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Ask Slashdot: Math Curriculum To Understand General Relativity? 358

First time accepted submitter sjwaste writes "Slashdot posts a fair number of physics stories. Many of us, myself included, don't have the background to understand them. So I'd like to ask the Slashdot math/physics community to construct a curriculum that gets me, an average college grad with two semesters of chemistry, one of calculus, and maybe 2-3 applied statistics courses, all the way to understanding the mathematics of general relativity. What would I need to learn, in what order, and what texts should I use? Before I get killed here, I know this isn't a weekend project, but it seems like it could be fun to do in my spare time for the next ... decade."
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Ask Slashdot: Math Curriculum To Understand General Relativity?

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  • by jmorris42 ( 1458 ) * <`gro.uaeb' `ta' `sirromj'> on Sunday August 28, 2011 @02:55PM (#37235378)

    Save yourself some trouble and get Relativity; The Special and the General Theory by Einstein himself. In his words "The work presumes a standard of education corresponding to that of a university matriculation examination..." however note those words
    were written in 1916 and education standards are somewhat lower now. What used to be required for admission are often not
    learned during university at all.

    I know I have read it several times now and when I finish and sit and think a bit I'll almost 'get it' before retreating from the gates of madness. Think Cthulhu.

    But I think it boils down to not only can we not exceed C we can't go slower either. Everything moves at C and the axis of that motion we perceive as time. And everything else we call reality is the contortions required to make that so under all circumstances.

  • by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @03:01PM (#37235430)
    start with this pdf and then slog through the wikipedia articles on GR []
  • A lot of work (Score:3, Informative)

    by Xerxes314 ( 585536 ) <> on Sunday August 28, 2011 @03:02PM (#37235432)

    Linear Algebra, Differential Equations, Advanced Calculus, Partial Differential Equations, Electromagnetism, Waves, Introduction to Astronomy, Special Relativity, Differential Geometry

  • by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @03:07PM (#37235480)
    hey, that mit web directory of Dr, Edmund Bertschinger's has a series of nice papers for getting into GR in that directory, all in order for you
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 28, 2011 @03:07PM (#37235482)

    For the interested [].

  • Moths to a flame (Score:4, Informative)

    by vlm ( 69642 ) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @03:17PM (#37235582)

    Can't really understand it without the math, but over the decades innumerable "popular science" authors have attempted to write about general relativity for the "common man", with no math beyond maybe pythagoras.

    Its kind of like having a verbal understanding of ohms law, without actually knowing how to divide. "So you increase the resistance and the current drops, assuming constant voltage, ok?". On a small scale its easier to understand the little bits, but its hard to grasp the entire thing.

    One thing to look out for is relativity was "cool" some decades ago, so anything with a tenuous connection, will have GR on the cover and some pictorial representation of an elderly Einstein. Kaufman has a famous book for beginners "cosmic frontiers of general relativity" but note that only a few chapters talk about G.R., the rest is 40 year old black hole research. A better title would have been "black hole physics in the 70s, and related topics.". Its a perfectly good book, just not quite what you're asking for.

    Another oddity is no one every provides a pix of Einstein when he did his famous work as a young man, only pictured as an elderly dude. Other scientists don't get that treatment; Feynman's "popular press photos" are all from his middle age when he was earning his 2nd Nobel, Tesla is usually portrayed as a steampunk vampire young goth man...

  • by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @03:32PM (#37235686) Homepage

    You've made an admirable attempt to define your question clearly, but you didn't quite succeed. General relativity can be understood at a variety of mathematical levels, so saying you want to understand "the mathematics of general relativity" doesn't really pin it down.

    The other issue is that you haven't defined your physics background. If you really want to understand GR, you need to be fairly sophisticated in physics.

    The first thing I'd suggest is that you build a solid foundation of understanding in special relativity. The best intro to SR is Taylor and Wheeler, Spacetime Physics, and you already have the math background to understand that.

    Physically, GR is a field theory. The first field theory was electromagnetism. E&M is a lot easier to understand than GR, because it takes place on a fixed background of flat spacetime, and it also connects directly to everyday experience. The more intuition and technical skill you can build up in the context of E&M, the better prepared you'll be for GR. For someone ambitious about going far in physics, the best intro to E&M is Purcell, Electricity and Magnetism. Purcell uses vector calculus, and he tries to teach you all the vector calc you need as he goes along. However, you will want some of the preparation provided by a second-semester calc course, and you will probably also have an easier time if you can also study from a separate book on vector calculus. Here [] is a free online calc book that I like, and here [] is a free vector calc book you could use. When you're learning second-semester calc, I'd suggest you skip the integration tricks that form the bulk of such a course; they're largely irrelevant to your goal, and nowadays you can use Maxima or for that kind of thing.

    With that background, you're more than prepared to start studying GR at the level of Exploring Black Holes, by Taylor and Wheeler.

    If you want to go on after that and understand GR at a higher mathematical level, you could try an upper-division undergrad book such as Hartle or my own free book [], and then maybe move on to a graduate-level texts. The mathematics used in graduate-level texts is typically introduced explicitly in the text itself; basically tensors and calculus on a manifold. You don't need any more math prerequisites than vector calculus before diving in. The classic graduate text is Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler. I would still recommend it wholeheartedly, except that it's now decades out of date. A more modern alternative is Carroll; there is a free online version [], plus a more complete and up to date print version. Other GR books worth owning are General Relativity by Wald and The Large-Scale Structure of Space-Time by Hawking and Ellis.

  • Susskind's lectures (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 28, 2011 @03:48PM (#37235794)

    Leonard Susskind's Modern Physics lectures on the Stanford University's channel on youtube are excellent.

  • Gravity - by Hartle (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 28, 2011 @03:50PM (#37235812)

    Gravity, by Hartle. It's the textbook we used in the undergrad GR course, so geared towards those with some math, without being too difficult, abstract, or esoteric. If you know college calculus and vectors, I think it does a good job of explaining any of the other math you need along the way. And if you have any questions, a bit of web searching will fill in any holes.

  • by bondsbw ( 888959 ) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @03:55PM (#37235854)

    I don't need to understand math in order to understand that a baseball hit up at an angle will follow a parabolic trajectory to the earth. The same can hold for much of physics; it's possible to understand a few expected behaviors without needing to understand every little detail and every mathematical concept that backs it up. []

    That's a decent starter, without too much math. (IANAP... there are probably better introductions, that's just an obvious find.) In fact, learning about these things may get one interested enough to care about the math, and to learn the intricate details.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 28, 2011 @04:10PM (#37235946)

    That's not really true. Dirac went looking to remove the square from E=mc^2 since it allowed for the possibility of negative matter and energy. Eventually he came up with a solution using matrices, which as it happened once again left the door wide open for negative matter and energy and ultimately lead to the prediction and subsequent discovery of antimatter. In this case the maths directly lead to a major advance in physics.

    Without maths, how would physicists even theorise anything? All they would have is their intuition which is at best useless and at worst an active hindrance to the the discovery and understanding of major advances in physics of the 20th century and beyond.

  • by phage434 ( 824439 ) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @04:21PM (#37236034)
    A Course in Mathematics for Students of Physics (Vols. 1&2), Paul Bamberg and Shlomo Sternberg; This is the book you will wish was used for your intro calculus text. It covers linear algebra and vector calculus done "right." Specifically, it makes the crucial distinction between vectors and one-forms, and you will be annoyed to realize you have been fooled all these years by poor instruction.

    The Geometry of Physics, Theodore Frankel; An excellent introduction to differential geometry and its application not just to GR but to other areas of physics as well. Highly recommended.

    A First Course in General Relativity, Bernard Schutz; I found this book helpful in some specific areas -- notably understanding the notions of the stress-energy tensor.

    Gravitation, Charles Misner, Kip Thorne, & John Wheeler; This is the classic text, and is comprehensive and comprehensible. I like Wheeler's way of thinking about physics, and it shows through here. There is the standard joke, that this is a text which not only discusses gravitation, but also attempts to demonstrate it by its high mass.

  • by zornslemma ( 2448664 ) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @05:28PM (#37236488)
    I work in cosmology and use general relativity extensively in my day to day work. I have also fielded similar questions from friends and undergraduates, so I can provide you with advice based on my experience.

    What approach you use depends on how well you want to understand. I am going to assume that you want to understand the equations and how to manipulate them --- that when asked about the anomalous procession of Mars, you could sit down with a pencil and graphing calculator for an hour and tell them that GR accounts for ~40 arcseconds/century. To get there, you will need to cover a series of courses: Classical Mechanics, Linear Algebra, Special Relativity, Multivariable Calculus, and then General Relativity. If you also study Electromagnetism and Differential Equations, you will get a bit more out of it, but those subjects are not necessary.

    Classical Mechanics (prereqs: none): You don't need anything beyond an AP physics level understanding of mechanics, but you do need that. MIT has all of the 8.01 (classical mechanics) lectures online. []

    Linear Algebra (prereqs: none): You need to understand what a vector is, what a matrix is, what a linear transformation is, and what traces and determinants are. You probably have this knowledge from stats. If not, trys Jacob [] or any similar text.

    Multivariable Calculus (prereqs: Linear Algebra): A standard undergrad book is fine. You need to know how to transform variables and use multivariable differential operators. A standard course is online. []

    Special Relativity (prereqs: Classical Mechanics, Linear Algebra): Special Relativity is essential for understanding General Relativity. Of particular importance is the 4-vector notation and the Lorentz transformation. A. P. French [] is one of the classic textbooks.

    General Relativity (prereqs: Special Relativity, Multivariable Calculus): The nice thing about introductory Physics texts is that they teach you all the differential geometry you need to understand. The unfortunate thing is they tend to be aimed at Physics graduate students. There are a few undergrad textbooks, but they are not as rigorous and not as worthwhile to read. The classic General Relativity textbook is Misner, Wheeler, Thorne, but MWT is better as a reference text than as a first course. Better textbooks would be Wald, General Relativity, and Carroll, Spacetime and Geometry []. Of the two, I would recommend the latter.

    You should keep in mind that the texts will be hard and the learning curve will be steep. The best way to understand the material is to do most of the problems in the undergraduate books or all the problems in the graduate texts, and ideally, have someone read over your problem sets. It will, however, be rewarding.
  • by quax ( 19371 ) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @05:56PM (#37236682)

    Where are my mod points when there's an AC comment to be rescued from obscurity.

    Myvirtualid doesn't offer bad advice but the AC's comment is also spot on. You only get so far without the math.

    I studied physics but never took classes on topology and differential manifolds and this severely hampers me in getting a good grip on GR although I am perfectly comfortable with Einstein's thought experiments.

    So in a sense I agree with myvirtualid's stance: Don't start with the math but you will need it later and then the math may lead you to completely new insights as pointed out by the AC.

  • my thoughts on this (Score:5, Informative)

    by khallow ( 566160 ) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @06:01PM (#37236710)
    There are some physical and mathematical fields that should be looked at first before a serious attempt to dig into general relativity.

    On the physics side, I recommend looking at classical mechanics, special relativity, and the history of physics research (theory and experiment) during this critical time. I think it's important to know not just the results, but why they came around to that line of thinking. The history is also something you can do for entertainment or inspiration while you're building up the considerable list of prerequisites for the general theory.

    The math side is very hard. As I see it, most of the math is under a vague title, "differential geometry". There are three main parts: differentiation and integration in multiple variables (generally, you're working in "3+1" variables for general relativity and dealing with partial differential equations in this space); manifold theory; and Riemannian geometry (which manifests in general relativity as the very similar Minkowski geometry). I mention partial differential equations above. They're nice to know, but not essential for the theory.

    The first can be found in the end of college calculus books. Such treatments generally suffer from ignoring differential forms. I have a specific recommendation here. While you are going through that calculus book, also read "Differential Forms with Applications to the Physical Sciences" by Harvey Flanders. It is a smallish Dover book with a good treatment of differential forms (and their use in multi-variable differentiation, integration, and differential equations).

    Manifold theory is one of the more interesting contributions of mathematics to the world. The idea is that you have an object, called a "manifold", that looks, locally like a fixed dimension Euclidean space at each point of the manifold. The dimension of the Euclidean space is in turn the dimension of the full manifold. For example, the surface of the Earth crudely looks like a plane with wrinkles (ignoring holes like arches and tunnels and whether you consider the top or bottom of oceans as "surface"). But it's sort of ball-shaped while a plane is infinite in extent.

    On a plane, you can label the entire plane with a pair of coordinates so that each point of the plane has a unique coordinate and vice versa. Not so with the surface of Earth. However, you can map local pieces of the Earth's surface to a plane one-to-one and onto. That is typical behavior for a manifold.

    The fundamental concept is that a manifold has local behavior and description provided by a particular set of "coordinate charts" which lead to global behavior and descriptions over the entire manifold. How that's done is hard to understand, but powerful in application. There are consistency conditions on that set of coordinate charts that allow for various structures (such as the subsequent "Reimannian metric") defined in terms of one coordinate chart to be converted via some change of variables algorithm to become in terms of another coordinate chart which happens to overlap with the first.

    Finally, there's Riemannian geometry and its analogue, Minkowski geometry for general relativity. The idea here is that you have a manifold with an additional structure, a "metric" which defines a sort of inner product on the tangent vector fields of the manifold as well as a distance between points on the manifold. The Minkowski metric is no longer a true metric. One of the coordinates has become "time-like" resulted in a single dimension with negative length. You can't measure distance any more with the metric, but you still have the inner product property on the tangent vectors, which are now called phase vectors and can be used to describe velocity and momentum in a system with several space-like and one time-like coordinates.

    And that's enough to describe general relativity, as a physical system operating on a manifold with a Minkowski metric which has three space-like coordinates and one time-like coordinate (dimension "
  • by tyrione ( 134248 ) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @06:15PM (#37236796) Homepage

    To put a quantitative understanding to your qualitative understanding of the theory from various authors in the field it becomes real simple: Calculus I, II, III [Multi-variable], Linear Algebra, Probability and Statistics for Engineers [Math 171,172,273,220 and 360 respectively at Washington State University], Differential Equations [ODEs Math 315 at WSU], Vector Analysis [Tensor Calculus Math 375 at WSU] and Intermediate Differential Equations [ODE/PDE for Nonlinear Dynamics Math 415 at WSU]. Then add onto that a foundation in Classical Mechanics and Modern Physics for Engineering should suffice.

    But I don't think you want to really know it more than just to understand in common language how to explain it in it's most vulgar sense.

  • by Parlyne ( 884090 ) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @06:40PM (#37236936)
    Sorry, no. First, most physicists nowadays don't talk about mass increasing with speed. Mass in that sense is really just energy (divided by c^2). It's much more meaningful to talk about invariant mass (also called "rest mass", since it is unambiguously the mass the object has as measured in the frame of reference where it's at rest) in pretty much any context where mass, rather than energy, is relevant. But, even ignoring that, your math is wrong. Using the interpretation that mass increases with speed, an object traveling at .5% of c will have a mass increase of about .00125%. An object traveling at 50% of c will have a mass increase of about 15.5%, and an object traveling at 95% of c will have a mass increase of 220% (so, it will be 3.2 times heavier than at rest). Furthermore, it takes no energy expenditure at all to continue moving at a constant speed. You only need to expend energy to change your speed (or direction).

The best defense against logic is ignorance.