The Greatest Physics Textbook!

By cjohnson | August 24, 2005 5:02 pm

So why wait?

Announcing Cosmic Variance’s search for …..<drum roll>….

The Greatest Physics Textbook!

Current or former students of Physics: While nominating your choices and passionately arguing their case as candidates to be The Greatest Physics Paper! and The Greatest Popular Science Book!, you will remember some of those physics textbooks to which you clung for enlightenment, moral support, or just a vague clue for what on earth (or elsewhere) the professor was talking about during those dark, confused periods of your formative years.

Or, you’re past those formative years and dark, confused periods (or are one of the few who never had any confusion) and either because you are teaching yourself or others aspects of the subject, you have come to appreciate the value of certain textbooks. Those books have often made the entire difference between a career in one direction vs another, and so their influence cannot be overstated. Some of these books are just sweet, sweet journeys through a topic, and should just be recognised as wonderfully written, whether they changed your (or anyone’s) life or not.

So let’s engage in another friendly (but still passionate) argument about why (at least one of) our favourites is of course The Greatest Physics Textbook!

You know the rules: Nominate some, mention others, but do make a case for your chief candidates for the grand title!


  • Astronomy Grad Student

    I would like to nominate Carroll & Ostlie’s “An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics”. This Big Orange Book -or BOB as we students mostly refer to it- is around 1400 pages long and contains everything you ever needed to know about basic astronomy and astrophysics, from planetary astronomy to stellar structure and evolution to cosmology, and everything in between. It goes into deep detail in some subjects and just skims the surface of other topics, but overall it’s one of those excellent books that you always have on your shelf, because it is so useful in so many ways.

    And if I’m allowed more than one nomination, I would also like to point out two very good introductory GR books – Hartle’s “Gravity” and Sean’s “Spacetime and Geometry”. For a senior undergrad or a first year grad student who gets the willies at the thought of picking up a GR book such as Wald’s, these two are very, VERY well appreciated, because they present the material clearly and in a not-scary way. I still remember it clearly, as I took GR barely two years ago. Either individually, or as a combined effort, these two books take the away “eek-factor” from the first encounter with general relativity.

  • Adam

    Much easier to name the worst ones. Mark Trodden might remember Nelkon and Parker from A Level physics. Appalling.

    Best highschool physics book (this from the UK, where more physics is taught at highschool) is Whelan and Hodgson’s ‘Essential Principles of Physics’, in my opinion.

    Best undergrad book, I think, is, hmm, I don’t know: Finn’s Thermal Physics. Maybe. I actually quite liked Duffin’s Electromagnetism. And the Paul Davies Quantum Theory book is good for such a little book.

  • Clifford

    Adam: Ha! Yes, I grew up on some of those too. Finn and Duffin are still on my bookshelves from my (UK) undergraduate days….where were you an undergrad?


  • Wolfgang

    May I suggest the Feynman Lectures ?
    The best way to learn what physics is all about IMHO.

  • Adam

    Did undergrad at KCL (physics and philosophy), postgrad at Imperial. Finn and Duffin will soon be speeding their way across the Atlantic to me, hopefully.

    I forgot to mention the Feynmann lectures, which are always an interesting read (although more fun when you already know the stuff he’s talking about, than to learn from them for the first time, I’d say, at least as an undergrad).

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    Feynman’s Lectures On Physics is the Greatest Physics Textbook that I haven’t yet read… but browsing years ago got me fascinated and thoughtful, and marked it as a ‘must read’.

    But more generally my first calculus textbook (Bers/Karal in my case) since it showed the revolutionary idea of wholly consistent theories (exemplified by axiomatic theorems and proofs) instead of the seemingly disconnected facts in earlier curricula.

    Panofsky/Phillips for classical EM because it build clearly from theory to application. My copy is worned out.

    MTW Gravitation is bought and shelved for much the same reason as Feynman’s LOP. It is remarkable how ‘must read’ becomes ‘will eventually read’ with (sufficient amounts of insufficient) time…

  • Adam

    Schey’s vector calc book ‘Div, Grad Curl and all that’ is much underestimated. Sure, not a physics book as such, but we all have to learn it.

  • Clifford

    Adam: It is essentially physics book, since no self-respecting mathematician ever learned that material in that way. Way too clear and…..straightforwardly useful. πŸ˜‰


  • Adam

    A (former) relativist once told me that ‘Gravitation’ was a good little book neatly wrapped up in a big bad book. Don’t know whether that was a standing joke amongst relativists or just amongst those at the University in Canberra, Aus.

    Must… stop…spamming…blog.

  • Adam

    You’re right there, Clifford. Shey even cracks the odd joke, I think, and everyone knows that a mathematician’s face is liable to break if they have to smile.

  • Torbjorn Larsson


    “This poem was written by John Saxon (an author of math textbooks).
    ((12 + 144 + 20 + (3 * 4^(1/2))) / 7) + (5 * 11) = 9^2 + 0

    Or for those who have trouble with the poem:

    A Dozen, a Gross and a Score,
    plus three times the square root of four,
    divided by seven,
    plus five times eleven,
    equals nine squared and not a bit more.”

  • Clifford

    That’s brilliant. I might elevate that to the Friday poem….!


  • Adam

    That’s what happens when you get a human machine trying to be clever *and* funny. You just get clever.

    Before mathematicians sic their crew onto me, I should add that I’m jesting.

  • Astronomy Grad Student

    Slightly off topic, but the last comment reminded me of another cute little math poem…

    int_(1)^(sqrt(3)) z^2 dz cos(3pi/9) = ln e^(1/3)
    which is…

    “The integral of z squared dz
    from 1 to the square root of 3
    times the cosine
    of 3 pi over 9
    equals log of the cube root of e”

    Don’t know who’s the author of that one tho πŸ˜›

  • Clifford

    Ok! Ok! Are there more of these? I’m going to put a post in these and ask for more in another thread.

    Hold on!


  • Adam

    Algebraic poems in raw LaTeX?

    Make it stop!

  • Steve

    The very good:
    [1]. My personal favourite is Weinberg’s Gravitation and Cosmology from 1971. Brilliantly written and beautifully produced and printed, with dark cover and gold leaf. Shows its age a bit now but still great. Something of an epiphany for me when I discovered it;

    [2]. A Course in Theoretical Physics, Landau and Liftshiftz. I still love these, learned a lot from them. A brilliant series of inspiring physics textbooks by the Russian masters–Classic!;
    [3]. Cambridge Monographs on Mathematical Physics. I like the feel, style and production on these really beautiful books. Technical and thorough and usually very well written. A bit pricey though.

    The not so good:
    From my undergraduate years, various “recommended texts”
    for various courses. Some of these almost killed outright my interest in physics :)
    (1) Classical Electrodynamics, Jackson. Thorough but horrible;

    (2) Introduction to High Energy Physics, Perkins. Totally uninspiring. More a cover closer than a page turner;

    (3)Reidi, Thermal Physics. A good alternative to Nytol;

    (4)Classical Mechanics, Goldstein. Stuff is all there but dry as a bone. Slightly better than reading the phone book.

    (5) Bleaney and Bleaney, Electricity and Magnetism. Not even going to start on this one! A husband and wife should find better things to do with their time.

    Dead cheap but sometimes useful: Schaums Outline Series. Gets to the point , plenty of problems and many worked examples in a wide number of topics. Calculas and differential equation ones were good. Various texts by Indian authors that looked like they were printed on bog roll. e.g. Elements of Group Theory for Physicists, A Joshi. Very cheap but good on a student grant:)

    I assume the situation has changed and that better produced, more polished and inspiring undergrad textbooks are available now surely?

  • Pingback: Mathematical Poems | Cosmic Variance()

  • Walt Pohl

    Back when I was in math grad school, I learned vector calculus from Div, Grad, and Curl and All That. So there.

  • Clifford

    Yeah, but I bet you don’t admit that freely at all the professional mathematician parties. You’d be asked to leave! If you do admit it, then good for you! πŸ˜‰


  • Adam

    Whilst on the subject of maths books, Horn and Johnson’s ‘Matrix Analysis’ is pretty handy (and very detailed; the companion volume ‘Topics in Matrix Analysis’ is a little more specific to a few topics). Although I’m not sure that I could sit down and read a whole chapter of it in one go, even.

  • Dan

    I would recommend Dirac’s The principle of quantum mechanics”, which introduce quantum mechanics in a very ellegant way, it involves less techanicle points but contain the most insightful view on the deep meaning of quantum mechanics. It is really wonderful

  • Adam

    Does quantum mechanics ‘mean’ anything, though?

    I’m not asking to be difficult, incidentally. I’ve had plenty of conversations about this with various people (who worry about this sort of stuff to varying degrees), and I’m really not sure that asking if it ‘means’ anything is even the right sort of question, like asking how many miles per gallon you get out of your salt shaker*. Or, I should say, I’m not convinced that it’s a good question.

    *Well, maybe you could imagine seeing how far you could walk trailing salt before you needed to refill, but you get my general drift, I trust.

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Since I suggested a thread on this subject (back on the “greatest papers” thread, I think I should contribute. I like most of the suggestions so far, but I currently really like Zwiebach’s First Course in String Theory. I can’t think of another book that starts from such a basic level, develops everything in detail, and really lets you see a bit of advanced physics.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Well, the classics are covered so:

    Dirac’s General Theory of Relativity

    Jackson’s E&M

    Wightman’s PCT

    Schiff’s Quantum Mechanics

    Binney & Tremaine’s Galactic Dynamics

    Shapiro & Teukolsky’s Physics of Compact Objects

    Lightman & Rybicki’s Radiative Transfer

    Although I’d vote for Feynman followed by Landau & Lifshitz’s Classical Theory of Fields and MTR’s Gravitation

  • damtp dweller

    I used to absolutely despise MTW for a very long time. Now, however, I’ve come round to thinking that there may be some value to it after all.

    Anyhow, my best books are as follows:

    General Relativity, Wald. It’s got absolutely everything and is written in a beautifully concise and elegant way. I still find it rewarding to browse through it.

    The General Theory of Relativity, Weinberg. Where I actually learned GR from. Wonderful book (if you’re prepared to ignore Weinberg’s infamous comment about geometry at the start).

    The Classical Theory of Fields, Landau & Lifshitz. Again, great introductory book although their notation and choice of units is a pain.

    The Variational Principles of Mechanics, Lanczos. A true gem and still the best account of variational methods.

    And finally,

    Lectures on Quantum Mechanics, Dirac. The book that started a thousand arguments about canonical quantisation, gauge theory, and constraint equations. Its tiny size belies the enormous complexity of the subject material; I still have to refer to Hennaux & Teitelboim’s book when reading it.

  • Clifford

    Yes, CapitalistImperialistPig, it did come from your suggestion. Thanks. I promised I would do it, and so here it is. -cvj

  • vk

    My list would include:
    Dirac – Quantum Mechanics.

    Landau & Lifshitz – Classical Mechanics (it teaches in about 100 pages what most other books take 300 or more). & their Classical theory of fields.

    The Feynman Lectures in Physics- they are absolutely the most fun physics books
    to read while teaching an enormous amount.

    Feynman & Hibbs – Path Integrals (it offers a very nice complement to Dirac’s book).

    Weinberg- Gravitation and Cosmology – a bit dated but really nice.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Try as I might, I just can’t go past the books that make up the Landau course in theoretical physics. These succinctly written books teach you everything you need to know to get a good undergraduate-level physics education and nothing more. There is none of the extraneous bullshit that pads out some other textbooks. The other thing about Landau’s course is that its explanations are really original, like they’ve come from the mind of a man who established most of his knowledge of physics by deriving it himself from basic principles, as opposed to learning it step-by-step from textbooks. A truly independent thinker, in other words. I suppose most colleagues of Landau would have classified him as such, but for me it really comes through in his physics texts.

    And to continue the theme of highly original thinkers, the 3-volume lectures of Feynman are an ideal prelude to Landau’s books. They do a great job in sending you on your way to thinking like a physicist.

  • Maynard Handley

    As others have pointed out, it’s much easier and more fun to remember the awful books.
    I nominate *both* the Kittel books — both godawful turgid messes that hop from one idea to another every paragraph and have no coherency whatever. (Esp ironic in the case of the thermal physics book which is supposed to be all about a single coherent view).
    I secondly nominate Hecht and Zajac, the book that made me hate optics, a hatred that persists to this day.

    As for good books, I think my nominee would be Ashcroft and Mermin. This was a book that, I think, did do pretty well in terms of trying to tie together a lot of ideas into one coherent whole.

  • David Guarrera

    Has nobody mentioned anything by griffiths? The man is a master! Easily the best two physics textbooks I have used are his QM and his Electrodynamics book. Sakurai’s QM comes a close third behind those. I guess if I had to choose one it would have to be Griffiths Electrodynamics. Just last night I got caught up reading his near perfect chapter on radiaton when I should have been otherwise studying for general exams. It brought tears to my eyes.

    To the comment above, I’ve used the Kittle Thermal Physics book, and think it sucks. It also happened to start falling apart on the third day I owned it, a phenomena that I found was not constrained to my copy.

  • Adam

    The Mandl book on Quantum Mechanics is a nice Quantum Physics textbook although, like all the basic undergrad quantum physics books I’ve read, too heavy on wave mechanics and too late to use Dirac notation.

    Chris Isham’s ‘Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Theory’ is great (it’s a third year physics course) although it would perhaps be best in conjunction with another book. It does have a section entitled ‘What is a thing’, which can’t be bad.

  • Becky Stanek

    It’s very startling to read this thread and realize that I do have fond memories of some of my undergraduate physics textbooks. What is wrong with me?

    I only survived stellar physics through Dmitri Mihalas’s Stellar Atmospheres — the first edition, not the second. In the second edition he went tensor-crazy, but the first edition is clear, straightforward, and completely impossible to find. But it is absolutely the best stellar physics book I have ever encountered.

    I must second the vote for Carroll & Ostlie’s An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics, which got me through undergrad and has even been useful in graduate school. I recommend it to all the incoming astro grads who haven’t had many astronomy classes yet. Also, Binney & Tremain’s Galactic Dynamics is amazing — comprehensive but still very straightforward.

    Back to undergrad physics, I agree that the Griffiths E&M text is excellent for an undergrad text, but I didn’t think his quantum book was in-depth enough. It was good enough to get me through undergrad, but hasn’t been a useful reference since.

    And, a third vote for the Kittel and Kroemer Thermal Physics as The Worst Physics Textbook! What a useless piece of crap that fell apart before I could even abuse it. I will certainly be watching this thread for good thermo book recommendations.

  • Clifford

    Hi! Yes (many of you)… Griffiths’ E&M is very good indeed. A model of the approach of pitching a book at a specific level and then stripping out what is not needed to do a good course at that level. I say this from the point of view of someone who taught from it last semester. It made my job quite trouble-free.


  • Dave Bacon

    It’s hard to beat the Feynman lectures for out and out enjoyment, but the textbook from which I think I learned the most from was “Quantum Mechanics” by Cohen-Tannoudji, Diu and Laloe.

    Funny story about Jackson’s E&M book. At Caltech, we used Jackson for our undergraduate physics E&M course. When I first showed up in Berkeley to start my Ph.D., they had a mixure for the incoming graduate student and the faculty. Jackson was there, along with my roommate from Caltech. My roommate walked up to Jackson without introducing himself and simply said “Your book almost killed me.” The moments of silence as Jackson tried to figure out how to respond were priceless.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Oops. MTW, not MTR. I shall now be shunned by my grave colleagues.

    MTW almost killed one of my friends, literally. He was visiting from the UK and kipped out on my floor when a moderate earthquake hit SoCal; MTW, foolishly, was on the top shelf of the bookcase, and came down at his head.
    Fortunately I had already started screaming at him to get to the door, and he had good reflexes. Shattered my watch though when it hit; Kip never did agree to replace it.

    But I still like it.

    If L&L as a series counts, then it wins, hands down.

  • Dan Schmidt

    David Morin’s textbook-in-progress for Harvard’s honors intro mechanics course (click on the “Textbook” link on the left) will be a classic as soon as enough people are exposed to it, I’m sure. It’s the book I wish I learned that stuff from. Incredibly clear explanations (including whole chapters on checking units and limiting cases, two things that every student should get used to doing from the get-go) and a staggering number of worked problems.

    And speaking of poetry, it has dozens of physics limericks. (Which I can take or leave, but YMMV.)

  • JC

    I really liked David Griffiths’ particle physics book as an introductory textbook. When I first tried to learn particle physics, I ended up going through books like Bjorken & Drell, Commins, Close, Sakurai, etc … which in hindsight was a very steep learning curve indeed. I wish Griffiths’ particle physics book was published when I was an undergrad. In some ways it’s almost like reading a “coffee table” book, without any huge glossy pictures.

    So far I haven’t really found any quantum field theory books which are “readable” like Griffiths’ textbooks. (I found Zwiebach’s string theory book almost at a Griffiths’ level of writing, though for string theory instead of quantum field theory).

    Anyone willing to take a gamble of writing a quantum field theory textbook written in David Griffiths’ style?

  • Tim D

    I’d also be interested in good Stat Mech/Thermo textbook recommendations. I recall learning bits and pieces from many different books, but it was always a challenge to connect the presentation of an idea in one text with that in another. Some of the better ones were Reif, Landau & Lifshitz and Chandler.

    And Mazenko’s “Equilibrium Statistical Mechanics” definitely gets my nod for worst Stat Mech textbook. Everything is in there and formalized, but with very little physical motivation. Also, he numbers his equations from 1 to 2898, and the index is hopeless. Ugh.

    Textbooks I *did* like and learned a lot from were:

    — Schutz, First Course in General Relativity
    — Griffiths, Introduction to E&M
    — Ashcroft & Mermin, Solid State Physics
    — Shankar, Principles of Quantum Mechanics
    — Sean Carroll’s GR Lecture Notes

    I hear good things about Scott Dodleson’s Modern Cosmology and Sean’s GR book, but I haven’t had the privilege of reading them yet.

  • JC

    I agree with others that many statistical mechanics textbooks leave a lot to be desired. I haven’t really found any good stat mech textbooks at the undergraduate level. Though if I had to choose one, Plischke & Bergersen’s book was ok, though it’s more at the graduate level than undergrad.

    In terms of just strictly classical thermodynamics, I used Zemansky’s book when I was an undergrad. Zemansky was a bit on the dry side. Callen’s thermodynamics book I felt was better and more readable.

  • Moshe Rozali

    Oh, boy, I do like my books, so this could take a while.

    The best undergrtaduate courses I took had no textbooks (one example is “famous paradoxes in physics” with Yakir Aharonov, which was taught withuot any notes), but there were several really nice books along the way: mechanics and quantum mechanics of the Landau-Lifschitz series (though I don’t like the rest much), stat mech by Reif, differential geometry by Spivak, and more…

    My favorite was “gravitation and cosmology” by Weinberg. I was lucky enough to take 5-6 semester worth of courses from him later, and discover why I liked it so much. It is the exact reason why many people dislike his books- it is all about the details. You will not come out of reading his books with a bird’s eye view of the subject, or with an appreciation of its mysterious and intricate elegance. What you will get instead is an extremely detailed knowledge of the subject, up to the last factor of 2: no stone unturned, no unexplained mysteries, it is all there.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    If we can do famous “in progress books”, then the two winners must be:

    1) Goldreich and Phinney’s “Order of Magnitude Physics”

    2) Thorne, Blandford, Goldreich and Phinney (in some permutation) “Applications of Classical Physics”

    I have samizdat copies of old drafts of both…

  • hack

    When I was at Caltech many years ago, I think I was one of the only students in my class who read more than a couple chapters of the Feynman lectures. Of course back then you could still get a live performance from the man himself. If only I had known about them in high school; we didn’t have the internet or Amazon back then, and I was stuck with the sublimely awful Haliday and Resnik for all of my physics needs.

  • JC

    Besides the Feynman lectures, has anyone ever tried writing a freshman/sophomore physics textbook which attemps to cover introductory university level physics and mathematics in a unified manner and presentation? When I was an undergrad, I always thought the presentation in all of the freshman and sophomore courses in physics and math to be somewhat “fragmented”.

  • Moshe Rozali


    How about the best reference book? there are some beautiful books that are just too specialized to be textbooks in an actual course, though they would make fine textbooks for fantasy courses. Two examples:

    Methods in Field Theory, proceedings of Les Houches 1975.

    Advanced Mathematical Methods for Scientists and Engineers, Bender and Orszag.

    and on textbooks: I’ve been looking a bit at “Biological Physics” by Philip Nelson (the former string theorist), looks pretty nice, I hear students here like it…

  • Clifford

    Moshe: I think I’ve probably used up my share this week’s quota of posts which are shamelessly trawling for lists of things from the commenters…. πŸ˜‰ Another “Greatest….!” will have to wait for a while. Hold on to those choices…. we shall see.


  • Eugene

    How about Sean’s Book? πŸ˜‰

    You know the one. You know you want it!

  • Alex R

    No mention of Purcell’s wonderful intro E&M text from the Berkeley Physics Series? This is a wonderfully elegant freshman E&M course — I learned more about electromagnetism from this book than I did from upper division or graduate E&M, and a heck of a lot about relativity, without which you can’t really understand E&M.

  • Scott

    I just thought i would chime in with everyone else and say that the 3 volumes of Feynman’s lectures on physics wins this hands down.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    For next week: the Greatest Ever Physics Blog?

  • Clifford

    It’s a bit premature for that! Furthermore, that is definitely a pointless discussion. While there is no clear such thing as a greatest physics paper, or textbook, you get tremendous value discussing the issue and trading knowledge of several examples. The same cannot be said (certainly not to the same extent) for your suggested category! …. πŸ˜€



  • RJ

    I recommend Ralph Baierlein’s “Thermal Physics” as a pretty good undergraduate-level introduction to thermodynamics and stat mech. It is the closest thing to Griffiths writing a book on that subject that I’ve seen.

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    About a Griffiths book: It brought tears to my eyes.

    A lot of physics and math books have had this effect on
    me – but probably not in the way you meant.

  • Greg A.

    While I don’t necessarily think this is the greatest textbook ever, Thermal Physics by Schroeder isn’t bad at all as far as Thermodynamics and Stat Mech at an undergraduate level go. The discussion is a little dispersed, but it’s understandable.

  • Florine

    I’m not sure what my favourite physics text book is… but it is not Intro to QM by Griffiths. (I did like his EM book though.)
    How can you seriously write an introduction to quantum mechanics, and start with the Schrâdinger equation on page 1, after barely 10 lines of text? Shouldn’t you say something about why anyone would want something new after the successes of classical mechanics? Give some indication as to why it might be a good idea to try and describe particles using a wave?
    It didn’t bring tears to my eyes, but I was actually angry to see as the first paragraph of the section on (the quantum mechanical description of) the atom a very classical description of an atom as a nucleus with electrons flying in circular orbits around it. Wait a minute, weren’t there supposed to be wavefunctions and stuff, instead of particles tracing a well-defined path?

    I learned QM from Bransden and Joachain, which was perfectly fine for me.

  • Richard

    I really liked Sakurai’s Modern Quantum Mechanics. It’s not an introductory QM book but it treats the basic stuff very nicely (not by the historical route). Except the not so good chapter about scattering theory which was finished after he died. I also read Bransden and Joachain for the first QM course. It’s not bad either.

    But: how about the best math book??? (for physicists maybe…?) I would nominate the differential equations book by Simmons.

  • joke

    Why do so many people love the Classical Theory of Fields? I thought it was by far the least useful of the Landau and Lifshitz books: the discussion of gravity is pretty outdated. Much more fun are Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Mechanics.

    This is a difficult vote to hold, because I think there are two kinds of physics textbooks:
    1 – the books we learn things from (for the first time)
    2 – the books we remember things from
    I learned QM from Griffiths, but I would never look anything up in that book. I would go to Sakurai or Landau and Lifshitz instead.

  • Clifford

    Hi Joke! (Again, another interesting parental decision there… πŸ˜‰ )

    Yes, it is ok to nominate a book that was great for you then, but that you would not use now. The point is that there are those who now as you then were, and so that book may still speak to them…

    Just like I don’t think I could now listen attentively to most of that German electronic music I used to listen to so much as a kid in the 80’s…..but I imagine that there are those out there who are just discovering it and love it….


  • PPCook

    My current favourite textbook is Zwiebach’s A First Course in String Theory, it’s so easy to read, making it one of the rare text books you can read cover to cover. It does have its failings in terms of using the light-cone gauge almost all the way through, but when you consider the intended audience is undergrads this is easy to let pass by. No other modern text book comes close in making string theory so clear.

    I don’t think the Landau & Lifshitz series should count as one textbook, otherwise this is a dead discussion. Who can’t love a series that begins teaching mechanics by defining that a particle is a point of mass?

    Some other favourites of mine that have not been mentioned:

    Hawking and Ellis: The Large Scale Structure of Space-time,

    Nash and Sen: Topology and Geometry for Physicists (older but smaller than Nakahara)

    Cahn: Semi-Simple Lie Algebras and their Representations (hard to read, but rewarding and concise, oh and free)

    Guenault: Statistical Physics

    Does anyone else have strong feelings about any of these?

  • Adam

    I like the Guenault book (in the same series as the Davies Quantum Mechanics book that I mentioned, if I recall right).

  • Dan Piponi (SIGFPE)

    Are there good physics books? The physics books I’ve read are so completely filled with non-sequiturs and leaps of logic that the only way I could ever learn physics was via oral transmission.

  • astromcnaught

    I would like to nominate *De Sphaera* of Johannes de Sacrobosco. This is a simple account of the spherical geometry underpinning the mathematical astronomy of Ptolemy and his later Arabic commentators and was composed round about 1230 AD.

    It was first printed in 1485, I think, and continuously re-printed until near the end of the 17th century, some 300 editions later!

    Many generations have learnt the basics of astronomy (and Latin) through this work. It was often published in an expanded ‘commentary’ manner where influential astronomers such as Clavius expounded at great length.

    One may argue that the physical content of such a work is, er, somewhat dated, but I don’t see that having any bearing on the matter whatsoever (except possibly with regard to the instructions in the ‘small print’ at the top of this thread).

    Of course, if one goes further back in time then Aristotle’s works were rather influential for a thousand years or so :)

    Perhaps if the current rate of change of thought and theory slowed to that of mediaeval times then some of the above thread items may indeed have the merit to linger for centuries.

  • Sean

    Paul, I’ve always thought that Nakahara was a million times better than Nash and Sen, don’t you think? Nakahara’s book (Geometry, Topology and Physics) is surprisingly readable, I learned a great deal from it. With Nash and Sen, I’m sure the information is there, but I have trouble getting it out.

  • Clifford

    I’d agree with Sean on this point, at least for treatments of certain topics, but maybe not all. I found that Nash and Sen was good for gettting a feeling of what’s going on -which is important- but at the end you might not know how to do anything useful with what you learned. Nakahara at least fooled you into thinking you could compute things after reading it. I’ve forgotten if that feeling was reflecting a reality, it being so long ago….

    Hmm, having failed to find N&S on my bookshelf where it should be, (I wanted to see if my recollection was fair or not) I’ve just decided (for the umpteenth time) to stop lending books out to eager students. I just lose track of them! Grrrrrr….


  • JC

    I found Nakahara’s book quite readable too. I wish it was published when I was first learning the subject. At the time I used “analysis, manifolds, and physics” by Dewitt-Morette, Choquet-Bruhat, and Dillard-Bleick, which had a very steep learning curve. Later I liked the review paper by Eguchi, Gilkey, and Hanson, which I thought was easier to read than the “analysis, manifolds, and physics” book.

  • JC

    Speaking of mathematical physics books, has anyone read the recent book “A Course in Modern Mathematican Physics: Groups, Hilbert Space, and Differential Geometry” by Peter Szekeres?

    From’s listing of it, it appears to be written in the spirit of books like Nakahara and “analysis, manifolds, and physics” (by the three women).

  • Pascal

    Interesting thread! Here is the list that turned a mathematician into a theoretical physicist:

    Foundations of Mechanics by Abraham & Marsden
    Statistical Mechanics by K. Huang
    Quantum Mechanics by Sakurai
    Quantum Physics by Glim & Jaffe
    Spacetime and Geometry by Sean…

    Personaly, I never found the Nash/Sen, Nakahara and DeWitt/… very readable. I don’t know of any book that covers related topics in a single place AND that I liked. To fill the gap, I used the following texts:

    Anomalies in QFT by Bertlmann
    Differential analysis on complex manifolds by Wells
    Compact Riemann surfaces by Narasimhan

    By the way, what about QFT? Learning QFT from all well-known textbooks has always been painful for me!

  • Clifford

    Pascal….. that has all been solved recently by Tony Zee’s “Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell”. An excellent conceptual introduction with a broad modern perspective.


  • Janet

    I liked Halliday and Resnick. I even learned stuff from it when I was in grad school. If I could only keep one book, it might well be that one.

    I loved the Griffiths book on Particle Physics.

    I give a thumbs up to Schutz, A First Course in General Relativity.

    I like Jackson’s book on E&M. Not as an undergraduate text, though, no way. Purcell’s book is real good and easy to understand.

    I also liked Sakurai’s book on QM but not the one by Cohen-Tannoudji, et al; thought that one was truly awful to try to learn from.

  • PPCook

    Sean and Clifford,

    I’d have nominated Nakahara but I haven’t read it yet and so felt a bit too guilty to do so, but was interested in hearing other people’s opinions. So thanks. I do really like Nash and Sen though, and when I have turned away confused from N&S and looked up definitions in Nakahara it has been helpful, but it also seems that Nakahara bases, with acknowledgment, many of its approaches on N&S.
    I’ve been reading the first edition of N&S and one of its failures is that it has a large number of typos (also in my copy /phi is used for the empty set, which is confusing, especially when you have charts denoted by, you guessed it /phi). However the reason I’m still happy to back it is that from reading it I was able to spot the typos when they came up – a good test for a decent exposition.

  • Adam

    I had Ohanian as my bumper book of everything in low detail. Wasn’t bad, I guess, broad but shallow.

  • Clifford

    Hi PPCook,

    I like Nash and Sen, too. That was what I learned several things from first. Use both….and Eguchi, Gilkey and Hanson’s physics report (mentioned earlier).

    And don’t forget that Chris Isham (yep, the bloke down the road from you) wrote a couple of nice little geometry and group theory books based on two of the courses he gave at Imperial College. I recall them being rather cute and useful for beginning theoretical physicists….


  • Adam

    Isham’s Group theory book is good (as is his QM book I mentioned earlier). His differential geometry book is good, but being at his lectures is even better.

    Isham also deserves points for using the word ‘peristalithic’ in a most excellent way, in his QM book.

  • JC

    In terms of quantum field theory books, I found Zee’s book to be a nice readable introduction. I first learned quantum field theory from books like Bjorken & Drell, Itzykson & Zuber, T.D. Lee, Mandl, etc … which felt like a steep learning curve (especially Itzykson & Zuber’s book) at the time. In the past I never really found any particular field theory textbook which was satisfactory overall, before Zee and Peskin & Schroeder’s books came along.

  • JC

    On a slight tangent, anyone have any recommendations for textbooks in subjects like fluid dynamics, hydrodynamics, elasticity, etc … (ie. subjects they use to teach in standard undergraduate physics courses a long time ago, but no longer really do anymore today). Landau & Lifshitz’s books on these subjects were ok, though I didn’t find them to be very readable for non-experts.

  • Adam

    You’d be better off looking at some mecheng book for that stuff, wouldn’t you? Of course, that would mean asking an engineer.

    Not sure what it’s like where you are, but if I wanted to find an engineer, I’d look under the bar tables at closing time.

  • David Guarrera

    I find Nakahara as a useful reference, but any actual learning on the subject has come from geometry/topology books. There are surprisingly few good books on this subject (well, geometry, really, for topology there are the excellent Hatcher and Munkers), so far I like Darlings “differential forms and connections,” the best.

    Will nobody nominate Hartle’s relativity book? It’s very readable, and gets your hands dirty with actual calculations as opposed to doing hoity toity (sp?) geometry all the time. It think it’s the ideal introduction to the subject, followed up by a more formal book like Sean’s (which I still haven’t looked at!) or Wald’s (do you guys talk smack at faculty meetings about who has the better book?) Any time I’ve gone to MTW for information, only sadness has resulted. I keep it on my bookshelf to impress the chicks, though.

    What the heck’s with differential forms being like “bongs of a bell”, anyway?

  • Clifford

    David, I will wholeheartedly support your (and an earlier) suggestion to celebrate Jim’s book. I taught GR from the notes that eventually became that book, and it was such a pleasure. For those who don’t know, Jim Hartle chaged the approach to teaching GR and made it a lot more like teaching E&M. Rather than first teaching you all the mathematics and geometry that you need to derive and handle Einstein’s equations, and then studying solutions of them, he does things the other way around. He builds intuition for the physics by studying the solutions first, gradually building up the language of curved spacetime, etc. So you get very far with actual physics very quickly this way. Only later does he teach you the full formalism (and even then quite gently), where you pick up the rest of GR’s structure. Notice that this is what we do with E&M, typically. You learna lot about the physics and fields of solenoids, infinite wires, point charges, induction, and the like, and then you study Maxwell’s equations. Not the other way around, typically. This “physics first” approach is what Jim Hartle takes with GR, and it is just wonderfully successfully executed.


  • Sean

    When I teach the undergraduate GR course, I use Hartle’s book. And when Hartle teaches the graduate course, he uses mine. They fit together quite well, actually.

    But of course there is no such thing as the perfect introduction, since different people respond to different approaches. A good illustration is the feelings people have toward Weinberg, Wald, and MTW, three books that couldn’t be more different from each other. For any one of these books, you can find people who love them with all their heart, and people who hate them with a white-hot passion. My goal was to write a book that most people would basically like, without getting too emotional.

  • Moshe Rozali


    MTW, all by itself, seems to be “three books that couldn’t be more different from each other”…maybe that explains the range of emotion.

  • JC


    Most of the engineering people I knew over the years, all thought their undergraduate textbooks for subjects like fluid dynamics, hydrodynamics, elasticity, etc … were largely “brain dead” crap for the most part.

    The more “theory minded” engineers I knew over the years, seemed to like the books written by Jerrold Marsden on fluid mechanics, elasticity, etc … (Marsden also wrote several books on classical mechanics using the modern differential geometry language). Other books they liked were the many books written by Vladimir I. Arnold on hydrodynamics and mechanics (in general).

    I found most of Marsden and Arnold’s books also a bit on the “steep learning curve” side. I guess what I have in mind for textbooks are ones which are not too “brain dead” (like the many undergraduate engineering textbooks on fluid dynamics, hydrodynamics, elasticity, heat/mass transfer, etc …), but are also not too advanced like Marsden and Arnold’s books.

  • jepe

    M. Rozali; I agree that Biological Physics by P. Nelson does seem to be quite good. I’m trying it this semester; biophysics is an area that could use some inspiring new textbooks.

    Back on topic:
    Undergrad E&M: another vote for David Griffiths; this book was key for getting me interested in physics.
    Undergrad stat-mech: Pathria’s “Statistical Mechanics”, although David Chandler’s book comes in as a close second.
    Mechanics: Landau & Lifshitz (w/a good prof to provide background insight)
    E&M: Suffered through Jackson and would have to agree w/the negative comments above; if only there were an advanced E&M text written w/Griffiths’ style.
    QM: I thought Cohen-Tannoudji was great
    Mathematical Methods: Mathews and Walker, Mathematical Methods in Physics …although supposedly this is based on Fenynman’s notes..
    Fluid Mechanics: David Tritton’s book
    GR: Never had a class! Just intruiged by a couple weeks of differential forms as explained by John Hubbard and Beverly West. Talking to students, the word around the campfire is that ‘Spacetime and Geometry’ is a good place to start ;-).

  • JC

    With respect to GR, I found both Sean’s book and Hartle’s book quite readable. When I first learned GR, I made the mistake of trying to learn from Dirac’s GR book. (At the time I was naively thinking, “70 pages shouldn’t be too tough”). A week later I came across MTW’s book, and came to the realization it was even harder than Dirac’s book. After these two false starts, I ended up going through Weinberg’s GR book, which I still like a lot today. Years later I came across Schutz’s GR book, which I also liked a lot.

    Speaking of Dirac, I also made the silly mistake of trying to learn quantum mechanics from Dirac’s QM book. I got frustrated very quickly after a week or so at the time. (My father had Dirac’s QM and GR books on the living room bookshelf). Then I learned quantum mechanics from various physical chemistry textbooks, which usually presented it in a “watered down” manner. Eventually I ended up using books like Merzbacher and Schiff, which I thought were kind of on the dry and “boring” side.

    The closest book I’ve ever seen which could be a “quantum mechanics for dummies” book (only requiring knowledge of freshman calculus), would be McQuarrie’s “quantum chemistry” textbook. For really basic quantum mechanics, I like McQuarrie’s book more than most other introductory QM textbooks. Though the main shortcoming of McQuarrie’s book is that it’s mainly concentrating on solving Schrodinger’s equation with applications to molecular systems, and very little else (ie. no raising & lowering operator formalism, no potential scattering, no matrix mechanics formalism, no Dirac bra & ket formalism, no addition of angular momentum, etc …). Nevertheless McQuarrie’s book does cover a lot of ground and is very readable, in a writing style similar to David Griffiths’ textbooks. I wish McQuarrie’s “quantum chemistry” textbook was published when I was first tried to learn quantum mechanics.

  • JC


    When I was first trying to learn Yang-Mills theory, I ended up using “Methods in Field Theory (proceedings of Les Houches 1975)” quite extensively. At the time I couldn’t find any other books or review papers which were “readable” to me. Even today “methods in field theory” is still a nice readable introduction to the subject. Awhile ago I picked up a copy of it, when I found out the World Scientific reprint of it was actually still in-print.

    On a similar line of ideas, years later I also liked Sidney Coleman’s “aspects of symmetry” book for its readability.

    Another “fantasy” course which I think could be neat, would be an advanced field theory course which covers field theory methods applied to condensed matter systems using a book like Tsvelik’s “quantum field theory in condensed matter physics”.

    On the subject of condensed matter physics, I really like the book “a quantum approach to condensed matter physics” by Taylor & Heinonen as an introductory textbook. It attempts to explain many condensed matter systems while only assuming one has done a basic first course in quantum mechanics, and is also fairly “readable”.

  • Peter Sloane

    There is a rather good book i have read called D-Branes published by cambridge university press. I forget the author :-) I think it deserves a mention, but then my phd project is on branes so maybe i’m a bit biased.

    Other books –
    Foundations of quantum groups by shaun majid (though prof majid gave me a print out of that for free so again bias). Takes quantum groups to the point needed to understand their relation to noncommutative geometry.

    Also one that picks me out having been a durham undergraduate:
    Armstrong – basic topology. all the information is there for very basic stuff (it even has an appendix telling you what a group is) and pretty pictures of klein bottles and things.

  • Anon

    Once again, for some sentimental favorites…

    Methods of Mathematical Physics, Courant and Hilbert (Falls into the same category as Bender and Orzsag, I guess, of mostly being relevant to a methods course…)

    Principles of Optics, Born and Wolf (though I realize their notation makes them a bit frustrating, I don’t know of a more comprehensive book on the market.)

    Handbook of Mathematical Functions, etc., Abramowitz and Stegun. Like Courant and Hilbert, but just see how lovingly they are endorsed by Michael Berry here:

    and here:

    I was thinking about the fluid dynamics question, and I think Batchelor’s Introduction to Fluid Dynamics is a good reference, but I’ve never had it used as a textbook.


  • Robert

    Coming back from two weeks of holiday, most on the topic has been said. But here are my favourites:

    Number one are by far the Feynman Lectures (Vol. I and II). From these I learned how physicists think.

    When it comes to a GR text, it’s clearly MTW. And yes, a tensor is a machine with slots (egg crates etc) and not something with indices that transforms in a particular way (as Weinberg wants to make you believe). [I have to admit, I haven’t really looked at Sean’s book,yet].

    Both these are 100% pure fun to read but admittedly, none of them can probably be used to accompany a lecture course. This is why many people who were busy with their courses never properly used them. Due to biographical oddities (three months of spare time between highschool and uni for Feynman, one year of compulsory [German] community/civil service after two years of uni) I actually read these books from beginning to end. I doubt that many other people can claim this. But it’s worth!

    In addition, our library had a German/English bilingual edition of the Feynman lectures. So besides physics I could also learn physicists’ English (which is different from the literature English I learned in highschool).

    Some other books: Jackson makes a great mouse pad and I have used it to this end for years. Plus it contains everything you ever wanted to know about boundary value problems. But clearly it’s not fun to read.

    The writeup of Witten’s lectures in the IAS physics lectures for mathematicians contain lots of interesting insights.

    And there is (admittedly not a physics text) “Concrete Mathematics” by Graham, Knuth (the Knuth of TeX) and Patashinik. This is a math book for computer scientists. It’s my standard reference for formulas containing binomials, for generating functions, sums, recurrence relations, and asymptotic expressions. And (probably thanks to Knuth) it’s full of jokes and fun observations. And there are hundreds of problems of a variety of difficulties, rated from “warmups” to “research problems”. Therefore it’s also a source for Great Wakering.

    Finally, there are the books by Landau and Lifshits. Since my first mechanics course. I have a strong disliking for them, probably based on my own poor judgement. When I first opened vol. 1 I was confused (admitedly I shouldn’t have been) by the fact that they use brackets for the vector product rather than times like everybody else. Okok, it’s a Lie bracket but still, it makes formulas ugly. And then there is the infamous appendix on what a great guy Landau has been.

    Marco Zagermann, who was in my year can still recite the highlights from this appendix: About the logarithmic scale for physicists and how Landau promoted himself on this scale later in his life, how he only read the abstracts of the papers in the Physical Review and then judged the papers either as pathological or how he rederived the results of the paper just from the abstract for himself. And there are more pearls like this.

  • Flip

    How about Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell by Tony Zee. It’s a pleasure to read and filled to the brim with actual, down-to-earth physical explanations of quantum field theory. Zee tosses in a few really nice anecdotes, to top it off.

  • Clifford

    Yes! I believe I mentioned it earlier in the thread. It is an excellent QFT book. One of the best introductions I’ve ever seen!


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  • SH

    Feynman lectures and Dirac’s monograph on quantum mechanics are truley wonderful books. But as a textbook, Purcell’s “Electricity and Magnetism” is by far my favorite. It kindly explains grad, div, curl, and all that ;^) with its physical meanings; And with some special relativity he shows beautifully how the magnetic field is just the electric field in disguise. I think the only reason it is not very much used in schools is that it uses CGS units. But since he gives SI versions for each important equations, I guess students will easily overcome that issue.

  • Mauro Guerra

    Personally I think that Feynman Lectures on Physics cannot be beaten. I also enjoyed very much Tipler’s “Modern Physics” because of the brilliant, yet simple, way he explains quantum mechanics and atomic theory, although some demonstrations are a bit too incomplete and some of them even “not so correct” too say the least, but it can be compensated by complementary study of Landau’s “Course in Theoretical Physics”.
    By the way, for a undergrad like myself, the end of chapter exercises in Landau’s book are far from straightforward.

  • Jill

    So what happened to the discussion of the greatest physics paper?

  • Clifford

    The discussion is still on! I said I would let it run for a while. We will move to the next phase soon. Fear not. Not too late to make more pitches….

    I’ll need to sit down and make a short list of five, as promised. Then you get to vote. Exciting eh? Physics by democracy… πŸ˜‰


  • Cygnus

    Most of the books which I would’ve mentioned seem to already have been dealt with, so let me name Visual Complex Analysis by Tristan Needham, (I know it’s a maths book, but this should count if Div, Grad Curl and all that can count, for much the same reasons).

    Other than that I would second, The Feynman Lecture, (Wheeler’s)Gravitation, and Zee’s QFT book.

  • Count Iblis

    The books by Landau and Lifshitz are very good.

    QFT: The book by Ryder is ok for undergraduate students.

    GR: ”A short course in General Relativity” by J. Foster and J.D Nightingale can be used for undergraduate students.

    Statistical Mechanics: The book by F. Reif (forgot the title).

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  • R. Michalak

    In addition to all the standards above, I would include Mathews and Walker – I found it to be a great, albeit brief introduction to math methods. Some people hate it; I do not know why.

  • Cygnus

    I just came across Pauli’s article on Relativity in the Encyclopaedie der mathematischen Wissenschaften. An english translation of the same by G. Field was brought out by Pergamon Press. Though not exactly intended as a text book when written, this article by Pauli (written when he was around 20) can definitely serve as a wonderful textbook for GR.

    And by the way, when do you plan to make pronouncements about the winners of this and the other running competitions on this blog?

  • Clifford

    It will happen Cygnus. Readers will have to vote, after the selection of the top five…. I was hoping to set it up this week…but it does not look like it will happen.


  • chimpanzee

    hack on Aug 25th, 2005 at 12:49 pm

    When I was at Caltech many years ago, I think I was one of the only students in my class who read more than a couple chapters of the Feynman lectures. Of course back then you could still get a live performance from the man himself. If only I had known about them in high school; we didn’t have the internet or Amazon back then, and I was stuck with the sublimely awful Haliday and Resnik for all of my physics needs.

    Are you talking about the Physics X (undergrad) course taught by Feynman? Someone I know (Caltech Physics grad, Class of ’77) was telling me about how it was a Q&A format, to give the students a “demo” of how a physicist solved a problem.

    Funny thing, I used Halliday & Resnick for the Phys 106 course (part of the undergrad 106/107/108 curriculum at UIUC, designed by Leo Lavatelli..a Caltech alumni who was a classmate of Robert Leighton..who was involved with the Feynman Lectures). Funny thing, we never had any exposure to the Feynman Lectures..although I remember thumbing thru it in the library. I now have the 3 volume set, & plan to go thru it in the near future.

    Recently, I ran into Alan Leighton over our common interest in chasing solar eclipses ( & he mentioned how his dad was a physicist, wrote a modern physics text, used to take him up in the San Gabriel mtns for Comet Ikeya-Seki, etc. I didn’t know at the time, WHO Robert Leighton was. You might recall a Ralph Leighton (Feynman’s protege), as seen on that NOVA episode on Feynman & Tannu Tuva..that’s Alan’s brother.

  • J. Doe

    I would nominate griffiths E&M because of the oratory style in which it is presented (he actually talks similar to how he writes) and because he is one of the only authors who has managed to demonstrate (and not just claim) the elegence of the theory.
    That said, anyone who claims his quantum book is the best book of all time needs to think how much non mechanical understanding they were able pull from the book.

  • Boyd

    well, i think this is a lot of personal taste…you know it depends if you are going for a monograph or pedagogy or writing style.

    For pedagogy, i think many (american?) students agree
    that griffiths’ textbooks (EM and QM) are both masterpieces. It’s too bad that no classical mechanics or statistical mechanics books share the same place.

    My personal taste regarding other pedagogical textbooks is: bowley and sanchez for undergrad stat. mech., and I really liked landau for classical mechanics, but i realize that it’s not to everyone’s taste. I’ve never read Reid, but i hear that’s a good stat mech book also.

    at the graduate level,
    I’ve never put down Ryder’s QFT.
    I think there are many good quantum books: shankar, baym, and sakurai come to mind. I enjoy both McQuarrie and Pathria for stat mech… Actually, McQuarrie in general i think it a really good author, i’ve read a few of his books now. I like fetter and walecka for classical mechanics at this level…but i dont really have a favorite here.

    Some others worth mentioning: Strogatz’s nonlinear dynamics, Bruus and Flensberg wrote a nice MBT book, and Tritton’s fluids is nice reading.

    ok..i’m done with my two cents. if i omitted subjects it’s because i dont have any text that sticks out at exemplary of great instruction and i am neglecting good monographs altogether.


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