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Physics Books for the Novice? 485

cornjchob asks: "I've been a Slashdot reader for quite sometime now, and I've seen alot of Physics articles posted. I've got a good understanding of alot of it, but that doesn't mean there's no room to improve. So what's some good reading material for Physics that will give you a good, solid foundation if you've missed something, and then give you some additional stuff? What about online articles or PDF's for us cheap folk? Quantum Mechanics is another subject area that--judging by alot of posts underneath the articles, at least--many of us could use some brushing up on. Any suggestions for books/articles/PDF's on that? Suggestions on anything pertinent to any of those would be great."
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Physics Books for the Novice?

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  • A great site. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:40PM (#4222902)
  • QED (Score:5, Informative)

    by rnb ( 471088 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:41PM (#4222906)
    QED (Quantumelectro Dynamics) by Richard Feynman is a great (if specialized) physics book for someone who doesn't know that much about physics. I found it to be interesting and quite educational. It also got me interested in finding out more about some of the topics discussed in the book and physics in general. I highly recommend it.
    • are very good, although pricey. A good excuse for a trip to the local public library. Read Amazon's [] summary and review archives.
    • Add to that Six Easy Pieces and Six Not-So-Easy Pieces. They're mostly conceptual books with no problems for you to work. Still, they're both written for the non-scientist that wishes to know enough to be dangerous.

      Outside of pure physics, you'll find anything written by/with Dr. Feynman to be a great read, especially his memoirs.
    • Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

      If you want to learn QM but can't face solving the Schrodinger equation or dealing with vector spaces then read this book. BTW this is the only book worth reading that fits this specification. Don't read books written by journalists or other science popularisers. Read QED. And then learn about linear algebra and differential equations so you can do the real thing.

    • If your serious, Cohen-Tannoudji is the standard undergraduate text.

      Amazon []

      You read the Feynmen Lectures for pleasure. CT is for doing work. If you want to serviously understand Quantum Field Theories, you'll need CT (or something like it) as a basis.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    (I apologize, but somebody had to troll.. err.. say it.)
  • by wikki ( 13091 )
    I'm sure you could take a Physics class at a local community for cheap. You might even be able to audit it even cheaper. In the class you would get hands on labs and other things you might not be able to get just from reading a book
  • Hawking (Score:5, Informative)

    by sh00z ( 206503 ) <> on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:42PM (#4222926) Journal
    Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is easily understood by anybody with a high school diploma, and should take less than three hours to read. It'll get you through the classical stiff, quantum physics, and just enough relativity to be dangerous
    • by GuyMannDude ( 574364 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @05:06PM (#4223221) Journal

      "So much I don't know about astrophysics. Why didn't I read that book by the wheelchair guy?"
      --Homer J. Simpson


    • The coolest thing about Hawking's books is that it's really easy to visualize him sitting in the room speaking it to you.

      That -was- intended to be funny, moderators.
    • Re:Hawking (Score:2, Funny)

      by Spunk ( 83964 )
      Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Rhyme [] is easily understood by anybody, due to his madd skillz.
    • The Universe in a Nutshell, also by Hawking, has prettier pictures. All in all it's a slightly better book, although I found it annoyingly non-technical.
  • Easy (Score:5, Informative)

    by MxTxL ( 307166 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:42PM (#4222927)
    Stephen Hawking: Brief history of time and Universe in a nutshell.

    Very well written, in plain english that anyone can understand. And the ideas in them will blow your mind...
  • by Nezer ( 92629 )
    Steven Hawking's A Brief History of time is a great introduction without getting too technical. Though a bit dated it was revised not-too-long ago and now includes discussion of the ever-popular string thoeries.

    He does talk a great deal about relativity and does touch upon quantum mechanics.

    Physics is such a deep subject that, from there, you can go just about anywhere you want!
  • by yorick ( 4133 ) <(yorick) (at) (> on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:44PM (#4222947)
    The first book of Feynman's "lectures" on physics isn't bad at all. The big question you need to ask is whether or not you just want a conceptual understanding of physics, or one that enables you to do the required mathematics involved. Unfortunately they tend to be a different audience...most layman's books have no math, and most college books concentrate on the math...which isn't bad, it's just that sometimes things are introduced differently because of the required mathematics.
  • Feynmann Lectures (Score:2, Informative)

    by FuzzyDaddy ( 584528 )
    The "Feynmann Lectures on Physics", in three volumes.

    They're expensive, but outstanding and well worth it. He developed them for a freshman level course, so they're accesible and don't rely on particularly fancy mathematical notation.

  • John Gribbin (Score:4, Informative)

    by Ami_Chan ( 188543 ) <MercMoonie&yahoo,com> on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:44PM (#4222951)
    For quantum mechanics, I highly recommend the books by John Gribbin - In Search of Schrodinger's Cat and the more up-to-date sequel, Schrodinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality. They both give a good historical background on quantum mechanics, and provide a decent background meant for the lay-person. He also has several other books on various topics in science, but I myself have not read them.
  • They are 40 years old but still a great and unique introduction to the foundations of physics.

    Many of the lectures in mp3 and pdf format are currently being posted to news:alt.binaries.sounds.mp3.spoken-word

    If you can buy them in your neighbourhood.

  • by yorgasor ( 109984 ) <> on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:45PM (#4222956) Homepage
    If you want to know anything about physics fundamentals, check out html
    I've used it to get a good foundation on a few topics and am amazed at how much information it has, as well as how nicely layed out it is.
  • While it won't give you precicely the knowledge you want when you want it, they do an excellent job of providing solid direction on some fairly complex scientific topics - even for people without a scientific degree.

    It's not too expensive, but they'll do a very nice job of filling in the gaps and provide leads on where to look next for more information.
  • You could try... (Score:2, Informative)

    by The_Pey ( 532136 )
    For black holes, wormholes and some of the more astro related phenomenae, you could try Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy [] or The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory []

    Both are very current and are intended for laymen.


  • If you want something with a little out of the ordinary I'd suggest looking at the classic Feynman Lectures on Physics. These books are old but basic concepts in physics definetly haven't been made obsolete.

    Something that would go well with these books are the recordings of the actual lectures that the books are based on. It is one thing to read about it but to have one of the best physics teachers explain everything really makes a difference. If you're lucky you might even find the set of pdfs and mp3s posted somewhere on internet.
  • Isaac Asimov (Score:5, Informative)

    by PHAEDRU5 ( 213667 ) <instascreed@gma i l . c om> on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:48PM (#4223004) Homepage
    Asimov did a nice little introduction to Physics. I found it quite readable.
    • Re:Isaac Asimov (Score:2, Informative)

      by beej ( 82035 )
      I second this wholeheartedly. The only drawback to his book is that he deliberately stayed away from calculus. This could be boon or bane, depending on your perspective. I could tell there were a number of places where he could have more clearly described the concepts using calculus.

      Overall, I highly recommend the book. All 3 volumes bound into one can often be found in the discount books section at your local major bookstore.

  • The Elegant Universe (Score:5, Informative)

    by pmcneill ( 146350 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:48PM (#4223005)
    • The Elegant Universe
    by Brian Greene is probably the best popular physics book I've read recently. From memory (it's been about a year), it's divided into three major parts. The first is an excellent introduction to both relativity and quantum mechanics, as well as explaining why they are ultimately incompatible and must be combined in a new theory (quantum gravity/string theory). The second part is a description of the current state of string theory, and the third is a description of where the theory might go (called M-theory). My only complaint about this book, which is brand new given other books I've read, is it doesn't mention the primary fallacy of string theory, which is that it relies on a static background. M-theory, if workable, could fix this, but I don't recall that ever being made clear in this book.
    • I agree that The Elegant Universe is a great book but the Ask Slashdot guy is asking for something on BASIC physics -- not cutting edge superstring theory.

      BTW, I read an interview with Brian Greene in a magazine (I believe it was Scientific American) where he said that while he was surprised/pleased with the response to his book he wasn't planning on writing a new one. The reason is that he just cares about his research too much and felt that writing a book just took too much time/energy/thought away from his first love: string theory. Our loss.


    • Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics
      by Gary Zukav, David Finkelstein

      Mass Market Paperback - 384 pages Reissue edition (September 1, 1984)
      Language: English
      Bantam; ISBN: 055326382X

      The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
      by Brian Greene, B. Greene

      Paperback - 464 pages 1 edition (February 29, 2000)
      Language: English
      Vintage; ISBN: 0375708111

      Read the Dancing Wu Li Masters first, then Elegant Universe to get an excellent overview of quantum physics over the last 100 years or so.

      I've read them both twice, and I still can't honestly say I grok quantum physics.
  • Quantum Cryptography may not be "the place to start" but it is free, and you are cheap: ill/ph22 9/#describe

  • by CmdrSam ( 136754 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:48PM (#4223011)
    If you're looking for the real, actual stuff (a book of physics as opposed to a book about physics) I would very strongly recommend the Feynman Lectures on Physics []. They cover mechanics, E&M, and quantum mechanics: they were the first 2 years of courses at Caltech when Feynman taught them.

    They get tough in places, but are appropriate for a physics major undergrad, someone with an already good general knowledge of mathematics and a little bit of physics, or just a bright and ambitious high school student. They're a little pricey (all textbooks are) but you might be able to find them at the public library.

    Just about every student at Caltech has at least one of these three books...

    --Sam L-L
    • If you don't want to shell out big bucks, you can pick up some excerpts of these lectures for about $15, they are called "Six Easy Pieces" and "Six Not So Easy Pieces". They are short books that have some very good basic material. The easy pieces has little or no math in it and the not so easy has more math, but it is still presented in a very understandable way. Also, Relativity: The Special and General Theory by A. Einstein is very easy to read and understand.
  • Well, it's not a book but I think [] is really great. In fact, it's on of the best site on the net!
    Furthermore you should have a look at [] ;-))
  • Dianetics! (Score:4, Funny)

    by TheDick ( 453572 ) <dick@askadic k . c om> on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:49PM (#4223017) Homepage
    Great book, totally factual and easy to understand, though it can get a bit pricey......

  • But Strunk & White's timeless classic "Elements of Style" will teach you that "a lot" is two words. Master the easy stuff, and then move on to physics.

    Once there, you can go to the local book store or even the library and pick up a high school text on physics. They're mostly awful, but if you're bright, you can probably extract the basic theory from them.


  • For beginners I think the Feynman Lectures are quite
    helpful. Feynman had a unique way of explaining physics in an easy to understand way without oversimplifying or omitting things. Here is a link []
    at amazon without endorsing this online bookstore.
  • by FortKnox ( 169099 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:51PM (#4223052) Homepage Journal
    Mike's Particle Physics column on Kuro5hin [] explains particle physics quite well for the layman. Unfortunately, K5 is slower than balls atm, so I can't give you a direct link (search for 'particle physics' and you should get all, like 5, articles).
  • by masterkool ( 550633 ) <> on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:51PM (#4223059) Homepage
    The Dancing Wu Li Masters: Gary Zukav" [] A book about the dynamics of new physics without mathematics.
    The Elegant Universe: Brian Greene" [] Again, another new physics book with neat pics and no mathmaticas. Specific to Superstrings mostly.
    A Brief History of Time: Stephen Hawking" [] A good book about allmost everything between classical physics and the physics of the last few years. I.E. Relativity, quantum mechanics etc.
  • ...from my order history. These are not actually "school books", but might be more interesting reading than something more "factual" and give a reason to peek in some more details

    - The Turning Point [] (Fritjof Capra),
    - Einstein's Dreams [] (Alan P. Lightman),
    - Flatland [] (Edwin A. Abbott ),
    - The Mechanical Turk [] (Tom Standage).

  • I strongly recommend Feynman's lectures on physics []. I think that in the event of nuclear war devastating all of the world, these books would be at the top of the list for the recovery manuals...hmmm, sounds like an interesting Ask Slashdot.

  • two wonderful books i've found:

    Richard Feynman's Six Not So Easy Pieces is a great explanation of some fundamental concepts of physics, especially the whole time/speed of light relationship (do you really really understand why the speed of light is the speed limit? if not, read this book). it has alot of forumulas, but they do not need to be understood for the book to make sense.

    Brian Greene has a very thorough explanation of the leading edge of quantum mechanics and string theory (or m-theory) in The Elegant Universe. this book is free of formulas, but very good at explaining how theories evolved, up to current research status.

  • by reg106 ( 256893 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:56PM (#4223124)
    For the physics behind lasers, transistors, and other semiconductor marvels, check out the Britney Spears Guide to Semiconductor Physics []!
  • Quantum theory, etc. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Triv ( 181010 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:57PM (#4223136) Journal
    Let's see...

    "Schrodinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality: Solving the Quantum Mysteries" by John Gribbin. Very readable and occasionally funny. Bit of a steep learning curve but you don't really notice it if you've got a few physics classes under your belt.

    "The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory" by Brian Greene. excellent read (although I'm only halfway through - there might be plot twists that I don't know about. ;)

    Oh, and I'd also pick up a copy of "Copenhagen" by Michael Frayn. No, on second thoughts, I'd pick up a copy on CD []. It's a play, and should be seen...but since that's not available, you're better off listening to it instead. :)

    • I have read The Elegant Universe, and I don't think you could say it is for beginners. And it doesn't deal with physics in general, it concentrates on Superstrings. It is a very good book, but a good Physics book? I don't know about that. I would say you could pick up a good used Physics textbook at a used bookstore. That should cover general physics. If you want to get "out there", or maybe "in here" a little more, pick up Godel Escher Bach by Hofstader. If you are more adventurous, try and read his book Metamagical Themas. I still can't believe I read that whole thing.

      Oh, and I make no claims to fully understanding any of the aforementioned books. They are all good reads, and I have read parts of them more than once. Understand them? Heh, I don't think so. I really like Hofstader's stuff.

    • Spoiler!! (Score:4, Funny)

      by GuyMannDude ( 574364 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @05:24PM (#4223393) Journal

      "The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory" by Brian Greene. excellent read (although I'm only halfway through - there might be plot twists that I don't know about. ;)

      At the very end, you never do find out the true nature of the universe. The author just leaves you hanging in an obvious lead-in for the sequel: "Elegant Universe II: The Wrath of God".


    • "Schrodinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality: Solving the Quantum Mysteries" by John Gribbin

      I'm a big fan of Gribbin. Don't forget "In Search of Schroedinger's Cat" (a bit dated -- but still good), and "The Search for Superstrings".

      Michio Kaku is also fairly approachable -- "Hyperspace" and "Beyond Einstein".

      And for a really great intro (by extrapolating relativistic and/or quantum effects into the "everyday" universe), George Gamow's "Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland".
  • by Garin ( 26873 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:58PM (#4223139)
    Raymond Serway's text, "Physics for Scientists and Engineers (with modern physics)" has EVERYTHING that a beginning physics student needs. All that you need to bring to the table is some basic math skills (you can even get by without calculus if necessary). This is (was?) the workhorse textbook for virtually every first-year "real" physics course that I've ever seen. Heck, we used it in two first year courses, and three second year courses. It's a great book. When I did my physics degree (graduated 2000) I used this book clear through to my senior years as an overall reference. I used the 3rd edition, but I'm sure newer editions are just as good.

    It is clear, concise, complete, and easily available on the cheap. I'm very sure you could go to your local college or university and buy it in the used textbook store. Don't worry if it's five or ten years old -- first-year physics hasn't changed much in ten years :)
    • Yup - Serway is excellent. I'm still using it as an occasional reference years after university.

      This was going to be my suggestion - go to a used bookstore or university bookstore and buy textbooks instead of most of the things being suggested here. Sure "Brief History in Time" is interesting, but there isn't much in the way of detail.... it's lots of handwaving but very slim on actual facts and concrete concepts. It's the stuff of magazine articles but not something to really LEARN from.

      Go find a textbook - they are meant to teach. And you can find used ones generally very cheap.
    • I once taught introductory physics out of the algebra-based version of this book (Serway and Faughn). It has a lot of good conceptual homework questions in it, but other than that, I didn't like the book. Too often, it started a chapter with an equation, with no explanation of where the equation came from. It's basically a plug-and-chug book. Maybe the calculus-based version you're referring to is better.

      For a calculus-based book, I think Knight [] is pretty good. You can also check out my own free texts via my Slashdot user page. My calculus-based book, Simple Nature, is not as mature a project as my algebra-based series, Light and Matter.

  • by Cosmicbandito ( 160658 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @04:58PM (#4223142)
    I grew up on this one. He uses clever little drawings to explain physics principles. Gonick is only the cartoonist though. He collaborated with a physicist named Art Huffman to write this. It's a great introduction to the principles of physics and electricity for novices.

    Just search for his name and physics on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller.

    He's also written some excellent history books.
    (Cartoon history of the universe I and II. These got me through me freshman year history courses. Lots of interesting little tidbits. Did you know the Egyptians used crocidile dung as birth control?)

    • Absolutely. The Cartoon Guides really do a good job of distilling down broad topics to a level Joe Reader can understand, in a way that's funny and interesting. The genetics one is particularly great, as are the History of the Universe books. I just found out they're doing a Volume III of that series, looking forward to it.

      For completeness, here's an Amazon link: Larry Gonick [].
  • Excellent book []. Quite readable, but not as condescending or formula-averse as many layman-oriented science books. Used as a textbook in the best QM course I've had. Also discusses philosophy of QM in fascinating detail.
  • To understand modern physics a deep understanding of quantum mechanics (QM) is absolutely neccessary and that means you have to do MATHS! Without computing some problems with your own brain cells a lot of the important structure of QM will be hidden. Not one of the popular book on this topic, be it Hawking, Penrose, Barrow, or else, can explain this, because - well, because the structure lies in the mathematical form itself. You can't translate this in layman's terms. No, you can't.

    Also, you can't determine the limits of QM without knowing what maths is used for it. And to explore far more advanced topics like QED, QCD, or even Super Strings and M-Theory, you should be aware, that the underlying maths is far more advanced, too.

    "Principles of Quantum Mechanics" (2nd Ed.) by Ramamurti Shankar is a good introductory textbook. If you worked through it, and solved all the exercises, you will have a good understanding of classic quantum mechanics.

    You can't understand a subject without actually studying it - and by studying I mean studying as you would for an university exam.
    • Amen to what you said.

      It bothers me that people want a short cut to
      Physics. I wonder why they think everybody else
      has to get through three semesters of calculus
      before even touching this stuff, yet that there
      must be a way to spoon feed it to them on a 3 minute attention span.

  • I have read Feynman, and he is good. He does well defining as closely as possible the understanding of Quantum. But I've found others that are good and clear and probably more to the readers liking. These had more of an overview of the precice details that Feynman gets into, but covers a wide variety of topics at an interesting (for me) level.

    I found In Search of Schrodinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality [] to be a good introduction. It explains a lot about quantum at a level that is easy to read but also accurate. It has some companion books, basically anything by John Gribbin []. They cover quantum, cosmic creation and evolution, various theories on cosmic destiny. "In search of the Big Bang" is great and detailed. I read the earlier books, circa 1990. There are later updates (Kittens is recommended) that should ring them up to date.

    I only wish I had time to go through them all (again). Sigh.

  • Minus all the math, if you're not so inclined. John Gribbin wrote In Search of Schrodinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality and Schrodinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality.

    Find 'em here [] and here []

    A deeper look would be Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. link here []


  • If you like the theoretical physics (stuff about universes, really really big things, time travel, really really small things, etc) I would highly recommend two books by Stephen Hawking.

    His first A Brief History of Time goes into standard theoretical physics with some exploration about black holes, etc.

    His most recent book The Universe in a Nutshell has lots of great explanations, in layman terms, of modern theory. He covers p-brans, M-theory, lots of relativity type material. I highly recommend this one.

    Professor Hawking also has several lectures on his website [] that can give you information on more specific aspects of his research.

    this material will give you enough background in theoretical physics to wax philosophical and impress your geek friends with talk of alternate universes and multiple dimension objects. At the very least it is interesting material.

  • I found Physics for the Rest of Us to fill this role nicely. I wanted some more in-depth info about major physics topics but didn't want to have to go back to college and get a physics/math degree. It also provides nice real-world examples of physical properties resulting from the underlying theory. 09 237164/qid=1031605560/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_1/002-364315 9-0188828?v=glance&s=books&n=507846
  • The Feynman Lectures [] are classics, and with good reason. They cover basic mechanics, special (and a little general) relativity, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics. The writing is engaging, and the math is easy to follow.

    The one major criticism you can make is that mechanics are covered without using the Lagrangian formalism, which is much more powerful and much more applicable to quantum mechanics. For this, you may want to check out Structure and Interpretation of Classical Mechanics []. This is a very dense book but it covers a lot, and in a way geared towards programmers. Warning: uses the Scheme programming language heavily. If you don't like Scheme, you won't like this one.

    For general relativity, I highly, highly recommend A First Course in General Relativity []. The prerequisites are pretty minimal, and it's extremely well written.

    Beyond that, check out John Baez's list of favorite books. [] Actually, you might want to read anything and everything Professor Baez has to say about physics, he knows a lot, explains it very well and is willing to talk to people. He's one of the few working physicists who still bothers with usenet [sci.physics.research]. I'm currently working through his book on Gauge Fields, Knots and Gravity [], and am enjoying it immensely.

  • Picture Books (Score:2, Insightful)

    by bats ( 8748 )
    The Cartoon Guide to Physics (Gonick and Huffman) and The New Way Things Work [] (Macaulay, Ardley) are both excellent books for a low-level introduction to physics. Both books present physics in an accurate, yet simplified way suitable for anyone past the 7th grade.
  • Most physicists find that the Feynman lectures are amazingly insightful books, but they are often unhelpful for the beginner. Feynman's class, upon which the books are based, was a disaster (read about it in the Feynman biography Genius).

    Whatever books you choose, remember that simply reading is not sufficient to really understand what's going on: you must work the exercises and problems. One of my professors once remarked to the class that "you haven't read a book until you've worked all the problems."

    Some books I haven't seen mentioned:

    • Experiments in Modern Physics, by Melissinos. Often used as a textbook in upper-level undergraduate labs. Dated but interesting.
    • Purcell's Electricity and Magnetism. Very nice, often used for the "honors" level introductory E&M
    • Walker's The Flying Circus of Physics although it's been a long time since I've looked at it
    • Cartoon Guide to Physics by Gonick and Huffman--also a long time since I've looked at it
    • Quantum Physics of Atoms, Molecules, Solids, Nuclei, and Particles by Eisberg and Resnick. Although I thought this was terribly simplified for an upper level quantum mechanics course, it would be very good for a modern physics course.

  • I see a lot of recommendations for excellent books that are essentially popularizations of physics. That's fine if all you want to do is feel like you understand the science. I would argue (and some may disagree) that you don't understand it if you're unable to actually apply your knowledge to actual problems.

    The only way to test and develop this skill is to work problems. It's slow and painful, but essential. No one (except in movies like Good Will Hunting) learns real science or math without working problems.

    My recommendations: quantum physics texts by J.J. Sakurai. Mechanics by Goldstein. I wish I knew a good statistical physics book with problems.
  • A good overall Physics introduction for the non-technical reader is Physics for Poets [] by Robert March []. It does an excellent job of covering the essentials of modern physics (from Gallileo to Heisenberg) without subjecting the reader to either too much mathematics (as with most good textbooks []) or too many cartoons (as with most some [] popular [] science [] books).
  • The best place to get a broad foundation is probably the place that's designed to teach it to you.

    Visit your local university's bookstore, and pick up a first-year physics textbook, and probably a first-year calculus textbook too.

    These will keep you busy for months or years. I know I'm still looking through my physics text every now and then for interesting tidbits.

    As students enter university from a wide variety of backgrounds, the first-year texts start at an understandable level.
  • You can find free introductory physics books at [] They are downloadable as pdfs.
  • There are some great suggestions already mentioned here but, unless I missed it, no one has mentioned my favorite text book:

    Newtonian Mechanics (The M. I. T. Series) by A. P. French, W. W. Norton, 1971. ISBN 0-393-09970-9.

    Still one of my all time favorites for it's clarity, exercises and readability.

  • hawking, feynman, gribbin. good good good. all on my shelf.

    everyone recommends six easy pieces but might I suggest that you be sure and get the audio of the lectures. I taught myself to rollerblade while listening to Feynman explain everything else. do note though that the first lecture sounds somewhat crappy due to the original source material. but the other five are dandy and Feynman is a funny guy.

  • The God Particle by L Lederman is definitely a must read if you want to learn about particle physics. It's very easy to follow and has maybe two equations in the entire book. Lederman spends as much time talking about the history of particle physics (and his role in it -- awarded Nobel prize in 1988) as about the actual science itself. The story about them ripping apart some poor grad students just completed cloud chamber in the heat of the moment was particularly amuzing.
  • First, try the Cartoon Guide to Physics. This is kind of a silly book, but is at least as accurate as the other pop physics stuff. It will give you a good explanation of basic physics.

    Second, Feynman has a book called the Character of Physical Law. This is an excellent series of lectures on the process and history of physics. It is a must read for anyone who wishes to know physics. It is much more accessible than the Lectures on Physics, which are much more suited to the serious student.

    Third, any book by Dover Publishing is a good bet. These books are usually reprints of historical or definitive texts. They have books on subjects such as Quantum Theory, Crystallography, Relativity, and Thermodynamics, often by the scientist that defined the field. Remember, basic physical concepts are not quickly refuted, so a book written 50 years ago is still a good resource.

    All of these books are available from your favorite book outlet, or do a search.

  • Michio Kaku! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Xerithane ( 13482 ) <xerithane@nerd[ ] ['far' in gap]> on Monday September 09, 2002 @05:50PM (#4223617) Homepage Journal
    I picked up his books years back, and they are all great. Most are very easy going reads, if you are into reading about physics. He uses a lot of good analogies that get your mind working.

    Here's a link: s.asp?WRD=michio+kaku&userid=529XSYBO5D []
  • No, not Esther Dyson, her father Freeman Dyson wrote Disturbing the Universe [].

    In part it's a history of physics from World War II onward, in part it's a look into one physicists love of the subject.

    I found it inspiring.

    I have a B.A. in Physics from UC Santa Cruz [].

    I also recommend the Feynman Lectures if you want to actually understand the material. I think they're very readable. You will need to know some differential and integral calculus to be able to understand them, but you will need those for any real physics textbook - Newton invented calculus in order to study physics.

    Finally, Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb [] is just an astounding book. It's a history of physics from the 20's or so up through the 50's. It really communicates the feelings of the times.

    After reading it I found myself saying "I could do that" and finally got it together to go back to school and finish my Physics degree - I should have graduated in '86 but didn't graduate until '93.

  • by kfg ( 145172 ) on Monday September 09, 2002 @05:56PM (#4223675)
    would advise you to read 'Quantum Reality' by Nick Herbert. It is the *only* lay explanation of the subject I have ever read actually worth a damn in terms of the actual physics involved. Virtually all of the other books being recomended here are good reads, but I wouldn't call them physics at all. My interpretation of your question is that you want to go beyond that sort of book. Read Herbert's book, pay attention, and you'll have a better understanding of the state of quantum physics then some physicists I know. All without a drop of math too.

    For "good reads," rather than good physics, try:

    Steven Weinberg's 'Dreams of a Final Theory." A good look by a real physicist at where some people are trying to take physics.

    What's physics without a little math? David Berlinski has done the impossible and written a *book*, not a text book, a *BOOK* about the calculus. 'Tour of the Calculus.' Loverly little bit of work. Thank you David.

    Someone else mentioned 'The God Particle." I'll second that. Most books on physics talk about theory or "gee whiz" stuff. This is simply an anecdotal telling of the real life of a hardcore experimental physicist. Well worth the read.

    For more elementary physics there are already umptynine recommendations for the Feynman Lectures, all moded up to +5. Who am I to object?

    BUT: Whatever you do don't miss Feynman's anecdotal books, 'What do you care what People Think?' and 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!'

    They have absolutely nothing to do with physics, per se, and yet at the same time seem to have everything to do with physics, plus they'll be the most fun you have reading this year, and maybe next.

    You want to get a little more hardcore? Get 'Physics' by Hallidy & Resnick. Read 'em. Learn 'em ( and all the relevant math). Work all the problems. Congratulations, you're an A.S. in physics.

    There are some online sites for physics but I've never warmed up to them. You need the books, you need to be able to open the page, read a bit, put it down and ponder, go for a walk and ponder some more, pick the book back up, read a couple more pages, go "hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm," take it to bed, read a few more pages and fall asleep with visions of quarks dancing in your head.

    You need the bloody books. Buy them, steal them, whatever you have to do to *possess* them. Keep them as treasured Holy objects. You won't regret it.


  • I found this to be a very approachable look at quantum physics. By Wilczek and Devine, if I recall correctly. I don't know how outdated it'll be today, I had my nose in it almost a decade ago.
  • First stop: Many colleges are publishing homework and lecture notes online nowadays. Leech off of those. You will still need some textbooks though.

    I'm going to assume you want to learn some physics, as opposed to learning about physics. If this is the case, you can ignore stuff like "Black Holes and Time Warps" and "A Brief History of Time" -- they're good bathroom reading material but won't actually get you anywhere in your understanding.

    Next I'm going to assume you have had enough calculus to be able to differentiate any function and integrate some of them. If not, well, you need to learn some calculus first off (You might be able to do this concurrent with reading Serway; it could help solidify the concepts.)

    For introductory fare, try Serway's Physics for Scientists and Engineers. Don't let the title put you off--there's an unspoken law of textbook publishing where you have to inflate the titles of easy books and deflate the title of hard books. A book subtitled "For Scientists and Engineers" will usually be easier than one with "Elementary" or "Basic" prepended to its title. Serway has good exercises (for any book you use, do the problems or you won't learn anything! You don't have to do all of them, but enough so that you can look at the ones you haven't done and see what a good approach should be.)

    Serway will cover mechanics pretty well. Passing out of Newtonian mechanics and getting into real physics now, there are several areas of physics which the typical undergraduate science education touches on. These are, approximately, Electricity and Magnetism, Special Relativity, Wave Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics/Thermodynamics. In order:

    • E&M -- Purcell's book "Electricity & Magnetism" is easily the bast text I had out of my entire college career (and this comes from a non-physics major). It is heavy on visual thinking and introduces you to new mathamatical tools (e.g. vector calculus) when you need them. It also has bits on special relativity (the unification of SR and E&M is the most beautiful piece of physics that most people will ever be able to understand.)
    • Special Relativity -- I like Einstein's "Relativity: The Special and General Theories." No exercises though--when I was in school, we used Wheeler's "Spacetime Physics" which is just plain incoherent.
    • Wave Mechanics -- This is what you need to know to be able to parse the occasional /. stories about physicists stopping light and/or making materials with negative refractivity. Crawford's "Waves" is probably my second favorite text of all time. Unfortunately, I hear it's out of print. Try to find a used copy. It (along with Purcell's E&M) is part of the "Berkeley physics course" series, and shares some strong points with Purcell--timely introduction to mathmatical techniques (you need a bit of differential equations and Fourier transforms this time) and a relatively relaxed exposition.
    • Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Mechanics/Thermodynamics -- Unfortunately I can't really recommend the books I've used for these subjects. You may want to look at the other volumes in the Berkeley series, since I've had good luck with Purcell and Crawford's books. Christoph Adami's "Introduction to Artificial Life" solidified the concepts of entropy and heat for me much better than any of the pure stat. mech. texts I had, so I recommend it as a supplement (and a fascinating subject in itself.)

    Anyway, that should keep you busy for a while ;)
  • No one should be allowed to interact with matter - let alone study physics! - until they have the necessary mathematics background to understand what they are doing. Otherwise they could screw up all kinds of things. (We don't let people drive cars without a licence, why would we let them loose on the universe without proper training?)

    So you should spent fifty years studying mathematics first, in order to attain a sufficient level of enlightenment to safely bind yourself to the Wheel.


  • As previously mentioned, Feynman's Lectures are great. I would also recommend The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. The stuff about string theory is stuff you can ignore, but the sections on relativity and QM are pretty good "in a nutshell" type explanations.

  • The Physics of Baseball []
    by Robert K Adair, Ph.D.

    This book may not be exactly what your looking for, but it does put across some of the fundamental principles of real world physics in an easy to read format. One nice thing is that the equations are explained, but completely skippable. There's also a lot of interesting history pertaining to each topic.

    I personally enjoyed reading it, even though I'm not a baseball fan.
  • I am an nth year grad student at UTexas-Austin. Here are my suggestions:

    QED by Richard Feynman

    QED stands for Quantum Electrodynamics -- the modern theory of how light travels and interacts with matter. It also stands for Quod Erat Demonstratum -- the phrase mathematicians use to show the successful completion of a proof. QED (the theory) is one of the most beautiful and precisely verified theories in all of science; the author is not only one of the principal architects of that theory but its clearest expositor. Feynman carefully paints a clear, physical picture of a mindblowing esoteric landscape populated by particles that spring into existence or annihilate into photons, taking all possible paths in order to find the 'natural' one. This is the best science book for a general audience I have read.

    Any educated person with an appreciation and interest for science should enjoy this book.

    The Feynman Lectures on Physics, vol. 1
    by R.P. Feynman and R. Leighton

    For the more serious and technical reader, the first volume of the Feynman Lectures serve as an excellent self-study textbook. Reading these books made me change my major to physics. I referred to them consistently well into my graduate studies, since they do the best job of describing a tangible, physical model of what is happening. For example, the chapter on conservation of energy does the best job I have seen of not only describing the principle but explaining the importance and relevance of conservation principles. Six chapters of this book are sold as 'Six Easy Pieces' -- but anyone geeky enough for Slashdot should spring for the real thing.

    Any person with a technical background and college mathematics will enjoy and refer to this book -- especially as a supplement to lesser textbooks.

    Nobel Lectures in Physics 1901-1921, pub. Elsevier 1967
    Nobel Lectures in Physics 1922-1941, pub. Elsevier 1967
    (possibly out of print; try BookFinder [] or similar)

    Each Nobel Laureate gives a talk that is supposed to describe the science behind the prize at a general level. Most of them succeed in doing quite a good job. The science from these first four decades of modern physics is well described elsewhere, but these lectures give you a first-hand account that complements the textbook approach, and can be quite enlightening scientifically as well as giving a history, social, and scientific context.

    All the heavy hitters are here:

    Laureates in vol. 1 include Roentgen, for X-rays; Becquerel and the Curies, for discovering radioactivity; JJ Thomson, for discovery of the electron; Michelson (of the Michelson-Morley experiment and the precision measurement of the speed of light); Laue, and later the Braggs, for X-Ray diffraction; Max Planck, for the quantum hypothesis; and some dude named Albert Einstein (who won for his theory of the photoelectric effect but gave his lecture on relativity, which was understood to be more important but was still speculative at the time).

    Laureates in vol. 2 include Bohr, for the structure of the atom; Millikan, for determining Planck's constant; Franck and Hertz, for verifiying Bohr's quantum model of the atom; DeBroglie, for matter waves; Heisenberg, Schroedinger, and Dirac, for quantum mechanics; Davisson and Thomson, for demonstrating that electrons are waves as well as particles; and Fermi, for artificial radioactivity.

    Any person who wants a first-hand account of the story and the science behind the great developments in physics will enjoy these books.

    The Flying Circus of Physics by J Diamond

    This book simply contains a series of single paragraphs, each of which describes an ordinary or extraordinary physical phenomenon followed by a series of general questions on that topic. (For example: Why are sunsets usually more colorful than sunrises?) Some conundra would make good science fair project for a middle-to-high school student, or amateur hobbyist; most can provide a group of geeks with solid dinner-conversation material as they puzzle out the answer. Even a physics professor will have to think carefully before answering each question, but they all depend on basic physics -- an elementary physics student with motivation has the tools to answer any given question. The back of the book contains a brief answer to each question and pointers to journals or books giving more information. However, the real value of the book is to make you sweat out the physics and sharpen your intuition, so looking at the answers is cheating (early versions of the book had none).

    Physics majors or students taking college physics classes who want to plumb the depths of their understanding or find jumping-off points for independent study should get this book.

  • The Physics of Christmas [] by Roger Highfield. It takes a whimsical, and Yule-tied view at several historical and physical characteristics of every Christian's favorite holiday, such as the aerodynamics of reindeer, and the thermaldynamics of turkey.

    Although, i did find that it addressed the history and psychology behind Christmas, as much as it did the physics. Still I think it'd be a great "Gateway" book for novices and younguns.
  • Light and Matter (Score:2, Informative)

    by Corvus9 ( 300802 )
    I see several posters suggesting books by Feynman and Hawking. While these are no doubt excellent writers for university undergrads, the article writer specifically asked for "online articles or PDFs" giving "a good, solid foundation".

    If you are looking for an on-line physics course covering the basics, with a free on-line PDF textbook, check out Light and Matter []. This course starts out at square 1, describing what science and physics are, moving on to what a "measurement" is, why mathematics are useful for physics, then starts with Newtonian physics, continues through optics and electromagnetism, and to quantum mechanics.

    The site also contains some astronomy texts, physics Java applets. This is an excellent site for anyone teaching physics.

  • Excellent all-around foundation for someone with a high-school background in math and physics. Covers everything from Thermodynamics to Quantum Mechanics to Astrophysics.

    Not only is this book extraordinarily clear and well written (considering it *is* a physics book), it's loaded with full-colour pictures, real-world examples and illustrations of all the concepts at work.

    I'm guessing this book is used for College courses - there's a ton of problem sets with each chapter, and solutions are provided, as well. From the nature of the content though, it would probably be used for a first-year 'foundation' course, though it does go into some more advanced material: if it's not in this book, you probably wouldn't understand it without reading this book first.
  • Check out library of congress category QC on The Assayer []. The books with a dandelion bud icon next to them are free as in beer, and the ones with the dandelion flowers are free as in speech.

    The Assayer is a site for user-submitted book reviews, with an emphasis on reviews of free books. It turns out to be very difficult to attract reviews, so if you've read any of these, reviews would be much appreciated!

  • The book is called Physics for poets. Its a good intoduction, yet advanced enough to be used as a university text in a physics for liberal arts majors. Its comparatively inexpensive,

    I like mmy serway college physics text though, its more difficult but has interesting "real world" physics examples.
    • Re:physics for poets (Score:2, Informative)

      by bcrowell ( 177657 )
      Do you mean Physics for Poets by March []? Yeah, really cool book!!!! March is a simple, understandable book written for beginners . So far, nearly all the posts sound to me like someone asked for the best Linux distro for the absolute beginner, and the suggestions were Debian and Gentoo. C'mon, folks! The original poster asked for introductory books.

      And along the same lines, I can't believe that nobody has suggested Conceptual Physics [] by Hewitt. I've taught introductory physics at many math levels, and used many books. Hewitt is the only book that I honestly liked teaching out of (well, besides my own books :-).

  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics - three large red-covered
    paperbacks - cost about $150 new - but can be found cheap
    in 2nd hand bookstores near any University campus!

    For less intense reading - alternate chapters from these books
    with chapters from the many biographies of Feynman.

    Feynman was an awesome physicist and a great educator - but
    in his spare time he was...well - just read the biographies!

Basic is a high level languish. APL is a high level anguish.