Gas station without pumps

2011 June 27

Conceptual Physics text needed

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:40
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Conceptual Physics textbook cover

The Conceptual Physics book that we have looks like this image from an Amazon customer, but without the "media update" banner.

My son is planning to take AP Physics next year, but he has never had a really solid physical science course, just done some reading on his own, so he and I agreed that it would be a good thing for him to read a light-weight physics book over the summer to make sure he was well prepared—the rest of the class will have had a prior physics course. Since it has been over 40 years since I had any physics (and that a high school course that was lower than AP level), I agreed to read the book along with him.

We had a textbook that is used locally by several of the better schools, and that I had heard recommendations for: Conceptual Physics by Paul Hewitt.  We settled on a 10-page-a-day reading schedule and started in.

This week, my son gave up in disgust at the snail’s pace of the book—and I can’t really blame him.  Ideas that need a paragraph or a page are stretched out to fill a chapter.  It may be a gentle introduction for people who love to have things said very, very slowly, but it was putting us to sleep.

Can anyone recommend a better way to get an intro to physics at a livelier pace?

We’ll look into Lewin’s MIT lectures, but neither of us have been big fans of video lectures, most of which are even slower paced than textbooks.  (We’ve not looked at Lewin’s lectures yet, which have a reputation for having good demos, which could compensate for them being videos.)

Note: my son has not had a formal introduction to calculus yet, though he has had some of the basics for several years, so we are not looking for a standard college text, but a quick way to fill in any holes in his self-education, so that he is ready to do AP Physics without much effort.


  1. Having sat through lecture by Lewin, if you are able to follow Lewin’s lectures easily, then you have had calculus and some physics already, and probably will be bored stiff in an AP physics course. MIT has some free online material to help supplement high school students taking the AP exam.

    Also, the College Board has a list of physics books they recommend for the exam. I assume you’ve looked at those. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what non-calculus physics text I used in high school was.

    Comment by Barefoot Doctoral — 2011 June 27 @ 10:25 | Reply

  2. If your son is good at math, why is he reading a book such as Hewitt’s which is intended for weak math students? The book’s verbosity may stem from the desire to avoid equations. The EPGY introductory physics course uses Giancoli as a text — you could consider that.

    Comment by V.R. — 2011 June 27 @ 11:00 | Reply

    • We were looking for a quick, lightweight read, not something that duplicates the AP course he’d be taking next year. Hewitt was lightweight, but not quick.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 June 27 @ 11:42 | Reply

  3. If you’re looking for a book to give you more of a historical/philosophical backgoround, I might suggest Physics Concepts and Connections, it is a much more in-depth conceptual level book than Hewitt that goes into some very interesting digressions about the history of physics and more.

    And of course for more mathematical approach, Matter and Interactions can’t be beat. I think your son could get by reading it without having the calculus background for it.

    Finally, in the realm of free, here’s a very good, but lengthy online text that I’ve enjoyed perusing: Motion Mountain.

    Comment by John Burk — 2011 June 27 @ 11:12 | Reply

  4. Hi There,

    Hewitt is a good book.

    You could also consider the Singapore Physics Matters books

    Since we are in India on a sabbatical, I got a chance to check out the books used here in the international schools and private schools here. The IGCSE Physics book is wonderfully done for an intro level; Explanations with diagrams;
    You can check out the ‘O’ , ‘A’ and ‘AS’ levels for advanced books.

    Bit more advanced but a good book: Principles with Applications by Douglas C. Giancoli; University of California, Berkeley;

    Digital book with animations. Kinetic books


    Comment by Subadra — 2011 June 27 @ 20:16 | Reply

    • Hewitt may be a good book, but we couldn’t stand the slow pace. The Giancoli book is very expensive, even used. The IGCSE book looks like fun, but is too much a collection of random factoids for my taste. The Kinetic Books are hugely expensive for a 1-year license. Of the pointers you gave me, the Singapore Physics Matters one looks most promising.

      We’ve started watching the Lewin lectures from MIT together. If that does not go well, we’ll probably try the Singapore books next. The Matter and Interactions book is probably more appropriate for *after* the AP Physics class.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 June 27 @ 22:32 | Reply

  5. How about Physics for Poets? It’s short, but it might be too light.

    Comment by Kai — 2011 June 30 @ 06:17 | Reply

  6. The Lewin lectures are not going too well. There seems to be 5–10 minutes of content in each hour lecture. My son likes the demos, but the math parts move at glacial pace. Perhaps the pace may seem better once the material is less familiar.

    I’m beginning to think, though, that I’ll be better off throwing my son in the AP Physics course cold. It is likely to be an even slower pace than the Lewin lectures, so maybe it is better that he not have the preparation that the other students have had. The review for them will probably be a decent pace for new material for him, but not for review for him.

    I’ll discuss this with him before deciding, but I think I have to write this one off as a bad parenting decision.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 June 30 @ 08:34 | Reply

    • After taking a look at the lab report you shared, I doubt your son will have trouble jumping in to an AP physics course, and you’re right the pace of the class might even be too slow. My only suggestion is if he is looking for something genuinely enriching, that is related to physics, to take a look at the M&I curriculum.

      Comment by John Burk — 2011 June 30 @ 17:01 | Reply

  7. Hey Kevin – I have various Physics books that you guys can borrow – at all different levels. Email me at jowelch cabrillo edu.
    -John Welch

    Comment by John Welch — 2011 June 30 @ 11:57 | Reply

    • Thanks, John. So far, I’ve been able to get all I needed from the University library, but if they don’t have something that I’d like my son to look at, I’ll be sure to contact you.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 June 30 @ 13:24 | Reply

  8. For a fast overview of physics–i.e., a _Physics for Non-Dummies_, I think George Gamow’s _The Great Physicists from Galileo to Einstein_ is a great book, and might be what you’re looking for. At any rate, it should be enjoyable and won’t hurt. Don’t let the title mislead you; the book is a combination of biographical information and also of the physics itself. Also, the book actually starts not with Galileo but with the Greeks (Democritus et al.)

    The book was originally titled _Biography of Physics_, I believe, which might give you a hint of what Gamow was trying to accomplish. One especially wonderful feature of the book is that Gamow includes (well chosen) long passages from the great physicists’ own works. I don’t think the book is helpful enough for solving problems, but that’s what the AP physics course will be for. What the Gamow book would be good for is explaining the core idea of each physics topic and putting the topics into context with one another and with history and, especially, putting some inspiration and interest into a reader. Such context and inspiration is exactly what will likely be missing from a standard textbook and a standard AP course, assuming textbooks and courses are still similar to what I saw decades ago as a student.

    The book was written in the 1960’s or so, and so no doubt would include some obsolete information, but I don’t think that’d be a major concern.

    [For example, the book does exhibit my pet peeve of giving the wrong explanation of airplane flight by relying on Bernoulli’s Principle (which reliance in my opinion is pedagogically inadequate to begin with) in combination with the physically incorrect “equal transit time” assumption. In other words, as with so many old and even new books, the book (1) shows the lousy airfoil section and (2) makes the observation that the top path is longer than the bottom path and (3) erroneously concludes that therefore (due also to an equal-transit-time assumption) there must be higher airspeed on the top path and, per Bernoulli, lower pressure on top than on bottom–i.e., lift.]

    Feynman’s _Six Easy Pieces_ is also pretty good in being readable and in being real physics. In theory, the Cartoon Guide should be good, but I never liked that book, for reasons I can no longer recall.

    Actually, if you want real physics, minus the problem-solving nitty-gritties, why not just read the actual Feynman Lectures? That gives insight without the nitty-gritties.


    Comment by C. George Yu — 2011 July 11 @ 22:39 | Reply

    • We have several Feynman books, including Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feyman, which we both read, Six Easy Pieces, which I started reading, and Q.E.D., which my son has read but I have not. I’m not sure whether we have the full set of Feyman Lectures or not.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 July 11 @ 23:09 | Reply

  9. […] physics.  This question is similar to the one I had last June about conceptual physics books (see Conceptual Physics text needed).  I won’t repeat that post (though there were several good suggestions in the comments), […]

    Pingback by Discussion of potential conceptual physics texts « Gas station without pumps — 2011 October 10 @ 10:56 | Reply

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