from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1998

Reviewing a high-school book in chemistry

Merrill Chemistry
1998. 910 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-825526-7.
Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 936 Eastwind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081.
(Glencoe/McGraw-Hill is a division of the McGraw-Hill Companies.)

This "New" Book Is a Leftover from 1993

Max G. Rodel

The 1998 version of Merrill Chemistry -- with its new cover, its revised title page, and its misleading copyright page -- can easily be mistaken for a new book. The copyright page shows the date "1998" only, with no indication of the dates of earlier versions.

In truth, this 1998 book isn't new in any significant way. It is nearly identical with the 1993 Merrill Chemistry that I evaluated more than five years ago. My review of the 1993 version appeared in The Textbook Letter for May-June 1994, under the headline "A Colorful, Readable Book That Tries to Do Too Much."

The 1998 version has 910 pages, just as the 1993 did, and the pagination hasn't been changed. I have compared each page in the 1998 version with the corresponding page in the 1993, and I have seen only three alterations in the book's text. Two of these are minor: On page 3 a sentence referring to an illustration on the facing page has been removed, and on page 259 a clumsy sentence has been rewritten. The only substantial alteration that I have noticed is the overhauling of the section titled "Decision Making" (pages 22 through 26), which deals with techniques for solving problems. When I looked at the "Decision Making" section in the 1993 book, I was bothered by its strange assertion that "If the answer you get seems reasonable, then your solution is probably correct." Now the entire section has been revised, and that assertion is gone.

If there have been any other changes to the text of Merrill Chemistry, I have not found them.

When I compared the illustrations in the two versions, I found 32 changes. A few of them represent improvements. For example, the new figure 4.21 -- illustrating the idea that magnesium can be used for making light-but-strong mechanical parts -- is a good photo of a racing car. (The old figure 4.21 was a dark, barely recognizable photo of an aircraft engine.) And the new figure 14.2 -- showing that a thin stream of water is deflected by a charged rod -- is much sharper than the old figure 14.2, which showed the same phenomenon.

Most of the new illustrations, though, seem to have no purpose but to make the 1998 version look different -- or, perhaps, to comply with notions of political correctness. (I was amused to see that, on page 496, a photograph of a mustachioed fellow who looked European has been replaced by a photo of a mustachioed fellow who looks South-Asian.)

The only other differences between the two books, as far as I can tell, involve meaningless changes in color schemes.

In my judgment, there is no justification for Glencoe's pretense that the 1998 Merrill Chemistry is a new book. It isn't. If you have seen the 1993 version, then you have seen the 1998.

Misconceived Material

My opinion of Merrill Chemistry, like the book itself, remains the same as it was before.

Merrill Chemistry succeeds in showing that chemistry is both a lot of fun and an important science. Most concepts are presented competently, the Glencoe writers' prose is concise and easy to read, and when the writers stick to chemistry, they offer instruction that is capable and balanced.

Too often, however, they don't stick to chemistry, and this is the book's big drawback. In their overdone attempts to make things "relevant" and to connect chemistry with other disciplines, the writers venture wildly into extraneous topics that they don't understand. They produce incomprehensible or misleading passages about so-called issues, and they invent problems and exercises that are quite inappropriate for high- school students.

On page 410, for example, a feature article called "Space and Defense Spin-offs" ends with this assignment -- "Prepare for a classroom debate on the economic benefits of spin-offs versus the initial costs of their development. Try to assess how expenditures that lead to these spin-offs may have affected other national programs." As I noted in my review of the 1993 book: Even if the writers had picked one or two specific products, rather than asking students to deal with the whole universe of spinoffs, that "debate" would require the knowledge and analytical skills that come with a master's degree in economics! I am sorry to see that Glencoe has now reprinted this absurd assignment.

Another case: Glencoe has reprinted an article titled "Acid Rain," on page 614. There, under the heading "Analyzing the Issue," students find this: "Air pollution can be carried by wind and cause acid rain to fall far from the source of the pollution. Who should be responsible for cleaning up the pollution? What if the source of the pollution cannot be identified?" As I stated in my earlier review, those questions have no definitive or correct answers, and any genuine "analyzing" of such issues requires extensive knowledge of economics, law, and politics. It is a mistake to induce students to think that they are "analyzing" something when they can only offer uninformed notions.

A third case: Glencoe has reprinted, on pages 726 and 727, a very weak section called "Biological Effects of Radiation." Its scientific content is superficial and unsatisfactory, and the writers evidently do not know what "biological effects of radiation" may be. They certainly do not discuss any. Moreover, they have tossed in glib statements such as "People opposed to food irradiation are those who are concerned about the use of any nuclear reactions."

I conclude by saying what I have said before. Merrill Chemistry still needs serious reworking. The book should be revised to focus its text more sharply on chemistry, to strengthen its superficial passages, and to eliminate excursions into trendy topics that are beyond the grasp of high-school students.

Max Rodel is a consulting environmental chemist affiliated with Environmental Science Associates, in San Francisco. His principal professional interest is the chemistry of natural aquatic systems, including the fates of pollutants. He lives in Mill Valley, California, and he regularly reviews science textbooks for The Textbook Letter.


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