A Reading List For Educated Lay People

For those of you who are not physicists but are curious about why modern physics is a marvelous adventure of the mind. The authors are all professional physicists. I regret that this list does not do justice to electromagnetism.
* = Contains some technical material.

Al-Khalili, Jim (2003) Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed. Weidenfield & Nicholson.

Barrow, John, and Tipler, Frank (1986) The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Oxford Univ. Press. Reading this book changed my life. *

Barrow, John (2002) The Constants of Nature. Vintage Books. *

-------- (2007) New Theories of Everything, 2nd ed. Oxford Univ. Press.

Carr, Bernard, ed. (2007) Universe or Multiverse? Cambridge Univ. Press. *

Coughlan, G. D., J. E. Dodd, and B. M. Gripaios (2006) The Ideas of Particle Physics: An Introduction for Scientists, 3rd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press. * For scientists and science students who are not particle physicists.

Davies, Paul (2006) The Goldilocks Enigma. Penguin.

Feynman, Richard (1985) QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Princeton Univ. Press.

Ford, Kenneth W. (2005) The Quantum World. Harvard Univ. Press. More an intro to particle physics than to quantum theory.

French, A. P., and Taylor, E. F. (1978) An Introduction to Quantum Physics. W W Norton. * I include this text because I think highly of Taylor's texts on relativity (see Cosmology list) written with John Wheeler.

Ghirardi, Giancarlo (2004) Sneaking a Look at God’s Cards. Princeton Univ. Press. *

Goldstein, Martin and Inge (1993) The Refrigerator and the Universe. Harvard Univ. Press. On thermodynamics.

Greene, Brian (1999) The Elegant Universe. Vintage. A classic intro to string theory by a believer. I share the skepticism of Krauss (2005) and Smolin (2006).

-------- (2004) The Fabric of the Cosmos. Penguin: Part III. ( Cosmos)

Halpern, Paul (2004) The Great Beyond. Wiley. Much historical information.

Hey, Tony, and Walters, Patrick (2003) The New Quantum Universe. Cambridge Univ. Press. Much historical information. Also discusses how quantum physics has influenced technology.

Icke, Vincent (1995) The Force of Symmetry. Cambridge Univ. Press. *

Krauss, Lawrence (2005) Hiding in the Mirror. Penguin.

Lederman, L. M., and Hill, C. T. (2004) Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe. Prometheus Books.

Lindley, David (1996) Where Does the Weirdness Go? Basic Books.

Mermin, N. D. (1990) Boojums All the Way Through. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Moffat, John W. (2008) Reinventing Gravity. HarperCollins. Warning: a lot of the physics discussed in this fascinating book is not a settled affair.

Musser, George (2008) The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory. Penguin. By a Scientific American editor. This book is really a gentle introduction to much of contemporary fundamental physics. Says much that others omit, and most of what it says remains valid even if string theory proves wrong.

Oerter, Robert (2006) The Theory of Almost Everything: The Standard Model, the Unsung Triumph of Modern Physics. Plume.

Parker, Barry R. (2007) Einstein’s Brainchild. Prometheus Books.

Polkinghorne, John (1984) The Quantum World. Longman.

Rees, Martin (2000) Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe. Basic Books.

---------------- (2001) Our Cosmic Habitat. Princeton Univ. Press.

Schumm, Bruce (2004) Deep Down Things. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

Smolin, Lee (2006) The Trouble With Physics. Houghton Mifflin. . Argues that a 40 year fascination with string theory has led theoretical physics astray.

Stenger, Victor (2000) Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes. Prometheus Books.

Veltman, Martinus (2003) Facts and Mysteries in Elementary Particle Physics. World Scientific.

Wilczek, Frank (2008) The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces. Basic Books. I am not sure why Wilczek wrote this book. But he is a wonderfully witty writer.

Zee, Anthony (2007) Fearful Symmetry, 2nd ed. Princeton Univ. Press.
consa consa 61-65, M 4 Responses Jul 22, 2011

Your Response


Thank you so much! These are fantastic!

The word "physics" is only about 160 years old! Before then, the activity was called "natural philosophy." I believe that every philosopher nowadays should know some basic physics and astrophysics.

When physicists write for each other, they use a lot of mathematical artillery. But when I have struggled with the details, and discovered that a lot of the math is the sort of algebraic manipulation and power notation we are all supposed to have learned in 9th grade! Another fair slice of the physics requires no more than freshman calculus / linear algebra / vector spaces. Or sine, cosine, and the beautiful number e. Sometimes, what a physicist is saying is that theory gives us an equation about how a quantity changes over time. That's called a "law of motion." Common sense tells us what the value of that quantity is at some point in time; that's a "boundary condition." Given a law of motion and a boundary condition, we can recover an equation giving the value of the quantity at every point in time; that's called "solving a differential equation to recover the equation of state." We don't need to understand the mathematical tricks needed to obtain this solution. Besides, the solution can often be obtained using computer software.

Universities should offer a few physics and math courses for non-majors that flesh out what I say above.

Some of these books are not easy reading for me either.

In 1900, there was no conclusive evidence that matter is made of atoms. There was no understanding that atoms have parts, and that chemical properties derive from the internal structure of atoms.

The 20th century is the time when we humans sussed what matter is made of (electrons, up and down quarks, neutrinos), and what forces govern matter (gravity, electromagnetism, strong weak nuclear forces). Gravity and electricity were known before 1900, but the 20th century made huge additions (i.e, relativity, QED) to our understanding of both. The road to the quantum nature of reality began with a paper published in 1900.

This huge rise in our understanding of nature is probably the greatest achievement of the 20th century. Few people who are not professional physicists and chemists seem aware of this. My reading list proves that professional physicists have been quite willing to share the story of their adventures with the wider educated public.

Wow what a long list. It is hard to find a book about physics that not over my head. I happen to have known many scientists and its easy for me to get lost in the complexities of their science. I love the philosophy of physics its fascinating ... the math ... forget it.

Thanks for providing the possibility of physics reading for the lay person, like myself. Your story is now saved in my library for future reference.