People start learning physics for all kinds of reasons. Maybe you’re reading this post with dreams to be the next Einstein. Maybe you want to get gold at the IPhO. Maybe you just want to ace your next AP Physics C exam. Whatever the reason, reading the right textbooks is an essential first step.
But what books should you get? With thousands of choices for each subject, this can be a very difficult question to answer. In this post, I’ve put together 5 books that I think every physics student should read. These 5 books are all you’ll need up to a second or third year university level. You don’t need to get them all at once, but you should definitely spend the time to study them.
FUNDAMENTALS OF PHYSICS BY HALLIDAY, RESNICK AND WALKER
If you’re just starting out, this is the first book you should read. It’s general physics, so it covers everything from mechanics to thermodynamics to wave optics. It has clear explanations, tons of worked examples, and more practice problems than you’ll be able to solve in ten years. Fundamentals of Physics is an excellent introduction. It allows you to survey all the main subjects, gain knowledge about all different areas of physics, but you should not read it a second time. Because it covers so many topics, each chapter necessarily leaves out more advanced or subtle details. This is perfect if you’re looking for a solid foundation, but it is not very useful after that.
Purchase Fundamentals of Physics here.
When you’ve finished, you should move on to the next book on the list.
Classical Mechanics by Morin
If you ask a person at the IPhO how they studied mechanics, 9 times out of 10 they’ll tell you they’ve used Morin. This is the book to read, trust me. What makes it unique is the problems and full, beautiful solutions at the end of each chapter. The exercises are rated on a star system, with zero stars being super simple and four stars being ridiculously hard. Most of the questions make you think a lot. You’ll have a lot of fun pondering on the way to school, pondering in history class, pondering during lunch, and pondering all the way back home. It’s a great way to learn. Another awesome thing that Morin does is he adds these little remarks whenever a confusing topic comes up. It’s amazing how accurate he is at predicting the muddy points (but if he misses anything, feel free to contact me about it).
Purchase Classical Mechanics here.
I love Morin so much that the next book is co-authored by him too.
Electricity and Magnetism by Purcell and Morin
This book was originally written by Edward M. Purcell, who won the Nobel prize in 1952. Morin came later and added tons of cool problems to go along. Just like Classical Mechanics, this book features an amazing selection of problems (also with full, beautiful solutions) arranged in the four star system. Explanations are crystal clear and the necessary math is taught early on. One of my favourite things about Electricity and Magnetism is that it introduces magnetism as a consequence of special relativity. It’s a unique approach that really helped bring together electricity and magnetism for me.
Purchase Electricity and Magnetism here.
After Electricity and Magnetism, your next step is to do some thermal.
Thermal Physics by Schroeder
This book is a good second exposure to thermodynamics and a good first exposure to statistical mechanics. Thermal Physics starts off with a review of what you already learned in Fundamentals of Physics, but it moves on to much more advanced topics. The book comes with a set of challenging exercises, although unfortunately it does not come with solutions. You can find answers with explanations to some of the problems at physics pages. One thing I should point out is that some portions of the book require familiarity with quantum mechanics. There is an appendix at the back but it is a little too brief. My recommendation is to skip all the quantum parts for now (you can still get a lot out of the book) and come back after you read the next text on the list.
Purchase Thermal Physics here.
Finally, quantum mechanics.
Principles of Quantum Mechanics by Shankar
This will probably be the most difficult book on the list to read. It will require a lot of perseverance because there is a huge jump from everything else to quantum mechanics. Personally, I spent a month or two just getting all the math down. But don’t lose hope. It’s difficult but not impossible, and when you figure it out, it’s super fun. Some other sites will recommend Griffiths as a first text in quantum mechanics but I strongly suggest you study from Shankar instead. The biggest problem with Griffiths is that he does not use Dirac notation, which can be very limiting. Shankar spends the first chapter introducing all the math you need in the book, which allows him to later introduces states as vectors instead of functions. Trust me, it’s a lot better. I will admit that Griffiths has more interesting problems than Shankar, so you might want to use it as a problem book. (You can find solutions at physics pages.)
Purchase Principles of Quantum Mechanics here.
Since quantum mechanics was especially difficult in my experience, I will recommend an additional resource: MIT OCW. Their introductory course is very good (although sadly they do not use dirac notation either). You can find videos, lecture notes, problem sets, and solutions.
You’re almost ready to embark on your journey into physics. You’re still missing math, but luckily, there’s only one book you need. See you at my math page!