Physics, Astrophysics, and Cosmology

Faculty Picks: 5 Great Books on Physics, Astrophysics, and Cosmology - Selected by Choice Reviewer Kent Fisher

Many people are fascinated by the inner workings of the universe, and contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a PhD in physics to explore them. When I teach undergraduate physics courses, I regularly recommend the first two books on this list to all of my students. The third and fourth I enthusiastically recommend to anyone I meet – at least, those who don’t flinch on learning that I teach physics. The fifth book is a great choice for anyone who wants to understand astrophysics and cosmology in a more rigorous way, but doesn’t yet have a solid grounding in physics.

Thinking Physics: Understandable Practical Reality, by Lewis Carroll Epstein. Insight Press, 2002.
Relativity Visualized, by Lewis Carroll Epstein. Insight Press, 1985.
These two books make me wish I’d had the good luck to have been one of Professor Epstein’s students. But it’s consoling to know that we can all enjoy these examples of his near-magical ability to crystallize concepts of physics in words and pictures. Both books are suitable for anyone with an interest in physics; Thinking Physics requires a little arithmetic, and Relativity Visualized can be enjoyed by anyone familiar with trigonometry and graphs. If you give Relativity Visualized a try, prepare to be amazed when you realize that you’re really grasping the essence of Einstein’s most famous theory!

If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens… Where Is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life, by Stephen Webb. 2nd Ed. Springer, 2015
I read the first edition of this book back when Webb had explored only fifty solutions to the Fermi paradox (see the subtitle); the current edition boasts seventy-five! All of the original fifty were robustly interesting, and I’m looking forward to catching up on them and digging into the newest twenty-five.

The Life of the Cosmos, by Lee Smolin. Oxford University Press, 1997
Written by an expert in general relativity and quantum gravity, The Life of the Cosmos is an extended exploration of a singular speculation: what if our universe—or multiverse?—evolves by something akin to the law of natural selection? I won’t spoil the details of Smolin’s ingenious idea further, but give this one a try if the origin and nature of the universe interests you at all.

Gravity From the Ground Up: An Introductory Guide to Gravity and General Relativity, by Bernard Schutz. Cambridge, 2005.
There are many introductory physics books, and many books on astrophysics and cosmology. But this book is unique, to my knowledge, in using gravity as a unifying concept to introduce and rigorously explore basic physics and springboard from them into astrophysics and cosmology. If I could create a brand new course on any topic, it would be an introductory physics course using Gravity from the Ground Up as the textbook.