A Much Needed Textbook Overhaul

It is well-accepted in the community that the quality of introductory textbooks in condensed matter physics were decent but not great just up until a few years ago. At US universities, it is common to be exposed to condensed matter physics for the first time through either Kittel’s Intro to Solid State Physics or Ashcroft and Mermin’s Solid State Physics.

While both books have a number of redeeming qualities, they don’t possess the trifecta of (i) being modern, (ii) being easily accessible to a novice (aided by having a conversational tone), and (iii) targeting physical insight/perspective over an information glut. These books possess great problems and are an excellent reference to those who already are well-acquainted with solid state physics, however. I will mention that Ziman’s Theory of Solids, while infrequently used at US institutions, is a great little book — though again probably not appropriate for a complete novice. These books were all written by theorists.

In the past few years, however, there has been an excellent collection of books released under the Oxford Masters Series (OMS) umbrella. These books tend to be more pedagogical and conversational, shorter in length and necessarily more modern. They would be much more appropriately described as bedtime reading compared to the counterparts mentioned above. There are a few books from the OMS that I have read from cover to cover, and some where I have just read a few chapters. These include the following titles:

  1. Band Theory and Electronic Properties of Solids, J. Singleton
  2. Optical Properties of Solids, M. Fox
  3. Magnetism in Condensed Matter, S. Blundell
  4. Superfluids, Superconductors and Condensates, J. Annett
  5. Statistical Mechanics: Entropy, Order Parameters and Complexity, J. Sethna

There are two more great introductory-level books which, though not explicitly in the Oxford Masters Series collection, have been released through the Oxford University Press:

  1. The Oxford Solid State Basics, S. Simon
  2. Quantum Field Theory for the Gifted Amateur, T. Lancaster and S. Blundell

I have to say that I have been surprised with the consistent level of pedagogy that has been maintained over numerous authors in the series.

What these books are:

  1. Introductory level
  2. More data-driven (In particular, Fox’s, Singleton’s and Blundell’s books help one understand data from certain mainstream experimental techniques. This probably has to do with the fact that these authors are experimentalists.)
  3. Modern (e.g. there is a discussion of angle resolved photoemission spectroscopy and corresponding data in Singleton’s book)
  4. Focused

What these books are not:

  1. A complete and thorough treatment of the subjects (it could be argued that “less is more” in this case, however!)
  2. Mathematically involved
  3. Rigorous (sometimes almost appealing too much to intuition!)

Most of us learn in solitude with a good textbook/paper rather than in the classroom, and textbooks like these make it easier to get up to speed. I think that condensed matter physics will have a greater appeal at the undergraduate level in the US and other English-speaking countries due to the clarity of the OMS textbooks. The authors of these books have done a service to our sub-field and I much appreciate their effort. Lastly, the philosophical perspective of condensed matter physics has changed somewhat since the days of Kittel and Ashcroft and Mermin, and our textbooks needed to reflect this overhaul. They can now claim to do this.

Please feel free to comment on and recommend books, articles or papers that you found particularly useful. I am curious to know what else is out there, even if not originally an English-language text.

Just in case you thought otherwise: I was not paid by Oxford University Publishing to write this post.

3 responses to “A Much Needed Textbook Overhaul

  1. Pingback: Condensed matter / Solid state textbooks | Entertaining Research

  2. When I was trying to learn solid state physics from Kittel’s book for the first time, I occasionally felt frustrated, to the point that I called Kittel the “arch enemy of pedagogy” while discussing the book with my friends and they totally agreed. Now it seems funny to me how much I hated his book, because after gaining more knowledge and experience, now I realize how great Kittel’s book is. It’s just not appropriate for the beginners.

    I think Oxford solid state is better for undergrads. I also enjoyed QFT for amateurs. In fact, after reading a few chapters I realized that it is well beyond my expectations (i.e. a useful book not only for amateurs). Strongly recommended!


    • Hi Hadi — thanks for your comment. I very much agree with you about Kittel’s book. In fact, I think that the exercises in the book really stand out as being well-researched, diverse and interesting.


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