Jewish World Review July 13, 2001 / 22 Tamuz, 5761

Ian Shoales

Ian Shoales
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Consumer Reports

Applying Newton's First Law of Physics to textbooks -- EARLIER this year, according to the Associated Press, a survey out of North Carolina State University revealed that twelve science textbooks, used by 85 per cent of American Children, are riddled with errors, over 500 pages of them, "ranging from maps depicting the equator passing through the southern United States to a photo of singer Linda Ronstadt labeled as a silicon crystal."

The physics professor who led the two year survey said that none of the 12 textbooks was acceptable, accuracy-wise.

One of the books even got Newton's first law of physics wrong. The publishers, of course, say most of these errors are, uh, typos, that's it, typos.

Now, my memory of science classes doesn't involve textbooks, but mimeographed handouts with ink so blurred you couldn't read them. Also: failing to memorize the periodic table of elements, making hydrogen bark, dissecting night crawlers, and watching freshman girls faint from formaldehyde fumes. So, I'm probably not the best person to form an opinion about the scientific literacy of today's youth.

I'm probably alarmed, but I'm not sure. I did look up Newton's first law of physics, which can be paraphrased: "An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force." So if I'm watching teevee, I'll probably stay in the lounger unless the phone rings. And if I'm doing chores around the house, I'll probably keep doing them, unless there's something good on television. You physicists out there can tell me if I've got that wrong.

Well, this law, it seems to me, can be applied to the textbook controversy itself. These textbooks are wrong, that is, at rest, and will stay wrong until acted upon by an outside force, that is a study financed by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation.

Or you could say, as an alternative hypothesis, that the textbooks are in motion, that is, being edited and compiled, and their inaccuracy is a factor of that motion until brought to grinding halt, again, by a study financed by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation.

It all depends on where you're standing, which perfectly illustrates Einstein's Theory of Relativity, not to mention the Uncertainty Principle. What am I trying to say? Anything and everything can be a learning experience. Besides, any textbook that calls Linda Ronstadt a silicon crystal offers a unique perspective that could possibly prepare youngsters for a life of uncertainty and surrealism. Is that so wrong?

JWR contributor Ian Shoales is the author of, among others, Not Wet Yet: An Anthology of Commentary. Comment by clicking here.


07/10/01: The dumb and the dead

© 2001, Ian Shoales