How to become a Theoretical Physicist : A Textbook List for the Standard Physics Curriculum

Physics: Standard Textbooks

I here present a list of standard textbooks for the physics student. It is a compilation of books usually considered as being the “standard” or “classic” texts in physics. With this list, the motivated student can then confidently begin a self-study of undergraduate level physics or get started for an upcoming course. Now that I graduated, I want to share my experience with those students and I intend to write a series of hubs on some aspects that I sometimes found to be either misleading or difficult to grasp. I hope that with my help you’ll avoid the occasional pitfalls that I myself sometimes encountered.

Mathematics vs fluid dynamics
Mathematics vs fluid dynamics

How to become a Theoretical Physicist - An Advice

The basic topics in physics are easy to list : I have done it below. But the specific order in which your courses are to be taken is not so straightforward. If I may give this advice: do not blindly follow in order the suggested curriculum of your institution.

I often found that many students struggled with their physics homework not because they did not understand the physics, but because they could not do the maths. Mathematics is the ”tool kit” that physicists use in describing and analyzing physical phenomena. One just never knows what tools will be needed for a given job. This means that a physics major must have a wide ranging knowledge of different areas of mathematics, from differential equations, linear algebra and vector calculus to integral transforms, special functions, etc. These are the mathematics a physics major will encounter in courses in classical mechanics, electrodynamics and quantum mechanics.

Unfortunately, what typically happens is that students learn the mathematics at the same time they are learning the physics. This is an unfortunate way to learn the material, because more often than not, the mathematics gets in the way of understanding the physics. It is hard enough to learn the physics, but having to also learn the mathematics simultaneously makes the problem rather daunting. As an example, my Advanced Calculus (vector analysis) class was given afterElectromagnetism, where it is although much needed. So I had to learn the basics of vector analysis (the use of the grad, div & curl operators) in my EM class. And I'm glad I took Applied Analysis (Fourier transforms, etc.) before I had my first quantum mechanics course, even though it was a class usually given toward the end of the curriculum. The physical concepts to be learned in QM are already hard enough to grasp as they stand, without having to struggle to learn new mathematical concepts on top of that. (For those who might know what I'm talking about, let's say that wave packets became intuitive, and Fourier transforms made the swap between x-, p-representations easy to understand.)

So, as a rule, when I could do so, I tried to do my math courses first.

But one often cannot take those, either because the structure of the program makes it hardly possible, or because the student does not have the necessary prerequisites yet. If it's your case, hang on : the math you’ll learn in your physics classes should give you an edge (better grades) in the math classes that will follow. Still, a considerable amount of time can be spent on those mathematical matters that otherwise could’ve been spent on the physics. In the coming weeks, it is my intention to post short math summaries/tutorials/primers that can be conveniently studied as the need arise and will allow students to focus more on physics.

List of topics in physics and recommended physics textbooks

Here's a list of the basic topics in physics, with the books I recommend. These books are most probably offered at your institution. I agree, they are expensive. But (by clicking on the titles below) you can get them from amazon.com, where they are often cheaper (as a result of the high volume of books they order and sell).

Classical Mechanics Textbooks

Mechanics (3rd Edition)
Mechanics (3rd Edition)

by K.R. Symon. This is the standard undergraduate textbook on Mechanics. It covers a lot of topics (over 600 pages) and is packed with information. This book and Goldstein's Classical Mechanics is pretty much all you will ever need as a practicing physicist.

 
Classical Dynamics of Particles and Systems
Classical Dynamics of Particles and Systems

by J.B. Marion & S.T. Thornton.

Very Pedagogical...with an early (and easy!) presentation of lagrangian & hamiltonian dynamics. It also contains a chapter on variational calculus and another on nonlinear oscillations and chaos, something that is rarely seen in a book at this level. Used with Symon's Mechanics, it will enable you to become proficient at problem solving.

 
Classical Mechanics (3rd Edition)
Classical Mechanics (3rd Edition)

by H. Goldstein.

For over thirty years, this has been and is still the acknowledged standard in advanced classical mechanics. Period.

 

Electrodynamics Textbooks

Introduction to Electrodynamics (3rd Edition)
Introduction to Electrodynamics (3rd Edition)

by D.J. Griffiths. It is a must have text for students new to the field; it features a clear, accessible treatment of the fundamentals of electromagnetic theory. Griffiths does an excellent job presenting the material in an easy to read, conversational manner.

 
Classical Electrodynamics Third Edition
Classical Electrodynamics Third Edition

by J.D. Jackson. The legendary book covering most of the physics and classical mathematics necessary to understand electromagnetic fields. There is nothing even remotely close to it in scope out there. It covers an enormous amount of material in a way that can be referred to later (post-course), including mathematical tools and explicit formulas. BUT it is very mathematically demanding, and some of the discussions (particularly towards the ends of chapters) are thoroughly inpenetrable. If you're going to use it, I recommend Wangsness (below) as an accompanying text.

 
Electromagnetic Fields, 2nd Edition
Electromagnetic Fields, 2nd Edition

by R.K. Wangsness. This book is a foundation that will give you the experience and confidence to tackle more difficult texts like Jackson. This was my first undergrad textbook on the subject, and I loved it. The mathematical formalism is at a higher level than Griffiths, but still, Wangsness doesn't gloss over the mathematical details: you can figure out all the steps. Every equation has a pointer to its predecessors so that you can trace back to the very beginning what has been done. It offers just the right blend of rigor and application; I like it because it gives you a methodic approach to problem solving. There are a lot of worked out examples; virtually all of the standard problems are included. It includes simple and standard examples solved with different methods, which permits comparison between those methods and will enhance your problem solving abilities.

 

Quantum Mechanics Textbooks

Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (2nd Edition)
Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (2nd Edition)

by D.J. Griffiths. It is the text to get if as a beginner you want to get acquainted with quantum mechanics. This is a problem-centered book and is accessible without serious prerequisites.

 
Principles of Quantum Mechanics, 2nd Edition
Principles of Quantum Mechanics, 2nd Edition

by R. Shankar. A marvelous book! Even tough it is a standard textbook, I unfortunately did not know about this one until after I graduated. My QM class would've been so much clearer with it... This book follows my "math first, then physics" philosophy (as Cohen-Tannoudji does - see below), with a self-contained introduction to the mathematics required to understand the content of the book. It also provides a section on Hamiltonian and Lagrangian mechanics, which the reader can either read through or skip and refer to later, without disrupting the continuity of the book. It covers Quantum mechanics fully and in a logical order. While the writing is concise, it is full of insightful observations. The explanations are clear and unassuming enough that if you had to, you could learn quantum mechanics just from this book, in spite of an incomprehensible professor. I warmly recommend it.

 
Modern Quantum Mechanics (Revised Edition)
Modern Quantum Mechanics (Revised Edition)

by J.J. Sakurai. This book makes an excellent follow-up to an introductory course on quantum mechanics. This is a theoretical-minded text, stressing the algebraic aspects of the theory. To read this book at the right level, you need to already know QM well enough to free yourself from the confines of the wave function, and think in terms of the state of a quantum system, with the wave function being its spatial incarnation. The concept of STATE, not wave function, IS the essence of quantum physics. The first three chapters (Fundamental Concepts, Quantum Dynamics, and Angular Momentum) of the book are wonderfully done. These chapters, I believe, were completed by Sakurai before his untimely passing. The rest of the book seems to lack Sakurai's clarity but it does an adequate job tackling this difficult subject.

 
Quantum Mechanics (2 vol. set)
Quantum Mechanics (2 vol. set)

by Cohen-Tannoudji, Diu & Laloe. The timeless reference by Nobel Prize Laureate Claude Cohen-Tannoudji. It first covers in detail the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics and then presents a long and thourough overview of the physical foundations of quantum mechanics. It then goes on with harmonic oscillators, central potentials, scatterings, addition of angular momenta, perturbation theory, etc. A knowledge of vector calculus and linear algebra is assumed. This is the text I learned QM with. Although it is a very good text, it covers a wide range of subjects in a lot of details (it is a 2 volumes set), which is overwhelming for an undergrad. As an introduction, I would rather recommend Shankar (above); but as an advanced undergraduate or graduate text and a reference, it is excellent.

 

Thermodynamics / Statistical Mechanics Textbooks

Fundamentals of Statistical and Thermal Physics (Fundamentals of Physics)
Fundamentals of Statistical and Thermal Physics (Fundamentals of Physics)

by F. Reif. A classic. The author takes great pain to develop and elucidate a coherent physical picture for the edifice of statistical mechanics. However, if you are learning the subject for the first time, you might be too busy familiarizing yourself with the equations to be able to appreciate the value of his explanations and motivations. But then I still recommend this book as a complement to the one you use in class.

 
Thermal Physics (2nd Edition)
Thermal Physics (2nd Edition)

by C. Kittel. It is a standard book in thermodynamics. But I never used it, so I won't comment on it; I listed it here for your convenience.

 

Mathematical Methods of Physics

Mathematical Methods for Physicists, 6th Edition
Mathematical Methods for Physicists, 6th Edition

by Arfken & Weber. This is the standard book and the one you must have if you're a physics student. I suggest you get this one on your first semester, as you'll probably use it on a regular basis: it is very useful as a reference/companion book in everyday work. When you have to solve a concrete problem in physics, you do not want to spend a whole day looking through all your math textbooks. Now, with this book, you don't have to. It's also convenient because you can bring it with you everywhere. So, as a physics student, it is a must have. But if you want a book for self-study, I suggest Hassani's book (below). Topics: Vector Analysis, Vector Analysis in Curved Coordinates and Tensors, Determinants and Matrices, Group Theory, Infinite Series, Functions of a Complex Variable, The Gamma Function, Differential Equations, Sturm-Liouville Theory / Orthogonal Functions, Bessel/Legendre & other special functions, Fourier Series, Integral Transforms, Integral Equations, Calculus of Variations, Nonlinear Methods & Chaos, Probability.

 
Mathematical Methods: for Students of Physics and Related Fields (Undergraduate Texts in Contemporary Physics)
Mathematical Methods: for Students of Physics and Related Fields (Undergraduate Texts in Contemporary Physics)

by S. Hassani. The book gives a sort of enhanced recapitulation and new insights on the topics the reader already has a working knowledge of. Hassani goes right to the point and gets your attention right away; you cover a lot of stuff in a small amount of time. And when you get to the new topics, the rythm stays the same. How is it possible? With the use of easy examples. The goal of this book is not to become an expert on the topics of the book, but to get an overview of the mathematical methods you can apply to physics. The perfect book for a self-study. List of topics: Coordinate Systems and Vectors, Differentiation, Integration, Infinite Series, Integrals and Series as Functions, Dirac Delta Funtion, Vector Analysis, Complex Arithmetic, Complex Analysis, Differential Equations, Laplace's Equation and Other PDEs of Mathematical Physics, Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos.

 
Mathematical Physics: A Modern Introduction to Its Foundations
Mathematical Physics: A Modern Introduction to Its Foundations

by S. Hassani. My favorite. This book is the first choice if you want to get a handle on the mathematical methods of theoretical physics at advanced undergraduate / beginning graduate level. The interconnections among the various topics are displayed by the use of vector spaces as a central unifying theme, recurring throughout the book. All the topics blend together in a wonderful, big unified whole...ahhhhhhh, joy!... The book covers: Finite- and Infinite-dimensional Vector Spaces, Complex Analysis, Differential Equations, Operators on Hilbert Spaces, Green's Functions, Groups and Manifolds, Lie Groups and Applications.

 

Most Widely Used Two-Year College Physics Textbooks

It's been 8 months since I published this article/hub. I'm now editing it to include a list of College physics textbooks. This list is taken from the American Institute of Physics (AIP) website.

I list them here for your conveniance, sorted in the usual calculus-based / algebra-trigo-based / conceptual categories.

Algebra/Trigonometry based physics

Physics
Physics

by Cutnell & Johnson

 
College Physics
College Physics

by Wilson & Buffa

 

Conceptual physics

Physics: A World View
Physics: A World View

by Kirkpatrick & Wheeler

 

[Note: English is not my native language. I welcome comments regarding my writing; if you find that an idea is unclear, that I should rephrase a sentence, or that I mispelled a word, please feel free to leave me a (constructive) comment to this effect. I would really appreciate it.]

Comments 22 comments

Michael 7 years ago

Thanks for the info. The ultimate textbook list for physics!


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

What a great, practical resource this is. Thanks!


Diana 6 years ago

I would have never guessed English is not your first language. Thank you for all the information.


Aneesh3 profile image

Aneesh3 6 years ago from India

Thank you sir.You are given a valuable information.What is your opinion about the book "CONCEPTS OF MODERN PHYSICS" by Arthur Beiser.


Phillip Manning 6 years ago

I am chemist catching up on elementary physics. I have textbook, "Physics," by James S. Walker that I really like. Do you have an opinion on this booK?


BDubbB 4 years ago

I'm new to this website. I'm sorry, but I cannot find the list of textbooks. Can anybody help me?


DIOGYK 4 years ago

Thank you for creating this topic, I'm reading "Physics: Principles with Applications (5th Edition) by Douglas C. Giancoli" at the moment.


nikhil 4 years ago

a helpful information being searching this long time finally got it thanks


BDubbB 4 years ago

Just so everybody knows. I figured out my problem. The list of books doesn't show up in Google Chrome. It, however, works fine in Internet Explorer.


Michel Lussier profile image

Michel Lussier 4 years ago from Montreal, Canada Author

@BDubbB Thanks - That's weird. I use G Chrome and everything seems OK (I even use it to write my hubs!). There must be a plug-in/extension you installed in Chrome that causes the problem. Keep me informed if you get it to work properly in Chrome, I'd like to know.


BDubbB 4 years ago

Duh! I don't know why I didn't think of that. I have two Ad blocking extensions. I can see the list with the "Adblock Plus" extension, but not with the one just named "Adblock".

Can you answer a couple quick questions for me? Do I need every book under each topic or just the top pick in each category? And for the "two-year" textbooks do I just need one of them, all of them, or one from each type?


Michel Lussier profile image

Michel Lussier 4 years ago from Montreal, Canada Author

@BDubbB Adblock vs Adblock Plus - Good to know.

Books - It depends. The "two-years" books are much easier than those in the first list. If it's your first contact with physics, I would recommend ONE of the CALCULUS-based textbooks. I like Young & Freedman a lot, but for the price you might prefer Halliday-Resnik. If you're serious about physics, the algebra & conceptual books would be redundant (and a waste of time). I'd rather learn calculus well and then use one of the above two books.

But if you already had physics classes, and calculus, it depends. Are you going to self-study or are you (or are you someday going to be) in college?

For self-study, I would begin with Marion & Thornton (Classical Dynamics) and Hassani (Mathematical Methods). If all goes well with Classical Dynamics, and you want to add some variety, you should pick Griffiths (Electrodynamics). That would be an incredible start.

If you are going to college, my advice would be to study math as if your life depended on it :) Make sure you master calculus; study Hassani. You might also want to buy Arfken & Weber.

If you have more questions, don't hesitate. But please make sure to tell me what you studied so far (in math + physics).


BDubbB 4 years ago

In college I didn't study anywhere near enough math. I majored in Computer Networking but stopped at an Associates of Applied Science in Computer Networking. I learned some calculus, but have forgotten most of it. I won't be going back to college. I'm studying math right now using online resources. I'm going to learn everything I can about mathematics and then self-study Physics and Philosophy.

These books will be my first contact with physics, but I want to go from the ground all the way up to a masters or doctorate level. I know this will be difficult but I learn well on my own, and I'm willing to put in the work.

I think I'll start with University Physics with Modern Physics, but I think I'll go with the 13th edition.

So after University Physics do you still suggest Marion & Thornton (Classical Dynamics), Hassani (Mathematical Methods), Arfken & Weber (Mathematical Methods), and Griffiths (Electrodynamics)? And where should I go after that?

Thank you very much for your replies. I'm psyched about physics.


Michel Lussier profile image

Michel Lussier 4 years ago from Montreal, Canada Author

@BDubbB - From what you tell me, I wouldn't worry too much about your current level of math. In fact, I think it might even be a good thing! When we first learn (school) math, we are "answer-oriented". We learn how to get to an answer as fast as possible. We are in a "math is calculation/computation" midset. By applying a formula we've learned by heart, we know we'll be able to answer that question in the exam, and fast enough to have time to answer the questions that follow.

But now you have a chance to learn in a "math is a language / modeling tool" mindset. You'll learn at your own pace, not worried by that homework due for tomorrow or that exam next week. You more likely will learn where those formula come from, and they might even become so logical and intuitive that you won't have to learn them by heart - you can "reconstruct" them at will. And, more importantly, you'll make connections between topics, noticing that two apparently unrelated facts are sometimes just two facets of the same idea.

Now, something that is lacking in most math textbooks is the motivation, the reason why you should spend time learning a particular topic. That's why I recommend Hassani's book. More often than not, Hassani gives you a physical context where the math concept/tool you are studying is applied.

Regarding the books you mentioned, I would drop Arfken & Weber from your list (at least for now). This book is more a reference book than a textbook; you can find what you need from the internet. It really is useful though when you're working on "real-world" problems (when you work for a professor, or when you do a personal project worth credits, etc.) or when you're at school doing your homeworks (much more efficient than the internet then.)

Now, I don't know if you can afford this, but if I were you, I would buy at once

1) University Physics (Young & Freedman)

2) Mathematical Methods (Hassani)

3) Classical Dynamics (Marion & Thornton) OR Mechanics (Symon)

4) Intro to Electrodynamics (Griffiths)

Let me explain why: I want to maximize your study time.

University Physics is a good book, but it has to assume that the reader is not yet proficient in mathematics. But on the other hand, Marion-Thornton and Symon are bit hard to grasp if it's your first contact with physics. I would study like this:

a) read a chapter from Young-Freedman

b) read the corresponding chapter from M-T or Symon

c) read Hassani's book on whatever math is used in (b) that you conceptually have difficulty with, to have a feeling of how it works.

d) Go back to Young-Freedman and do the exercises.

The reasoning is that if you do that, you'll learn where every elementary concept is really coming from, and as a side-effect you'll see where the math you're learning is applied. It structures your mind the good way.

Whoah, that comment is getting long! :) I'll stop here. But if you have questions or if you'd like to know more about something I said above, I'll be glad to help.

Have fun!


Michel Lussier profile image

Michel Lussier 4 years ago from Montreal, Canada Author

@BDubbB - *I meant "optimize", not "maximize your study time" ^^ :)


jowad 4 years ago

thank you sir for providing such nice information.i am really grateful to you.if i face some problems in future regarding physics how can i inform you?

thanks again


Mehdi 4 years ago

Thanks a lot. It was very helpful. I am an electrical engineer doing my PhD in Montreal. Since I love Physics, I have just started Jackson's Classical Electrodynamics.


Sandeep 4 years ago

Sir ,

I want to buy college physics textbook. Here are some books in my choice:

1)Fundamentals of Physics by Halliday, Resnick, Walker

2)University Physics with Modern Physics by Young, Fredman

In your opinion, which book should I buy?

Also, I don't have a strong mathematical background?


BDubbB 4 years ago

I've just embarked on my adventure through the world of physics. I'm having a little trouble, since I know nothing about physics, matching up the chapters in University Physics with chapters in Classical Dynamics (Thornton and Marion), Mechanics (Symon), and Mathematical Methods (Hassani).

Should I just read chapter 1 in University Physics then chapter 1 in each of the other books or should I really try to match up each section of each chapter with a corresponding section from the other books?

For example, chapter 2 in University Physics is about motion along a straight line. Chapter 2 in Classical Dynamics is titled "Newtonian Mechanics". Chapter 2 in Mechanics is titled "Motion of a Particle in One Dimension".

It's easy to figure out what to read in Hassani, but since I don't know physics at all I can't quite figure out what to read after reading University Physics. I'm only half way through chapter 1 of University Physics though so I'm not in any hurry. I'm trying to go slowly and make sure I understand everything thoroughly before proceeding.

And one final question is: where do I go after I've finished University Physics, Classical Dynamics, Mechanics, Mathematical Methods, and Electrodynamics?


RAM 4 years ago

i am a school student prepairing for engineering exam and also indian physics olympiad so guide me with books to be used and way to study.


FermiDirac 3 years ago

Hi,

I am unable to view the book list about which you've written. If you've removed the link , could you please enable it again ?

Thanks !!


heril 2 years ago

To anyone who cannot see the list of books. The way they are formatted into the article they appear like they are an advertisement to adblockers. You have to disable it, make an exception on this page in order to view the list.

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