Gateway Physics Books

John Armstrong raises an interesting question: what books could you give to, say, a bright high-school student seeking an introduction to mathematics? The same question could be asked for physics too, and I’m certainly not above writing a derivative blog post — not to go off on a tangent or anything, but it’s really an integral part of my style.

I’m looking for something a little more focused than John Baez’s list of math and physics books, which covers everything up to general relativity, quantum field theory and string theory. Rather than trying to map out a whole self-study version of an undergraduate degree, I’d like to know what materials might be useful for the student who has enrolled in or just recently survived AP Physics.

Suggestions? Also, for anybody who missed it the first time, my earlier poll, “what’s broken with science blogging?” is still open.

12 thoughts on “Gateway Physics Books”

  1. Textbook-wise, I stand by ol’ Halliday, Resnick, and Walker (at least for classical mechanics and E&M). It got me through self-taught AP Physics and set me up to breeze past the first two terms of college physics.

  2. My gateway books were Schrodinger’s Kittens, Einstein’s Universe, and The Elegant Universe. I think now I would also recommend Black Holes and Time Warps. Popular-level books, yes, but they worked rather well on the “zomg this is interseting I want to do this” level.

    Textbook-ish wise, I would recommend of course the Feynman series; it’s nice to read and a motivated person can try the problems. Outside of “classic” physics, I enjoyed the Exploring Black Holes textbook (Taylor & Wheeler); it’s a lot of fun to read, and the problems are fairly tractable.

  3. In re HRW, I used the same book for AP physics, but it was just Halliday and Resnick. In fact, my mother’s copy from her freshman college physics class is up on my bookshelf.

    /me kicks it old-skool

  4. Another vote for Halliday, Resnick and Walker.

    If the student is serious about physics, I’d recommend the classical mechanics book by Kleppner and Kolenkow and E&M by Griffiths. Those are very very good texts (IMHO), and despite being an engineering major, what was used in my freshman year.

    Math is a bit tricker, but I’d go with this book called “Linear Algebra done right” by Sheldon Axler. I think it’s a lovely book.

  5. A fun book that can be used to help develop the intuition of a student is Jargodzki & Potter’s “Mad About Physics”, a collection of ‘brainteaser’ physics problems that are a lot of fun to think about. Some of the problems are challenging enough to thwart even a professor: I try and pick one at random every few weeks and understand it without reading the answer.

  6. It’s not at all a technical book, but something I usually recommend as a mathematics “gateway” book is Fermat’s Enigma. It’s a very engaging little book that uses the long-unsuccessful quest to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem as a pretense to give a neat little overview of the last 2000 years of math history. Um, hm, I guess I ought to be posting that at Armstrong’s place.

    On the physics front, I’m not sure if this is exactly what you were asking for, but probably worth looking at is Robert Oerter’s The Theory of Almost Everything, which is a popular introduction to the standard model. It is surprisingly detailed but written at a level that someone at or past the AP Physics level should be able to handle it with ease. It seems like it would be worth it to hand this to an AP Physics student just so they know, okay, here’s what comes next.

    The Feynman Lectures series as others have already recommended is excellent and incredibly accessible, even more than that though I would consider his QED: Strange Theory of Light and Matter a must-read for anyone who is trying to learn or gain a basic understanding of physics outside of a degree program. That was the first book I ever read that made me feel like I at all understood what was happening in quantum physics.

  7. siddharth, I’d be right with you on The Most Pretentious Mathematics Text Ever Linear Algebra Done Right if it weren’t for one thing: he simply mangles determinants.

    There are three ways to get at determinants. One uses matrices, which obviously he doesn’t do. One properly uses the induced action on top forms, which Axler doesn’t come close to touching. And one is his completely insane version where he defines characteristic polynomials and then somehow backs his way into determinants. Ugh!

  8. John, while I’m not a mathematician, I thought that the whole
    “philosophy” of that book was to avoid determinants? IIRC, he first introduced characteristic and minimal polynomials and then went on to inner product spaces and upper triangular forms without determinants?

    Anyway, another lin al book I liked, (and perhaps one John is more likely to approve) is “Linear Algebra” by Hoffman & Kunze. That was the standard text for my course last year.

    Back to physics, there’s this book in India written by HC Verma called “Concepts of Physics” which is of a slightly higher difficulty than Resnick et al, but IMO, also more detailed.

    Then for quantum mechanics, there are loads of good books. I like the book by R.Shankar, but I think that may be slightly difficult as an introductory book. Again, I don’t think you can go wrong with Griffith’s “Introduction to quantum mechanics”

    Finally, take all my suggestions with a pinch of salt. I’m still an undergraduate student, and have loads to learn before I can properly recommend something :)

  9. He does avoid determinants until as late as possible, but mostly because he has no good way of presenting them. What one wants to avoid is picking a basis and using a matrix representation of linear transformations. The standard undergraduate approach to determinants is by picking a basis and using a matrix, and only later showing that the result is basis independent.

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