falling asleep at light speed
December 3, 2012 4:22 PM   Subscribe

Despite being in a technical field, I feel like I don't understand physics beyond 1915. Are there any excellent books, websites, anything that has helped you actually grasp physics from the last 100 years?
posted by four panels to Science & Nature (9 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
If you're willing to make a pretty serious commitment, Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality will get you up to speed.
posted by eugenen at 4:25 PM on December 3, 2012

How much/what level of mathematics can you tolerate?
posted by edd at 4:40 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter is incredible. I first read it because someone suggested it to me on Ask.Me, and now I pass on that suggestion to you. Even if you weren't interested in physics, it's an amazing piece of teaching. The upside is that it's written for a totally lay audience, so you can breeze through it without doing any math. The downside is you won't actually know how to do any physics after you read it, but you'll have a pretty good understanding of at least what is going on in the quantum electrodynamics model. It would be like if someone explained Newton's laws of motion to you in English, but you didn't know calculus or anything: you'd have a general intuition about inertia and stuff but you wouldn't be able to actually calculate anything.
posted by jeb at 4:56 PM on December 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding jeb. I think what I was starting to think was whether I should suggest QED or the Feynman Lectures (considering large parts skippable perhaps, and recognising the cost of the three volumes) or something between. QED really is excellent though, outstanding against any similarly pitched book before or since.

It's only one small* part of physics, but it's crucial and fundamental physics.

*ok, one very large part of physics really
posted by edd at 5:12 PM on December 3, 2012

Life the Universe and Nothing
posted by hortense at 5:55 PM on December 3, 2012

QED was great, but it only covered one very narrow topic.

I found Road to Reality pretty maddening; the first third was easy high school math, and then it suddenly took a left turn into particle physics that I couldn't keep up with.

I suspect a college modern physics textbook would be the best, if most dry, answer though.
posted by miyabo at 7:22 PM on December 3, 2012

Are there any excellent books,

Richard Rhodes' Making of the Atomic Bomb is a tremendously rich and readable account of the developments in nuclear physics through 1945 (which is a lot). It is on my short list as one of the best books I have read and I cannot recommend it enough to you.
posted by three blind mice at 9:23 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

John Baez is a mathematical physicist who has very readable posts on lots of physics stuff: http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/FUN.html
posted by piyushnz at 9:28 AM on December 4, 2012

Yeah, that Rhodes book was wonderful. I had to review it and I enjoyed it tremendously.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:39 AM on December 4, 2012

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