maps, and we all live on a curved surface. Even a non-science major can understand what happens if two people, separated in longitude, both head north (or south).
     
  11. Dec 9, 2009 #10
    Agree. I think the problem here is that if you insert a GR course, what do you take out? Also I don't think that GR or differential geometry is inherently harder than QM. The way that it is taught normally requires a large amount of math knowledge, but it took a lot of effort to get QM teachable to undergraduates.
     
  12. Dec 9, 2009 #11
    True. For that matter, universities exist more to churn out worker bees for corporations than to impart cultural education.

    Not to say it's a bad thing. If it weren't for the military-industrial-corporate complex, there wouldn't be funding for physics, and it would be likely some topic that only the idle rich can study. If a student wants to be culturally educated, money from the military-industrial-corporate complex will let them do it, but it requires some amount of effort on the part of the student.
     
  13. Dec 9, 2009 #12

    f95toli

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    That is partly true. The "problem" is of course is that if you ask the average tax payer (if you can find one that has some interest in science) if he/she thinks what Hawking&co are doing is interesting the answer will probably be yes. However, you should also ask the same taxpayer how much of his/her money should go to research (and training student) in quantum gravity etc, and how much should go to research that benefits society more directly (financially, finding cures for diseases etc)..

    Also, remember that the vast majority of all physicists work in solid-state physics or related areas where GR is simply not relevant (I don't know what the 2nd biggest field on physics is, probably optics?). The kind of theoretical physics Hawking, Green and the other are working on is a tiny, tiny field.

    The only time I ever come across "real" problems that has anything to do with GR is when I listen to talks by people who work on clocks (uncertainty in the gravitational potential is starting to to be noticeable in good clocks) and/or satellite based positioning systems. I can't think of any other "real world" applications.
     
  14. Dec 9, 2009 #13

    cristo

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    But, fortunately, the 'average tax payer' does not get to make these decisions, otherwise we would have no government funded research in any of the sciences that cannot be immediately applied to something the 'average tax payer' deems necessary.
     
  15. Dec 9, 2009 #14
    I want to learn physics for the sake of physics, certainly not to just build something. I want to learn the "frontier," as someone put it. To me that is absolutely thrilling to be on the threshold of knowledge. How the military-industrial-corporate complex operates it's a bit counterproductive. The focus by and large is on science strictly pertinent to application and such. However, what paved the way is the breakthrough theoretical physics. Look what became possible because of QM, etc.
     
  16. Dec 9, 2009 #15

    Andy Resnick

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    I assert the Physics curriculum is ready for an overhaul. The material addressed in nearly all introductory physics textbooks was essentially written in the early '60s. The 'canonical' physics curriculum was set even earlier, in the 40's- 50's. When were all the 'standard' texts first written? Goldstein was 1950. Jackson was 1962. Halliday and Resnick was 1960.

    Surely, there have been a few changes in our understanding of Physics between then and now- never mind the stupefying range of applications that now exist.
     
  17. Dec 9, 2009 #16
    Don't you have to start at the basics, though, and the "everyday" Newtonian physics? It seems the curriculum is logically progressive.
     
  18. Dec 10, 2009 #17
    I think it's a really good question and I've noticed the same thing. I tend to agree with the viewpoint that the curriculum is old, outdated and that relativity should be taught more, or offered more. I know at Texas they only offered undergrad relativity like once in the five years that I was there.

    The complaint that relativity isn't as commonly used is probably valid. Also, the complaint that the mathematics may be too sophisticated may also have some validity. But this is really an issue with the educational structure. Mathematics and physics should be much more integrated in undergrad hard science curriculums (like engineering, physics, astronomy, computer science, and so on.) That's pretty much how it is already, only informally, or people wind up double majoring when they realize for themselves how kind of ridiculous it is. Formal mathematics shouldn't be the obstacle, because if that was truly considered the obstacle, then really we wouldn't learn anything of worth in undergraduate.
     
  19. Dec 10, 2009 #18

    Nabeshin

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    With a textbook like Hartle (the one George Jones mentions), the complaint that the mathematics of GR is too complicated is pretty much baseless.
     
  20. Dec 10, 2009 #19

    George Jones

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    When I was a student, my school didn't have a course in general relativity. I have never taken a course in general relativity.
     
  21. Dec 10, 2009 #20
    I guess theres where my issue lies. Although I'd eventually like to go into research, Im not really interested in joining the private sector outside of academia. Id like to be more on the theoretical side than the experimental side, even within an academic environment.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that I's like to become a professional student :D
     
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