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To add to Books that every physicist should read:
A list of popular physics books for people who aren't necessarily interested in technical physics.

(see also Book recommendations)

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11 Answers 11

Richard Feynman!

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Though this cannot be said to apply to laymen without a basic physical/mathematical background, but it still is the best beginner physics book out there. No other book can match the originality and brilliance of Feynman. –  Satwik Pasani Jan 8 at 12:36
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  1. 'One Two Three ... Infinity' - By George Gamow
  2. 'Mr. Tompkins in paperback' - By George Gamow ( combines Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland with Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom )
  3. 'Mathematics for the Million: How to Master the Magic of Numbers' - Lancelot Hogben
  4. 'Relativity Simply Explained' - By Martin Gardner
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I can recommend the following physics books. They are all somewhat different, but collectively they provide a good picture of where ideas in physics are today and how modern theories developed.

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, Graham Farmelo  

Quantum Enigma, Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner  

The Infinity Puzzle, Frank Close  

About Time, Adam Frank  

Knocking on Heaven's Door, Lisa Randall  

The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow  

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Dr. Posin's Giants, by Daniel Posin even children can read this one....

The Strange Story of the Quantum Banesh Hoffman a real scientist and a good, if a little colloquial in that breathless American 1940's way, writer

Men of Mathematics Eric Temple Bell includes many of the greatest physicists

Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov

Irving Adler was also a truly great writer.

Relativity: The Special and General Theory Albert Einstein a masterpiece

I honestly cannot recommend Feynman. I would recommend Dirac if I thought a non physicist could understand him, with that proviso,

Directions in Physics P.A.M. Dirac, and

The Development of Quantum Theory: [the] J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture, by P.A.M. Dirac.... I think a non-physicist could get a lot out of these rather short books but would have to be willing to "black box" a significant proportion of the readings....

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I recall many years ago browsing through a small book on general relativity by Dirac (presumably some lectures) and being left with the uneasy feeling that "this wasn't Dirac's true passion"; it was the first thing by Dirac that I read and I was a little disappointed: many years later I read the works you cite and was magnificently impressed. –  WetSavannaAnimal aka Rod Vance Aug 4 '13 at 13:00
    
Quite so. Nor is that book for laymen. I could recommend it for professional physics students, even perpetual ones ;-) –  joseph f. johnson Aug 5 '13 at 18:05
    
Not a book for laymen, but its style put me off Dirac. Even highly technical books written by someone with a passion for the subject have a poetry to them. So I just assumed Dirac had little passion for the subject. Either that, or, having learnt about Dirac's weird character from a high school maths teacher of mine who studied at Cambridge in Dirac's department, I just assumed the robotic style was owing to Dirac's not caring too much about communication with other people. So I was heartily surprised and impressed when I read the works you cite .... –  WetSavannaAnimal aka Rod Vance Aug 6 '13 at 0:31
    
Witness the difference in, say, Spivak's Comprehensive Introduction to Differential Geometry or (another mathematician whose technical writing I greatly admire) John Stillwell or Wulf Rossmann (Lie theorist with a flair for writing). If any of those people wrote popular articles, I am sure they would be well worth reading. –  WetSavannaAnimal aka Rod Vance Aug 6 '13 at 0:34
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I'm not all that familiar with what Asimov has written about physics, but I used to have his "Asimov on Chemistry" and it was one of the best collections of essays I've ever read.

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unfortunately out of print and very expensive –  Martin Beckett Aug 2 '11 at 3:22
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The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don't Fall through the Floor

Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down

The rather overlooked J E Gordon is an excellent teacher, better than the more philosophical Petroski's works

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German book:

http://www.amazon.de/Physik-Bleistift-analytische-Handwerkszeug-Naturwissenschaftlers/dp/3817116616

It gives a concise introduction into many important topics of physics and motivates to learn math. I read it during my first semesters and it helped to keep me interested in mathematics even though the professor only occasionally motivated his topics.

I would have liked to read this book when I was in school.

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For a layman "The Evolution of Physics" is a must. It is book for every philosopher,beginner in physics and an expert physicist.

Einstein shares his philosophical thoughts about Nature. Einstein begins with a rhetorical style. He does the comparison of physicist with the reader of the Book of Nature and in the 2nd chapter The decline of the mechanical View he rejects the likeness. The book conveys the fact that every physical theory or concept is free creation of human mind. A physicist tries his best to make a picture of reality and hopes for a better picture than the previous one designed to explain the Nature but alas he will never know the real picture of Nature. Two or more different pictures of nature can be drawn to understand it and all of them may well correctly explain Nature but we always should seek for a simpler one and more general pictures.
Einstein strongly recommends realism.


The old edition is available for free download at archive.org. The readers interested in history of the book and its writters should read the new edition which contains a Foreword by Walter Isaacson.

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As a non-physicist I found "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking pretty good.

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A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
This is good in a summary sort of way but it does not explain concepts in much detail. It's merit lies in the fact that it gives a summary of a whole lot of topics serving to give atleast an intuitive idea of a lot of topics to the reader.

The Flying Circus of Physics by Jearl Walker.
This book primarily focusses on how the normal apparently humdrum physics concept come to life in the course of everyday actions. Some commonly seen phenomenon and some strange and rare ones, often have physics interwoven into them beautifully, which is what the author tries to bring out.

Both of these books can also be read by "non-laymen" for amusements and "laymen" for amusement and knowledge.

As Feynman's lectures have already been recommended, I'll put forth few more recommendations

Thirty years that shook physics by George Gamow. (on the scientists and the scientific upheavals preceding the quantum revolution)

Mr Tompkins series by George Gamow. (rather than providing knowledge for laymen, it serves to amuse the readers, but with plots using several of the physical and general scientific concepts. Requires slight background on physics.)

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I would suggest only one book for a brief history of few of the mathematical giants such as Euler, Bernoulli, Newton .

Its Journey Through Genius by Dunham. I am never unimpressed with the way the author exposits.

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