Help me figure out gravitational waves
February 12, 2016 1:55 PM   Subscribe

Now that gravitational waves are all the rage, I'd like to learn about spacetime. Is there a book on this?

Although I am a retired physicist, I can't say I have a very good, intuitive, if that's possible idea about spacetime. I'd like to improve on this. I'm not so much interested in the mathematics, but would like to somehow have a better visual idea of what it is, and how gravitational waves exist. Are there any books for the scientific layperson or classically trained physicist that you could recommend?
posted by Rad_Boy to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I think I'd like to learn more about the general theory of relativity as well.
posted by Rad_Boy at 1:59 PM on February 12, 2016

A Brief History of Time immediately comes to mind.
posted by dinnerdance at 2:39 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm by no means a physicist, but I enjoyed Lewis Carroll Epstein's "Relativity Visualized." I thought his take was very intuitive in a way that other books did not approach the subject.

David Eckstein wrote a sort-of companion book called "Epstein Explains Einstein"; I haven't read it, but Epstein wrote a foreward to it in which he says that Eckstein "has taken my picture story and transliterated it into kosher physics". You can read it online.
posted by odin53 at 2:57 PM on February 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you have a background in physics, check out Brian Greene's Elegant Universe. It's a bit math-heavy in parts, which can be intimidating for the uninitiated, but you'll be fine. I also hear good things about his follow-up book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, which I have not yet read but looks very interesting as well.
posted by ananci at 3:16 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sean Carroll's general relativity text (at the upper undergraduate/beginning graduate level) of course contains the necessary math, but it has a fairly conversational style and I think is readable without working out any mathematical details, for someone who is a trained physicist.

He's also got a minipdf on relativity here: here. It does have a little math but just reading the text should give you some feel.

If you have library access, I'd also recommend reading parts of Misner,Thorne,Wheeler's "Relativity". It's a giant tome, but again for a physicist just reading through the text and not doing any of the math (I'd read just track 1, except some of the track 2 stuff is fun; my copy's at work otherwise I would be more specific) could give a nice appreciation. (I personally would *not* use it for learning the math, if you decide you need to; I hate their notation and some of their conventions are at odds with current standards.)
posted by nat at 4:00 PM on February 12, 2016

Oh and if you just want *special* relativity, then my standard recommendation is N. David Mermin's "Space and Time in Special Relativity".
posted by nat at 4:01 PM on February 12, 2016

If you can find a copy of it Space-Time and Beyond is a great book.
posted by Rob Rockets at 5:48 PM on February 12, 2016

Seconding Carroll's book.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:56 PM on February 12, 2016

With your background, i'd say there's nothing better than "The Theoretical Minimum", a series of courses via video lectures (and 2 books) by Stanford professor Leonard Susskind. Spacetime and relativity feature prominently, and it would probably be a great refresher in some of the mathematical abstractions that define modern physics. I have college maths and physics (taken long ago) , and can follow Prof. Susskind through most of the courses. He's a pretty awesome lecturer.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:45 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I write and teach on this stuff. The book you want is Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos. It's the concepts sans math.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:59 AM on February 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

A good approach for someone at your level might be Hartle's Gravity: an Introduction to Einstein's General Relativity. Most GR textbooks pile a lot of mathematics on you to start with, and then use this machinery to build up the notions of how matter curves spacetime. Hartley actually starts from the notion of curved spacetime, talks about how this causes what we experience as gravity, and only later introduces the heavier mathematical machinery needed to understand where the curvature of space comes from. The first part of the book is still relatively mathematical, but it's not as heavy going as some other textbooks on the subject.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:57 AM on February 13, 2016

I recently discovered an absolutely excellent series of lectures on the mathematics (and eventually "physics") required to understand general relativity. They were given at a Winter School in Germany last February by Frederic Schuller (and others, in the second half). Here is a link to the first one:

Lecture 1 --- Topology

There are 24 lectures in all (and there are also tutorial exercises available) which take you through the necessary mathematics to begin talking about general relativity. The first 12 are basically purely mathematical (Topology, Manifolds, Tangent Spaces, ...), but Schuller is speaking to physicists and sprinkles the entire series with explicit connections between the real world and the mathematical models of it.

I cannot praise these lectures enough. They are incredibly precise, but completely accessible to someone with undergraduate math and physics. Somewhere near the beginning Schuller says, "Please trust me that, although I am speaking about very mathematical things, everything I introduce will be necessary to describe the physics of spacetime in the end." Moreover, it also seems completely self-contained.
posted by pjenks at 8:08 AM on February 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

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