The Berkeley Physics Course

In Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, Russ Hobbie and I cite two volumes of the Berkeley Physics Course: Volume II about electricity and magnetism, and Volume V about statistical mechanics. This five-volume set provides a wonderful introduction to physics. Its preface states

This is a two-year elementary college physics course for students majoring in science and engineering. The intention of the writers has been to present elementary physics as far as possible in the way in which it is used by physicists working on the forefront of their field. We have sought to make a course which would vigorously emphasize the foundations of physics. Our specific objectives were to introduce coherently into an elementary curriculum the ideas of special relativity, of quantum physics, and of statistical physics.

The course is intended for any student who has had a physics course in high school. A mathematics course including the calculus should be taken at the same time as this course….

The five volumes of the course as planned will include:

I. Mechanics (Kittel, Knight, Ruderman)

II. Electricity and Magnetism (Purcell)

III. Waves and Oscillations (Crawford)

IV. Quantum Physics (Wichmann)

V. Statistical Physics (Reif)

…The initial course activity led Alan M. Portis to devise a new elementary physics laboratory.

Statistical Physics, Volume 5 of the Berkeley Physics Course, by Frederick Reif.

Chapter 3 of IPMB is modeled in part on Volume V by Frederick Reif.

Preface to Volume V

The last volume of the Berkeley Physics Course is devoted to the study of large-scale (i.e.,macroscopic) systems consisting of many atoms or molecules: thus it provides an introduction to the subjects of statistical mechanics, kinetic theory, thermodynamics, and heat…My aim has been … to adopt a modern point of view and to show, in as systematic and simple a way as possible, how the basic notions of atomic theory lead to a coherent conceptual framework capable of describing and predicting the properties of macroscopic systems.

I love Reif’s book, in part because of nostalgia: it’s the textbook I used in my undergraduate thermodynamics class at the University of Kansas. His Chapter 4 is similar to IPMB’s Chapter 3, where the concepts of heat transfer, absolute temperature, and entropy are shown to result from how the number of states depends on energy. Boltzmann’s factor is derived, and the two-state magnetic system important in magnetic resonance imaging is analyzed. Reif even has short biographies of famous scientists who worked on thermodynamics-such as Boltzmann, Kelvin, and Joule-which I think of as little blog posts built into the textbook. If you want more detail, Reif also has a larger book about statistical and thermal physics that we also cite in IPMB.

Electricity and Magnetism, Volume 2 of the Berkeley Physics Course, by Edward Purcell.

Russ and I sort of cite Edward Purcell’s Volume II of the Berkeley Physics Course. Earlier editions of IPMB cited it, but in the 5th edition we cite the book Electricity and Magnetism by Purcell and Morin (2013). It is nearly equivalent to Volume II, but is an update by an additional author. If you want to gain insight into electricity and magnetism, you should read Purcell.

Preface to Volume II

The subject of this volume of the Berkeley Physics Course is electricity and magnetism. The sequence of topics, in rough outline, is not unusual: electrostatics; steady currents; magnetic field; electromagnetic induction; electric and magnetic polarization in matter. However, our approach is different from the traditional one. The difference is most conspicuous in Chaps. 5 and 6 where, building on the work of Vol. I, we treat the electric and magnetic fields of moving charges as manifestations of relativity and the invariance of electric charge.

I love Purcell’s book, but introducing magnetism as a manifestation of special relativity is not the best way to teach the subject to students of biology and medicine. In IPMB we never adopt this view except in a couple teaser homework problems (8.5 and 8.26).

IPMB doesn’t cite Volumes I, III, or IV of the Berkeley Physics Course. If we did, where in the book would those citations be? Kittel, Knight, and Ruderman’s Volume I covers classical mechanics. They analyze the dynamics of particles in a cyclotron so that we could cite it in Chapter 8 of IPMB, and they describe the harmonic oscillator so we could cite it in our Chapter 10. Crawford’s Volume III on waves could be cited in Chapter 13 of IPMB about sound and ultrasound. Wichmann’s Volume IV on quantum mechanics would fit well in the first part of our Chapter 14 on atoms and light.

Do universities adopt the Berkeley Physics Course textbooks anymore? I doubt it. The series is out-of-date, having been published in the 1960s. The use of cgs rather than SI units makes the books seem old fashioned. The preface says it’s a two-year introduction to physics (five semesters, one semester for each book), while most schools offer a one-year (two-semester) sequence. The books don’t have the flashy color photos so common in modern introductory texts. Nevertheless, if you were introduced to physics through the Berkeley Physics Course, you would have a strong grasp of physics fundamentals, and would have more than enough preparation for a course based on Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

Originally published at



Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

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Brad Roth

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.