We're surrounded by physics. Well, that's not entirely true...We ARE physics. Everything we see, touch, everything we are made of, arguably, even our very thoughts, are governed by physics. An understanding of physics means an understanding of things like climate change, energy, oil spill impact and other pollution, crowd dynamics, satellites, electric vehicles and self-driving cars, rocket launches, figuring out alternative ways Mexican cartels can get drugs into the US when there is a wall...anything that moves or interacts with anything can be understood better with a basic knowledge of physics.
But how can a normal, everyday person get that knowledge? Not everyone has the time or money to go back to school. The good news is that you don't NEED to go to school to get a rudimentary working knowledge of physics (heck, I went to college for astrophysics, and learned as much outside of school as I did in, in order to keep up with new discoveries and so forth). There are lots of books, websites, and magazines out there that can help you be an informed citizen scientist. And I think we've seen that now, more than ever, an informed citizenry is good.
These books are things you can get right from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. If you can add and multiply, you can do the physics in most of them with no problems. And guess what? You won't be tested on this! It's entirely just for fun, and yes, physics CAN be fun. Just look at Mythbusters! And don't be afraid--physics really isn't that bad, but so many people have been taught to believe it's hard. Look at the world around you. You can see physics at work everywhere. You know and understand more about physics than you think you do, and being conscious of your understanding is the first step in becoming an informed person who can make educated arguments about some of the hot topics in science, politics, education, and life today! So, without further ado, here are five books that can help you out:
This is not just a physics book, but a book about attaining overall scientific literacy. It explains the importance of having a culture that is science literate, and then goes on to explain some of the basics in many scientific fields. I don't believe there is ANY math in this book, so it's a great place for the skittish to start. You can learn about Newton's laws in here, as well as energy, nuclear physics, matter, etc, all in the framework of how it fits in with modern life and issues. If you want to know WHY you should know about physics and other branches of science, this is a great book to start with.
This book starts getting into the nitty gritty mathematical side of physics, but again, is specifically geared toward, as the cover says, "anyone who has ever regretted not taking physics in college." This book will teach readers the minimum they need to know in order to really grasp topics to go on to further study. You will need some math knowledge to get into this one--if you know calculus, you shouldn't have a problem. The authors DO explain how to do some of the math involved, integrals and things like that, but I think readers will have an easier time if they have some math under their belt. Though this is #2 on my list, it is NOT the easiest book in this article, and the science timid might want to cut their teeth on one of the other books before giving this one an honest shot. This is the book, though, that will give you the knowledge you need to conquer harder topics.
Feynman was one of the people who inspired me to go into physics in the first place. I have no shame in admitting to having a major crush on this man. Not only was he quite ingenious, but his way of thinking about physics and explaining it made it really accessible to a lot of people who couldn't wrap their brains around it before. These six easy pieces are taken from his infamous Feynman's Series of Lectures (which I also highly recommend), and the information is delivered in a witty and conversational way. His way of teaching physics revolutionized science education, and this book inspired more than one aspiring physicist. Feynman was brilliant and kind of crazy, and was the sort of professor students loved to hate or hated to love in class. I would say this book tops my list of suggested books for a citizen physicist. The best part? Very little math required--math will help you, of course, but you can understand everything in the book with just your high school education.
If you learn best from a textbook type way of learning, this is a great book for you. It dives right into elementary physics, teaching facts and giving practice problems. The math is rudimentary, and you really don't need any math knowledge before using this book. Everything is explained. It's designed for people who are curious about physics and want to know more, but will also serve as a great refresher for those who learned about physics long ago and need a knowledge boost. This book makes a great reference to have on hand, where you can grab it and research specific things you come across in the news or whatnot, that you'd like to have a deeper understanding of. I would go into this book knowing WHY you want to know physics. It might be a bit dry if you don't. Think of it kind of like the high school class you never had.
I was a bit torn about what the fifth book in this list should be. There are so many awesome books out there, but I wanted to be sure to include books that would encompass a wide range of learning styles as well as books that would be actually useful for a person living in today's world. I decided that this book earned a spot. This book is designed to help high school students do well on achievement tests. It's written in a playful manner with contemporary examples and problems to solve, and it is visual based, leaning more on pictures and graphics to teach more than text (though there is plenty of that, too). According to the back cover, this book was purposely designed to go along with the way people think, to give people practical knowledge instead of just dry facts to memorize. If you go through this book, you will have accomplished the equivalent of a high school physics course, and you'll have the knowledge to do well on, say, the AP Physics B exam. There is a LOT of knowledge in here, and it's presented in a fun way. My only issue with this book is that not everyone learns the same way. That's why I included it in this list along with the book in #4. It's an excellent book for people who learn differently from the way the previous book teaches. If you used BOTH books to make sure you understood the concepts fully, you will have more than just a working knowledge of basic physics.
I really hope that this list is useful. As I said, there are a lot of books out there to help fledgling physicists, but these are books I have personal experience in using to teach and learn, and I've found they make a great starting point for anyone looking to further their education. And you should never be embarrassed at not knowing something! Don't get discouraged if you get stuck with something. There are a lot of people out there who will be happy to help you get unstuck, who will be overjoyed that more people are taking an active interest in the world around them.
Having a basic understanding of science will give you the tools you need to tell fact from fiction, to make informed decisions about not only your future, but the future of the world to come.
Are you stuck? Need help with a problem? Contact me via Facebook or Twitter, or in the comments, and I can help!
Melanie R. Meadors is an author of fantasy where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She is a blogger at The Once and Future Podcast, a professional author publicist, and a dabbling fiber artist. She studied both physics and astronomy at Northern Arizona University. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.