Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Reading List for a budding particle physicist/Astrophysicist.

Hi reading the various forums there seem to be a lot of people wanting to at least learn about if not do an MSc or even a Phd in particle physics or Cosmology. Eg this guy who I've just come across in the past week or so and who has done me and other fellow bloggers the honour of calling me a fellow Jedi (even though I do not really believe in Jedism but the compliment is noted).


His ambition is admirable and I hope he makes it but unfortunately the Open University courses good as they are will only take you so far. I'm going to have some harsh words to say about the physics (or lack of physics courses) available  on the Open University. In particlar S207, having downloaded an exam paper I was quite shocked at the level of some the questions. In particular the lack of mathematics and very little use of calculus. They seemed to be set at a level which was no more than A level and not even that. Where for example is any stuff on AC circuits. Some of my fellow bloggers, currently doing MST209, will have spent a large amount of time learning how to solve problems involving simple harmonic oscillators a really key part of learning the relevance of calculus to physical problems. However what is even more amazing is the realisation that the same part of maths also applies to electrical circuits for me that was a real testimony to the power of maths when I came across it in the 6th form.  It seems to me that the Open University has missed a trick here. Again from what I can tell the thermodynamics part will not really stress the maths behind it, for example the Maxwell relations which provide an interesting use of partial differential equations. OK maybe I'm being a bit unfair but those who like maths and do that course must be feeling really frustrated.

So is there a remedy? I would say yes first of all t'Hooft a guy who did much to revitalise the use of quantum field theory in the development of the Standard model of particle physics has put together a web site which forms a structured way of getting most of the background to become a theoretical physicist


But of course there is no formal assessment and how can you know you are up there with the best of them, one way to check and again fill in the gaps is to follow the Cambridge Maths department which gives out the example sheets for both their pure maths and theoretical physics courses and also the exams. If you look under the radar you can also find lecture notes on the courses.


Of particular interest are the courses in differential equations and mathematical methods for both the specialists and the scientists, If you can do the exams and the problems on the sheets you know you are up there, if not then you know what you have to aspire to. To know what modern particle physics looks like the courses on particle physics and symmetries in the Cambridge part III cover the basics


If you can get onto part III and do well you'll have made it and my advice to my Jedi friend is to work a path aided by the Open university to see how feasible it is to get on such a course. Imperial College and Kings College offer suitable alternatives.

In the mean time those who want to do say some of the mathematical physics courses at the OU but do not necessarily want to do S207 to get some physical background could start here


Of course no reccomendation on physics books at undergraduate level would be complete without mentioning the Feynman lectures on physics.


But these are more of a dip into both books do suffer from the defect of not having problems associated with them but this is easily remedied by following the Cambridge example sheets. A more tradtional (and a bit boring book is Halliday and Resnick)


Obviously the OU courses in electromagnetism quantum mechanics and arguably the relativistic Universe or at least volume 1 which covers the basics of general relativity, are essential. As is MST209 and either one or both of the fluid mechanics course and the partial differential equations course which is going to supersede the current waves, diffusion and variational principles course. The latter would be better as it includes a section on Lagrangian and Hamilonian mechanics which is more abstract than that in MST209 and forms the starting point for quantum field theory. Longair has a chapter on it but again in order to master the problem solving skills attempting some of the Cambridge problems is probably essential. Also if like my Jedi friend he wants to do the MSc in Maths or at least keep his options open you need M208 and M337 as essential parts.

Having mastered the classical background and mathematical techniques one can go on to study Non relativistic quantum mechanics A good reference is Modern Quantum Mechanics by Sakurai


and this would be a good supplement to the OU course.
Ok you don't have to do everything in Sakurai but in order to supplement say the quantum mechanics course taught at the OU you would probably need to understand how it is applied especially scattering theory. The  material in the applications of quantum mechanics sheets


gives an idea of what you should know. You can probably ignore solid state physics (Squalid State physics as some famous physicists have called it). Many of the Standard books on quantum physics contain this material.  and it would be a useful supplement to anyone considering doing the OU course in quantum mechanics. In order to solve  'real' problems an understanding of how to solve differential equations by series and a familiarity with the so called special functions Bessel Functions, Legendre Polynomials, Spherical Harmonics is necessary. Also for some specialist topics such as scattering theory some familiarity with Complex Integration especially contour integration is necessary. The Cambridge maths methods courses cover this material and some of it is covered in the open university course. Mathematical Methods and Fluid mechanics, but if you can't wait that long then get a good book on mathematical methods such as Benson et al


or "Work through" the Cambridge examples sheets  especially those on mathematical methods and Complex methods. The notes for these are freely available.

One mathematical technique not really covered by any of the Open university course which plays an important  part in Advanced physics especially quantum field theory is the technique of Green's functions and the Dirac delta function the Cambridge lecture notes in mathematical methods cover this and probably develop more facility.

However even that is not enough, one thing that is tragic in the OU course provision is the lack of any application of Group theory to physical problems this book by Jones gives a good overview starting with finite groups and their application to molecular spectra and then going to give a brief overview of symmetry principles and their application to particle physics.


Finally an understanding of special relativity especially 4 vector formalism is needed and it's application to Maxwell's equations. This is covered briefly in Longair You should be then in a good position to embark on understanding particle physics this is also covered in the Relativistic Universe.

For a good uptodate first book on particle physics the book by Perkins is recommended


So when you have completed the 3rd level physics and maths courses and can't get onto an MSc or just want to know about the subject at graduate level what next. There are three levels, one is a basic understanding of relativistic particle physics at first order of perturbation theory this can be got either (and although it's expensive would be my first recomendation) Halzen and Martin


It's direct gets you calculating straight away and you will learn a lot about how actual particle physics calculations are done. Even though quantum field theory is the foundation of particle physics it's quite surprising when it comes down to it, how little of it is needed in practical calculations. Once one has the Feynman rules, then that is all one needs, to be able to calculate scattering cross sections, If you like quantum field theory is the scaffolding which can be thrown away once you've got there. So I would argue the first step to acquire in particle physics (and remember I'm a failed one, so I'm probably talking rubbish) is facility in calculating Feynman diagrams and an appreciation of the basic phenomenology.

If that book seems to expensive then an alternative is these by Aitichson and Hey



However it has the disadvantage of being in two volumes and the problems do not have solutions whereas Halzen and Martin does.

OK so thats stage 1 a basic mastery of phenomenology an understanding of what a Feynman diagram is and the ability to calculate Feynman diagrams at the first order of perturbation. Also an understanding of the basic symmetries of the Standard model of particle physics and it's Lagrangian.

Stage 2 is then learning how to do second order calculations and here quantum field theory is a must again taking a pragmatic view here rather than getting bogged down in formalism  I would recommend Peskin and Schroeder (In my day it was Bjorken and Drell). Here there is a combination of both quantum field theory, and its application to concrete problems, One really useful feature is at the end of each main section there are three research problems. I guess my level is about here which is where my MSc took me but I never did any calculations at the level of the research projects in the book, I do hope to do them  eventually as they would be a real achievement and certainly my Jedi friend should aspire  to do them if he wants to be taken seriously.

Finally after a good basic understanding of Peskin and Schroder has been achieved then one can move onto the deeper books such as those by Weinberg




But these are really deep books more for reference, I should also mention Zee's book which gives a concise but still rigorous view of quantum field theory and could probably be read before embarking on Peskin and Schroeder


You will note I've not said anything about Superstring theory the best comment I can make on that is from Perkins

"At the present time string theory is under rapid development. Nobody yet knows, and probably will not know for some years, whether it has any relevance to the real world"

Ok I hope this post hasn't seemed pretentious, it strikes me that there is little of this information freely available and I hope I've sketched a feasible path for someone to follow who wants to understand particle physics. At the risk of pontificating more I'll sketch out a similar path for a theoretical Astrophysicist to follow in a not too distant post.


  1. Hi Chris,
    That's a very comprehensive overview you've given.
    Thanks very much for that - it makes for interesting reading.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Introduction-Energy-Physics-Donald-Perkins/dp/0521621968/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1308688487&sr=1-1 it is for a first book....
    The Feynman lectures seemed like the ideal choice until I spotted the price. Eek. That's 4 months beer-tokens.
    Keep up the great work.

  2. You might be able to get the Feynman lectures second hand or individual volumes Don't forget to look at the Cambridge maths website and explore that, it's always good to see what is demanded from the Creme de la Creme as it were.

  3. I got my Feynman lecture part 1 for £17 second hand from Amazon. There is a new edition due out in October 2011. Not sure what is new inside or what the price will be.

  4. HI Chris,

    Just out of interest,
    How much study time are you finding that you need per week, for your combined OU courses, this year?

    ps: i've enabled anon commenting on my blog now

  5. Thanks for putting anon on I would say I do about 10-15 hours per week but I'm always reading units on the bus to work.

    You'll not regret your purchase of Feynman he is full of insights. The only drawback is a lack of problems to go with the books.