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2010 December 24

Matter & Interactions

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:26
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I’ve been hearing a bit about the Matter & Interactions physics text, mainly from blog posts by Quantum Progress (My favorite texts: Matter and Interactions, Following long chains of reasoning, How to get rid of AP (part 3): what can replace it, Teaching computational thinking part 3).

The book’s web site claims that it

emphasizes a modern perspective on the calculus-based introductory physics curriculum taken by engineering and science students. It engages students in:

  • Starting analyses from fundamental principles rather than from secondary formulas.
  • Making macro-micro connections, based on the atomic nature of matter.
  • Modeling physical systems: making idealizations, simplifying assumptions, estimates.
  • Constructing computational models to predict the time evolution of system behavior.

20th century physics and a contemporary perspective are integrated throughout the curriculum.

I’m wondering whether I should have my son read this book, as it sounds like a better fit for him than the usual rather shallow high-school physics books.  Is there anyone reading this blog who has taught from the book?  Or evaluated it and rejected it for teaching? What are its real strengths and weaknesses?

I should probably read it myself, as I haven’t had physics since my non-calculus physics class in 1969–70.  It’s amazing how little physics you really need to do computer science, digital music synthesis, digital electronics, VLSI design, computer engineering, and bioinformatics.  It’s even more amazing how little benefit engineering students are getting out of over a year of physics—still unable to understand simple ideas like thermal resistance and how to calculate substrate temperatures of integrated circuits, even when handed the formulas and explanations.


  1. Matter and Interactions is heavily calculus based, so your son would need to have a decent grasp of calculus to be able to go through the whole text, however, I’ve found that computational modeling part of the text which involves predicting the motion of objects by adding a large number of finite differences can be an excellent bridge for getting students to understand the calculus.

    Three other very interesting physics texts I can recommend for different reasons are:

    PSSC physics–this is mostly out of print, but it experimental based approach to learning physics is outstanding, and it covers many topics in modern physics by having students work through fundamental experiments. Understanding the ideas in this text would be a great advantage for learning chemistry.
    How Everything works, by Louis Booomfield. Bloomifeld uses this book to teach a general physics course for non majors. The physics is at the introductory level, and avoids most math, but Bloomfield manages to explain how a wide range of phenomena work from physical principles, from hot air balloons to CD players and error correction. I’ve found this text to be a great supplement for my own understanding, and I think a motivated high school student could find it very interesting.
    Physics for Future Presidents-Richard Muller at UC Berkeley has transformed physics for poets into physics for future presidents and created an incredibly popular course, and from that, wrote a very popular general audience non-fiction book that explains nuclear power, why spy satellites with never be able to read license plates, and many more very interesting topics. You can also download all of Muller’s lectures on itunesU, and they are outstanding, perhaps even better than the book itself, since he opens each class with a wide open Q&A for 5 minutes, that is almost always very engaging.

    Comment by quantumprogress — 2010 December 25 @ 10:30 | Reply

    • Thanks for all the recommendations.

      My son rarely has the patience for video lectures, finding books to be a much faster source of information (he reads about 5x faster than people speak). I too find video lectures rather dull, so I’ve not pushed him in that direction. Physics for Future Presidents may be suitable light reading for him (how does it compare with books like Physics of Superheroes which he read several years ago, and has re-read a couple of times first.

      We have a copy of Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics, but he has never found it inspiring enough to want to read it. It was going to be the text for a physics class he was going to take in 8th grade, but he took a year of computer programming instead. The programming class (using Dr.Scheme) was pretty good, so I think this was the right choice.

      The Matter and Interactions book sounds good for my son, as he likes writing programs and building computable models. Is the book suitable for someone simultaneously learning calculus, or does it assume that students are already fluent in calculus?

      My son’s calculus is a little weak. He learned some for his 5th-grade science fair project on bouncing balls, and he subsequently read Calculus for Dummies several times (he bought it for himself with birthday money), but he has yet to really study calculus. He’ll take the AP Calculus BC class at his high school next year, and I’d like for him to learn physics at the same time (which he can’t do at school, since they only offer the AP Physics in alternate years, and next year is AP Chemistry, not AP Physics). I’ve never really understood teaching physics and calculus separately (though that is how I was taught), as it seems to me that calculus makes more sense when taught with the physics that inspires it and physics only makes sense with calculus.

      The PSSC Physics by the Physical Science Study Committee seems to have had a long run (in print for over 30 years, through 7 editions). There are some nice remarks about the history of the books (by John H. Dodge and by Uri Haber-Schaim). I wonder if the original instructions for high schoolers to make their own apparatus are still available. That might make a good summer project. According to Uri Haber-Schaim “NSF ruled that the original material be available to any ‘U.S. Person’ under free license.” I wonder if there is a PDF file of the early editions on the web anywhere. One of my 4th cousins was responsible for a somewhat later book in the same vein: Introductory Physics by Robert Karplus, which still seems to be in print. (Googling the two keywords PSSC Karplus finds several discussions of the similarity and differences between the two texts.)

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 December 25 @ 12:30 | Reply

  2. The physics for future presidents lectures are actually audio lectures. Since Muller doesn’t do any formal mathematical work, it works pretty well. I listened to them on my iPod when walking the dog and found them quite entertaining.

    Based on your son’s science fair project, which surpasses what some of my 9th grade students would be capable of, I’d say he could handle M&I. I think you could certainly study M&I concurrently with calculus; this is what happens at many of the colleges where it is taught.

    Comment by quantumprogress — 2010 December 25 @ 13:04 | Reply

  3. […] mentioned (for example, by John Burk in My favorite texts: Matter and Interactions). I’ve previously posted wondering whether it would be a good way for my son (and me) to learn physics, since he loves to […]

    Pingback by Bad news for Matter and Interactions fans « Gas station without pumps — 2011 July 29 @ 10:10 | Reply

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