Some time ago I had a discussion originally got interested in particle physics and I traced it all back to a book I read in 7th grade, The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Krauss. (The book not only turned me into a physicist, but also a trekkie.)
It’s a little late to put out a summer reading list, but for those of you who are still looking around for something to tickle your particle physics fancy, here are a few other personal recommendations.
First of all, let’s start with just about anything that Richard Feynman has written. Perhaps the most enjoyable and playful volume for a general audience is his auto-biographical Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, a collection of anecdotes about his life. There isn’t much physics in this book, but you’ll see why Feynman is a hero to generation after generation of physicists and laypeople alike. If you’re looking for something with more physics intuition (accessible to ambitious high school students), check out QED, a surprisingly accurate description of the work for which Feynman was awarded the Nobel prize in physics.
To the best of my knowledge, Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe is still one of the most successful popular introductions to theoretical physics, focusing on string theory. The NOVA documentary is also available free online. While I haven’t read it, I’ve heard that Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages is also an excellent read with more of a particle physics emphasis.
For those interested in extra dimensions (one of my current projects), I would also strongly recommend Edwin Abbott’s 19th century novel, Flatland. It’s available free online, but I’d recommend an annotated version to fill in some of the background. The book is, in some sense, a social commentary on Victorian life; but more importantly it is a remarkable lesson in how to think about higher dimensions by analogy to the two-dimensional flat land. (And it was written more than a century ago!)
These are all great popular-level books, but what about something for people who want to get their hands dirty? I remember the summer before starting college I was itching to start learning ‘real physics.’ For the autodidactically inclined, I would recommend starting with any fairly recent college physics textbook. Ugh! So dry, right? Don’t worry, I suggest skipping to the last few chapters that discuss modern physics. Most textbooks I’ve seen have some neat things to say about special relativity, quantum physics, and even the Standard Model. So to all you eager college freshmen, I suggest taking a skim through these chapters now because it’s unlikely your intro-level courses will ever get to the ‘good stuff.’
For more specific suggestions, I’ve recently found a wonderful exposition on special relativity called Very Special Relativity by Sander Bais. The book is accessible to anyone with a high-school physics background and a good grasp of algebra. It is remarkably adept at conveying a real working understanding of special relativity through illustrations. I would even recommend this book as a model of excellent pedagogy to graduate students who will be teaching courses in modern physics.
For advanced undergrads or beginning grad students who are interested in particle physics, an excellent first book in quantum field theory is Zee’s Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell, which illuminates the concepts behind the equations with expert clarity. Don’t rush out to buy it just yet, though, as I’ve been informed that a new expanded edition is right around the corner. For those rising graduate students who want a lighter summer, get acquainted with PhD Comics… you’ll laugh now, and then realize it’s all spot-on.