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Old 12-29-2018, 09:15 AM
 
129 posts, read 48,644 times
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Is it just me, or doesn't it seem like textbooks for especially math and physics tend to become less and less approachable and descriptive as they become more advanced?
I have studied Engineering Physics for 4 years, and this is definitely my experience.
For example, my first university physics textbook was "University Physics With Modern Physics, 13th Edition" by Young/Freedman, and that book was excellent - it really took time to explain each step in great detail, and it also had a relaxed style and a sense of humour as well.
But then on my 3rd year I started using textbooks for higher level courses like "Optics & Photonics", and then all of a sudden the textbooks became obsessed with formalities and with cramming in as many facts as possible on the smallest possible space - their derivations were much more sloppy, and they often simplified expressions without showing the steps there, which made it harder to see what the hell they were doing, and sometimes they even mentioned variables that didn't appear in their diagrams.

It was the same deal with my books in my Electronics courses:
my first Electronics course, "Circuit Theory", had the textbook "Fundamentals Of Electric Circuits" by Alexander/Sadiku, which was awesome, because it was concise and focused a lot on example problems - it even has a part in the very beginning of the book that says
"All principles are presented in a lucid, logical, step-by-step manner. As much as possible, we avoid wordiness and giving too much detail that could hide concepts and impede overall understanding of the material.".
This is exactly where a lot of higher level course books fail - they don't understand the value in being concise and to the point, and instead spend forever on going through formal proofs and talking at length about a bunch of things at once - they also often have very few example problems, and sometimes they don't even show any solution steps, or even a final answer.
And this was also my experience my next course book in the follow-up course "Electronics 1";
that book was stiff and dry as hell, and it felt like swimming in mud.
I have actually experienced this stuff fairly often, and it's not just because "the courses are harder" either, because sometimes I have been able to grasp the concepts in harder courses much more easily just because some topics happened to be brought up in much more detail in my first physics book (which had at least 1-3 chapters for most physics topics).
Granted, I do often skip lectures, so that part is much own fault, but this doesn't change the fact that I have often found a course much easier after I have found the same material in earlier course books.
To put it simply, it feels sort of like the first-year course books are teaching things to students, whereas most higher level textbooks seem to be more like summaries for other teachers - that's what they feel like a lot of the time.

Has anyone else had this experience?
Or have I just been unlucky?
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Old 12-29-2018, 09:49 AM
 
Location: Maryland
1,094 posts, read 326,607 times
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I think that’s just the general nature of text books. Technical writers are often not skilled imaginary writers I imagine. I still have my old Morrison and Boyd Organic Chemistry textbook for one completely silly little footnote it has....which I guess reinforces your point about dryness, and how much a little simple humor is welcome.

I was reading along about mirror image molecules and the authors made the comment that everything has a mirror image....but it had an asterisk by it. This was at the bottom of the page.

* Except of course a vampire.

I remember another story like that. My girlfriend at the time and her coworker were working late one night at an NIH lab finishing up entering some data. They were trying to input some new DNA sequences into the lab’s main database and, no matter what name they chose, it kept saying the name was not acceptable. They finally typed in “Why?” and they got back this answer on the screen.....”Beats me.” She said they both almost fell off their stools laughing.

Neither of those are that funny in themselves but when one is struggling through a difficult subject, some slight, silly comment can be exceedingly funny.

Last edited by LesLucid; 12-29-2018 at 09:58 AM..
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Old 12-29-2018, 11:01 AM
 
Location: Aurora Denveralis
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Not much point in using a folksy approach when the training has to mold the student into being able to write that dry, narrow style for the rest of his career.
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Old 12-29-2018, 12:05 PM
 
Location: Somewhere in northern Alabama
17,096 posts, read 52,196,491 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by LesLucid View Post
I think that’s just the general nature of text books. Technical writers are often not skilled imaginary writers I imagine. I still have my old Morrison and Boyd Organic Chemistry textbook for one completely silly little footnote it has....which I guess reinforces your point about dryness, and how much a little simple humor is welcome.

I was reading along about mirror image molecules and the authors made the comment that everything has a mirror image....but it had an asterisk by it. This was at the bottom of the page.

* Except of course a vampire.

I remember another story like that. My girlfriend at the time and her coworker were working late one night at an NIH lab finishing up entering some data. They were trying to input some new DNA sequences into the lab’s main database and, no matter what name they chose, it kept saying the name was not acceptable. They finally typed in “Why?” and they got back this answer on the screen.....”Beats me.” She said they both almost fell off their stools laughing.

Neither of those are that funny in themselves but when one is struggling through a difficult subject, some slight, silly comment can be exceedingly funny.
Oh yeah. Humor helps keep eyes from glazing over. That is not recognized in style rulebooks. Once the dabbler students and those just filling course requirements are out of the way, geekdom gets intense and peer review humorless.

I used to insert Easter Eggs into the error handler of my programs for some of the silly easy user errors - "Your mouse appears to have been unplugged or died. Do you want to send flowers? Y/N"
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Old 12-29-2018, 01:11 PM
 
129 posts, read 48,644 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Quietude View Post
Not much point in using a folksy approach when the training has to mold the student into being able to write that dry, narrow style for the rest of his career.
I honestly wish that more science books could chill down a bit and drop the formal style.
The perfect example of a book like that is "Introduction To Classical Mechanics" by David Morin;
that book doesn't give a crap about formalities, it has an extremely casual style and the author seems to have been like "dude, whatever, I just write down the freaking content and let the style be casual" throughout the whole book.
It's actually quite relieving to read a book like that, and it works as well, because the author is also just rigorous enough to get the point across perfectly fine.

And it's not like he goes overboard either, he just doesn't bother trying to sound formal.
Here is a line taken from the beginning of his very first chapter on Statics:

"For many of you, the material in this first chapter will be mainly review.
As such, the text here will be relatively short. This is an “extra” chapter.
Its main purpose is that it provides me with an excuse to give you some nice statics problems.
Try as many as you like, but don’t go overboard; more important and relevant material
will soon be at hand."


As you can see, he never actually comes off as "ridiculous" in any way, he just has a very relaxed writing style that I guess is considered unconventional by most people, but it doesn't hurt the book in any way.
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Old 12-29-2018, 01:15 PM
 
Location: Aurora Denveralis
4,571 posts, read 1,518,332 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by harry chickpea View Post
I used to insert Easter Eggs into the error handler of my programs for some of the silly easy user errors - "Your mouse appears to have been unplugged or died. Do you want to send flowers? Y/N"
I wrote three generations of software manuals and help text that included quite a few such entries, long before they became known as Easter eggs. My favorite was to fill a "this page left blank" with a quotation - Either something obscure from my own reading or an absurdist quote/attribution. I still put tongue-in-cheek asides on some book pages.

Peter van der Linden, in his wild youth, wrote a book that had recurring groups of footnotes that were not attached to the text.
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Old 12-29-2018, 01:19 PM
 
Location: Aurora Denveralis
4,571 posts, read 1,518,332 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Markus86 View Post
I honestly wish that more science books could chill down a bit and drop the formal style.
I have a relative who has, among other things, been senior editor of a couple of journals. He loves submissions where the authors can bring themselves to break away from droning and make a small pun or aside. But then, I have another relative who had a significant paper rejected essentially because a key sentence wasn't written seriously enough. It's a self-enforcing system to write in the dullest, most literal possible voice.

I mean, there's rigor... and then there's rigor mortis.
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Old 12-29-2018, 01:36 PM
 
129 posts, read 48,644 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Quietude View Post
I have a relative who has, among other things, been senior editor of a couple of journals. He loves submissions where the authors can bring themselves to break away from droning and make a small pun or aside. But then, I have another relative who had a significant paper rejected essentially because a key sentence wasn't written seriously enough. It's a self-enforcing system to write in the dullest, most literal possible voice.

I mean, there's rigor... and then there's rigor mortis.
Science textbooks should absolutely be rigorous enough to actually give precise, accurate explanations, but I don't see any reason for them to be overly serious and formal.
In fact, some of the best textbooks that I have had (like for example "University Physics With Modern Physics" and "Fundamentals Of Electric Circuits") have had that welcoming relaxed style, and their example problems were often funny when it was appropriate;
for example, in one Ray Optics problem in "University Physics With Modern Physics" you are supposed to find the apparent height of Santa Claus when he checks himself for soot in a Christmas ornament - that was awesome, and it was a perfectly valid exercise problem.

Last edited by Markus86; 12-29-2018 at 02:23 PM..
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Old 12-29-2018, 01:44 PM
 
Location: Aurora Denveralis
4,571 posts, read 1,518,332 times
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I'd wholly agree, but emphasize that it's much more important in intro and lower-division texts than in higher levels. And it goes beyond STEM (Yes, Virginia, there is education outside of STEM!) - history, in particular, would be far better taught in a casual, welcoming style.
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Old 12-29-2018, 01:46 PM
 
Location: The Driftless Area, WI
2,067 posts, read 745,861 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by LesLucid View Post
I think that’s just the general nature of text books. Technical writers are often not skilled imaginary writers I imagine. I still have my old Morrison and Boyd Organic Chemistry textbook for one completely silly little footnote it has....which I guess reinforces your point about dryness, and how much a little simple humor is welcome.

I was reading along about mirror image molecules and the authors made the comment that everything has a mirror image....but it had an asterisk by it. This was at the bottom of the page.

* Except of course a vampire.

.

I remember that one too.


Gilbert Stang is a mathematician from MIT who has written textbooks on calculus & applied math- very pleasant writing style-- reads like he's having a conversation with you& often uses footnotes like the vampire reference.


Higher level textbooks are not really meant to teach, but to serve as a compendium of the current state of knowledge in the field. Because the writing, editing & printing takes so long, new additions are usually out of date by the time they reach the bookstore shelves-- except for maybe Anatomy texts. When was the last time they added a new part to the human body?
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