Heavyweight thinking to the power of five

Physics for Scientists and Engineers. Third edition - Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern Physics - Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern Physics. Third edition - Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern Physics. Sixth edition - Physics for Scientists and Engineers. Fifth edition

November 26, 2004

The idea of a single, moderately priced textbook that covers most of the first and second years of a standard physics course is attractive. These five books fit the bill, but a student would need only one of them. A glance at the contents shows they cover much the same material in much the same order. Each has roughly 40 chapters that run through mechanics, waves, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, optics, relativity, and quantum and nuclear physics. The coverage is impressive and comprehensive, and there are sound arguments for presenting the material in this order based on the development of the subject and of students’ skills, but if students dip into the books, rather than read them from end to end, these pedagogical arguments are somewhat moot.

I was quite taken by the thinking behind these books. All the authors claim to incorporate the results of physics education research, which means they have gone out of their way to identify common misconceptions and pitfalls and have provided a wealth of worked examples to supplement the written explanations in the body of the text. The worked examples are varied in their purpose - some are designed to provide model solutions, others to enhance conceptual understanding, and some to provide practice in order-of-magnitude estimation. There are also many end-of-chapter problems, which in some books are graded in complexity. These provide students with plenty of material to work through to enhance their understanding and lecturers with a valuable teaching resource.

It is hard to imagine a student having the discipline to work through all the problems and examples unless directed to do so by an instructor and, as these books are designed for maximum learning to occur only if this is done, the texts seem to be aimed foremost at teaching staff. There is also a lot of supplementary material available for each book that is also mostly aimed at instructors, including companion websites. Randall Knight’s Mastering Physics website requires a code from the instructor before the student can log on - and though I was given an access pack, the code did not come with it. Despite several emails, I never received a satisfactory reply and so I am unable to comment on its effectiveness as a learning aid. Other sites provide a homework service, but the results are emailed to instructors (with the books by Paul Tipler and Gene Mosca, Paul Fishbane et al ), while Douglas Giancoli’s and that by Raymond Serway and John Jewett’s books seem better suited to the independent student.

As for the books themselves, an enormous amount of work has gone into them, not just into the text and the thinking behind the examples and problems, but also into the numerous full-colour illustrations. Separating the books seems somewhat invidious, but I would place Giancoli at the top, Tipler and Mosca at the bottom, with Knight, Fishbane et al, and Serway and Jewett very close together in the middle in descending order. I prefer Giancoli’s style of writing; the text is more expansive than in the other books and one gets a stronger sense of there being a coherent theoretical framework to the subject matter. Giancoli writes that many of the chapters have been shortened in this edition, but there is still enough material for the eager student to read without having to work through the examples. Problem-solving is an important aspect of physics, but it is not all there is to the subject, and a student is more likely to appreciate this by reading Giancoli than Tipler and Mosca.

I place Tipler and Mosca last because the actual text is very brief in comparison with the worked examples, and, in some cases, confusing. Each chapter opens with a brief pedagogical statement intended to draw the student into the subject matter, but in chapter seven, for example, the opening paragraphs define a mechanical system as a collection of particles and refer to internal forces, internal work and random motion of atoms in such a way that confusion with the kinetic theory of gases seems to me to be inevitable. Worse, in all the subsequent worked examples in this chapter the mechanical systems incorporate macroscopic bodies rather than particles. The explanation of the conservation of momentum is couched in terms of internal and external forces, which will confuse rather than enlighten unless the student has a good grasp of the distinction between them. In the other texts, the status of this law as a mathematical theorem derived from the application of the third law of motion is better stated. Given the brevity of the text, the main medium of instruction seems to be the worked example. The approach can best be described as pragmatic, and seems to emphasise problem-solving at the expense of wider understanding.

Not surprisingly, Tipler and Mosca provide the most problems at the end of the chapters, 4,500 in all. These are graded in complexity and are used to develop estimation and conceptual understanding. Common misconceptions are identified in each chapter, and the worked examples explicitly promote problem-solving skills by breaking up the problem into three stages: visualisation, steps and remarks. A summary at the end of each chapter provides relevant equations. There is much in this book to recommend it, but it is probably better suited to further rather than higher education.

By comparison, Giancoli is much closer to a conventional textbook. It is also the slimmest of the volumes, but the worked examples still provide plenty to think about. The regular worked examples act as model problems, and there are also conceptual worked examples that require the student to think. These are also used to point out common misconceptions. Order-of-magnitude worked examples help to foster the important skill of estimation, and there are more than 3,000 end-of-chapter problems ranked by difficulty.

Of the other three books, I place Knight marginally ahead, but there is very little to choose between them. There is a similar balance between text and worked examples, which are also subdivided to emphasise the problem-solving strategy, and all of them also emphasise conceptual understanding. Knight has “stop-to-think” questions that set up a situation with the student having to choose one of a number of answers. Fishbane has a “think-about-this” item that crops up in each chapter from time to time, and Serway and Jewett use marginal notes to highlight important points, as well as a “pitfall prevention” item that cautions against common misconceptions. Knight also provides an accompanying student workbook that provides problems that thoroughly test understanding.

I would prefer my students to read Giancoli, so if I were to make a recommendation to a physics student wanting a comprehensive text to supplement his or her studies, it would be this book. It is not just that I think it better suits the purpose, but it is also the slimmest, which is an important consideration. None of these books can be described as convenient. At 28cm by 21.5cm (24cm in the case of Tipler and Mosca’s book), with four of the five having well over 1,000 pages, these are not books that can easily be carried about, and the works by Knight and Fishbane et al both have the disadvantage of being paperbacks, which perhaps makes them less durable than the others.

Finally, I find it hard to recommend these to students from other disciplines. Chemistry students will appreciate oscillatory motion, optics and quantum and atomic physics as all being relevant to spectroscopy, and thermodynamics will be valuable. But mechanics and electricity and magnetism will probably be of little use. Biology students will not find very much of use at all, and I would expect engineers naturally to concentrate on the most relevant topics, such as mechanics for mechanical engineers, and electricity and magnetism for electronic engineers. Some of these authors argue that an engineer’s education should take in subjects such as quantum mechanics, but this is not realistic in the UK, where higher education in engineering has traditionally been very focused. I cannot imagine many non-physicists conscientiously following the worked examples and working through the problems that are both key components of these books.

David Sands is senior lecturer in physics, Hull University.

Physics for Scientists and Engineers. Third edition

Author - Douglas C. Giancoli
Publisher - Pearson Prentice-Hall
Pages - 976
Price - £41.99
ISBN - 0 13 017975 2

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