Six of the best for aspiring Einsteins

Sears and Zemansky's College Physics, Volume One. Eighth Edition - Physics. Seventh Edition - Sears and Zemansky's University Physics with Modern Physics. Eleventh Edition - College Physics. Second Edition - Introductory Physics - Physics. Third Edition

November 24, 2006

These six titles encapsulate the trend in modern undergraduate physics textbooks. Whereas even first-year undergraduate texts used to be fairly specialised books dedicated to specific subjects, such as waves and vibrations or electricity and magnetism, the modern book is large and covers all the topics an undergraduate could reasonably expect to cover in the first two years. The exception among these six is Sears and Zemansky's College Physics, Volume One by Hugh Young and Robert Geller, which covers only mechanics, including simple harmonic motion and thermodynamics. A second volume covers electricity and magnetism, optics and modern physics.

The topics covered in two volumes by Young and Geller are contained in a single volume in the remaining five books. Even though there are some 40 or so chapters in each, these are not particularly large. Take away the worked examples and end-of-chapter problems and the books would probably be a third of their size. Given the range of topics, there would not seem to be a great deal of scope for in-depth discussions, but in fact the coverage is fairly comprehensive. It certainly covers most of the physics needed at first and second-year undergraduate level.

I have used all these books to prepare tutorials and lectures, and they all have a lot to offer. However, they are also very similar in the material they contain, which makes it difficult to choose between them.

My personal preference is for Physics by Paul Tippens. It is much shorter than the other books, except for Young and Geller, which, being one of a two-volume set, really has only two topics. Tippens stands out because the chapters are brief, and each is in effect a topic in its own right. It is clearly not as comprehensive, but nor is it as chatty. The text is a straightforward exposition without extraneous contextual material, so while some depth is lost compared with the other books, the brevity makes it more accessible to the majority of students.

There are also plenty of worked examples and challenging problems. These are identified by a simple red border, and in fact the same scheme is used throughout the book to distinguish any section, for whatever purpose, from the main text. In every other book, some six or seven colours have been used to identify the different features. No doubt this is done for a purpose, but it gives the pages a "busy" feel. The relative simplicity of Tippens - even the diagrams seem simpler than in the other texts - adds to its appeal.

The six titles are all aimed at the same market. However, the reason they are so similar is not so much concerned with competition as with educational strategy. Physics education research (PER) has shown that students, far from being idiosyncratic and individualistic, face similar difficulties in learning physics. Misconceptions are surprisingly common, and all these books go out of their way to identify ideas that students are likely to struggle with.

The PER community has also sought to develop quantitative instruments to measure student understanding so that different instructional methods can be evaluated for what the students learn rather than what we think they learn. As a result, effective strategies for teaching physics have emerged, and these are reflected in these books. In effect, the American physics community has decided on the content and format of what is now a typical physics textbook.

The worked examples and end-of-chapter problems that all these books contain are therefore an essential part of the material. PER has shown that students must be intellectually active to develop a functional understanding and that experience in representing problems in different ways, such as mathematically, graphically and verbally, helps the student to understand the problem and develop a solution. In most of the books, therefore, the text explains physics, setting it in the context of everyday experience where appropriate, but the worked examples allow the reader to see how the concepts are applied.

Although some of the problems are numerical in nature and require little more than substituting appropriate numbers to calculate a particular quantity, others require much more thought and really do challenge the student to think. The answers to this type of problem are not at all obvious, and students would really benefit from spending time working on them.

Undoubtedly the best way to get the most out of any of these books would be to use them as class texts in which the problems and worked examples are incorporated into the teaching material. They are an essential element in the instructional strategy and provide additional teaching material not covered in the body of the text.

Ideally a book, and I do not believe it really matters which one of these six, would be adopted not only for individual courses, such as electricity and magnetism, for example, but right across the first and second years.

This is clearly how the authors and publishers intend the books to be used and, as if to emphasise the publishers' intentions, both of the Sears and Zemansky texts come with "Mastering Physics", a web-based resource students can access only if the instructor provides a course ID.

Each of these books is probably as good as any other in what it aims to do, but they all come with the same caveat: that to make best use of the extensive range of teaching material, a concerted effort needs to be made to align teaching with the book. The text sets down the basic facts, but the problems enable students to learn through experience about the methods and skills involved in tackling problems; students really should be encouraged to work through them.

An obvious but less effective alternative is to use the books as a resource so that students can back up their lecture notes. In this respect, Sears and Zemansky's University Physics with Modern Physics by Hugh D. Young and Roger A. Freedman is particularly well suited. I know of one student who already uses it in this way. It is not as concise as some of the others, and personally I found some of the text just a little too chatty, but there is plenty of information in it.

These books are much more notable for their similarities than for their differences, and there is little to choose between them. Tippens has simplicity on its side. Young and Freedman might have greater depth, but it is also more discursive. Young and Geller cover only two topics, but the approach is fundamentally the same. College Physics by Alan Giambattista, Betty McCarthy Richardson and Robert C. Richardson has a nice summary at the end of each chapter, but so does Tippens. Each would claim to have its unique features, but in essence none of them is offering something that the others are not.

Ultimately, which book suits boils down to personal choice, and some of these books will suit some students better than others. Quite possibly the answer is to buy all six and let the students choose.

David Sands is senior lecturer in physics, Hull University.

Sears and Zemansky's College Physics, Volume One. Eighth Edition

Author - Hugh Young and Robert Geller
Publisher - Benjamin Cummings
Pages - 640
Price - £52.99
ISBN - 0 805 39214 9

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