The Problem With Textbooks

The problem with textbooks is that they leave the student with an unreasonable degree of faith in the infallibility of textual resources. When you’re in an undergraduate physics course, for example, practically every detail of anything that you learn has been settled for almost a hundred years; you are never going to find any flaw in  the derivation of Kepler’s laws of motion or the damped modes of a harmonic oscillator.

This cannot, however, carry neatly over to the field of original research. Case in point, I just wasted a week of time because a couple of authors way back in 1985 left a typo in their paper and all of the subsequent authors to cite their findings were just too damn tactful to point it out (or, indeed, didn’t notice).

I’m not honestly certain how some flaws like that manage to make it, not only past peer review, but through generations of subsequent re-readings without anyone calling them out on it. I suspect that this just goes to confirm that physicists are just as lazy as anyone else. I suspect that the only reason I noticed is because of my own tendancy to obsess over minor details.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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5 Responses to The Problem With Textbooks

  1. zinemin says:

    I remember that transition… I also wasted quite a lot of time tracking down mistakes in other people’s equations at the beginning of my career. Even if you write to the authors pointing it out, it is useless. They will say you are right, thank you, and then change nothing.

    In the end, you just stop to trust people. If I need to use an equation in my scientific work, I derive it myself and then check with other sources, or at least compare various sources.

    I would estimate 25% of equations in scientific papers are just wrong….

  2. Lindsay says:

    I think you might be right.

    I know I’ve found in myself a tendency to think of books as Ultimate Sources of Knowledge, and to think of the knowledge I find in textbooks as, at most, incomplete.

    (Haven’t done any original research myself, though I have helped someone else with some. That person was an anatomist, and I was helping them describe the craniofacial musculature of the hippo. Precious little literature exists on that topic, almost all of it written by the same group of French researchers. IIRC we found several places on our two specimens where the Frenchmen’s description didn’t match what we saw in front of us.)

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