Table of Contents

1. Personal Background

Somehow I got interested in subatomic physics in 6th grade. I read all the non-math physics books I could find. In 7th grade I made a cloud chamber for a science project. By 9th grade I was subscribing to Physics Today. In 11th grade I was in a summer Math-Science program at WWU, where I met people who actually understood this stuff. I was interested but discouraged by the level of math needed. I was also discouraged at the rate of discovery of particles. It was clear something was amiss. I left it behind and aimed at biology.

Skip forward 30 years. After a couple of years of studying math on my own, I did a night school BSEE program. Statics, dynamics, classical wave theory, and quantum mechanics came into view again. On the Internet I found someone who provided a reading list for going further.

I doubt I'll ever master any of the advanced material, but it is pleasurable to have at least plowed through some of it.

2. History

Physics is basically a few laws and a prodigious amount of math to understand their implications. So start with the history of mathematics (see math). After that, read how the originals wrote up their work. Shamos (shamos59) provides that flavor.

There are also texts or authors which are famous in their own rights.

Archimedes is most famous for non-destructive testing of gold content, via specific gravity. Aristotle had his Physics (but perhaps added more to our language from the book next (meta) to it, Metaphysic).

Newton's Principia is the first big melding of math with observation.

Dirac's "Principles of Quantum Mechanics" (dirac58) is the next notable work. Assuming your math is up to speed, this is a beautiful book. You see a clear thinking mind in the act of constructing a mathematical model to explain experimental results.

Then there is Richard Feynman. The "Lectures" (feynman65) are justly famous pedagogical gems. There are 21 lectures, strong on intuition and short on math. I read them in about 20 hours one day, so if he covered that material in 1 hr lectures, he was moving right along.

At about the same time he wrote "Character of Physical Law" (feynman65a), on how to think about physics. The payoff is at the end of the book (starting pg 156), "Now I am going to discuss how we would look for a new law." These few pages express the soul of scientific inquiry.

Beyond that, you generally find popularized treatments, where there is more emphasis on what the experimenter had for lunch than on what the heck was proven or disproven. However, some are very well done. If all they do is inspire you to look at the real math, they are worth it.

3. Introductory Texts

At the undergraduate level you are learning the laws and using them in the simplest possible ways to keep the math manageable. The hard part is usually trying to convert a story problem into a mathematical representation. For that you need lots of good examples with diagrams, discussion, and solution process.

You would think that over the years we'd get better at this pedagogical task. Yet when my daughter was taking first year physics in college, she'd often struggle to understand the explanations. Then we'd pull out my old high school text (resnick66), and find the clarifying diagram or equation.

I can't promise resnick66 is the best thing out there. I can say that for classical physics at the level of high-school or college, the physical laws haven't changed, and neither have the learning tasks.

4. By Topic

4.1. Theoretical Physics Overview

There may be better texts, but I was happy with Lawrie (lawrie90). I found I had to sometimes learn the material in other texts and then go back to lawrie90 to see how the pieces fit together.

4.2. Mechanics

This is the world of particles, systems of particles, and assorted odd-shaped rigid objects acted upon by forces. Everything from dust motes to rocket ships and planets. You are still dealing with F=ma, but the math grows more intense as you try to describe the behavior.

When I asked about this topic, I was referred to greenwood88. I didn't consume this text, but I did do enough problems to see that it is clearly written. If you want to tackle the topic, this is a good book to use.

4.3. Relativity

The experimental evidence that needed a theory has been around a while. Einstein provided the theory (special, then general). The trick is to grasp it and its implications.

At the basic level, taylor92 (aka "Wheeler") is a good text. Lots of diagrams and examples. Anything above that comes after Quantum Mechanics.

4.4. Fluid Dynamics

This is the world of water flowing in rivers or past ship hulls, hydraulic fluid flowing in tubes, and air flowing over wings.

Since I work with hydraulics and aero engineers, I needed some background. When you need a quick techno fix, the Schaum Outline Series is the place to go -- in this case Hughes (hughes91). As usual, the text provides the context, the formulas, and worked problems.

4.5. Wave Theory

An EE student learns some electromagnetic wave theory and touches upon quantum effects. The text on my shelf is schwarz90. It covers the material as needed by engineers. As usual, the laws are straightforward but the math gets intense. In real life you do numerical simulations.

If you want to dig deeper, as a physicist must, landau75 is a classic. Problems and solutions are given. Personally I did a few problem but then ran out of gas. Maybe later.

4.6. Quantum Mechanics

There seem to be a zillion introductory texts in Quantum Mechanics.

Dirac (dirac58) gives historical flavor. Bransden (bransden89 was where I actually got rolling.

Because quantum mechanics is the basis for chemistry, and because chemistry is in turn becoming a largely computational world, it is no surprise that a chem text (engel06) has a solid treatment. It is oriented to solving practical outer electron problems, so it doesn't attempt to look at subatomic particles.

4.7. Quantum Field Theory

When you bring together quantum mechanics and wave theory, you get quantum field theory. As I understand it, this was originally based on QED (quantum electrodynamics). Feynman (feynman85) covers quantum electrodynamics in a non-math, intuitive way. Alternatively, it can be based on the Standard Model (which is the quarks et al story).

Kaku (kaku93) takes the latter approach. It covers:

  • QED
  • Gauge Theory
  • Standard Model
  • Grand Unified Theories
  • Quantum Gravity
  • Superstrings

Is this a good text? I can barely read the material and I'm certainly not proof-reading the equations. However, I can say that of a couple of books on quantum field theory that I've examined, this one seems the most readable.

Of course I got it for the section on SuperStrings, which is probably out of date by now. Still, it gets me in the game.

4.8. Particle Physics

As noted above, I was reading about subatomic particles in Jr High. Strictly non-math. At the current rate, that may have been my personal best on the subject :-). Still, I do have a copy of Lee (lee88) on my shelves, should the spare year or two happen by.

As with quantum field theory, I'm a bit worried the official story will have changed from the time I bought the text until the time I read it. Oh well, an excuse to go to the bookstore.

5. References

B. H. Bransden, C. J. Joachin. "Introduction to QUantum Mechanics". Longman Scientific and Technical, 1989. ISBN 0-582-44498-5.

P. A. M. Dirac. "The Principles of QUantum Mechanics". Oxford University Press, 1958. Originally published 1930. ISBN 0-19-852011-5.

Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, Matthew Sands. "The Feynman Lectures on Physics: Quantum Mechanics" Addison Wesley, 1965. ISBN 0-201-02118-8-P.

Richard P. Feynman. "The Character of Physical Law" MIT Press, 1965. ISBN 0-262-56003-8. Princeton University Press, 1985.

Richard P. Feynman. "QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter" Princeton University Press, 1985.

Donald T. Greenwood. "Principles of Dynamics". Prentice Hall, 1988. ISBN 0-13-709981-9.

Michio Kaku. "Quantum Field Theory: A Modern Introduction". Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507652-4.

L. D. Landau, E. M. Lifshitz. "The Classical Theory of Fields", 4th ed. Pergamon, 1975. ISBN 0-08-025-72-6.

Ian D. Lawrie. "A Unified Grand Tour of Theoretical Physics". Institute of Physics Publishing, 1990. ISBN 0-85274-015-8.

T. D. Lee. "Particle Physics and Introduction to Field Theory". Harwood Academic, 1988. ISBN 3-7186-0033-1.

Robert Resnick, David Halliday. "Physics", parts I and II. John Wiley & SOne, 1966.

Steven E. Schwarz. "Electromagnetics For Engineers" Saunders, 1990. ISBN 0-03-006517-8.

Morris H. Shamos. "Great Experiments in Physics". Holt Rinehart, Winston, 1959.

Edwin F. Taylor, John Archibald Wheeler. "Spacetime Physics", 2nd ed. W. H. Freeman, 1992. ISBN 0-7167-2327-1.

NOTE: By my citation convention, this is taylor92. But it would be most generally recognized as "Wheeler".

Creator: Harry George
Updated/Created: 2006-08-24