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from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1996

Reviewing a middle-school book in physical science

Science Insights: Exploring Matter and Energy
1996. 672 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-201-44597-2.
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 2725 Sand Hill Road,
Menlo Park, California 94025.

Now Addison-Wesley's Shame Is Doubled

Lawrence S. Lerner

Faithful readers of TTL will remember my dispiriting review of the 1994 version of Addison-Wesley's Exploring Matter and Energy. The book was riddled with scientific and numerical nonsense -- even such basic concepts as acceleration and the conservation of momentum were bungled -- and pious sidebars invited the student to give opinions about "issues" that were distorted and inane. The Addison-Wesley writers seemed to display a total disregard for anything but sales gimmicks.

I recently received the 1996 version of Exploring Matter and Energy, and I experienced a moment of hope when I saw "NEW EDITION" on its cover. Alas, that hope died as soon as I opened the book. The 1996 version is virtually the same as the 1994, and it hardly deserves to be called a revised printing, let alone a "NEW EDITION." The book's structure and pagination remain unchanged, and Addison-Wesley's writers have stood pat on their immense ignorance of science and their gross disrespect for numbers.

The most noticeable changes in the 1996 version involve some of the sales gimmicks -- namely, the "Skills WarmUp" and "Skills WorkOut" items in the page-margins. These have acquired a slightly fancier format (including the heading "Activity"), and one or two new items have been added. None of this is significant. As far as significant alterations are concerned, I have seen only four:

Otherwise, the 1996 version looks just like the 1994, and it still is full of howlers. I cannot begin to catalogue all of them here, but I can give some typical examples of the glaring errors and misconceptions that the Addison-Wesley writers have reprinted in their "NEW EDITION":

Page 19 still has the absurd tale of Rosa and Raul -- the twins whose length at birth was zero! On page 91 a floating iceberg still experiences a buoyant force that exceeds its weight. (Besides misrepresenting one of the laws of buoyancy, this violates Newton's first law of motion.) On page 211 both the Kelvin temperature scale and its use are misrepresented. On page 246 the account of how a Diesel engine operates is still wrong. The electric motor shown on page 296 still will not work. Neither will the galvanometer on page 297. The generator on page 302 still shows an impossible pole configuration. The diagram on page 316 is still wrong in stating that a telephone microphone has a "disk" that "sets the air into motion creating sound." The sketch on page 376 still misrepresents the interference of sound waves and still misuses the term "amplitude." Even the description of the musical score depicted on page 391 is still wrong. (That score does not show a melody on the upper staff and a harmony on the lower. It is a piano score, and it has two parts on each staff.)

On page 456 the writers again assert, falsely, that photographic development is an etching process. On page 573 they continue to claim, falsely, that fusion is a "more powerful type of nuclear reaction" than fission. On page 577 they continue to use wildly unrealistic numbers in a problem involving radioactive decay, and they continue to bewilder the student with the meaningless question "How many half-lives pass before the amount of carbon-14 nears zero?" And on page 617 they repeat their wild guess that plate glass is made by "squeezing molten glass between rollers." (Plate glass is produced by floating molten glass on liquid tin -- hence the common term "float glass.")

An "Activity" box in the section about "Reflection and Mirrors" is worth comment because, here again, an item that was dumb has been made worse. In the 1994 book, the item said: "The word AMBULANCE is often printed backward on the front of the vehicle. Why do you think the word is printed backward?" The writers evidently had seen an ambulance marked with symbols that would spell AMBULANCE when reflected in another vehicle's rear-view mirror, but the writers were wrong in guessing that those symbols constituted the word AMBULANCE printed backward. Now, in the 1996 book, they have repeated the item and have emphasized their own ignorance by adding ECNALUBMA (i.e., AMBULANCE spelled backward) as a headline. This shows that they don't understand how a mirror works. (The mirror image of ECNALUBMA is illegible gibberish, and you can confirm this for yourself: Write ECNALUBMA on a sheet of paper, then hold the paper in front of your bathroom mirror and look at the resulting image.)

I could go on, but I think my message is clear. As I said when I reviewed the 1994 version, Exploring Matter and Energy is a product of writers whose knowledge of science is not just spotty but absent. Addison-Wesley brought only shame to itself when it published the 1994 version, and now that shame has been doubled.


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.

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