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Undergrad Theoretical Physics/Astrophysics Books

  1. Jul 3, 2009 #1
    I was looking for some undergrad books covering topics that you would learn in a university as an undergrad in the fields of theoretical physics and theoretical astrophysics. I would also like to know what maths the books require.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 3, 2009 #2
    Some help maybe?
  4. Jul 4, 2009 #3
    Try googling "physics book list" or searching this forum.
  5. Jul 4, 2009 #4
    As said above, you should really search the forums, there are heaps of discussions like these.

    For my introductory astrophysics course, I'm using Astrophysics in a Nutshell by Moaz. It seems to cover a lot for only a couple of hundred pages, and I love the way it is written. However, I'd only use this if you have a good grasp of differential and integral calculus. Also, although the book does explain it briefly, it would help if you understood some basic atomic physics (radiation, the Bohr model of a hydrogen atom etc). It's designed for advanced undergraduates, so I wouldn't advise you go near it unless you've taken your calculus courses.

    If you want something which does not require calculus, Gravity from the Ground Up is a very good book, I read it while in high school. Very easy and enjoyable, although obviously not very intensive.
  6. Jul 5, 2009 #5
    Multiple variable or single variable calculus? I'm just starting calculus 1. I also know all of whats in that book, Gravity From The Ground Up, I am currently reading, A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2009
  7. Jul 6, 2009 #6
    The textbooks by https://www.amazon.com/David-J.-Griffiths/e/B000AP7RRE/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 are excellent.
    https://www.amazon.com/Spacetime-Ge...=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1246858720&sr=1-5 by Sean Carroll looks to have become the best (and most recent) introduction to relativity.

    If you study the four books above, then you will have a fantastic undergraduate/basic graduate background in theoretical physics. There are multiple choices as far as the quantum mechanics books go, but the Griffiths books gets you right into working problems. There are probably better books for theory such as by https://www.amazon.com/Quantum-Mech...=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1246858895&sr=1-4.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  8. Jul 6, 2009 #7
    Well if you're a college student, you will be able to tackle Astrophysics in a Nutshell. I haven't encountered any multivariable calculus yet, so the book (if it does at all) makes very minimal use of it. If you are in college, and have a decent maths textbook, you will be absolutely fine. You might have to look up some maths points if you haven't learned them yet, but that won't be a problem. I just didn't know if you were some armchair physicist, without much background in physics or maths. But you should be able to tackle the book. Even if you do have to resort to maths textbooks/wikipedia every now and then.

    And how did you learn all of Gravity From The Ground Up? It's definitely more advanced than popular science books. It covers a lot of astrophysics (I'd say more than 50% is astrophysics) backed up with mathematics. A Brief History of Time doesn't touch upon most of the material at all.

    If you want to deal more with cosmology, it gets a bit harder than just picking up an introductory cosmology book, as the maths is very complicated. You could try something basic like Introduction to Cosmology by Roos, but you don't really gain a lot of understanding from it. Relativity, string theory and such are usually graduate subjects.
  9. Jul 6, 2009 #8
    What math does that stuff require?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  10. Jul 6, 2009 #9


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    multivariable calculus, differential equations (ordinary and partial), linear algebra (matrices and vectors)
  11. Jul 17, 2009 #10
    The text books from David Griffiths seem to be a little advanced. What would you take as a first year undergrad? I would think that I would need to take some sort of mechanics course.
  12. Jul 17, 2009 #11
    Well beyond the basic year long introduction to physics courses, they are books regularly used for undergraduate courses in theoretical physics, and this is what you asked for. Are you looking for books for right now or later? I'm confused as I saw that you just started calculus, so why are you looking to learn theoretical physics? You should start learning the basic mechanics and build yourself up from there. Most universities offer a year long sequence introduction to physics. The first semester usually covers mechanics and the second semester usually covers electricity and magnetism (they cover other topics but these were at least the main story-lines in the courses I took), so look into this. Although, you need to have had at least calculus I before beginning these courses.

    Since you're just beginning calculus I, I don't think it will be much help trying to learn theoretical physics at this point (except through popularizing books). Once you have finished calculus III (multivariable calculus) and a linear algebra course, you should be ready for the electrodynamics book by Griffiths. You'll need a differential equations course before you start the quantum mechanics book by Griffiths. I'm not aware of more gentler introductions to theoretical physics than these two.
  13. Jul 17, 2009 #12
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  14. Jul 17, 2009 #13


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    Yes, Young and Freedman looks like a standard freshman calculus-based intro physics textbook. There are several at that level. One book that's been popular for a long time (I used it as an undergraduate 37 years and several editions ago!) is the one by https://www.amazon.com/Fundamentals...=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247875240&sr=1-3.

    Where I teach, we use the book by https://www.amazon.com/Physics-Scie...=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247875479&sr=1-1.

    Here's another popular texbook, by https://www.amazon.com/Physics-Scie...=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247875542&sr=1-1

    Use the forum search tool to search for Halliday, Resnick, Tipler or Serway and you'll probably turn up threads comparing these and other similar books.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  15. Jul 17, 2009 #14
    One last question, do I have to know whats on ALL of the 1600 or so pages?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  16. Jul 17, 2009 #15


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    I have to take issue with this, as I didn't take a course on differential equations until well after going through Griffiths QM. I think the same holds true for many people I know. All you really need for Griffiths is some familiarity with what a differential equation is, and a knowledge of how to solve one with an exponential ansatz (though the latter is simple enough that it can be learned along with the physics). And of course a solid grounding in linear algebra.
  17. Jul 17, 2009 #16


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    Any particular course uses only a fraction of the material, maybe 2/3 to 3/4 of it depending on how ambitious the instructor is and how good the students are. Textbooks always include more material than can be covered in a single course (usually two semesters in this case), so that no instructor's pet topics get left out and sales of the book can be maximized. The introduction to the book usually suggests which chapters should be covered and which ones are optional, or the optional sections are marked with *'s or something.
  18. Jul 18, 2009 #17
    For mechanics,
    Introduction to Mechanics - Kleppner and Kolenkow
    Thornton/Marion - Classical dynamics or Kibble/Berkshire - Classical Mechanics
    There are loads of similar books. Just look at "related books" in amazon and choose what u like

    For Electromagnetism,
    David J. Griffiths - Electrodynamics
    Berkeley Physics Course Volume 2

    For optics,
    Principles of Optics - Wolf and Borne
  19. Jul 18, 2009 #18
    I don't know much about astrophysics books, so I will only restrict this to the undergrad courses.

    The first step must be to learn single variable calculus and then multivariable calculus. But you will also need to study vectors, (at least some) three dimensional geometry, trigonometry. Perhaps other than calculus, you already have some exposure to these areas. Partial derivatives, which fall under multivariable calculus are absolutely unavoidable in college physics. But this math will also take some time to sink in, and it is only after it does sink in will you be able to appreciate the physics better.

    Some good book recommendations have been made for you here, but most of these books assume grounding in the math topics mentioned above. Then, as you go along, you learn some more math. If you are in your first year in college and learning calculus through some courses, you should do that first. Resnick, Halliday and Krane (2 volumes) is, imho, much better than Resnick, Halliday, Walker (the single fat book). The latter has compromised severely on the math and leaves much to be desired (at least till the sixth edition, which is what I had referred to).

    Griffiths' textbook on EM was the one we exclusively used in our second semester course in electromagnetism. In fact, I haven't come across any other book that is being so extensively used. But then we had already studied calculus in school, and the multivariable calculus we needed was taught to us in the first semester in college. As for mechanics, we used Kleppener and Kolenkow, but by the time the interesting stuff came in, we had already studied partial derivatives, so we could also refer to the book by Goldstein occasionally. There are of course many others, but Kleppener and Kolenkow seems to be pedagogically one of the best...also have a look at the book by AP French.

    For Optics, I also recommend the book by Hecht. For modern physics, the two books by Arthur Beiser and Sproull are very good.

    Once you have taken the introductory courses, you can study the books on EM by Jackson, mechanics by Goldstein, quantum mechanics by Griffiths (and a whole lot of other books, lots of variety here), etc.

    Anyway the crucial thing to realize is that the math is very important here...you simply cannot afford to compromise your math training. There's a nice book by R. Shankar which might actually help you speed up stuff: https://www.amazon.com/Basic-Training-Mathematics-Fitness-Students/dp/0306450364.

    Finally, always keep Berkeley Physics Course volumes and Feynman's Lectures on Physics handy...they're always helpful.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  20. Jul 18, 2009 #19
    I'm on page 105 of Calculus an intuitive and Physical Approach, I should be done with it in about a month or so.

    Will I need to know anything other than calculus, trigonometry, geometry and algebra for the books you mentioned?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  21. Jul 18, 2009 #20
    Well I think it is a good idea. At my undergraduate school it was a pre-requisite for the course in quantum, which uses Griffiths' book. Most take differential equations in the fourth semester after calculus III and quantum mechanics in their 3rd year or later, so it isn't like suggesting taking differential equations before quantum mechanics is a bad idea, even if they use Griffiths' book.
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