Query: popular physics books?

My son (13) is in his physics phase. As a biologist, I don't know much about physics beyond college classes, but our home library is huge, so he managed to dig out a bunch of physics-related books. Some he read, others he skimmed, and now he wants more. He is interested in everything - gravity, cosmology, etc. He is not afraid of simple math so a book with some easy formulas are fine. Help me pick a couple of good choices to get him later this week. What he checked/read so far is a smorgasbord of books of different ages, qualities, levels and topics:

Atom by Isaac Asimov
Mr.Tompkins Explores the Atom by Gamow
Relativity by Einstein
The Unfinished Universe by Louise Young
The Quark and the Jaguar by Murray Gell-Mann
The Unexpected Universe by Eiseley
Relativity Visualised by Epstein
From Copernicus to Einstein by Reichenbach
Stephen Hawking's Universe by John Boslough
Encounters with Einstein by Heisenberg
A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking
QED by Feynman
Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg
Rainbows, Curve Balls & other wonders of the natural world explained, by Ira Flatow
Broca's Brain by Sagan
Cosmology Now, edited by Laurie John
Entropy and the Magic Flute by Harold Morowitz
Frontiers of Complexity by Coveney and Highfield
The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin

So, give me your suggestions in the comments....


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At that age, I really enjoyed Gamow's books. So I would recommend
1) One Two Three ... Infinity
2) Gravity
3) Thirty Years That Shook Physics
These should have enough math to entice/challenge him, but not so much as to intimidate. I highly recommend them.

I see Feynman's QED is already on the list. So I'll have no scruples and list a few of my favorites which require minimal math and maximal thinking.

1) Six Easy Pieces - RP Feynman
2) Evolution of Physics - Albert Einstein & Leopold Infeld
3) The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don't Fall through the Floor - JE Gordon
4) Structures : Or Why Things Don't Fall Down - JE Gordon

By E Deschagt (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

Not a recommendation as such, but a poser. Namely that the lad take a good long look at the implications of Einstein's finding that mass curves space-time. And that the phenomenon we call gravity is that curvature in action. That is, strictly speaking there is no gravity as we understand it, the universe is warped.


"Gedanken Physics is Thinking Physics" by Lewis Carroll Epstein.

I know it's not so much a physics book, but "surely you're joking mr. feynman" would be GREAT for someone that age. It conveys the irreverant, questioning attitude that Feynman had... could be a great influence on a teenager by showing him how to channel those rebellious feelings into something constructive. There's some physics, too. Mostly, this book makes anyone who reads it want to become a physicist.

By anonymous (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

John Gribbin, In Search of Schrodinger's Cat.

I read this when I was about 13, and it was the first time I had heard of quantum physics. I landed up with a physics degree. I've found a surprising number of other physicists also got started on the same book.

From what I remember it should not have aged too much (first published 1984) because it concentrates on the basics - how quantum was discovered, how it is used to explain chemistry, and the core mysteries ("spooky action at a distance" and uncertainty). Probably the "collapse of the wavefunction" would need to talk about decoherence, but that's about it.

This is real core physics. It's not just the particle physics and quantum gravity that sometimes hog more of the public limelight than they might deserve on the basis of what most physicists do. Of course it's also what you need to understand to get to all that fancy stuff, but told in a way that kept at least my attention.

(Gribbin is a prolific author. Some of his others are good, but I of those I've read this one stands out.)

Gedanken Physics is Thinking Physics" by Lewis Carroll Epstein. Posted by: Ken | April 16, 2007 02:43 PM

I have "Thinking Physics" by Lewis Carroll Epstein, which was recommended by a physics professor (among other books). It seems simple in the vein of The Cartoon Guide to Physics, but a lot of the questions are counter-intuitive and not so easy; I think if one can answer and explain all the questions in that book, then they're on their way to more difficult areas. Also, Hawkins's A Briefer History of Time is fine, too. And of course, Cosmos by Sagan.

My recommended list also has Asimov's The History of Physics as well as a bunch others not on your list. 13 years old, huh? More power to him!

'There are no electrons' by Ken Ahmdal is a brilliant book for understanding basic electronics.

By coincidence, I happen to have just had a conversation Saturday with a high school physics teacher of some repute (and therefore with some expertise on this question). She recommends Paul Hewitt's "Conceptual Physics".

I was never into science fiction, but when I was a teenager I read all of the non-fiction by Asimov that I could get my hands on. It's all great stuff.

I would also second the recommendation for Six Easy Pieces by Feynman. This is by far the best non-technical introduction to physics that I've read myself. I would only add that you really, really should make sure to get the audio version that accompanies the text, because there is just something magical about hearing Feynman give these lectures. If that doesn't turn your son into a physicist, nothing will. (And when he's ready for it, he can move up to the entire Lectures on Physics.)

Thank you all. I will put the whole list of suggestions somewhere for future reference. He chose Asimov's "Understanding Physics" as the next title to be bought.

The Ghost in the Atom by Davies and Brown.
Spacetime Physics by Taylor and Wheeler.

If you want to work on a fun physics project with your son, just google "Do-It-Yourself Quantum Eraser" and you will find a lovely experiment outlined by Scientific American, which does not require any exotic supplies.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. True, it is not a scientific book and it will probably seem a bit young for your son, but when I was a 6th grade teacher in the Beverly Hills schools, many years ago, it was standard reading, a playful look at numbers and letters, a la Alice in Wonderland. It definitely reinforces the value of being both analytical and imaginative.