Modern Introductory Physics ,

C. H.
J. N.
, and
J. C.
New York
, 1999. $59.95 (519 pp.). ISBN 0-387-98576-X

Some time ago, I came across a set of notes on approximation techniques useful in physics. They were so clear, well-motivated, and literate, I wanted permission to give copies to my students. In tracing them to Colgate University, I learned that they were part of the relativity chapter in a textbook being developed there for an innovative, one-semester, introductory physics course. I remember hoping that the book would be completed quickly, because it looked like such a welcome change of pace. It is now out as Modern Introductory Physics by Charles H. Holbrow, James N. Lloyd, and Joseph C. Amato. Recalling that earlier brush, I happily agreed to review it. In brief, the book is a delight and, for the correct audience, it will be very successful.

I wish that I could reproduce the authors’ preface; it is hard to summarize the thinking that went into this effort. I recommend that teachers of introductory physics read it or the authors’ more extended description (with E. Jose Galvez) in the American Journal of Physics volume 63, 1078, 1995. Although this is a book for likely physics majors (and other students you’d like to lure into the major), it represents somewhat of a return to the liberal arts tradition in that it is written to be read, and it respects the student’s intelligence. And by avoiding simply repeating high-school material at a higher level, it offers a more enticing entrée to the college-level curriculum.

The book follows a single story line: the physics of the atom and how it was discovered. This allows coverage of much material included in the typical year-long introductory course and more 20th-century physics than usually fits in even a two-semester course. And there are nice applications, telling, for example, how ink-jet printers steer blobs of ink or how scanning tunneling microscopes work. While the book is not explicitly part of the IUPP (Introductory University Physics Project), the authors have done a fine job of implementing the project’s principles.

Many of the book’s stylistic features stimulate engagement and comprehension. First, a sense of intelligent inquiry permeates the book.

Equally appealing is the droll humor, as in the following example:

STATEMENT:… are central to Einstein’s special theory of relativity. The consequences of this theory are necessary to understand the behavior of atoms or their components at high energies. This behavior is surprising and unfamiliar to beings whose experience with the physical world is limited to velocities much less than that of light.

EXERCISE: What beings might these be?

The answer is human beings unless, I suppose, they happen to be sitting on the bridge of the star ship Enterprise. Exercises of this sort are frequently embedded in the text and are intended to be considered in the course of the reading. (Problems also appear at the end of each chapter and these, in keeping with the discovery story line, emphasize experiment more than is typical, often presenting actual data for analysis.) Readers are instructed to test their understanding in real time by doing all the exercises as they read, and by making up and answering their own questions. (That’s intelligent inquiry!) The authors then demonstrate how that should be done, and bluntly tell the student to expect a slow reading pace. Of course, instructors will need to enforce this doing of the exercises, but it is helpful to have the authors weigh in so convincingly.

Recognizing that many well-prepared college students may have encountered calculus but are still shaky on the basics of quantitative reasoning, the authors include activities to build or resuscitate those skills. Also, critical patterns of thought are repeated with explicit reference to earlier uses.

The less didactic style permits the more frequent deployment of metaphor and imagery. Richard Feynman’s great conservation of energy analogy in section 4, volume 2, of The Feynman Lectures on Physics , which he wrote with Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands (Addisdon Wesley Publishing, 1965) makes an appearance. Another example of an apt metaphor is the one adopted to explain v = λv: “The situation is analogous to a passing railroad train. If the length of each car is L meters and N cars pass per second, then the velocity of the train is NL meters/sec.” (I know that will work better than my laboriously drawn blackboard sketches.) Moreover, the book has an up-to-date feel: There are, for instance, references to Web pages, and data tables from ancient experiments are related to spreadsheets. However, the book contains fewer figures and photographs than usual, and color is not used.

The experienced physics instructor will recognize the veteran’s touch in the extra focus devoted to many topics that are especially difficult for students. One topic that does not get sufficient attention, however, is the visualization of vector fields, including light waves and static electric and magnetic fields. The book has other imperfections: (1) The style is a bit parochial (spatially and temporally); it seems targeted at American students and some aspects may go out of date rather quickly. Even the wonderful cover photo—scanning tunneling micrographs of dissociating O2 atoms, discussed in the epilogue—will be superseded in a few years by even more wonderfully revealing atomic images. (2) Although in their preface the authors suggest that the book, while intended for students with a solid high-school background in physics, might be used in a year-long course for less well-prepared students, I doubt that it would succeed for that audience. Too much prior knowledge is assumed. (3) How to proceed after digesting this book? The student will not yet be ready for typical sophomore-level physics, but it seems retrograde to fill in the gaps by following with a Halliday and Resnick type-course. So downstream curricular adjustments will be required. (To see how Colgate addresses this, go to

Despite the flaws, this book very much deserves consideration, and you, too, will really enjoy reading it. A longer version of this review can be consulted at