- The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg (Level: Easy). An account of the Big Bang by one of the most brilliant physicists of all time.
- The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman (Level: Easy). A brilliant, inspiring little book on the laws of nature.
- The Particle Odyssey by Frank Close (Level: Easy). A brilliant popular introduction to particle physics and its history, beautifully illustrated with amazing figures and photographs. (Unfortunately it’s a bit difficult to find online right now, but if you find a copy, you should buy it ASAP!)
- Black Holes and Time Warps by Kip Thorne (Level: Easy/Medium). My absolute favorite popular introduction to general relativity.
- The Theoretical Minimum by Leonard Susskind and George Hrabovsky (Level: Medium). A solid introduction to classical mechanics. Is best understood around level 5 in the undergraduate curriculum.
- The Feynman Lectures on Physics (Boxed Set) and Feynman Lectures on Physics (Kindle Edition) (Level: Medium). Feynman’s Lectures are essential readings for everyone interested in physics, and you’ll find a copy on the bookshelf of every amateur and professional physicist. These lectures are what got me into physics: my astronomy professor told me to read them and see if I liked physics - [ ] they changed my life! They are somewhat difficult to understand if you are just getting started, but they will make more and more sense by the time you reach levels 5 and 6 in the undergraduate curriculum.
- Deep Down Things: The Breathtaking Beauty of Particle Physics by Bruce Schumm (Level: Difficult). The very best popular book about particle physics — it clearly explains the most difficult concepts without resorting to speculation. (I had the honor of working with Bruce on a search for supersymmetry at the ATLAS detector.) This book is a great read while you are starting level 7 in the undergraduate curriculum.
Introduction to Mechanics
- University Physics with Modern Physics by Young and Freedman (essential). Work through all of the “Mechanics” chapters (in my edition, these are chapters 1-14). This is the best introductory book I’ve found, and you can use it when you learn electrostatics and modern physics, too. It does a great job of introducing the relevant mathematics, but you’ll need to be learning calculus alongside it. There are plenty of great example problems to work through, and the solutions are easy to find online (though you can also buy a Student Solutions Manual). Please note that you don’t need to spend $250 on the new edition — Amazon has lots of copies of the 12th edition, the 13th edition, and the 14th edition that contain the same material.
- You’ll need to learn calculus while working through University Physics. My favorite introductory calculus book is Thomas’ Calculus (you can also use the earlier editions), with Stewart’s Calculus(older edition here) coming in as a close second. Work through each chapter, and make sure you can solve problems at the end of each chapter before continuing to the next.
Keep working through the calculus textbooks (Thomas or Stewart) while you work through the basics of electrostatics, but you should finish them by the time you finish the electromagnetism chapters in University Physics. You absolutely must understand the basics of calculus before you move on to the other topics in physics.
- University Physics with Modern Physics by Young and Freedman (essential). Work through the chapters on “Electromagnetism” (in my edition, these are chapters 21-32). You can find inexpensive copies of the 12th edition, the 13th edition, and the 14th edition that contain the same material.
Waves and Vibrations
By this point, you should have finished the introductory calculus books and are ready to move on to more advanced mathematics. You should start working through Zill’s Advanced Engineering Mathematics, which is a thorough introduction to more advanced topics in mathematics (linear algebra, complex analysis, real analysis, partial differential equations, and ordinary differential equations). The topics in this book are essential — once you master them, you’ll have all the math you need to know in order to understand undergraduate physics. You can also buy the (cheaper) 4th and 5th editions.
- Vibrations and Waves by French (essential) and Vibrations and Waves by King (essential). These two books complement each other very well, and contain different problems and solutions.
Continue working through Zill’s Advanced Engineering Mathematics. Once you have mastered all of the topics in this book, you’ll have all the math you need to know in order to understand undergraduate physics.
- University Physics with Modern Physics by Young and Freedman (essential). Work through the “Thermodynamics” section (chapters 17-20 in my edition of the book), and the “Modern Physics” section (chapters 37-44). You can find inexpensive copies of the 12th edition, the 13th edition, and the 14th edition that contain the same material.
If you haven’t finished working through Zill by now, you should master the topics in it by the time you finish studying classical mechanics.
- Taylor’s Classical Mechanics (essential). This is a fantastic introduction to classical mechanics.
- Morin’s Introduction to Classical Mechanics with Problems and Solutions (supplement). Morin’s book is a good supplement to Taylor’s, and contains some great problems to work through.
- Problems and Solutions in Introductory Mechanics by Morin (supplement). Even more great problems (with solutions) to work through, and contains some great problem-solving strategies.
- Griffith’s Introduction to Electrodynamics (essential). This is the book on undergraduate electrodynamics and one of the very best physics textbooks ever written. Make sure you work through every single problem in the book.
- Div, Grad, Curl and All That by Schey (supplement). This is a short textbook on vector calculus that is very helpful when trying to work with vectors in electrodynamics.
- A Student’s Guide to Maxwell’s Equations by Fleisch (supplement). Maxwell’s equations are essential in understanding electrodynamics, and this book is the best supplement on the topic.
- Griffith’s Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (essential). This is, without a doubt, the book on undergraduate quantum mechanics, written by the same Griffiths who wrote the Introduction to Electrodynamics. It’s written in the same concise and beautiful style, and every single problem is worth solving.
Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics
- Schroeder’s An Introduction to Thermal Physics (essential). A very thorough and comprehensive introduction to thermodynamics and statistical mechanics; contains very clear and straightforward explanations and examples.
- Introductory Statistical Mechanics by Bowley and Sanchez (supplement). A good second text to have on hand to reference.
Now that you understand all of the fundamentals of undergraduate physics, you have a solid foundation and can study more advanced and specialized topics
- Astronomy: The Cosmic Perspective. A wonderful introduction to astronomy, accessible to anyone who is just beginning to study physics.
- Astrophysics: An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics by Carroll and Ostlie. A comprehensive introduction to modern astrophysics.
- Biophysics: Biophysics: An Introduction by Glaser. A solid introduction to the principles of biophysics.
- Cosmology: Ryden’s Introduction to Cosmology. My absolute favorite introductory cosmology book.
- Electronics: Basic Electronics for Scientists and Engineers by Eggleston. Accessible to anyone who has worked through the basics of electrodynamics.
- Optics. Optics by Hecht. The classic (and truly amazing) optics textbook.
- Particle Physics: Griffith’s Introduction to Elementary Particles. Written by the same Griffith who gave us the Introduction to Electrodynamics and Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, this book is the perfect introduction to the fundamentals of particle physics and is a joy to work through.
- String Theory. A First Course in String Theory by Zwiebach. The essential introduction to string theory.
Mathematical Methods in Physics
- Mathematical Methods for Physicists by Arfken, Weber, and Harris (essential). This book covers the essentials of everything you’ll need to know for the mathematical rigor demanded by the graduate core.
- Tolstov’s Fourier Series (supplement). The best book on Fourier Analysis ever written. Complements the main text very well.
- Complex Variables by Fisher (supplement). Amazing overview of complex analysis. Can be used along with Needham’s Visual Complex Analysis to supplement the main text.
- Zee’s Group Theory in a Nutshell for Physicists (supplement). A brilliant introduction to group theory for physicists.
- Classical Electrodynamics by Jackson (essential). This is the bible of classical electrodynamics, and everyone who works through either loves it or hates it (I loved it). If you can master everything in this book and work through a decent selection of the problems, you’ll have mastered electrodynamics.
- Sakurai’s Modern Quantum Mechanics (essential). This is my favorite textbook on quantum mechanics, and the one I used to learn quantum mechanics for the very first time. It’s a wonderful, elegant, simple book with clear and understandable problems. Try to work through all of the problems — if you do, you’ll understand quantum mechanics very well.
- Quantum Mechanics and Path Integrals by Feynman (essential). Sakurai’s coverage of Feynman’s Path Integral formalism of quantum mechanics doesn’t do it justice. Working through this text (written by Feynman himself) is not only useful, but incredibly fun.
- The Principles of Quantum Mechanics by Dirac (supplement). Dirac was one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory. This book is important historically, and also will open your eyes to the need for quantum field theory.
- Principles of Quantum Mechanics by Shankar (supplement). A great supplement to Sakurai for more information about each topic. A bit too dense to serve as a primary text, it works best as an addition or reference.
- Decoherence and the Appearance of a Classical World in Quantum Theory (supplement). This book is very dense and you may not understand all of it even after working through Sakurai, but understanding decoherence is essential to understanding how the classical world arises from the quantum.
- The Everett Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: Collected Works 1955-1980 (supplement). Very few books have been written on interpretations of quantum mechanics, and reading through this volume helps to understand the limitations of our interpretations as well as the complexities and details of Everett’s Many-Worlds interpretation.
- Statistical Mechanics by Pathria and Beale (essential). This book is, admittedly, a bit frustrating, but it’s worth suffering through because if you make it all the way to the end and work through the majority of the problems, you’ll know stat mech like the back of your hand.
- Huang’s Statistical Mechanics (supplementary). This is a great book to supplement the main text — is a good bridge between undergraduate stat mech and Pathria.
- Spacetime and Geometry by Carroll (essential). This is the book on general relativity, and Carroll does a phenomenal job of introducing the essentials of differential geometry and general relativity.
- Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell by Zee (supplement). A great, accessible overview.
- Wald’s General Relativity (supplement). Wald’s book is a very abstract, high-level overview of general relativity, and makes a great supplement to Carroll’s book. Go to Carroll for the overview, look it up in Wald for the high-level abstractions, and then look in the apple book for the dirty details.
- Gravitation by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler (supplement). Also known as the “apple book” thanks to the apple gracing its cover, this book goes into the nitty-gritty details of general relativity in ways that no other book does.
- Weinberg’s Gravitation and Cosmology (supplement). Weinberg is one of those rare physicists who has not only been at the forefront of every major field in physics, but has written about each of them as well. His books tend to be inaccessible to beginners, however, and this book is no exception. It does make a good supplementary reading, but I’d advise reading it after you’ve worked through the rest.
- Differential Geometry of Curves and Surfaces by Manfredo P. do Carmo (supplement). The classic differential geometry textbook; may be useful to help you wrap your head around differential geometry.
Quantum Field Theory
- Zee’s Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell (essential). This is my favorite physics book of all time, and the most beautiful introduction to QFT ever written. You’ll walk away understanding the basics of QFT and with a deep understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe.
- An Introduction to Quantum Field Theory by Peskin and Schroeder (essential). This is the bible of QFT, but its far too terse and encyclopedic to work through on its own and must be studied alongside Zee. Covers everything you could possibly want to know about QFT. Try to work through the problems, but be aware that mastery of QFT will take a very, very long time.
- Weinberg’s The Quantum Theory of Fields, Volume 1 (supplement). Another great volume by Weinberg, who was one of the most important physicists in the history of particle physics. This book should be used only as a supplement, and preferably not read until Zee and Peskin and Schroeder have been completed. It’s not a book to learn from, but one to gain additional understanding of QFT through after you’ve mastered all of the basics.
- Lie Algebras in Particle Physics by Georgi (supplement). This dives into the details of Lie Algebras in QFT.
- Condensed Matter Physics: Lubensky’s Principles of Condensed Matter Physics. A modern, comprehensive textbook. Fairly advanced, and is easier to understand after completing the graduate core and working through something like Ashcroft and Mermin.
- Cosmology: Mark Trodden and Sean Carroll’s TASI Lectures: Introduction to Cosmology. Supplement with Steven Weinberg’s Cosmology.
- Electronics: The Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill. The best electronics textbook there is, period.
- Optics: Optics by Hecht. The classic optics textbook.
- Particle Physics: Quarks and Leptons by Halzen and Martin. Wonderful overview that’s fun to read and work through. Supplement this with Modern Particle Physics by Mark Thomson, which is up-to-date on contemporary discoveries like the Higgs.
- Quantum Computing: Quantum Computation and Quantum Information by Michael A. Nielsen and Isaac L. Chuang. Also known as “Mike and Ike,” this is the standard introduction to quantum information and computation.
- Solid-State Physics: Solid-State Physics by Ashcroft and Mermin. The classic introductory solid-state textbook. Supplement with Introduction to Solid State Physics by Kittel.
- String Theory: String Theory: Volume 1, An Introduction to the Bosonic String and String Theory: Volume 2, Superstring Theory and Beyond, by the late Joe Polchinski; and String Theory and M-Theory: A Modern Introduction. I found it really enjoyable to pair Polchinski’s books with Becker Becker Schwarz when I was learning string theory — they complement each other well.