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from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1996

Reviewing a high-school physics text

Heath Physics
1992. 848 pages. ISBN: 0-669-25793-1. D.C. Heath and Company,
125 Spring Street, Lexington, Massachusetts 02173.

This Sloppy and Confused Book Is Unusable

Lawrence S. Lerner

Some parts of Heath Physics, especially in the early chapters, are knowledgeable and reliable. The generally fine section on kinematics, for example, incorporates clear description, excellent use of graphs, a judicious use of exercises and worked examples to promote comprehension, and steady progress through the subject matter. Most of the illustrations in this section are good (though Heath's failure to number the figures creates inconvenience and confusion), and some of the laboratory exercises are good, too (even if they seem superfluous in a book that is accompanied by a lab manual).

A good beginning, however, cannot compensate for a bad middle and a worse end. As a whole, Heath Physics is riddled with errors and with dumb, bewildering statements that escaped the editors' notice. As a whole, it is a careless, confused product in which the reliable passages are swamped by mistakes, guesswork and obscurity. It is not improved by the writers' insistence on administering the usual dose of "ecological" piety, though these are offset, to some degree, by a mostly rational discussion of nuclear power.

The book's title page lists five authors but gives only their names. It doesn't tell where they work or what they do. Four of the names are unfamiliar to me, but I recognize the fifth -- Mark A. Carle -- because it has also appeared on the title page of Heath's physical-science book. [See "A Book So Poorly Done That It Should Be Withdrawn" and "Down in the Mud with Mark A. Carle" in TTL for July-August 1991.]

The copyright page says that Heath Physics was "Published simultaneously in Canada," which may account for some of the book's idiosyncracies and inconsistencies. I suspect that Heath first created a book for the Canadian market, then put it through some quick-and-dirty editing to produce a version for sale in the United States -- the version that I am describing here. I see, for example, that the introductory discussion of kinetic energy (page 187) uses references to curling, a sport that is popular in Canada but is seldom seen in the United States. Canadian spellings occur on many pages, and some words appear in both their Canadian and American forms. For instance, the measure of speed is "meters per second" in some places but "metres per second" elsewhere, and an airplane wing is both an "air foil" and an "aerofoil." Such words as "colour," "syphon" and "updraught" will seem odd to students in this country, and so will such phrases as "different to."

Those, however, are only minor displays of the sloppy work that characterizes this book. More serious editorial mistakes are manifested as contradictions and as strange repetitions which suggest that Heath's writers didn't read each other's stuff. For instance, the text says that electrons are emitted with neutrinos but positrons are emitted with antineutrinos -- yet these claims are followed by equations that say exactly the opposite. (Will students know that the text is wrong while the equations are right?) The kilowatt-hour is introduced on page 180 -- and then it is introduced again on page 609, as if it were something new. The concepts of period and frequency are presented in some detail on page 22 -- and then they are presented again on page 309, as if the student has not seen them it before. Even worse, the term optically dense is introduced and defined in the first paragraph on page 465, and then is introduced again in the fifth paragraph on the same page!

Sorry Science

I had the bad judgment to make a list of the misconceptions and other faults that I found in Heath Physics, categorizing them as scientific mistakes, pedagogic mistakes, false "historical" claims, and so on. The list eventually filled 23 single-spaced pages. Here are a few items from my catalogue of Heath's scientific mistakes:

Pedagogic Blunders

The pedagogic defects in Heath Physics include inconsistencies, evasions, questions that involve implausible numbers or situations, and many instances of putting the cart before the horse. Here are a few examples:

Just Like It Oughta Wuz

One of the glories of physics is its tight internal logic: Given a few basic laws, everything else seems to follow in a clear, ineluctable way. But of course, that is not how physics developed. Like every other intellectual endeavor, physics has a history marked by blind alleys, misconceptions, partial understandings, and lengthy efforts to find the fundamental rules that lie behind observable phenomena.

You would never deduce this from reading our high-school physics books, most of which have been written by persons who know virtually nothing about the history of science. These writers often invent "oughta-wuz" history. They assume that physics must have developed in a completely logical way, and then they work backward to fabricate events which, they imagine, must have happened or ought to have happened. Here are some examples of the oughta-wuz history in Heath Physics:

Not all of the fictitious history in Heath Physics is oughta-wuz material. Some of it is just gratuitous silliness:

Better Luck Next Time

Despite all its sloppiness and silliness, Heath Physics does have some good parts. As I said before, the section on kinematics is generally fine. Here are some other items that caught my eye: On page 276, the illustration that shows how to make a mercury barometer is quite clear. On page 283 the discussion of Archimedes's principle is good. On page 291 there is a nice problem in which the student calculates how much Styrofoam must be added to an aluminum rowboat if the boat is to stay afloat when flooded. Page 368 offers a fine experiment in which the student determines the speed of sound by rhythmically clapping two boards together while the sound is reflected by a wall. On page 501, in a passage about the optics of the human eye, the writers properly acknowledge the refractive function of the cornea; unfortunately, the accompanying diagram doesn't show this. The extensive discussion of Kirchhoff's laws, in chapter 20, is welcome; it helps students to avoid the misconceptions that can arise if circuit theory is oversimplified into a mere consideration of series and parallel wiring. And the discussion of nuclear-reactor safety, in chapter 27, is generally well done.

Taken all in all, however, Heath Physics is unusable. I hope that the next edition will benefit from the work of some good editors who can get the existing mess straightened out. Then and only then will Heath have a physics book worth buying.


Lawrence S. Lerner is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. His specialties are condensed-matter physics, the history of science, and science education. He served on the panel that wrote the current framework for science education in California's public schools, and he is a director of The Textbook League.

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