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My favorite texts: Matter and Interactions

December 2, 2010
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I’m going to try to start up a series of posts on some of my favorite science textbooks—just in time for holiday shopping, since I know everyone on your list is looking for a good physics book.


If you’re looking for a truly transformative physics textbook, you should look no further than Matter and Interactions, by Ruth Chebay and Bruce Sherwood. This is the textbook every physics teacher should own, and if you happen to be teaching calculus based physics, you should strongly consider adopting it for your class.

Here’s why I feel so strongly that this is the best textbook in print that I’ve found:

  • M&I focuses on a reductional approach to physics. It’s goal is to explain the greatest number of phenomena with the fewest number of ideas. If you want your students to get past the fog of equations and understand big ideas—conservation of energy and momentum, and fields and how they used in a multitude of ways to explain a wide range of phenomenon, this is the text that will do it.
  • M&I models what modern physics looks like. It does not trudge through Newton’s laws, inclined planes, and massless ropes, and instead jumps right into the momentum principal (momentum conservation) and uses this as a backbone for predicting motion of objects for exploring real interactions—the frictional force on a molecular level, tension in real ropes and springs, and very quickly teaches the kids to implement this principle in vpython to solve real world problems that most intro physics texts wouldn’t dare touch, like the 3 body problem. One of the coolest labs they do is measuring the young’s modulus of copper by stretching a thin copper wire, and then using this to calculate the strength of the interatomic bond.

M&I is also a beautiful reference. Its explanation of how sparks form is one of the most insightful and thought provoking things I’ve read in a textbook. It clearly models for students how to build long chains of reasoning from simple principles that lead to powerful explanations. M&I, along with Arons and Feynman’s Lectures on Physics belong on the reference shelf of every teacher who is interested in deeper explanations of what they are teaching.

A final reason for using this text is the incredible support network that exists for adopters. When was the last time you could email Halliday and Resnick for advice on how to teach chapter 4, or any other textbook author, for that matter? Even though Bruce and Ruth are now retired, they are incredibly active on the M&I yahoo group for teachers , posting deeper explanations of the rational for coverage decisions in the text, and answering questions questions about how they implemented the course at CMU and NC State. Bruce and Ruth have even provided all of their instructional materials including labs, tests, videos of every lecture, detailed calendars, clicker questions, webassign pre-labs, and more. You’ll also find a dozen or more active posters on the yahoo group willing to share everything from their incredible LaTeX style files, to webassign versions of the Force Concept Inventory Test. M&I also has very strong following of faculty at universities around the nation that gather at every AAPT meeting, usually hosting a session about their work with M&I, and then gathering afterward just to socialize.

Finally, Bruce and Ruth also teach a distance-ed course through NC State, specifically for high school teachers on Matter and Interactions that has gotten rave reviews.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2011 11:07 pm

    I’ve finally gotten around to buying a copy of Matter and Interactions. I’m home-schooling my son this year and we’re going to try to work our way through it.

    Any suggestions on labs that we can and should do at home? (We have an Arduino and an accelerometer chip (3-axis ±3g), but not much else in the way of sensors. Because we’re home-schooling we may have time to build some simple apparatus.)

    • August 23, 2011 11:14 pm

      Let me think about this some—the good thing is M&I has a lot of labs, espeically in E&M that involve very little in the way of equipment—sticky tape to demonstrate electrostatics, a battery, bulb, wire and compass for circuits. If you have access to a video camera, there’s a lot you can do with video analysis that would be useful. There are also a ton of books out there that have interesting physics experiments you could build at home—everything from backyard ballistics type stuff, to String and Sticky Tape. I would also suggest contacting Bruce Sherwood directly to see if he might be wiling to give you more information about some of the labs they used at NC State—there may be ways to improvise much of the equipment they used.

      • August 24, 2011 12:33 am

        I do indeed have a video camera (HD 29.97 fps, no high speed). We’ve just gotten rid of a bunch of “home physics” experiment books aimed at middle school and below. The best of them was Force, Motion, and Energy. (We may have kept that one.)

        It isn’t random demos we need, but experiments that are tied to the computational modeling in the book, so that we can tie the modeling back to the real world.

        I have a little more equipment than a random parent (I bought a 60MHz oscilloscope on E-bay, for example), but I’ve not got all the stuff sitting around that some texts assume all physics teachers have access to.

        • August 24, 2011 12:39 am

          The FME book is fantastic. I think my ideal science sequence is IPS/FME for middle school science, followed by modeling instruction for 1st year physics, followed by M&I. One early lab you could do is build a simple motion sensor with an ultrasonic range finder. This would be useful for a lot of labs, but one in particular would be to fill tennis balls with sand, and then roll them down the inside of a PVC pipe, recording the motion with your sensor. Then you could model this in VPython. From there, you could do some cool stuff by dropping the balls (with different amounts of sand), filming them and trying to model that motion as well.

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