Physics & Astronomy

Fly by Night Physics: How Physicists Use the Backs of Envelopes

The essential primer for physics students who want to build their physical intuition


Published (US):
Oct 27, 2020
Published (UK):
Nov 17, 2020
7 x 10 in.
76 b/w illus. 2 tables.
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Presented in A. Zee’s incomparably engaging style, this book introduces physics students to the practice of using physical reasoning and judicious guesses to get at the crux of a problem. An essential primer for advanced undergraduates and beyond, Fly by Night Physics reveals the simple and effective techniques that researchers use to think through a problem to its solution—or failing that, to smartly guess the answer—before starting any calculations.

In typical physics classrooms, students seek to master an enormous toolbox of mathematical methods, which are necessary to do the precise calculations used in physics. Consequently, students often develop the unfortunate impression that physics consists of well-defined problems that can be solved with tightly reasoned and logical steps. Idealized textbook exercises and homework problems reinforce this erroneous impression. As a result, even the best students can find themselves completely unprepared for the challenges of doing actual research.

In reality, physics is replete with back of the envelope estimates, order of magnitude guesses, and fly by night leaps of logic. Including exciting problems related to cutting-edge topics in physics, from Hawking radiation to gravity waves, this indispensable book will help students more deeply understand the equations they have learned and develop the confidence to start flying by night to arrive at the answers they seek. For instructors, a solutions manual is available upon request.