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Theoretical physics book for a high school student?

  1. May 20, 2005 #1
    Hi, can someone please recommend some books on theoretical physics?
    I have limited knowledge in calculus (chain/product/quotient rule and a bit of anti-differentiation) and I plan to study purely from the textbook. If I need a more advanced understanding of maths, which I'm sure I do, can someone also please recommend a book with maths that would be suitable for a high school student interested in theoretical physics?

    I'm aware of a thread with a similar question in the career guidance section, but it seems that he's had classes in physics at a tertiary level before.

  2. jcsd
  3. May 20, 2005 #2
    I haven't read it yet, but Roger Penrose's The Road To Reality apparently explains all the laws of physics and gives the reader a heads up on the required maths knowledge first. Obviously if you want to see if you can avoid the math to begin with, not a good book, but if you're prepared to get a grip on just the math you need to know to understand physics, it's probably a good bet. Huge book though. Will require dedication I imagine.
  4. May 20, 2005 #3
    in order to properly understand theoretical physics like QFT or GR you really need a very strong background in calculus, linear algebra, topology (that varies ofcourse), differential geometry and many more. Besides you also need to know your physics very well...it costs a lot of time and energy to really understand theoretical physics and due to these high requirements, books for high school students do not exist (at least not those that go into these topics very thoroughly)...I suggest you start boosting up your math abilities and start learning QM and special relativity

  5. May 20, 2005 #4
    I don't mind maths, as long as the book explains it well. Is "The Road To Reality" the only good book for someone in my situation? I'm willing to spend time studying. What good books are there to start learning about QM and special relativity? I purchased "The Elegant Universe" on DVD but Briane Greene just kept repeating the same thing each chapter, he barely touched the topic of string theory.
  6. May 20, 2005 #5
    I'm surprised that Zapperz has not come and recommended Mary L. Boas' "Mathematical methods for the physical sciences". Or if you want, here's an online book on mathematical methods for physicists.


    This should be sufficient in learning basic QM. Knowledge on classical physics would help too, as much of modern physics builds up on that, even though they're different.

    If you've finished that material, you might want to read more on differential geometry/topology etc. and more of those topics covered and learn GR and QFT. Then you're most probably on your way to understand papers posted by theoretical physicists.

    If you don't mind mathematics, i would advise you to pick up textbooks instead of books meant for the general public.

    Good luck man.
  7. May 20, 2005 #6
    The way I see it is that it's rather useless and confusing to start learning QM or SR apart from a very superficial level before you have learned classical mechanics, statistical mechanics and electrodynamics properly.

    Check some local university's webpages for what books they use for introductory courses. That's where I'd start self learning. Maybe ask around to confirm the books are good self learning too.

    Is your wait for getting into university and learning from professors so long that you can't wait?
  8. May 20, 2005 #7
    Yes, 1.5 years till Uni is a long time. Please keep recommending books for me, I'm getting sleepy. If I need a deeper understanding of classical mechanics etc as inha says, then please recommend books that will build up to QM or SR.
    I e-mailed the department of theoretical physics at the Australian National University two days ago but they have yet to reply.
  9. May 20, 2005 #8
    I don't think they're books which have classical physics specially leading up to QM or SR actually. Havent seen any myself.
  10. May 20, 2005 #9
    Well a CM book like Goldstein that goes through Lagrangian and Hamiltionian mechanics gives a pretty good base to start learning QM on. But yeah it doesn't lead specially to QM.
  11. May 20, 2005 #10
    Oh, for special relativity you can do worse than check out Albert Einstein's 'Relativity' - a book aimed at the layperson. As such, its coverage of general relativity isn't so good, generally banging on about the principal of equivilence and geometries for curved space, but the SR half is great.

    Richard Feynman's 'QED - The Strange Theory of Light and Matter' is very light on the maths, so is a good introduction.

    If and when you've done a bit more maths, Feynman's 3-volume Lectures on Physics, which I'm reading now, are excellent. You'll get the classical and statistical mechanics you need from Vol 1 and the electromagnetism you need in Vol 2 to be able to approach the QM in Vol 3 more confidentally. Best you read them in order as they cross-refer, although some of the lectures are repeated across more than one volume.

    If you want to know whether or not you're ready for Feynman's Lectures, check out the two more pop-sci-orientated books drawing from them: 'Six Easy Pieces' and 'Six Not So Easy Pieces'. They're kind of a little sprawling, but you can flick through them in your local bookstore and see if you can follow them.

    Of course, there's also the internet! Hyperphysics is a pretty good site for an intro to the conceptual side of modern physics, though skimps on some of the necessary explanations for the tougher stuff.
  12. May 20, 2005 #11
    now what type of theorretical physics are we talking about? QM & GR or the stuff that will allow you to build knowledge up till then?

    the 1st year Univ. Level text: "Serway: Intro to Physics-Modern "Something"" is exceptional.
  13. May 20, 2005 #12
    Not sure what type of theoretical physics right now. I was hoping on learning a range of topics from a book then picking.

    So I'll get
    Serway: Intro to Physics-Modern
    'Six Not So Easy Pieces'
    'Six Easy Pieces'
    'QED - The Strange Theory of Light and Matter'
    and Feynman's 3-volume lecutres on physics?
  14. May 23, 2005 #13
    Wait! Don't get the Easy Pieces books AND the lectures... the former are extracted from the latter! I was just saying you could flick through the Easy Pieces to see if you can follow them and, if you can, you could get the lectures. I still think, of all the books recommended, Penrose's is the one most likely to give you both the mathematical and classical mechanics knowledge required to understand the concepts of a broad range of modern physics, since that is its raison d'etre. From that, moving onto the lectures should be easier.

    Where are you from, BTW?
  15. May 23, 2005 #14


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    Start with Resnick & Halliday. When you're done, come back here...
  16. May 24, 2005 #15
    Im from Australia.

    That Resnick & Halliday book is titled "Fundamentals of physics" right?
    I also saw a book which one of the university uses for undergraduates, it's called "So you want to take physics" is that also good? I've asked my mum to order The Road To Reality.

    If anyone lives in Melbourne, which I doubt but I'll ask anyway, which university is best for science? Australian National University, Monash University or The University of Melbourne?
  17. May 24, 2005 #16
    I don't know how to edit my post so I'm posting another one here. Physics at my high school is pretty boring and stopped me from becoming a physicist, we're learning about light, and how the wave theory supports the refraction of light(it's really really boring). I originally planned on getting a law degree but after reading about Isaac Newton and reading about string theory I became interested in physics. I was wondering if there are is anything to spark my interest in physics again? I'm pretty interested in physics but I also want to earn money and I know that theoretical physicists dont earn much.
    I can definitely say I'd rather be a theoretical physicist than a lawyer if the pay were equal. Help!

    Also, what category of physics does the Theory of Everything come under Not sure if that makes sense, if it does, then does it encompass a whole range of categories like string theory, quantum mechanics etc?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 24, 2005
  18. May 24, 2005 #17
    Find George Gamow's books "The world of Mr Tompkins" and "One-Two-Three-Infinity" which will spark your interest for modern physics.
  19. May 24, 2005 #18
    That's the one. It's a really common text book for intro to *insert subject here* level courses.
  20. May 24, 2005 #19
    The most comprehensive introductory non-calculus textbook to Physics is Physics from John Cutnell and Kenneth Johnson. The book from Halliday and Resnick has calculus, but it is quite limited, so that can be used even by people who don't have a very solid calculus foundation.
  21. May 24, 2005 #20
    Ah. That's a bit far to post my now-redundant Easy Pieces books. I think a great lawyer probably earns more than a great physicist, although I've never been either. I don't think ToE falls into any one branch of physics as it's speculative. String theory and M-theory are good places to start. Part of ToE is to reconcile QT and GR, so both are essential.
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