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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Textbooks: Unfortunately, Richard Feynman was NOT joking!

Recently, I was blogging on lousy textbooks and why they stay lousy.

An editor friend in Toronto offers me the salutary reminder that problems with science textbooks go back a long way, and were highlighted in 1964 by eminent physicist Richard "Surely You're Joking, Mr. - " Feynman. Alas, he wasn't, as this excerpt illustrates:
I'll give you an example: They would talk about different bases of numbers -- five, six, and so on -- to show the possibilities. That would be interesting for a kid who could understand base ten -- something to entertain his mind. But what they turned it into, in these books, was that every child had to learn another base! And then the usual horror would come: "Translate these numbers, which are written in base seven, to base five." Translating from one base to another is an utterly useless thing. If you can do it, maybe it's entertaining; if you can't do it, forget it. There's no point to it.

[ ... ]

But it's worse.

[ ... ]

Finally I come to a book that says, "Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars." I turn the page, and it says, "Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . ." -- so far, so good. It continues: "Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a
temperature of . . . (some big number)." There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It's vaguely right -- but already, trouble! That's the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn't know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don't quite understand what they're talking about, I cannot understand. I don't know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

Anyway, I'm happy with this book, because it's the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I'm a bit unhappy when I read about the stars' temperatures, but I'm not very unhappy because it's more or less right -- it's just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, "John and his father go out to look at the stars.

John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?" -- and I would explode in horror.

The Textbook League offers a much longer excerpt from which this is taken.

Having helped put together a number of textbooks, including a few science jobbies, all I can say in response to "Believe the textbook" is, "No, because we can't afford to."

Look, a lot of textbooks are like sausages - if you knew what goes into them, you would ask for the salad menu.

Note from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1999: "Judging Books by Their Covers" appeared as a chapter in "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" -- Feynman's autobiographical book that was published in 1985 by W.W. Norton & Company. These excerpts are from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1999.

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