The 10 Best Physics Books
Let's Get Physical
I had the terrible misfortune of finding physics too late in life. It's not that I can't enjoy it by reading books like the ones you see here on our list, or that I can't have great conversations with what few of my friends also understand its basics, it's just that I spent a lot of time and education devoted to writing. I didn't take my first physics course until my last semester of college, and it was the most exciting class I'd taken in four years.
As a writer (I specifically studied poetry in school), I received a training that worshiped the ability of the best writers to distill complex emotional realities into immediately relatable images. You can imagine my surprise when my physics professor proved better at this–albeit applied to physical, mathematical concepts instead of emotional ones–than any of my lit professors.
To make matters more exciting, this particular professor had a better sense of humor than any teacher I'd had since high school, and I recalled then that all of my wittiest teachers throughout my life had taught the sciences. There's something in the water they drink, I'd say.
So, here you have physics books by a collection of authors, each of whom is equipped with a scientist's profound understanding of the natural world, as well as that sharp, scientific sense of humor. Somehow, most have also each acquired the distillation power by which they render these incredibly complicated ideas understandable to almost any reader.
What Do You Want To Know?
When people get lost in the study of something without knowing when or where they'll eventually end up, they often describe the experience as "going down the rabbit hole." The reference makes use of Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, but her journey down the rabbit hole is a brief one, for she emerges in another world rather quickly, and she eventually returns from that word back to her own.
While most studious endeavors eventually return us to our point of origin, their destinations aren't quite so definitive. Perhaps, had Carroll a more modern understanding of physics, Alice would have found herself traveling through a worm hole, or into a black hole, which would better imply the student's apparent inability to escape the topic under scrutiny.
Among the books on our list, some may exert more gravitational force on you than others, and some may work on you as though they contained a like magnetic force to your own, the two of you repelling each other. It's difficult to know which will be the case without opening any of them, but there are some things to consider before proceeding.
The first thing you ought to do is evaluate your current level of understanding in physics. For the longest time, I was content to explore the depth of the most basic physics, intimidated as I was by quantum concepts. For me in those days, books like Physics In Mind and The Fabric Of The Cosmos appealed most greatly to me, as they took physical concepts I'd come to understand and applied them to larger philosophical questions about epistemology and astronomy. They're written in a tone that is neither unapologetically heady nor condescendingly simple.
If you've only just begun to whet your appetite for physics, however, there are a few books on this list that are decidedly simple and direct. These will outfit you with immensely understandable images and metaphors for understanding and explaining the roots of all physics. The good thing is that none of them stops there, as each takes the knowledge they provide and pushes you further with it.
Then, there are the books for those students of physics who've already attained a deep understanding of the basics, and who are ready to expand their knowledge outward into the realms and consequences of quantum theory. It turns out to be far less intimidating than it might seem at first, especially when you consider that these authors employ the same wit and analogous models that make all physics so relatable.
As Far Back As It Goes
The actual study of physics was less a study of the physical world for its own sake and more a study of astronomy, mechanics, optics, and even the most rudimentary tools of our ancestors. It wasn't until the 7th century BCE that Greek philosophers began to study physical properties for their own elucidation. The study caught on, and by the 4th century the term physics had its place among the great intellectual efforts.
Other nations and regions developed their own physical studies, as well, with Chinese philosophers delving into the makeup of their world around the 3rd century BCE. In the Islamic world, scientists influenced by the Greek and western Chinese lines of thought pushed our understanding even further along, laying the groundwork for the next revolutions in astronomy and mathematics.
In the 20th century, minds like those of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking have opened up new veins of study, and popularized a sector of learning that had once been far less cool. Now, people like the late Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have achieved celebrity status through their work in astrophysics, and brilliant authors and scientists continue to provide us with great, intriguing reads.