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Books You Can Learn Physics From

Actually, most of these are books I have learned from. Some are books I have seen other people learn from. I discuss physics books first, then some math books that might be useful for people wishing to learn physics. The books in each section are arranged in roughly increasing order of difficulty. I occasionally add new reviews. Because most people on the web are beginners in physics and math, I started this collection with reviews of books written at an elementary level.

I purposely did not include "gee-whiz" books which don't leave behind a foundation of knowledge solid enough to build on. However, I link to some other people's reviews of physics books. Some gee-whiz books will be reviewed on my blog.

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Physics Books

Math Books

Physics Book Reviews

All About Lightning, by Martin A. Uman.

Dr. Uman, who studies lightning for a living, answered the questions he was most frequently asked about lightning. The questions are arranged in logical order and the answers are clear. So this book is what computer types call a FAQ. According to Uman, the general public, and scientists in fields other than his, ask almost the same questions about lightning. This book is better written, and more up to date, than his more advanced book, "Lightning".

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Understanding Physics: Motion, Sound and Heat, by Isaac Asimov.
Understanding Physics: Electricity and Magnetism, by Isaac Asimov.
Understanding Physics: The Electron, Proton, and Neutron, by Isaac Asimov.

The late Isaac Asimov, called "The Good Doctor" by his admirers, is justly famous for the clarity with which he explains things. (He is also famous for the sheer number of books he wrote: almost 500.) In these books he takes a historical approach, presenting discoveries in the order they were made, and giving some details of how they made, so that each book tells a story. These books are mostly out of print, but they are available in better libraries everywhere.

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Cats' Paws and Catapults, by Steven Vogel.
Dr. Vogel compares and contrasts the mechanical contrivances evolved by nature with those developed by man. He has a real talent for conveying complicated mechanical ideas with a diagram and a few sentences. There are no equations (although there are numbers and graphs), but plenty of physicists could learn a thing or several from this book.

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The Flying Circus of Physics, with Answers, by Jearl Walker.

An assortment of questions about physics. Many of them are about everyday observations. They range from easy, through hard, to unsolved. Jearl Walker tries to answer each question, or to indicate the leading theories. He also gives many references. There is a lot of food for thought here.

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Clouds in a Glass of Beer, by Craig F. Bohren.

The book is subtitled "Simple Demonstrations in Atmospheric Physics". As a new instructor in introductory meteorology, he had trouble with his students, who "would stampede to the dean's office to complain about cruel and unusual punishment" at "the merest whiff of an equation" and who were totally unmoved by logical arguments. He discovered that they liked demonstrations, and eventually decided that he did too. This book presents his favorite demonstrations, with explanations. It is also filled with rants against the misconceptions which are apparently rife among writers of beginning meteorology textbooks. I recommend this book for sophisticated students, or for instructors. It contains very little mathematics, but its arguments would be best understood by those who have some physical intuition. Most of the demonstrations in this book are optical.

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Statistical Treatment of Experimental Data: an Introduction to Statistical Methods, by Hugh D. Young.

All physical measurements have some experimental error or uncertainty. Thus theoretical quantities that are calculated from measurements also have some uncertainty. The ability to estimate the size of the resulting errors is an essential part of the toolkit of an experimental physicist.

Introductory physics labs teach error analysis at three levels. The lowest level consists of rules for rounding numbers. The second level consists of rules for finding the maximum possible error. The third level is called Gaussian error analysis. It is a method for finding the best estimates of the measured and calculated quantities, and of the probable sizes of the errors in them. It can often be used to as a guide to reducing these errors. Gaussian error analysis is good enough for much published experimental work.

This clearly written little book introduces the reader to Gaussian error analysis and error reduction. It's about as elementary as is possible without being either wrong or incoherent. Some of the derivations require a little calculus. There are more sophisticated treatments of error analysis, but this book is a stepping stone to them.

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Physics for Scientists and Engineers, by Paul A Tipler.

This introductory textbook assumes that students already know calculus when they begin reading it. It is unusual among textbooks in that it seems to me to do everything right. That probably explains why it is so heavy. It also has very few errors. Unlike some authors, who write an entire line of textbooks, all of them riddled with incorrect arguments, Dr. Tipler rewrites this book over and over. (By the way, he should not be confused with Frank Tipler of Tulane University.) I recommend this tome for honors students and for instructors looking for a quick brush-up.

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Spacetime Physics, by Edwin F. Taylor and John Archibald Wheeler.

This presentation of special relativity is about as elementary as it can be and still be correct. Although the first edition was written decades ago, the approach and notation are still standard. I suspect that this is because Wheeler defined the standard. Incidentally, its explanation of relativity is clearer than that of the Feynman lectures on physics. If this book has a weakness, it is that it is slightly dogmatic.

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The Feynman Lectures on Physics, by Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands.
Volume I: Mainly mechanics, radiation and heat.
Volume II. Mainly electromagnetism and matter.
Volume III. Quantum Mechanics

This three volume "introductory" series is based on a two year course taught by the late Richard Feynman. His colleagues recorded his lectures and turned them into these books. Despite the fact that they begin at the very beginning, do not assume calculus at first, and explain everything, only the very best students find these books a good place to learn the subject for the first time. Conversely, advanced students and instructors find themselves coming back to them repeatedly to see how they should have learned the subject. The mix of subjects is eclectic; for example there are chapters on lightning, and on the visual system of the frog. So it's hard to say exactly what the subject matter of each volume is. But, roughly, volume I is mechanics, volume II is electromagnetism, and volume III is introductory quantum mechanics. When these books were written their approach to many subjects was highly original; since then many of their derivations have been copied by other books. The style is talky, and there is a high ratio of prose to equations.

These are not standard textbooks. They are written in two colors; black and white. The diagrams resemble blackboard drawings, and there are no problems at the ends of chapters. There are no separate worked examples or boxed biographical blurbs.

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Introduction to Modern Optics, by Grant R. Fowles.

This book covers light as an electromagnetic wave. It discusses a variety of topics in diffraction, polarization and interference. Some parts of it are advanced. The review of paraxial optics (optics near the optical axis) is excellent and I recommend it for people who work with lasers. Many basic topics in geometric optics are, however, not covered.

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Others' physics book reviews

I can't review everything. Nor is my point of view the only valid one. So here are some other people's online reviews of physics books.

KB Cheney
Book reviews from the journal "Contemporary Physics"
John Schmidt also reviews books about minds, brains, evolution and souls.
Cosma Rohilla Shalizi reviews other types of book too. Prolix.
Danny Yee reviews other types of book too.

This physics booklist was culled from discussions in the sci.physics newsgroup. The comments were made by different people and may not agree with each other. This list includes many advanced textbooks. If you want to go on in physics you will eventually have to tackle such books.

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Mathematics Book Reviews

Realm of Numbers, by Isaac Asimov.

Consider reading this book if you find Dr. Asimov's "Realm of Algebra" too difficult. Topics include arithmetic, fractions, negative numbers, and the number line. The last chapter says a little about imaginary numbers. The topics are introduced in the historical order in which Europeans learned about them.

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Realm of Algebra, by Isaac Asimov.

This clearly written little book discusses algebra from the very beginning of algebra. It does assume a knowledge of arithmetic. People who understand it will be able to solve small systems of simultaneous linear equations. The last chapter discusses quadratic equations.

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A History of Pi, by Petr Beckman (1971).

This is a slightly off-center survey of circles and their all-important ratio of circumference to diameter. It also contains comments about the history of mathematics. Some people may be put off by the occasional rants against the Roman, Soviet, and Nazi empires. Methods for machine calculation of Pi have become more sophisticated since this book was written.

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How to Solve It, by G. Polya.

Polya discusses how to solve math puzzles and harder problems. He gives a variety of ways to attack math problems, with examples.

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Journey Through Genius, by William Durham.

This book contains twelve chapters. Each chapter features a famous mathematician (The Bernoullis are packed two to a chapter. Euclid and Euler get two chapters each.) and contains some history and biography, some mathematical background, a gem of a "great theorem" with a proof, and an epilogue giving more context. Calculus is used only once.

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Quick Calculus, 2nd edition, by Daniel Kleppner and Norman Ramsey.

A programmed learning book for self-teaching. The first edition worked for me. The second edition worked for a guy from Hanoi that I gave it to. The book assumes you know algebra and geometry, and explains all the trigonometry that it uses.

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I changed /updated / fiddled with this page on July 16, 2010.

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