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December 13, 2011 6:24 AM   Subscribe

When I was younger I spent A LOT of time with face planted in science books with a focus on theoretical physics, space exploration and the structure of the universe. Now I am older, what books or films should I throw myself back into?

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When I was younger I spent A LOT of time with face planted in science books with a focus on theoretical physics, space exploration and the structure of the universe. I really enjoyed the science and ideas, but fell short when it came to the high-level math. I even entered college with a notion of a few majors, one of which being astronomy/astrophysics, but my math skills were never good enough for that field and thus I found myself going down another path of life.

However, now I am older and I would like to dig my brain into that stuff again, this is where you come in to suggest new books and documentaries that you think might be up my alley.

My alleyway is painted with the following:
*deep love of math, but no real skill in it (I found the documentary The Proof to be absolutely fascinating).
*star-gazing is not a hobby in the least, eventhough it's very beautiful up there
*will discuss, to an annoying degree, ideas on space travel and the habitation of planets



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posted by zombieApoc to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
It might show its age (or mine), but see if your library has The Mechanical Universe (and the "... and Beyond") series. It'll probably be on VHS cassette, but I think it would be a great gateway to a more formal treatment of classical and modern physics. The lecturer, Goodstein, is a class act. The math is treated gently, but persistently, with an animated "integral machine" that poops out the "+C" and everything.

For book recommendations for your sort of preferences, I like The Road to Reality by Penrose, or maybe better, online, and free: Motion Mountain. Both will contain material you won't necessarily want to read or understand, but both are pretty complete approaches to the "grand survey". Motion Mountain, a great project and labor of love, is more like a textbook, of course, and Penrose's book has a little more emphasis on some speculative "beyond the standard model" ideas.
posted by fatllama at 7:00 AM on December 13, 2011


... and wouldn't you know it, the Mechanical Universe is online.
posted by fatllama at 7:04 AM on December 13, 2011


Thanks fatllama! I'll absolutely check those out, and see where related material sends me as well.
posted by zombieApoc at 7:14 AM on December 13, 2011


Carl Sagan's canon, Ray Kurtzweil's book about The Singularity, Zubrin's "The Case for Mars," Mary Roach's "Packing for Mars," (about the human-based obstacles to space travel, physical and mental-- after read her book "Stiff," which is unrelated to space travel but is all about the worth and uses of the human dead, and in a tone so light you will laugh aloud at times).

Anything by Brian Greene, prettyboy astrophysicist, or Neil DeGrasse-Tyson, another prettyboy astrophysicist with a rockin' mustache (and who will be releasing, next year, an updated version of Sagan's Cosmos series).

Maybe try out some Feynman, if you haven't already: Six Easy Pieces, perhaps, and if you can get past those, work your way into The Feynman Lectures. No doubt QM has progressed considerably since then, but I don't know a good source.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:52 AM on December 13, 2011


I like Robert Oerter. Every bit as good as Brian Green, and very relevant to things going on at CERN and LHC.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:09 AM on December 13, 2011


Neil DeGrasse-Tyson, another prettyboy astrophysicist with a rockin' mustache (and who will be releasing, next year, an updated version of Sagan's Cosmos series)

I thought I heard rumors of that. Some people are happy, some are not. I think it's fantastic that it's getting redone since it's been a good many years :)

fantastic info people!
posted by zombieApoc at 10:40 AM on December 13, 2011


Maybe try out some Feynman

Good idea. QED is available for less than $10 and is an excellent, casually readable introduction to an operational alternative to the "wave/particle nature" of quantum mechanics (the so-called "path integral" formulation) and the story of a quantum theory that gets answers right to 11 digits of precision and counting. Arithmetic but no math; when the going gets really tough, Feynman tells you precisely how many years in graduate school is required to work out the details.

I was glancing through the Feynman Lectures the other day because I thought to myself, "How embarrassing: I don't really understand the Spin-Statistics Theorem. I wonder what Feynman had to say about it. I'll bet it is really simple." Well, in a section in volume III he declared that it was completely beyond his powers to explain intuitively; the most straightforward answer requires exotic algebras and field theory.

So, at least you know when reading Feynman that nothing is ever made too simple at the expense of the truth, a far too common hand-waving tactic in popular science.
posted by fatllama at 10:53 AM on December 13, 2011


I like Brian Greene and Feynman. I'm in kind of the same position actually. I took a bunch of math in college but was always pretty terrible at it and thought about majoring in astrophysics or something similar. Carl Sagan is good too... I think Brian Greene has a Ted talk and he's been on shows like Daily Show/Colbert so you could check him out there first.
posted by fromageball at 11:48 AM on December 13, 2011


I recently read From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll and thought that was really good. It looks at the history of the universe with a strong focus on how time works.

Also fairly recently-ish on MeFi I saw Why is there a macroscopic universe by Nima Arkani-Hamed. It's part of a series of lectures but this was the one that really stood out for me.
posted by crocomancer at 11:59 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


My amazon wish list hath grown. thank you all.

Happy Friday!
posted by zombieApoc at 6:03 AM on December 16, 2011


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