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Books that every physicist should read

+ 10 like - 0 dislike
16955 views

Inspired by How should a physics student study mathematics? and in the same vein as Best books for mathematical background?, although in a more general fashion, I'd like to know if anyone is interested in doing a list of the books 'par excellence' for a physicist.

In spite of the frivolous nature of this post, I think it can be a valuable resource.

For example:


Course of Theoretical Physics - L.D. Landau, E.M. Lifshitz.

Mathematical Methods of Physics - Mathews, Walker. Very nice chapter on complex variables and evaluation of integrals, presenting must-know tricks to solve non-trivial problems. Also contains an introduction to groups and group representations with physical applications.

Mathematics of Classical and Quantum Physics - Byron and Fuller.

Topics in Algebra - I. N. Herstein. Extremely well written, introduce basic concepts in groups, rings, vector spaces, fields and linear transformations. Concepts are motivated and a nice set of problems accompany each chapter (some of them quite challenging).

Partial Differential Equations in Physics - Arnold Sommerfeld. Although a bit dated, very clear explanations. First chapter on Fourier Series is enlightening. The ratio interesting information/page is extremely large. Contains discussions on types of differential equations, integral equations, boundary value problems, special functions and eigenfunctions.


This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user Robert Smith
asked Nov 16, 2010 in Resources and References by Robert Smith (0 points) [ no revision ]
retagged May 4, 2014 by dimension10
Good but not really a question. It is hardly possible to find a "correct" answer. I wish the answers will be detailed, not just "I like it", but with explanations like - why given book contains the excellent and original exposition of a certain milestone problem in physics.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user Grisha Kirilin
Excellent, I like your idea. I will update with some comments in a few hours.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user Robert Smith
If I'm not mistaken, this would be a good candidate for the [soft-question] tag, if we would like to introduce it on this site.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user David Z
@David: I think it's very appropriate. I already added the soft-question tag.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user Robert Smith
If one wants to prepare for graduate school and a future academic job, then they should read a great deal of Franz Kafka (particularly The Trial, perhaps?).

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user wsc
Most of the books listed are more related to theoretical physics. I wonder if there is any "bible" for experimental physics?

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user pipsi
I wonder how many physicists have read all the books every physicist should read.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user MBN

25 Answers

+ 9 like - 0 dislike

There is a lot of good books in CM, QM, EM... but what every physicist should read, undoubtly, are The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user asanlua
answered Nov 16, 2010 by asanlua (40 points) [ no revision ]
+ 8 like - 0 dislike

One formative book for me was Ed Purcell's Electricity and Magnetism. Purcell was my early education in thinking like a physicist. It introduced me to thought experiments, simple models, and the usefulness of new mathematical tools. It's mathematically very clear, and physically insightful. The problems are extremely rich. It manages a huge deal of physics without much unnecessary computation. When I post replies to physics questions on this board, I sometimes wonder how Purcell would handle it - setting out the physical principles first, carrying out the calculations as clearly and succinctly as possible, and using physical insight for shortcuts and simplifications. I doubt I will ever live up to his model, though.

My entire freshman class read Purcell during second quarter. In conversation later, I heard over and over from people that after reading chapter 5, "The Fields Of Moving Charges", they were so awestruck by this 25-page illustrated introduction to relativistic E&M that when they finished, they stared at the wall for about ten minutes, then read the entire thing over again.

Also from the Berkeley physics series, Frank Crawford's Waves is charming, delving into many interesting wave phenomena with very nice explanations.

James Nearing's free book, Mathematical Methods for Physics on undergraduate math methods deserves more attention that it gets. It's clear, insightful, and packed with good problems.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Mark Eichenlaub
answered Nov 17, 2010 by Mark Eichenlaub (100 points) [ no revision ]
Purcell is a great book, and I second the bit about relativistic E+M. Here's an applet along those lines cco.caltech.edu/~phys1/java/phys1/MovingCharge/…

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user j.c.
That app is fun!

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Mark Eichenlaub

I couldn't agree more. I stumbled on to the Berkeley Series in the library as an undergraduate and Purcell's E&M is, in my mind, the best undergraduate text in physics. I worked through the whole series in a short span i.e., $O(days)$. Sadly the Berkeley Series appears to be out of print in most parts of the world except India. 

@suresh1 you must be a genius, because it took me two years to get through Purcell's book to really appreciate and absorb what he was saying. I also think the Berkeley book on relativity is the best introduction ever on the subject.

Not really! I saw it rather late in the day (I was a junior or senior, I forget) and had already done courses in some of the topics. I was like a hungry pig which discovered a huge cache of gourmet food.

+ 7 like - 0 dislike

I think everyone needs to read Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. While there are many great books on QFT, this one shows you the inner workings of the microscopic world like none other. It also gets bonus points for being accessible to basically everyone.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek
answered Nov 16, 2010 by Marek (635 points) [ no revision ]
This charming little volume is what other pop sci books want to be when they grow up.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user dmckee
+ 7 like - 0 dislike

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

It is terribly important to recognize that stupendous effort does not always result in substantial gain.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user AdamRedwine
answered Sep 6, 2011 by AdamRedwine (0 points) [ no revision ]
Please post the author etc. in order to make this a serious reference.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Gerben
@Gerben- :( You don't know who wrote The Old Man and the Sea?! It won a Nobel Prize... it's compared to Faulkner and Tolstoy... it's often considered one of the best English language novels of the last century... really???

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user AdamRedwine
I've heard of it but haven't read it definitely didn't think of it in this thread about physics books. Also, most people on this site have English as a second language!

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Gerben
Okay, understandable if English is not your first language. The question didn't specify physics books, it just said books. Reading only science books does not make for a good scientist in my opinion.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user AdamRedwine
@Gerben: English is not my first language but I made the effort of reading it, and I agree with Adam, this is actually worth reading for Physicists. Sadly it doesn't have a happy end, but then again, which Physics book / paper has one (as in "thus all problems in this field are finally solved")?

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Tobias Kienzler
@AdamRedwine Books do not win Nobel Prizes, people do

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user user50229
+ 6 like - 0 dislike
answered Nov 16, 2010 by Pratik Deoghare (30 points) [ no revision ]
I have read a fair amount of 'The Principles of...', but I completely missed the existence of that book by Chandrasekhar. Could you add a brief description?

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user Robert Smith
+1 for listing some classics.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user Noldorin
+ 6 like - 0 dislike

Roger Penrose: The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, before they start studying. If that doesn't discourage you you're up to the task.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user matthiasr
answered Nov 16, 2010 by matthiasr (0 points) [ no revision ]
I think that Penrose's book is better as a companion when studying GR and QFT.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user asanlua
So studying physics needs a "hell week"? (usmilitary.about.com/od/navytrng/a/sealhellweek.htm)

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user Mark Eichenlaub
The first 3/4 of the book are actually fine. Then he ramps up the maths and it becomes quite hard, unless you are very familiar with the subject. Many physics books are "elitist" in the same manner, so one has to get used to it! :-) "The easy proof is left to the reader" is a classic.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:35 (UCT), posted by SE-user Sklivvz
+ 7 like - 1 dislike

"Quantum field Theory in a Nutshell" by A. Zee is an excellent introduction to the Quantum Field Theory. Zee focuses on physics of main concepts behind QFT and omits trivial mathematical details. His approach is to consider the simplest example possible and then discuss the generalizations. I find it very useful and definitely wish I knew this book as an undergraduate. And the author's approach has the best traits of Feynman's books.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Dmitry Borzov
answered Jan 23, 2011 by Dmitry Borzov (0 points) [ no revision ]
Link to Zee's home page: kitp.ucsb.edu/members/PM/zee/QuantumFieldTh.html

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Qmechanic
+ 4 like - 0 dislike

Gerard t'Hooft has a website with a course in theoretical physics which is comprehensive. It looks good, but I have only scanned it: http://www.phys.uu.nl/~thooft/theorist.html

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Gordon
answered Jan 23, 2011 by Gordon W. (30 points) [ no revision ]
+ 3 like - 0 dislike

There are many books which are very beneficial for every physicist, and it is difficult to judge which ones really make up the must-read list. But in any case the top books in that list, in my opinion, should be not technical ones but the two autobiographic books by Feynman: "Surely, you are joking Mr. Feynman" and "What do you care what other people think". These books are about how a physicist sees the world and how much he enjoys seeing it from that perspective.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Igor Ivanov
answered Nov 17, 2010 by Igor Ivanov (0 points) [ no revision ]
I'll add Thorne's "Black Holes and Time Warps" to that.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Mark Eichenlaub
I also agree that most benefit can be gained from books like these which actually show you how to think (instead of how to calculate). Also, it's Feynman :-)

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek
+ 3 like - 0 dislike

A few books not mentioned come to mind:

Feynman, Lectures on Gravitation

Feynman, The Character of Physical Law

Geroch, Mathematical Physics

Geroch Relativity A to B

Susskind, An Introduction to Black Holes, Information and the String Theory Revolution

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-05-04 15:36 (UCT), posted by SE-user Lawrence B. Crowell
answered Jan 23, 2011 by Lawrence B. Crowell (590 points) [ no revision ]

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