The best books for physics graduate students

Andrew Zangwill Author Of Modern Electrodynamics
By Andrew Zangwill

The Books I Picked & Why

Lectures on Quantum Mechanics

By Gordon Baym

Book cover of Lectures on Quantum Mechanics

Why 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.

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The Variational Principles of Mechanics

By Cornelius Lanczos

Book cover of The Variational Principles of Mechanics

Why 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.

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Statistical Mechanics: An Advanced Course with Problems and Solutions

By Ryogo Kubo

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

Why 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.

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The Classical Electromagnetic Field

By Leonard Eyges

Book cover of The Classical Electromagnetic Field

Why 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.

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By Italo Calvino, William Weaver

Book cover of Cosmicomics

Why 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.

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