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Looking for a physics book for self learning

  1. Jun 18, 2014 #1
    I'm a 19 year old boy who's never been in a maths or physics high school class for a number of reasons.

    I learnt to swim by myself when I was 7, after failing to attend courses because I would panic every time. So I saw no reason I could not learn my country's high school math, then some single variable calculus.

    I did it in about 7 months by reading two books and doing their exercises in the afternoons, and I'll be taking high school sciences classes from September with the idea of eventually going to uni for a related degree.

    Assuming these skills, I'd like to know which physics book would be best for me. I don't even know if there's such thing as "a physics book" or only specific stuff is available, so sorry if I'm too naive.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 18, 2014 #2
    So, your maths background, at the moment is essentially zero?

    If so, then the first book you'll want to pick up is:

    Mathematical Handbook Elementary Mathematics by M. Vygodsky

    If you are interested in basic Geometry, then book two should be:

    A.P. Kiselev's Geometry Book II. Stereometry

    Once you have gone through those, book three should be:

    Higher Mathematics for Beginners and its application to physics by Ya. B. Zeldovich
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2014
  4. Jun 18, 2014 #3


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    So how well do you know the math? Could you now solve 99% of problems in the first of the two math books you learned from? What topics did it cover, I think algebra and trigonometry but I'm wondering if there are gaps. We need to be sure that your math is up to scratch. And what calculus book did you learn from?
  5. Jun 18, 2014 #4


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    He didn't say his knowledge is zero, he said he worked through two books doing the exercises.
  6. Jun 18, 2014 #5
    In that case he should give book three a shot right away, it'll be a nice start for going to physics from maths.

    (Higher Mathematics for Beginners and its application to physics by Ya. B. Zeldovich)
  7. Jun 18, 2014 #6
    I read "Precalculus demystified" (Linear questions, Functions, Polynomial division, The rational zero theorem, Logarithms, Matrix arithmetic, Basic trigonometry, etc.), then "Calculus made easy".

    I've solved every exercise in these books successfully and I understand the ideas behind to the intended level (I had to give binomial theorem/Pascal's a look for some calculus computations, but almost everything else I got it from the book.)

    Looks like what I'm looking for.
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2014
  8. Jun 18, 2014 #7
    Glad to hear, I hope it will help you out well enough before your Science classes. Welcome to the Physics community!

    Once you have finished this book, feel free to PM me anytime for further reading suggestions.
  9. Jun 18, 2014 #8


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    OK, well it sounds like you are well versed in algebra and trigonometry, the only possible lack is analytic geometry. Here's a free book if you like, or https://www.amazon.com/Calculus-Ana...=1403118229&sr=1-5&keywords=analytic+geometry would be very good indeed because it also includes multivariable calculus and is a book that MIT used so it is very complete.

    One thing I notice about that Silvanus P. Thompson book is that it's a little outdated, for example it calls the chain rule a useful dodge; now it is treated much more systematically. If you don't get that Thomas & Finney book (the one with analytic geometry in the title), what you'll want to do is go through the lecture notes and exercises here so that you are caught up and rigorously tested.

    Then... I think it is time to use this math, so I recommend Kleppner & Kolenkow because there is nothing like using math you have learned to help it get cemented in there and I think easier books are not going to be challenging enough.

    Please respond with what you think about all this and I'll give any other advice I can, if I can. That Higher Math for Beginners looks like an interesting book actually because it include some physics, it's probably a good read.

    Anyway, there are many roads to Damascus...
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  10. Jun 18, 2014 #9
    I noticed some of what you mention verty. To be honest, Made Easy is good for self-learning (didactical and free) but it probably has a few old-fashioned details like that considering its age.

    My brief experience with MIT's material is excellent, thank you for the links. I'll also check Kleppner/Kolenkow's, challenges are good so you keep progressing a little bit every time.
  11. Jun 18, 2014 #10
    I think the Silvanus P. Thompson book is a truly excellent book, especially for self learning. I've handed it to someone who used to get grade 2 (D in American grades) in Calculus module of Math, and in the resit, managed to improve enough to get a strong 4 (B in American grades).

    Another positive thing regards this book is that Richard Feynmann learnt from it, and I find that it is quite a nice curiosity about it. Personally, I think that book still teaches enough maths that you would need in order to be able to understand introductory level Physics books.

    Another author that is relatively unknown and underrated in Western parts of the world is Igor Irodov. His books are still used as a standard in many areas.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  12. Jun 19, 2014 #11
    I also read good things about "Basic concepts for High Schools" by L.V. Tarasov (an USSR book I think)
  13. Jun 19, 2014 #12
    Yeah, it is one of the books that I've had to learn from in the last year of my high school. There are really way too many great books to choose from.

    This thread makes me want to create a list of books needed for going from zero until year 4 (of uni)
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2014
  14. Jun 19, 2014 #13


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    I'll jump ahead and give you some introductory physics books just in case you want to give them a look. Once you're done with these, you can move up to upper-level texts:

    Assuming you've done single variable calculus (and even if you haven't, these books don't really include calc much), you'll want one of these:

    University Physics, Young and Freedman
    Fundamentals of Physics by Halliday, Resnick, Walker

    Once you finish these (I only did the mechanics chapters and one or two E&M chapters), move up to these two textbooks:

    Kleppner and Kolenkow: An Introduction to Mechanics
    Taylor, Classical Mechanics

    Kleppner will get you up to speed with problem solving as it's quite difficult (it's used by honors physics freshmen), and Taylor will introduce you to more topics such as Lagrangian and Hamiltonian Mechanics.

    Once you finish these, you will be able to do upper level physics (eg. quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, theoretical / continuum mechanics).
  15. Jun 19, 2014 #14
    First introduction to physics for a self-learner, to me, means this one book:

    A. P. French
    Newtonian Mechanics

    Much much better than Kleppner and Kolenkov *as the very first physics book* (EDIT, I see that Radarithm did not suggest it to be the first book to read - at any rate, French is IMBO many leagues away from those all-in-one volumes that are so much used today).
    Kleppner can be read just after that. Despite the title, French's book is a book about physics in general and how to approach its study.
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2014
  16. Jun 19, 2014 #15
    The EM chapters of these books (Freedman and Resnick) are badly written at best anyway. Reading them offers zero understanding of the underlying physics. It simply presents a method for solving certain examples of problems. Mostly, you can skip reading the text entirely, and still not lose out on anything, as it contains just about no insight. I would advise against picking up either of those books altogether.

    I'm (un?)fortunate enough to have a copy of Young and Freedman (the other book is basically the same), but to be fair, i've considered putting it into a charity shop - the only reason I do not do so, is because i'm an avid book collector. Many people have experienced problems with introductory volumes that are too vague. These books are gigantic, unnecessarily verbose and dry. Reading through either of them is going to devour a lot of study time, and I think that a lot of explanations are oversimplified, which confuses students later on, when they re-visit subjects at a proper level of detail. In general it uses too little mathematics to be of value beyond high school level.

    Such books might be okay for reference (if you don't mind the hefty price-tag).
  17. Jun 19, 2014 #16


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    I admit I haven't read French but from all the reviews it seems quite decent. If OP can not / does not want to pay for HRW or YF he / she might as well pick up French.
  18. Jun 19, 2014 #17


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    I agree with you that these books are too large for their own good but it is nice to use them for getting a very broad coverage of topics, I mean they are crammed full of stuff. And they are written for high school students that are now in the first year of college, so that is what they are like. If a student is going to take a year to learn calculus anyway, they might as well use that time to learn as much physics from one of these books as possible. And high school students who are studying for competitions like to use them of course.

    I think PhysicsLad can start with a more advanced book though if he follows my advice to test his knowledge with the MIT exercises or the book I mentioned. A.P. French was a professor at MIT and Professor Lewin's lecture videos follow his books pretty closely, so that is certain to be a good book, but I was thinking that with PhysicsLad's good knowledge of calculus, K&K supplemented with those lecture videos should be a very principled way to learn. And if in fact he uses Thomas & Finney and learns multivariable calculus from it, he could also start with a more advanced E&M book as well.

    The benefit is that he gets to use the full power of the math he knows, which should make some topics easier to understand. I mean, I always found the concept of Work very difficult to understand but the calculus definition which is ##\int F \cdot ds## is probably the best way to learn it and K&K will teach it like that. And should apply to other topics as well.
  19. Jun 26, 2014 #18
    Thank you for all the references I got. I have a clear picture of what to do now
  20. Jul 9, 2014 #19


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    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  21. Dec 6, 2014 #20


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    I was lucky enough to find a copy of this book in the Internet Archive today, (because the publishers didn't place any restrictions on its reproduction, apparently,) and let me tell you that I love, love, love that book! I've already skimmed it and read the first chapter in depth. For a translation from the Russian of a very "conversational" text, it's certainly lucid.

    An additional upside, is that there appears to be no real reduction in rigor, certainly not as low as contemporary Western introductory calculus texts at any rate. This is something I can appreciate, because plug-and-chug alone, for its own sake, is rather boring to me. I've already written a few basic proofs under the supervision of an extremely astute friend, and the feeling I get when I do one and get it right excites me, probably more than it should. :P

    NOTE: Tarasov is more wordy than a mathematician would like, and it's written in a basic structure that looks more comfortable to someone whose first love used to be the written word than the mathematically-sophisticated person, but that's fine.

    In sum, so far I can't recommend Tarasov enough. I've skimmed Spivak and Apostol and both flavors of Courant (to decide which one I would like most to use to wade into serious study) and while I think I'll like Apostol's style the best for serious study (along with a good book on proof methods, mind you, and even though a good number of people find him too "dry") there is something almost intoxicating about Tarasov's back-and-forth conversational style. It's a good foil (in the literary sense) for Apostol, in my opinion.
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