Friday, April 16, 2010

Physics for non-physicists

This is my first (but certainly not the last) post in this blog, so let me introduce myself. My name is Nikolay, and as most of the others contributing to the blog, I am also a first-year graduate student in physics at Cornell.

So, what is my motivation to join the team headed by Mr. Alemi in contributing to the blog? I happen to have many friends that are not in physics. In fact, probably due to the fact that I graduated from a liberal arts college, many of my friends have never taken any physics beyond that one class in high school, which due to both the inherent difficulty of teaching physics at introductory level and the lack of good high school physics teachers was often an unpleasant experience that scared them away from physics for life. Now, imagine what my difficulty is when on a daily basis I have to answer the question: “So what do you study/work on as a graduate student?” I usually try to come up with a sentence or two describing the essence of what I am doing without going into too many details, but even that is a daunting task. There seems to be a disconnect between the world in which a physicist lives and the general public. As Chad Orzel pointed out in the talk that motivated the creation of this blog, this is not the general public’s fault, but our fault as physicists of not really committing enough effort in relating our knowledge to the rest of the world.

In short, my goal is to create a series of posts about physics geared to people with no physics background that would build upon each other and culminate with a post providing an answer to the question of what my research project is beyond the generic words I would often resort to that would rather leave most people confused. I plan to use as little math as possible, which will not be an easy task considering that math is the language of choice for physics. However, mathematics is just a tool, and physics is not about equations and complicated algebra, but about how nature works, which we should be able to formulate in plain English. I know I am embarking on a difficult task, so wish me luck, and please leave your thoughts in the remarks section of the blog, since any feedback would be appreciated.


  1. Do you have a book you recommend to teach physics to non-physicists? Thank you.

  2. Alice,

    This is actually a very interesting question, and I hope that we can provide some answers for you. However, a little more detail would be helpful. Is this a book to be used in conjunction with a course, or as a self read guide? What kinds of physics are you interested in? How much math do you want to see? Non-physicists cover a very broad spectrum in terms of interests and desires, so a little more about what kinds of things you're looking for would help us recommend books you'll find useful!

  3. Thanks for getting back to me. As little math as possible. this is for my own interest. I never took high school physics and I have a Ph.D. in Psychology. I am interested in some understanding of a Newtonian versus a "quantum" (if that's the right way to say it) understanding of the physical world. I think these ideas apply to understanding of the relationship of the mind and the brain.

  4. As a nice introduction to physics, I really cannot recommend enough, Eric M. Rogers: Physics for the Inquiring Mind. Google books has a link here:

    Its a large book, but its a delight to read. Its written using only algebra, and for the harder bits of algebra he has a good humored reminder. Its a large book, out of print, and a little hard to find, but most large university libraries seem to have a copy.

    The google books link has a link to World Cat which will search all of the libraries near by for copies. I suggest you check it out.

    That book serves well as a sort of textbook, although its nowhere as near as dry as any other textbook I've ever come across. Its a fantastic resource if you are looking to get a better quantitative understanding of physics.

    In regards to you second comment, it sounds like you are curious about learning about some of the kooky 'quantum' phenomenon you keep hearing about. On that front, I recommend Quantum Mechanics and Experience by David Z. Albert.

    This is the best layman introduction to quantum mechanics I have ever seen. Almost no math, but he someone manages to talk you through what a Hilbert space is, i.e. without doing any complicated mathematics, he doesn't really hold back at all. I really recommend this book if you are trying to get a better feel for what the quantum world is like, especially the first few chapters.

    I hope that helps, and be sure to let us know if you find any other good books and ask any questions along the way.

  5. On my own end, if you're interested in learning more about the physics of every day life, I would recommend the 'Understanding Physics' series by Isaac Asimov. As you might guess, he writes quite well, and in three short books manages to cover a nice range of classical physics, what we see in the world around us.

    Another nice text for the beginner is 'Great Ideas in Physics' by Alan Lightman. It covers four of the central ideas in physics with only algebra level math, and with nice description. This is a much more modern book than the Asimov texts, so you may find it a slightly easier read. It also includes a discussion of some basic quantum ideas, which Asimov's texts does not.

    I do want to add a few more words. Don't avoid all the math. For good or ill (good, in my opinion), mathematics is the language we do physics in. To do physics without *any* math is very challenging. Used properly, the math should help you learn the physics, not prevent you from doing so. In that way it can, and should, be your friend.

  6. Thank you Jesse and Alemi. You have given me a great start. How generous of you both.

  7. Thanks for the information. It's cool to have programming as a tool for solving physics. It could be hard to learn this but I'm pretty sure high school physics is a piece of cake when you get to have a tutor who could explain it well.