from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1999

Reviewing a physical-science book for grade 8 or 9

Introductory Physical Science
Seventh edition, 1999. 268 pages. ISBN: 1-882057-18-X.
Science Curriculum Inc., 24 Stone Road, Belmont, Massachusetts 02478.

This Book Is the Best, by a Wide Margin

Lawrence S. Lerner

About four years ago I had the pleasure of reviewing the sixth edition of Science Curriculum Inc.'s Introductory Physical Science. "This is an outstanding book," I reported in TTL, "written by authors who know what science is about, know their subject matter, and know how to teach it to 8th-graders and 9th-graders."

[Editor's note: Lawrence S. Lerner's review of the sixth edition appeared in TTL for November-December 1995, with this headline: "The Authors Are Knowledgeable, and the Book Is a Delight."]

That statement applies to the seventh edition, too, and the word "authors" is significant. The persons named on the title page of Introductory Physical Science are truly the book's authors, and they have maintained full control of its contents. Readers who are familiar with the schoolbook industry, and with the habits of the major schoolbook companies, will recognize that this is an atypical circumstance. In most schoolbooks, the lists of so-called authors are fictitious and have been devised to serve as sales-promotion features.

Introductory Physical Science has only 268 pages, so it is less than half as long as the other physical-science books I have reviewed -- yet it offers far better content. Unlike those other texts, Introductory Physical Science is not bloated with gratuitous factoids, empty mentionings, environmental pieties and irrelevant sidebars.

The authors of Introductory Physical Science show the student how science is done, and they teach the student to think like a scientist. Their strategy, as I noted in my review of the sixth edition, is to take the student through a series of experiments and analyses that amount to an abridged account of the development of chemistry and physics from the mid-1700s to 1900 or so.

Comparing the Editions

A striking experiment in the earlier edition allowed the student to make a direct estimate of the size and mass of a molecule of oleic acid. These quantities were inferred after the student measured the area of a film of oleic acid that was floating on water. In the seventh edition, the procedure has been dramatically improved: Instead of using pure oleic, the student uses a dilute solution of oleic acid in alcohol. This enables the student to obtain better results (and all the satisfaction that goes with them). In keeping with this refinement, oleic acid's density -- which the student must use in a calculation -- is now given as 0.87 g/cm3 instead of 1 g/cm3.

On the other hand, a beautiful sequence of experiments that I admired in the sixth edition has been modified in a disappointing way. Let me describe this case in some detail:

Most textbooks treat the difference between a chemical element and a compound simply by asserting that every compound consists of more than one element, but the authors of Introductory Physical Science prefer a scientific approach to this topic. In the sixth edition, the authors used a number of experiments and comparisons to show the student that certain solid substances, when they participate in chemical reactions, invariably yield solid products that have greater mass. The student then was led to understand -- indeed, to define -- such substances as elements. Likewise, the student found out that other solid substances, when they participate in reactions, may yield products that have greater mass or products that have lesser mass. The student then came to comprehend that any substance which gives such variable results must be a compound. The supporting evidence came from several sources, including an experiment in which the student observed the thermal decomposition of baking soda, then a narrative account of the thermal decomposition of mercuric oxide, and later an experiment in which the student watched the thermal decomposition of sodium chlorate and measured the difference between the initial mass and the final mass of the solid in the test container.

Looking at the seventh edition, I find that the experiment with sodium chlorate has been excised, presumably in the interests of safety. (The decomposition of sodium chlorate sometimes proceeds very vigorously.) Now the authors simply remind the student about the example of mercuric oxide and about the earlier experiment with baking soda. The excision of the sodium-chlorate experiment has not diminished the general argument, but the argument has lost some of its punch -- especially because the case involving mercuric oxide still appears only in a narrative, not in an experiment that is actually performed by the student.

The sixth edition didn't contain many errors, and in the seventh edition most of them have been corrected -- but not all:

In the sixth edition, some of the photographs weren't clear, and some of the graphs were too crude. Many of these have been replaced, usually for the better, but a few of the photos in the seventh edition demand further improvement. Alternatively, it may be profitable to replace them with line drawings. Figure 1.1 can serve as a case in point: In the sixth edition, it was an indistinct photograph of a pneumatic trough, and it failed to show the water level inside the collection bottle. The seventh edition has a new photo that is much clearer overall, but the crucial water level still can't be discerned. The same difficulty occurs in figure 1.4 -- and here the new photo is less clear overall than the older one was.

These, however, are but minor matters. Taken as a whole, Introductory Physical Science is an excellent book.

The thorough, clearly written Teacher's Guide and Resource Book for the seventh edition is largely a laboratory manual, designed to lead the teacher through the experiments that appear in the student's text. This Teacher's Guide is much like the guidebook that came with the sixth edition, but the "Introduction" has now been expanded by the addition of new pedagogic information and suggestions. The teacher, whether experienced or inexperienced, will find the Guide to be a trusty and valuable companion during the planning of a course based on Introductory Physical Science.

Students who work through Introductory Physical Science and do the experiments will be well rewarded, for they will acquire a good understanding not only of the subject matter but also of the way in which science is done. I recommend this book strongly. It is the best, by a wide margin.

Lawrence S. Lerner is a professor emeritus in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. His specialties are condensed-matter physics, the history of science, and science education. His university text Physics for Scientists and Engineers was issued in 1996 by Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Inc. (Sudbury, Massachusetts). His report State Science Standards: An Appraisal of Science Standards in 36 States was issued in March 1998 by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (Washington, D.C.).


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