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Physics Textbooks: how they've changed...and how they haven't!

I didn't make it to the ResearchED Conference in St Columba's in Dublin this September, but a number of the papers shared on the day make me wish I had - none more so than 'What can we learn from 200 years of physics textbooks?' by David and Dr Jennifer Keenehan.

Like a few things that have seeped out into the public domain, this began as a lockdown project: Jennifer - an Asst Professor of Engineering in UCD - discovered that her dad, David (well known in these parts) had a collection of physics textbooks that stretched back decades, and that between them they had a perspective on the topic that stretched back centuries.

Hopefully their full paper will be published soon, but in the meantime, you can peruse a summary of it here with their slides for the day: Research Ed Presentation (, And if you want a summary of the summary, here are one or two highlights.

They link textbooks in physics back to the work of John Tyndall, who published Fragments of Science in 1865, and in it laid down many of the hallmarks of the teaching of physics (and science) in the centuries to follow. In particular, he stressed the importance of practical work, and included many diagrams to illustrate key concepts and demonstrations.

So, what has changed in the years since? One fascinating point is illustrated in this slide: Tyndall included very clear diagrams when he talked about charging an electroscope, but he didn't label charges as + or -, because the study of electricity was then in its infancy, and the concept of positive and negative charge not yet fully established.

And what has stayed the same? Another slide points out how consistent some imagery has been throughout the centuries:

Why would this be so? I'm sure there are many reasons but I suspect that one is the process of getting diagrams into books, which is something like the following

  • the writer draws a sketch

  • the publisher sends the sketch to a graphic artist, who produces a better-looking drawing

  • the writer reviews the new drawing for scientific accuracy and maybe suggests changes

  • repeat over and over until the drawing is acceptable

Obviously, this process can be very protracted and is hamstrung by the fact the writer is usually not much of an artist, and that the artist is usually not much of a scientist. So, sometimes it is simpler to simply say 'draw something like this here' - and include a picture of an already existing text.

And we all know that drawing hands is very difficult - which might suggest why the particular image above has been so consistent over the years!

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