Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Alex_Altair comments on The Best Textbooks on Every Subject - Less Wrong

167 Post author: lukeprog 16 January 2011 08:30AM

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (327)

Sort By: Controversial

You are viewing a single comment's thread.

Comment author: Alex_Altair 18 January 2011 04:30:36AM 4 points [-]

Subject: Electromagnetism, Electrodynamics

Recommendation: Introduction to Electrodynamics by David J. Griffiths

I first received this textbook for a sophomore-level class in electrodynamics. It was reused for a few more classes. I admit that I don't have much to compare it with, though I have looked at Feynman's lectures, a couple giant silly freshman physics tomes, and J. D. Jackson's Electrodynamics, and I know what textbooks are like in general.

I was repeated floored by the quality of this book. I felt personally lead through the theory of electrodynamics. In general, he does go from the simple and specific to the complex and general, as any mind requires. But at every stage, he knows exactly where there is risk of conceptual confusion, and he knows exactly how to correct it. He brings every clarification and result back to the the fundamentals of the subject, and he keeps you radiantly aware of the context. After this kind of developed enlightenment, you walk away with a rationalist's mastery, at least in this specific subject. He does all this, from vector calculus review to special relativity, in 2 centimeters thick.

Comment author: golwengaud 25 January 2011 09:46:40PM 4 points [-]

I found that Griffiths is an excellent undergraduate textbook. It does, as you say, provide an astoundingly good conceptual understanding of electrodynamics.

I was very disappointed, however, at the level of detail and rigour. Jackson, (in my limited experience), while it may not provide the same amount of explanation at an intuitive level, shows exactly what happens and why, mathematically, and in many more cases.

This speaks to an important distinction between undergraduate and graduate textbooks. Graduate textbooks provide more detail, more rigour, and more material, while undergraduate textbooks provide insight.

There is something of a similar situation in quantum mechanics: Townsend's /A Modern Approach to Quantum Mechanics/ is very much an undergrad textbook, and indeed something of a dumbed-down version of (the first half of) Sakurai's /Modern Quantum Mechanics/. At this point I strongly prefer Sakurai, but I don't think I would be able to understand it without all the time I spent studying Townsend's more elementary presentation of the same approach.

Comment author: Anatoly_Vorobey 25 January 2011 10:57:19PM 3 points [-]

To give yet another example, I've been slowly trying to teach myself GR, and while I love the approach and the rigor of Wald's General Relativity, it was too hard for me to follow on its own terms. I found that Schutz's A First Course in General Relativity provides both the insight and better grounding in some of the necessary math (tensor analysis, getting used to Einstein's summation convention, using the metric to flip indices around) through gentler approach and richer examples. Having studied Schutz for some time, I feel (almost) ready to come back to Wald now.