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Rocket Science
Book Review: Relativity - The Special and the General Theory, by Albert Einstein (with introduction by Nigel Calder)
Special relativity was one of the first topics I studied as an undergraduate, and one of the few that didn't require mathematics beyond A-level. General relativity, on the other hand, was off the syllabus, even for final year students specialising in theoretical physics, and I've always been frustrated by that. I may have read this book as a teenager, I'm not sure; I certainly recall reading Bertrand Russell's ABC of Relativity, which was described somewhere as lucid but seemed to me to be the antithesis of the word. Anyway, Einstein's own account of both theories is very readable, although the non-specialist should be warned it does not dispense altogether with equations (though skipping these would not severely dent the book). Mostly the text is an argument of logic, based on some self-evident axioms, and one less apparent, at least to physicists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (the invariance of the speed of light from the velocity, relative to its source, of an observer). About half of the book is assigned to special relativity, and as such didn't offer me any insight, but was well constructed; and most of the remainder is assigned to general relativity. Although Einstein avoids going into detail on the maths here, it does at least give me a few hints of what tensors are about and how they could produce his theory, so I think it can be counted a success.

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4 comments or Leave a comment
pmcray From: pmcray Date: November 24th, 2016 09:06 am (UTC) (Link)
Didn't the third year Theoretical Physics paper include General Relativity. I seem to recall from the syllabus it did in the late 1980s, but I wasn't good enough at maths to do it. It was the graveyard of many a first, but the bloke in my year at my college who did it, did get a first. he later converted from Judaism to Islam and did a PhD on Islamic economics.
qatsi From: qatsi Date: November 25th, 2016 08:48 pm (UTC) (Link)

Dumbing down

I was there from 1990-1993, and I had the feeling I might have been the first year in which one or both of GR and the Dirac equation were dropped from the theoretical physics option.
pmcray From: pmcray Date: November 27th, 2016 11:05 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Dumbing down

The option was in lieu of doing experiments in the third year (no project in the late 1980s). If I remember rightly, you did two days of practicals a fortnight. So the theoretical paper was nominally replacing a day's work per week. The main options were two days a week nominally, so the paper had half an option's worth of time allocated to it. I suspect though that there was more than half an option's worth of material on the syllabus, which might well explain them removing stuff. Also, I think there was a mathematical physics option that started in the late 1980s (was 1989 its first years?), which probably overlapped with the theoretical paper. I was told that all the questions on the theoretical paper involved a trick, so if you didn't see the trick you were stuffed for that question, hence the graveyard of the first. I suppose the people who did do the paper and did get first demonstrated they really were cut out to be theoretical physicists.

When I looked at the modern syllabus last year (see http://atomicrazor.blogs.com/atomic_razor/2015/06/flows-fluctuations-and-complexity.html, I noticed it's very different to my day: (https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/courses-listing/physics?wssl=1#) and there appears to be a core General relativity and cosmology course in the third year. It would, I think, have been good to have done a four-year course, not just to have had another year in Oxford. I miss physics.
pmcray From: pmcray Date: November 24th, 2016 09:56 am (UTC) (Link)
I was on the Physics Joint Consultative Committee in the late 1980s. When I went up in 1986, the first physics subject was classical thermodynamics, which requires partial differentiation the first mathematics topic. This didn't exactly make the first term easy. We suggested doing special relativity first as it is an "exciting" topic and only requires A-level mathematics. I suppose, of course, that it should really be taught as an extension of electromagnetism using four-vectors, but that's probably aggrandising mathematical approaches over more physical ones. It's amazing that yiu can deduce time dilation with a bit of analytical geometry.
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