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Intro Physics Bad pop science books ("Galileo's Finger") vs. good?

  1. Dec 16, 2016 #1
    (This is about pop science books, not textbooks; moderators, please feel free to move if appropriate..

    I'm new to the forums & new to studying physics in late middle age - here is http://[URL="https://www.physicsfor...sics-fan-hope-to-overcome-math-block.896768/"']my intro thread[/URL] - and I am getting geared up for self-study at more or less a high school level. My basic text will be one of Ben Crowell's books - i.e. Light and Energy or else Simple Nature. But I will read other books if I think they might be conceptually helpful. About a week ago I came across https://www.amazon.com/Galileos-Fin...d=1481882077&sr=8-1&keywords=galileo's+finger, by the chem prof/author Peter Atkins; it looked like it might be useful to start nudging Newtonian concepts of work & energy into my head, in advance of the mathematical models for same. Yesterday I started reading it; and I find I am so disgusted at the presentation that I will likely return the book for a refund.

    Here's an example. Atkins has just done a brief run-through of "energy as the capacity to do work," using a simplified example of pushing or raising a metal block. Pretty much no math. So far so good; but then he says the following:
    What do I object to? Well, first of all, for my money (and I admit I'm a novice, but even so) he's mangled the intended simplification of "electrical energy"; his definition better suits a state of neutral charge than it does a state of separated charges, let alone charge in motion. Worse to me is how he mangles the attempt to widen potential & kinetic energy conceptually; he doesn't even mention that his example was related to gravity, and perhaps that's where the difficulty begins. He seems to unintentionally imply that EM is somehow subordinate to gravity - or something like that; it's impossible to really know what he means.

    Far better for clarity of relationships is this from the HyperPhysics site -
    - or for that matter this simple navigational graphic, also from HyperPhysics:


    Anyway I find myself unwilling to continue in a book where the other subjects to be covered will be material I'm completely unfamiliar with (DNA, entropy, symmetry, etc.). I just don't trust this fellow. It's not that I think that he himself is ignorant; it's that I don't trust him as a guide for the ignorant.

    Which seems to show that simplification for laypersons is an awfully tricky business. I have always enjoyed the short video available on YouTube in which a mostly patient but slightly irked Feynman is trying to explain to an interviewer why rubber bands aren't a good metaphor for magnetic attraction or repulsion; and I also have enjoyed his diatribe on the textbook industry & how textbooks for children quickly mangle even the simplest ideas.

    I'm trying to think of who the really good science writers are for laypersons. I could name some for psychology, anthropology, etc.; but how about physics? I haven't read as widely there. Carl Sagan to me was more about culture (e.g. https://www.amazon.com/Demon-Haunte...=1481882709&sr=8-1&keywords=sagan+candle+dark, which I loved.) I am currently leafing through https://www.amazon.com/Universe-Tea...7&sr=8-1&keywords=the+universe+and+the+teacup, by K.C. Cole, but am not sure it's my cup of tea. I did enjoy a good deal https://www.amazon.com/Explain-Worl...81882920&sr=8-1&keywords=to+explain+the+world, by Steven Weinberg; that's more the sort of book I like.

    Anyone have any recommendations? I'm especially interested in classical mechanics at the moment, maybe starting with Galileo.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 16, 2016 #2

    The question of whether energy can be described as always potential and kinetic has been discussed before. See above link.

    There are different approaches to categorizing and defining things. I try not to get dogmatic about the "right" and "wrong" approaches to these things.

    Teaching overly simplified constructs is not really the best plan. When there are nuances and details that will become clear later as a student grows and matures and becomes exposed to the broader world of physics, I try and at least hint at it and communicate that the intro class is simplifying things that should not be taken as absolutes, but as useful definitions and categorizations.

    In science, the question is almost never "Is it true?" but rather "Is it useful?"

    If you don't like the book, by all means return it. Once you take out all the math (as most pop sci books do), there are bound to be oversimplifications. I would recommend a high school treatment which has a level of math matched to your abilities.

    A while back, I wrote and Insights article describing various options for high school physics at home:

  4. Dec 16, 2016 #3
    I agree with both these points. Regarding the second of the two, in one of the schools of modern behaviorist psychology I've studied, there is a criterion known as "successful working" which comes out of w/ a philosophy of science used to guide research, modeling, and practice. It pops up for example in the first paragraph you see this Google book preview (hopefully it comes up OK): A CBT-practitioner's Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

    My objection isn't that Atkins doesn't present "the truth" but rather that his attempt at simplification is so unnecessarily distorted. In writing for a public audience, the choice continually comes up between elegance or cleverness on the one hand, & clarity on the other. For an author who is trying very hard to be winning, clarity can sometimes seem dull, & so is avoided, to the cost of the reader. These sorts of distinctions in authorial intent are apparent to me in part because I was for several decades a writer, editor, and writing coach; and it was often part of my work to try & simplify usefully & appropriately rather than otherwise. It is not easy for anyone, I don't think. I don't fault Atkins for striving for elegance, but he needed an editor to point out when it got in the way.

    Thanks also for the link to the study article - looks good. I pretty much have what I need lined up, but I'll look through it to see if there are any ideas I can use. Meanwhile I am still interested, in this particular thread, in any recommendations anyone may have for interesting writers on physics who do manage this trick of simplifying to some extent for the literate layperson, but without getting their feet quite so tangled. I guess I would put Feynman in this category; although I think his books for laypersons were all "tape recorder books," in which interviews or talks were transcribed & then edited, I still think he stands out for his clarity as well as his humor. He is as careful to say what he isn't saying as to say what he is saying. That's a rare trait.
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2016
  5. Dec 16, 2016 #4
    Unless a book is just plain wrong and misleading, I prefer not to think of it as good OR bad. It is just a good or bad fit for a given reader's background, goals, and learning styles. I try and think in terms of recommended and not recommended audiences.

    I think Feynman is better on video than in print: http://www.richard-feynman.net/videos.htm

    When we designed a physics course for our home schooled son, we had him watching a Feynman video of his choice one day each week for the year. He's a much better scientist because of it. Highly recommended.
  6. Dec 16, 2016 #5
    I regret my starting this thread. I'm deleting my second comment & if I could would delete the original post. My thoughts might have been appropriate on a forum meant for professional editors or writers; but not here.
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2016
  7. Dec 16, 2016 #6


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    I disagree, i.e., I think you shouldn't delete anything since you are completely right. There are in fact and objectively good and bad popular-science books, and unfortunately most are bad. There are exceptions like Weinberg's "The First Three Minutes", Lederman's "The God Particle" (also the most stupid title I've seen ever; it was imposed on Lederman by the editors who wanted to name it "The God Damn Particle"), or Feynman's QED, The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, but many also pretty "high-hyped" books are just at best irrelevant if not totally misleading.

    I also don't know, how someone can be a "better scientist" because of having watched Feynman's popular lectures on youtube. These are great lectures, but they are popular-science lectures, and to become a good scientist you have to study the real thing, and for QED you have to study a lot of prerequesites starting from classical mechanics, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, and then finally relativistic quantum field theory, let alone the math (linear algebra, calculus, some elements of group theory). It is just a lie to any serious student to claim you could understand physics by reading popular science books or attending popular science lectures, be they as brilliant as Feynman's or not. Particularly there's no way to learn physics without mathematics. "Calculus free physics" is a contradiction in itself and not the "real thing"!
  8. Dec 16, 2016 #7
    The Feynman videos in the link go a lot deeper than most, and are well beyond what most high school physics students get in terms of how all the math in a good physics course really connects to the discipline of Physics.

    The young man who I describe as a "better scientist" has posted perfect ACT scores in Math and Science and is first author on five (soon to be six) peer-reviewed papers before his 17th birthday. Perhaps you might recommend better supplementary materials for a young physicist of his caliber. He's already working many hours each day to sharpen and grow his math skills. Feynman provided much of the motivation for that.
  9. Dec 16, 2016 #8


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    I see. That's of course great, and it's clear that great popular-science lectures like Feynman's can motivate someone to really study the subject, which this guy is obviously doing with great success, publishing 6 papers at the age of 16! I'm still sure that he is a good scientist, not because of popular-science lectures but by the hard study of the "true thing", including math.
  10. Dec 16, 2016 #9
    This fellow has a stronger experimental leaning. Feynman often insists that regardless of the elegance of the theory (or the math), if it isn't backed up by the hard experimental data, it's WRONG. The importance of the connection between theory and experiment and the way he weaves them together is what makes the Feynman videos so powerful in the training of potential scientists.

    Too many students get through year-long physics courses thinking physics is all about the math, because they are rewarded or punished on tests by their ability to reduce exam questions to math problems that they can then solve. Feynman helped this young man improve as a scientist in the sense of imparting a natural inclination to want to design experiments to test the predictions based on the math rather than accepting it based on someone's word. He'd be in a great place to Ace a physics final exam with questions more like:

    Design a physics experiment with the equipment available in the course lab to:

    1. Test Galileo's law of falling bodies with an accuracy of 1% or better.
    2. Test Newton's Second law with an accuracy of 1% or better.
    3. Test Newton's Third law with an accuracy of 1% or better.
    4. Test the Work-Energy theorem with an accuracy of 1% or better.
    5. Test the Law of Conservation of Energy with an accuracy of 5% or better.
    6. Test the Law of Conservation of Momentum in 2-D with an accuracy of 5% or better.

    We're training a generation of Physics students who are passable at answering the questions in the back of the book, but how many would Ace the above final exam at the end of their first semester course?

    One does not need Calculus (though it helps) to internalize the fundamental goal of Physics is not just to predict experimental outcomes, but to design experiments that reject wrong answers. Doing the math right and getting the "right" prediction according to a model is only half of what Physics should be. The other half is learning to do experiments to reject (or understand the applicability of) models. I give pop science a pass on weak math if it is strong on this essential aspect of science.
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2016
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