The best books for physics graduate students

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a physics professor with a passion for teaching. When I was a graduate student, I took required courses in classical mechanics, classical electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics. Some of the textbooks assigned by my professors were good; some were not so good. In every case, it was extremely helpful to read what other authors had to say about these foundational subjects. Four of the five books I recommend below are my personal favorites among these serious physics books. My fifth book choice is less serious and does not teach physics, but it will improve your graduate student experience nonetheless.


I wrote...

Modern Electrodynamics

By Andrew Zangwill,

Book cover of Modern Electrodynamics

What is my book about?

Modern Electrodynamics is a graduate-level textbook of classical electrodynamics. I wrote it to give professors and students an alternative to a book by J.D. Jackson that has shaped the pedagogical approach to this subject since 1962. Jackson has virtues, but it focuses too much on the mathematics needed to solve his difficult homework problems and not enough on the qualitative arguments one needs to gain a deep understanding of the subject. My book gives mathematics its full due, but through the use of clear prose and over 200 worked examples and applications, it aims to develop in the reader the physical intuition required to appreciate electromagnetic phenomena qualitatively as well as quantitatively.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Lectures on Quantum Mechanics

Andrew Zangwill Why did I love this book?

This book helped me pass my PhD qualifying exam. The writing style is crisp and qualitative arguments abound. Baym treats perturbation theory and scattering theory particularly nicely and your interest will never flag because he illustrates the formal theory with wonderfully chosen examples like K-meson interference effects, the Van der Waals interaction, Cooper pairing, spin resonance, multipole radiation, Klein’s paradox, and the Hanbury-Brown and Twiss experiment.  A special treat not found in other textbooks is a discussion of Julian Schwinger’s unique take on the quantum theory of angular momentum.

By Gordon Baym,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lectures on Quantum Mechanics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

These lecture notes comprise a three-semester graduate course in quantum mechanics at the University of Illinois. There are a number of texts which present the basic topics very well; but since a fair quantity of the material discussed in my course was not available to the students in elementary quantum mechanics books, I was asked to prepare written notes. In retrospect these lecture notes seemed sufficiently interesting to warrant their publication in this format. The notes, presented here in slightly revised form, consitutute a self-contained course in quantum mechanics from first principles to elementary and relativistic one-particle mechanics. Prerequisite to…


Book cover of The Variational Principles of Mechanics

Andrew Zangwill Why did I love this book?

I love this book! Of course, it teaches the mathematics of the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian approaches to classical mechanics. But its real uniqueness lies in how the author explains the basic concepts of the subject with a constant emphasis on intuitive physics. It was only after reading Lanczos that I finally understood what variational calculations were really about. Ditto for virtual work, non-holonomic constraints, Liouville’s theorem and Hamilton-Jacobi theory. I barely noticed that I was learning about the history and philosophy of classical mechanics at the same time.

By Cornelius Lanczos,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Variational Principles of Mechanics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Analytical mechanics is, of course, a topic of perennial interest and usefulness in physics and engineering, a discipline that boasts not only many practical applications, but much inherent mathematical beauty. Unlike many standard textbooks on advanced mechanics, however, this present text eschews a primarily technical and formalistic treatment in favor of a fundamental, historical, philosophical approach. As the author remarks, there is a tremendous treasure of philosophical meaning" behind the great theories of Euler and Lagrange, Hamilton, Jacobi, and other mathematical thinkers.
Well-written, authoritative, and scholarly, this classic treatise begins with an introduction to the variational principles of mechanics including…


Book cover of Statistical Mechanics: An Advanced Course with Problems and Solutions

Andrew Zangwill Why did I love this book?

I learned the basics of statistical mechanics from the first edition of the textbook by R.K. Pathria. But only after studying Kubo did I learn how to apply those ideas to solve problems. Each of his six chapters begins with a concise overview of the theory. Next comes a set of worked examples, followed by an extensive collection of problems and their solutions.  Overall, the book offers a remarkable 46 worked examples and 162 problems and solutions. These include all the standard problems and quite a few you will not see elsewhere. Particularly charming are 14 "divertissements” where Kubo discusses Maxwell’s demon, the ergodic theorem, the Gibbs paradox, the H-theorem, Onsager’s reciprocity relations, and other delights.

By Ryogo Kubo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Statistical Mechanics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book provides a series of concise lectures on the fundamental theories of statistical mechanics, carefully chosen examples and a number of problems with complete solutions.

Modern physics has opened the way for a thorough examination of infra-structure of nature and understanding of the properties of matter from an atomistic point of view. Statistical mechanics is an essential bridge between the laws of nature on a microscopic scale and the macroscopic behaviour of matter. A good training in statistical mechanics thus provides a basis for modern physics and is indispensable to any student in physics, chemistry, biophysics and engineering sciences…


Book cover of The Classical Electromagnetic Field

Andrew Zangwill Why did I love this book?

The yellow Dover paperback edition of this book was the source for more than a few of the quantitative deductions and qualitative arguments which appear in my own textbook on the subject. I admire the pedagogy of Eyges’ book and he is exceptionally lucid in his explanations of physics. The main text assumes you are familiar with delta functions, vector calculus, and the orthogonal functions of mathematical physics, but if you are not, there are well-written appendices devoted to each one. Eyges knows that there is more to electrostatics and magnetostatics than potential theory and his discussions of multipole expansions, time-harmonic radiation and wave propagation inside and outside of matter are very insightful. This little gem belongs by your side when you study classical electrodynamics.

By Leonard Eyges,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Classical Electromagnetic Field as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Classical Electromagnetic Field emphasizes physics first, then mathematics. This and the fact that lucid exposition of theory receives priority over subsequent manipulation marks the book unusual, not to say unique, among field physics texts for advanced undergraduates and graduate students. Long experience of and dissatisfaction with existing texts used in teaching electromagnetic theory at MIT prompted the author to clarify his own approach, resulting in this book. Dr. Eyges is now a Senior Research Physicist at the Rome Air Development Center, Hanscom Air Force Base.
Electromagnetic theory is basic to classical and relativistic physics at every level. This text…


Book cover of Cosmicomics

Andrew Zangwill Why did I love this book?

This book by the late Italian novelist Italo Calvino is for your mental health. Despite the title, it is not about comics and it is not science fiction. Rather, it is a collection of fanciful and beautifully written short stories which personalize the Universe. In one story, Calvino’s narrator, Qfwfq, explains the crankiness of his family members at the moment the Universe was created. Their short tempers were inevitable because, the creation event being a singularity, they were all crowded together at a single point in space. In another story, Qfwfq remarks that his younger brother was "not of the metallic type, if anything a bit colloidal; in fact, when he was very young, he married an alga, one of the first, and we never heard from him again.” Read these stories to relax and relieve stress.

By Italo Calvino, William Weaver (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Cosmicomics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Introducing Little Clothbound Classics: irresistible, mini editions of short stories, novellas and essays from the world's greatest writers, designed by the award-winning Coralie Bickford-Smith.

Celebrating the range and diversity of Penguin Classics, they take us from snowy Japan to springtime Vienna, from haunted New England to a sun-drenched Mediterranean island, and from a game of chess on the ocean to a love story on the moon. Beautifully designed and printed, these collectible editions are bound in colourful, tactile cloth and stamped with foil.

Twelve enchanting and fantastical stories about the evolution of the universe from the giant of Italian literature,…


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Split Decision

By David Perlmutter,

Book cover of Split Decision

David Perlmutter Author Of The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a freelance writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, specializing in media history and speculative fiction. I have been enchanted by animation since childhood and followed many series avidly through adulthood. My viewing inspired my MA thesis on the history of animation, out of which grew two books on the history and theory of animation on television, America 'Toons In: A History of Television Animation (available from McFarland and Co.) and The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows (available from Rowman and Littlefield). Hopefully, others will follow.

David's book list on understanding the history of animation

What is my book about?

Jefferson Ball, the mightiest female dog in a universe of the same, is, despite her anti-heroic behavior, intent on keeping her legacy as an athlete and adventurer intact. So, when female teenage robot Jody Ryder inadvertently angers her by smashing her high school records, Jefferson is intent on proving her superiority by outmuscling the robot in a not-so-fair fight. Not wanting to seem like a coward, and eager to end her enemy's trash talking, Jody agrees.

However, they have been lured to fight each other by circumstances beyond their control. Which are intent on destroying them if they don't destroy each other in combat first...

5 book lists we think you will like!

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