Solid State Four Stars

Ashcroft & Mermin - Solid State Physics (1st Ed.)
Ashcroft & Mermin is one of the classic textbooks in solid state physics, and for good reason. The book covers just about all the fundamentals of solid state physics, with almost excessive thoroughness. There's an obvious downside to the book, which is that there is only one edition published in 1976. In the 30 years since, there have of course been leaps and bounds in condensed matter theory and experiment; this book is quite dated. Nevertheless, it has aged quite well. The exposition is just as clear as it was when first published and the fundamentals of solid state physics have remained rock solid, though for some topics the authors adopt questionable approaches. For one's first time learning solid state physics, you can't go wrong with Ashcroft & Mermin. Stay away from Kittel.

Density Matrix Five Stars

Blum - Density Matrix Theory and Applications (3rd Ed.)
In the field of spectroscopy, it is difficult to understand most modern experiments without use of the density matrix. Just understanding the mechanics of density matrix calculations is not enough however, since an intuitive understanding is also necessary for guiding experiments to an interesting place. Blum has written a fantastic book covering both aspects, and is the only reference I know of to fill the gap between basic introductions in most quantum mechanics textbooks and high-level calculations in advanced texts such as Mukamel's or research papers. It starts off with the best heuristic explanation of the Stern-Gerlach experiment that I have yet seen, and uses this as a way to distinguish between pure and mixed states. This is one of the most confusing nuances about the density matrix for beginners, and Blum clarifies this point wonderfully. The first third of the book covers the obligatory mathematical techniques, mostly in the context of spin density matrices. Though this may turn some people off at first, the simplicity of a two dimensional vector space simplifies the exposition signficantly. There is a connection drawn between the results of spin density matrix calculations and photon polarization, which is nice. The second third of the book then covers an array of topics to demonstrate the utility of the density matrix, which admittedly I skipped due to their limited applicability in my research. The last third then caters to spectroscopists, in which dynamics of molecules and dissipative systems is covered. The last chapter on system-bath interactions is fantastic, and is the only place where I've managed to find a straightforward explanation of the density matrix master equations. All of this praise aside, the book is FILLED with typos. Though they are mostly minor and easily noticed by a competent reader, these definitely should have been ironed out by the third edition. These nuisances aside, Blum's book is unique in its coverage of the density matrix from a beginner's level to the proficiency needed to digest more obtuse texts. Anyone who is looking to employ density matrices in their calculations should turn to this book first for help.

Semiconductor Lasers Three Stars

Chow - Semiconductor Laser Fundamentals (1st Ed.)
First, there are two points that should immediately be made about this book. (1) The word "fundamentals" in the title is not from an engineer's perspective, in which the basic design and operation principles would be laid out methodically. Rather the content is fundamental in a physics sense, in which the dynamics of a semiconductor laser are presented from a microscopic viewpoint. (2) The book was written in 1999, and has not been updated since (to my knowledge). Some of the topics covered are thus understandably out of date, and many approximations that were forced to be made at the time of writing this book are now unnecessary due to analytical techniques developed since. With these two points made, this book still has value in presenting the many-body physics governing the dynamics in a semiconductor laser from first principles. It does so nicely by both removing layers of approximation and adding more terms to the Hamiltonian chapter by chapter, so the reader sees what kinds of effects are induced by each in a systematic way. Due to the age of the book however, anyone doing research in the field should immediately move on to more modern texts after reading this one. Any engineers looking for high-level design principles should also look elsewhere.

Electrodynamics Four Stars

Griffiths - Introduction to Electrodynamics (4th Ed.)
Just because a textbook is a "standard text" doesn't mean it's a good book (see Jackson). However, it's obvious why Griffiths is the standard for advanced undergraduate E&M. The entire book reads extremely well, and it covers a suprisingly broad range of topics - most of what a two semester graduate course would in fact. The book is written at the advanced undergraduate level though, so it isn't a substitute for a graduate text. A downside however, is that a lot of useful information is left to the reader to discover for themselves in problems. This would be a great way of learning the material if one had a surplus of time on their hands, but for the average busy physics/engineering student this is usually not the most practical way of doing things. The book is also a bit wordy, which contributes to the readability of the text but at times you may just want Griffiths to get to the point.

Quantum Mechanics Four Stars

Griffiths - Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (2nd Ed.)
This is one of the few textbooks that I've actually read cover to cover multiple times. Many fundamental concepts of quantum mechanics are presented lucidly and concisely - in a way that other authors have tried to mimic with varying success. However, this is not to say that the book is perfect. It shares many of the shortcomings of Griffiths' electrodynamics book, such as his habit of leaving many important concepts inside problems and being a bit wordy at times. Two topics in particular are presented poorly: Ket notation and addition of angular momentum. For these topics one should consult Liboff or Davydov, which explain these concepts in a much more understandable way. With all this being said, Griffiths' text is definitely the best pedagogical resource for a first look at quantum mechanics.

Electrodynamics Four Stars

Jackson - Classical Electrodynamics (3rd Ed.)
Jackson's book needs no introduction. Because it covers just about everything in classical electrodynamics with unparalled mathematical rigor, it's been the standard graduate textbook for electromagnetics. In person, the book is actually quite thin for being the bible of electromagnetics. This is because almost no exposition is given for the concepts presented in the book. Equation after equation is thrown at you relentlessly, and the entire book is organized haphazardly. Pedagogically, the book is about as bad as it gets. However, some of the expressions derived in the book can't be found elsewhere, and the brutal problems will ensure that you know electromagnetism. It's a book that will make start making sense after you make it through whatever first year graduate course you take, though at that point you probably won't care (theorists excluded).

Physics GRE Five Stars

Kahn & Anderson - Conquering the Physics GRE
For those who have done a quick search on Amazon or Google for physics GRE review books, the shortage of good books quickly becomes apparent. This is why Kahn & Anderson should get some sort of medal or award for writing this book, which condenses all of the essentials into a surprisingly compact package. The problems (all of which have solutions) within are harder than those on the actual test, but of course if you can do these you will be well prepared for the actual exam. This book is great if you need to cram for the physics GRE - it is even better if you have at least a solid week or two before to work through the book in its entirety. Besides the few, mostly obvious, typographical errors, the book never misleads the reader. Also a big plus is its (relative) affordability. There are errors scattered throughout the book, but google "Conquering the Physics GRE Errata" and the first two results give a nice tabulated errata in PDF form. Considering the other available options there is no better preparation for the physics GRE than this book.

Physics GRE One Stars

Kittel - Introduction to Solid State Physics (8th Ed.)
I've always been confused as to how Kittel became the de-facto standard for introductory solid state physics. I suspect that this is because the publisher advertises the book to cover the fundamentals as well as the latest topics under active research. This is quite misleading however, since most of these topics are treated in passing with a few confusing words said. Even many basic topics are covered with little care; for example the Bloch oscillations section consists of 5 sentences and a few equations. Others are demonstrated through a few calculations, but with expositions bordering on being intentionally misleading (surprising since the book is avoids mathematical rigor and usually means concepts are emphasized). To make things worse, much of the notation Kittel uses is not standard. There are practically no examples, and the four or five problems he includes at the end of each chapter are either trivial or require random facts not presented in the book. It's almost comical that after 8 editions, the book is still so bad. After having a basic understanding of the subject, one might find a few approaches unique to Kittel's book, but these are so few and far between that they definitely do not justify even opening it up.

Physics GRE No Stars

Leon-Garcia - Probability, Statistics, and Random Processes for Electrical Engineering (3rd Ed.)
This book is just terrible. The author seems to believe that just throwing in example after example with a meager few introductory sentences beforehand is the key to learning science. Even if most of the examples were useful (80% of the examples in this awful book are either obtuse and not useful, or blatantly obvious), this would not be the case. When there is the rare exposition, the notation used in this book muddles the concepts so much that google searching is the obvious and better source of information. I've lost count of how many times I've looked back through page after page in confusion due to capital and lowercase Fs and their identical subscripts. As a result of its incredible incompetence, it receives the rare distinction of receiving no stars. Unless you enjoy the feeling of anger and suffering, look elsewhere.

Mahan Condensed Matter Three Stars

Mahan - Condensed Matter In A Nutshell (1st Ed.)
Although the name implies that the content will be dense ("in a nutshell"), some first time learners may pick up this book expecting a quick way to learn the subject for a first time. This is not the purpose Mahan's book serves however. What the book does well is to serve as a reference text with just enough exposition on each subject to remind someone who has already learned the topics from a more thorough book of the essentials, and provide quick access to the equations. Condensed matter is confusing enough for most people to learn for the first time, and trying to learn the subject from Mahan's book may prove to be an exercise in futility for non-geniuses. That being said, the book covers an impressive range of topics, so those who have a good grounding in the fundamentals may benefit from the terse treatments of more advanced modern topics.

Merzbacher Quantum Two Stars

Merzbacher - Quantum Mechancis (3rd Ed.)
It's suspicious how similar Merzbacher's quantum book is to Jackson's electromagnetics text. I'm not just talking about the covers, both dark blue with silver letters. It's mainly how Merzbacher suffers from the same drawback that Jackson does, in that the entire book reads like a mathematics book loosely using quantum mechanics as a context. The exposition is sparse, and even when present just confuses someone learning quantum mechanics at the graduate level for the first time. Just like Jackson however, there are identities and formulas that you just won't find in most other books. When reading Merzbacher's book as a graduate student, you can tell that there's a lot of insight to be gained after having a firm grasp of the subject. As a pedagogical text however, Merzbacher just doesn't do a great job. The content isn't organized that well, though it is a good reference for those doing research involving quantum mechanics. My graduate E&M professor once told me that E&M courses using Jackson are actually vector calculus courses with a different name. Though much more rare, quantum mechanics courses that closely follow Merzbacher also end up being courses in mathematics.

Mukamel Spectroscopy Four Stars

Mukamel - Principles of Nonlinear Optical Spectroscopy (1st Ed.)
Anyone doing experiments or theory involving nonlinear spectroscopy has likely heard of Mukamel's "bible" on the subject.The first half of the book unifies the whole field in the context of a von-Neumann perturbative expansion of the density matrix. Although most of the calculations are performed in Liouville space, in which the usual operations on wavefunctions in Hilbert space are translated into analogous operations on density matrices in their own vector space, Mukamel often performs the same calculations in Hilbert space to help the reader draw connections between the two formalisms. Admirably, there are complete introductions into both Hilbert and Liouville space dynamics that both help less seasoned readers and introduce Mukamel's notation. After deriving the general perturbative equations for discrete electronic states interacting with both pulsed and continuous-wave excitation, coupling to nuclear vibrations is then covered in multiple levels of approximation. Here, many lineshape equations common in the literature are recognized as limiting cases of a more general theory.

The second half of the book then focuses on specific experimental techniques, such as coherent and incoherent Raman spectroscopies, photon echo spectroscopy, and spectral hole-burning just to name a few. These sections are less thorough on the calculations, which is reasonable since after learning the general formalism covered in the first half of the book a competent reader should be able to fill in the gaps via research papers or more specialized textbooks. However, interpretation of each experimental techniques are emphasized, which is invaluable given Mukamel's deep physical insight.

Although many may be scared off by the book's rigor, the first half of the book should be read by all nonlinear spectroscopists to establish a firm theoretical foundation on which to model experiments. It is true that Mukamel could have been more explicit in certain calculations for clarity, but most steps shown have a logical flow to them and can be figured out by most readers after some thinking. The second half of the book then may be selectively read based on specialization. One significant drawback is the book's age, being published in 1999. Since then both laser technology and spectroscopy techniques have advanced significantly, with theory arguably progressing even faster thanks to Mukamel and his colleagues. However, the basic theory has not changed and most readers will recognize that figures in the book do not represent the current frontier.

BYU Optics Five Stars

Peatross & Ware - Physics of Light & Optics (2015 Ed.)
Peatross & Ware have accomplished a near miracle: a free online textbook that is both a good textbook and free of errors (two things that in my experience have been mutually exclusive). The coverage of this book is quite impressive, beginning from a review of basic electromagnetics to cover ray optics, coherence theory, diffraction, and much more - all at an undergraduate level. The clarity of the book is among the best I've read, and balances both a conceptual and mathematical exposition very evenly. The book even has biographical tidbits about optics pioneers in sidebars, something that unexpectedly helped keep my attention while reading. The entire book is typesetted beautifully, with nice features such as derivations and examples outlined by different colored sidebars. Although the mathematics is at an undergraduate level, even graduate students will find the illuminating explanations useful for their own study, whether it be learning or review. The book is available online at this link.

Classical Mechanics Three Stars

Pedrotti - Introduction to Optics (3rd Ed.)
Two years after using this book for my introductory course, I returned to it for a refresher in basic optics. This time, I re-read the entire book (except for the geometrical optics and optics of the eye sections) cover to cover. Pedrotti does a good job of bridging the gap between introductory physics knowledge and more advanced graduate texts (some obtuse sections of Siegman became much clearer after reading the laser chapters of Pedrotti). It still isn't perfect however, as some unnecessary variable substitutions, crowded diagrams, and other nitpicks slightly cloud the exposition. For the most part however, this is an excellent book with quite thorough coverage of all the fundamental topics in optics.

Lasers Five Stars

Siegman - Lasers (1st Ed.)
This book is a masterpiece. As the simple title implies, this massive volume contains just about everything known about lasers up to the 1980s. One would think though, that such an ambitious text would inevitably leave certain subjects under-developed, but every page of the book emanates the care Siegman took in carefully thinking through each explanation and derivation to teach the reader. As one reads through the text chapter by chapter, the book also incorporates the modern (as of the 1980s, but much is still relevant) context of parameters and physics being discussed. For example, every section in the chapter on amplification cites the real measurements and performance of Nd:Glass, Ti:Sapph etc. gain mediums to really cement what the alphas and lambdas mean in reality. The meat of the exposition is superb, as Siegman's approach is to not only explain each concept thoroughly as they are introduced, but then double back towards the end of the chapter to insert his own personal insights and interpretations that are always illuminating. The book is so well done, he even writes a few sentences about the references included at the end of each section. It's a shame that Siegman passed away, since in the 30 years after its publication the field of lasers has advanced by leaps and bounds. I wouldn't trust anyone else to add to Siegman's book though, since his writing was truly one of a kind.

Classical Mechanics Five Stars

Taylor - Classical Mechanics (1st Ed.)
I had heard that Taylor's book was good, but I was not expecting the quality that I found when learning from it. Every section is presented with detail and clarity, the problems at the end of the chapter are thought provoking, and the notation is clear and consistent - something a surprising amount of textbooks neglect. The biggest surprise was the chapters at the end - especially special relativity. For example, gaining intuition on tensor analysis is something very few undergraduates experience, and this short section, while not mathematically rigorous, explains the basics (co/contravariant formalism etc.) beautifully. For those complaining about the lack of mathematical sophistication, this book is not meant to be a graduate text. It is expected that after finishing this book, one can easily move onto more advanced treatments with little problem.

Modern Physics Two Stars

Tipler - Modern Physics (6th Ed.)
It's pretty incredible that even after 5 previous editions, this book is still such a hard book to learn from. Reading through the book, occasionally there are enjoyable parts where the intuition behind the physics leaks through, however for the most part it's just filled with derivations that jump all over the sections, or even chapters, making them needlessly difficult to follow. It seems like this book suffers from an identity crisis, in that sometimes the mathematical details are included, while at others they are omitted without clear reason, making this book unsuitable for a general survey course in modern physics as well as more advanced courses in the specific fields Modern Physics covers. If assigned this book for a modern physics course, just consult specialized books on the topics within and learn from those.

Circuits Three Stars

Ulaby - Circuits (1st Ed.)
This is a great book for introductory Electrical Engineers. The explanations are clear and the definitions are derived without confusing intermediate nonsense, with supplementary diagrams to enhance understanding. The formatting of the book is also organized and colorful, which I believe is an under-rated factor in holding the reader's attention. However, certain topics the book covers could use a bit of rewriting to make it clearer. Not to say these sections are bad but they could be better. A big bonus with this book though is that it is super thin and light, but this is at the expense of the number of worked examples inside - the solutions to the examples present are actually found on an included CD, which would be annoying to keep consulting to say the least. That means that this book isn't ideal for self-study, although one could easily find many worked examples online.

Signals and Systems Four Stars

Ulaby & Yagle - Engineering Signals and Systems (1st Ed.)
As the most mathematical area of electrical engineering, signals analysis is for most a very dull subject. Ulaby and Yagle manage to liven the presentation and divide the subject into digestible pieces for the less mathematically inclined. It's clear that they put a lot of effort into identifying the areas which confused students the most and addressed them thoroughly in the book. One especially nice feature was the flow charts dispersed through the book to help easily identify the problems optimal for different signal representations. One good and bad feature of the book is its coverage of the subject. Most of the book is spent on analog signals, with the last two chapters spent briefly covering discrete signals. This keeps the book light and easy to carry, but one will need to look elsewhere for a good text on discrete systems. In usual Ulaby fashion, the book is typeset beautifully which makes reading very pleasant.

Electromagnetics Three Stars

Ulaby & Ravaioli - Fundamentals of Applied Electromagnetics (7th Ed.)
This book was actually a pleasant surprise. As a physics oriented student taking EE electromagnetics, this book made learning about transmission lines and impedance matching bearable. It's obvious that the book is aimed towards lower level undergrads, which is great in that every step is shown in clear detail, but make some of the sections a little longer than necessary. A good deal of effort is also made in explaining the theory behind the equations as well, which is nice in an engineering textbook. If you've read any other books by Ulaby, this book is also in keeping with the same pleasant style of writing and presentation. It is surprising how much of a difference some color and nice diagrams make in keeping the reader's attention. This is a very streamlined, lightweight textbook, though it comes at the cost of leaving some topics under-developed. Despite the book's name, it emphasizes most of the more physics-oriented sections and relegates the "applied" topics such as transmission lines and antennas to 4 short chapters.

Frequency Comb Four Stars

Ye & Cundiff - Femtosecond Optical Frequency Comb Technology - Principle, Operation, and Application (1st Ed.)
To date this is the only book I know of on frequency combs, which is surprising since combs are arguably the hottest topic in ultrafast optics right now. This book was published in 2005 so it's quite outdated now, but it does a good job of summarizing the early developments in the field and pointing to important references. It also isn't a "textbook" per se, as much as it is a qualitative description of the field - don't expect very many equations. Reading the book almost feels like attending a long seminar on frequency combs. One downside is that this is one of the books in which each chapter is written by a different set of authors, which makes the exposition a little uneven. This also has the additional effect of content overlap between chapters, which is a bit irritating. Being 11 years old, the book sorely needs an update to cover the explosive growth in the field throughout the past decade.

Electrodynamics Five Stars

Zangwill - Modern Electrodynamics (1st Ed.)
After years and years of being force-fed Jackson, graduate students finally have another option to learn electrodynamics from. For a graduate electrodynamics text, the exposition is about as clear as it could ever get. The intricacies of each equation are explained thoroughly with enthusiasm, and, as a bonus, historical facts are included that give some context to the development of the subject. Plenty of examples are spread throughout each chapter, and they often involve real applications of the concepts at hand (cylindrically symmetric potentials act as electron lenses?). The one downside of the book is that, in spite of being quite thorough, the unique way Zangwill approaches the subject involved organizing topics in a way that makes learning from the book difficult for courses centered around Jackson's text. This is not a fault of the book however - more so the graduate courses that still cling to the tradition of using Jackson as first-year hazing. It seems that more and more universities are switching to Zangwill though, which is a good sign.