Good popular physics books

I’ve recently read three excellent popular physics books that I strongly recommend.

Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science (available in Kindle)
Lawrence Krauss (author of The Physics of Star Trek)

None other than Freeman Dyson wrote a laudatory review of this book in the New York Review of Books, in which he emphasized what a wonderful job Krauss has done in describing and explaining Feynman’s physics, in a way that’s probably accessible to any intelligent layman, and certainly to any physicist. I’ve read and enjoyed lots of popular science books, especially those written by scientists, and I’ve read a number of scientific biographies. This is the first time I’ve seen the science and the scientific thinking explained so well in a popular science book. Krauss’ book does not spend a lot of time on Feynman’s personal life, which has been widely written about. He focuses on the physics. I learned a lot. I had not fully realized how broad Feynman’s contributions were.

The Quantum Story: A history in 40 moments (available in Kindle)
Jim Baggott

Many histories of quantum mechanics deal solely with the period 1905-1935, approximately. This one continues to the present day. Almost all of it is accessible to the intelligent reader, except for a chapter where he gets carried away with SU(3) etc. Although much of the story was familiar, I nevertheless learned quite a lot. There’s an almost eerie episode involving Bohr and Rutherford, about which I’d not heard. Bohr had his great idea for explaining the hydrogen atom, based on Rutherford’s discovery of the nucleus. Before publishing, Bohr went to talk with Rutherford about his ideas (Bohr had previously spent some time in Rutherford’s lab). As I understand it, Rutherford liked to portray himself as just a New Zealand country bumpkin, but wow…. Rutherford said, “If the atom is in a multiply excited state, and it can decay to one of several lower-energy states, what about causality? How does it choose?” I was just blown away to read this earliest (and quick) realization that the atomic world is probabilistic.

The Dance of the Photons
Anton Zeilinger

Zeilinger heads a powerful experimental quantum mechanics group in Vienna that has made stunning advances in our understanding of the nature of reality in the context of quantum mechanics. In this book he makes the ideas come alive. The book includes detailed discussions of Bell’s inequality and much else. It seems highly likely that Zeilinger will get the Nobel Prize for the work he and his group have done. A charming feature of the book is that Zeilinger is very generous in giving credit to many others working in this fascinating field. (Incidentally, there is some movement in the physics community to bring contemporary quantum mechanics into the physics major’s curriculum, which in the past has been dominated by stuff from the 1920s.)

Bruce Sherwood

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3 Responses to Good popular physics books

  1. Kaleb says:

    I am a post-Master of Mathematics student who decided (for fun) to re-take Physics I and II recently. Thankfully, I chose to take them at a place that uses your text! (I’m a huge fan!) The way I learned physics originally (in the late nineties) using Ohanian is quite similar to the way [call it the F=ma way] they teach it at the local university (although more rigorously as I didn’t get formula or “cheat” sheets at my undergraduate institution) where I instruct mathematics courses. However, only after re-taking Physics at a local two-year college with your text [call it the momentum way] do I feel that I truly understand it now. In fact, tutoring someone (from the university) this summer who was learning by the F=ma way showed me how much more difficult and more confusing learning physics could be than if one just used the elegant momentum way instead. For example, I’ve always been confused as to what “acceleration” really is—apart from symbolic expressions—because I have no everyday experiential knowledge of instantaneous acceleration. However, I quite easily understand the concept of momentum and the instanteous change of momentum from experience—I can easily explain what this is to anyone I meet. So, the Momentum Principle was a complete godsend to me. Furthermore, we know that quantities such as velocity and acceleration are not conserved; so, why there is this obsession to teach a non-intuitive, non-conserved quantity like acceleration, I’ll never know (I mean I understand why, but I now disagree with that approach). Additionally, I appreciated your early implementation of vectors AND your continued usage of them. It made calculation SO much easier and more intuitive! Contrasted with what I’m seeing done with the F=ma way where vectors appear in Chapter 2 but then everything after that always breaks things into components without even writing the vector down (talk about pointless!). (Did I mention that Newton’s Laws—the main focus of the first semester course—aren’t mentioned until the third chapter and momentum not until the eighth?)

    With all that established, I suppose I should get to my point for writing. I finished my second semester of Physics with the spring semester, and I find myself having reignited my original passion for it (having pursued my passion for mathematics now for 30+ years). But I don’t know where to go from here! There are a few chapters from your text that we didn’t go over in class that I am now reading and working through, but I’m ready for the re-taking of Modern Physics / Physics III and beyond. Since you’re the author of the text which brought me back to my old love, I was hoping you might have resources that help me connect with the later concepts the same way you helped me connect with Newton’s Laws and Maxwell’s Equations. Thankfully (especially during my second semester), I had an instructor who was willing to talk about some of the more advanced mathematics as it related to the physics in the book (although you included at least the jumping off point for most of what we talked about in your text, too). So, here I am—ready for more and hoping you have some resources that abandon the “old way” for a more large principle / “natural” way of what’s next.

    P.S. I taught Calculus III before I finished my re-taking of Physics II, and when we arrived at the sections of vector calculus, I taught it in a purely mathematical way since I didn’t truly “understand” it. However, now—after discovering how they came to be—I understand what the curl and divergence really are and what the deeper meaning and purpose of the vector calculus theorems. I no longer cringe at the thought of Calculus III and, actually, am excited at the idea of teaching it again. This time I have so much that you taught me to share and many examples that actually mean something.

  2. I am of course delighted and gratified that Matter & Interactions served your interests so well. A colleague at Purdue, Mark Haugan, has been teaching the “modern physics” course in a very different way, based on the fact that engineering and science students at Purdue take M&I before that course, and he exploits the very different view of physics that these students acquire. He’s thinking about writing a textbook, but there’s nothing currently.

    I think your best bet would be to work through the superb “Feynman Lectures on Physics”. As you can see in one of my other blog articles, Teaching from that textbook had a big impact on me, and using it for intermediate E&M as an undergraduate had a big impact on Ruth Chabay, co-author of M&I.

    • Kaleb says:

      Funny that you mention the Feynman Lectures as I have both the book-form and audio-form of them in the stack of texts I’m working through. Guess Ill move them up in the stacks. 🙂

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