from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1999

Reviewing a middle-school book in the Prentice Hall Science series

Exploring the Universe
1997. 167 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-13-423385-9.
Prentice Hall, 1 Lake Street, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458.
(Prentice Hall is a part of Pearson Education. Pearson Education is
a part of Pearson PLC, a publishing company based in London.)

Editor's Introduction -- Prentice Hall's Exploring the Universe belongs to the Prentice Hall Science series, which comprises nineteen books that are sold for use in middle schools. The original versions of all nineteen were dated in 1993 (though they actually were issued in 1992). The Prentice Hall Science series includes some of the worst "science" textbooks that we ever have seen. We published reviews of some other books in the series in 1992, 1993 and 1994.
Star Dreck

Leonard Tramiel

I first encountered Prentice Hall's book Exploring the Universe when, as a volunteer teacher of astronomy, I visited a classroom in a local middle school. I opened Exploring the Universe to a random page, and I saw an error. Then I turned to another page, and I saw another error. Then I went to the front of the book, started to read systematically, and found many more errors. At that point, I decided to read the whole book and write a review.

Astronomy is a superb way to introduce young students to science. Even in urban areas that are plagued by smog and by light pollution, nearly everyone has seen things in the night sky and has wondered about them. A teacher can start with such common phenomena as the phases of the Moon or the cycle of the seasons, then use these to elucidate the fundamental operations of science: observation, generalization, prediction, experimentation and (most important) revision. All these can be introduced in both a personal and a historical context. Astronomy is rich in facts that students seem eager to learn, and a teacher can easily show students how astronomy is linked to topics and images that appear every day in newspapers, on television, and even in pop music -- from comets to black holes to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Astronomy is a superb way to introduce young students to science -- but Exploring the Universe is a terrible way to teach astronomy. This book is full of mistakes, ranging from simple misspellings and factual errors to passages in which concepts have been mangled so badly that they are recognizable only by their names. Even when errors and misconceptions do not completely obscure the material that Prentice Hall's writers are trying to deal with, there is no effort to connect that material to the broader aspects of science.

Early in the first chapter, on page 12, Prentice Hall's writers say: "Most scientists believe that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, . . . ." This is an early, accurate indication that Exploring the Universe will not be useful for teaching science's basic precepts. In a scientific context, what people "believe" is not an issue. The things that matter are observations and reason and predictions from scientific theories. By couching a topic in terms of belief, the writers not only have lost an opportunity to teach about science but also have reinforced a perception that is false.

In this review I will describe only some of the defects that I have seen in Exploring the Universe, because I don't have space to list them all. I will concentrate first on the book's factual and conceptual failings. Later in the review, I will cite passages in which the book teaches false "history," promotes pseudoscience, and affirms popular beliefs that have no foundation in truth.

Factual and Conceptual Failings

Silly "History"

Besides teaching scientific "facts" that are false and "explanations" that are false or meaningless, Exploring the Universe makes false "historical" statements. For example:

Affirming Myths and Pseudoscience

Prentice Hall's book is also degraded by passages in which the writers promote pseudoscience and affirm popular myths:

Material from the 1980s

Exploring the Universe could be worse. In fact, it was worse when it first was published, in 1993. I have read the 1993 version, and I have noticed that it contained three mistakes which now, in the 1997 book, have been corrected. Is it reasonable to believe that those three were the only mistakes that Prentice Hall's editors had learned about during four years? I think not. I think that those three were very easy to fix, so the editors fixed them -- while leaving all the rest of the book's defective material in place [note 5].

Prentice Hall has been using some of this defective content since the 1980s. To an alarming extent, Exploring the Universe is a repackaging of material that appeared in Prentice Hall's general-science book A Voyage of Discovery, issued in 1986. This is true even though the list of "authors" in Exploring the Universe is completely different from the list of "authors" in A Voyage of Discovery.

Exploring the Universe has an extensive table of contents, and the names of many key concepts are printed in boldface type within the book's text. If textbook-adoption committees look no farther than that, they probably will get the impression that the book covers its subject. The truth is that Exploring the Universe is so badly lacking in depth, and bears such a crushing weight of erroneous material, that trying to use it as a teaching text would be a waste of time and effort. This book should not be welcome in any classroom.

Editor's notes

  1. For an analysis of the article, see the review of Prentice Hall Exploring Earth Science in The Textbook Letter, September-October 1996. [return to text]

  2. Prentice Hall has printed similar misconceptions before. See Lawrence S. Lerner's review of Motion, Forces, and Energy (another volume in the Prentice Hall Science series) in The Textbook Letter, November-December 1992. [return to text]

  3. This evidence included the observation that Earth's shadow, as cast onto the Moon during a lunar eclipse, is always round. If an object always casts a round shadow, regardless of how or from what direction the object is illuminated, then the object must be a sphere. [return to text]

  4. To read about another case in which Prentice Hall has promoted the flat-Earth myth, see the review of Prentice Hall Earth Science in The Textbook Letter, January-February 1992. For a brief account of how the myth originated, see "The Flat-Earth Story -- Again" in The Textbook Letter, March-April 1998. [return to text]

  5. To read about a case in which Prentice Hall editors undoubtedly and undeniably reprinted material that they knew to be wrong, see the review of Prentice Hall Exploring Physical Science in The Textbook Letter for September-October 1995. [return to text]

Leonard Tramiel, of Palo Alto, California, is a computer programmer and an amateur astronomer. He holds a doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia University. He teaches astronomy in local schools, as a volunteer, under the auspices of Project Astro, sponsored by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.


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