Money for Nothing and Books for Free
Slashdot today has news that the Commonwealth of Virginia is going to begin producing its own open-source physics textbook.
This is fantastic news. I’m a big fan of Creative Commons, and I love the entire concept of the license. While I respect an author’s right to recognition and profit from her work, I also believe that most works that we produce that are copyrightable should not be. These blog posts, for example, are copyrightable by me, but I choose to release them under a Creative Commons license because I’m writing for fun.
While textbook authors spend countless hours editing their books and producing unique content, ultimately the knowledge they are spreading is not unique. When stripped of bells and whistles, most physics books contain exactly the same ideas. Why then must we pay for this content, if it can be obtained from anywhere? What if there were a large international network of computers that could hold the information?
I firmly believe that in the age of the Internet there’s absolutely no reason why anyone with motivation and a network connection cannot learn anything they want for free.
Last year I volunteered some of my time to do a little bit of writing for Wikibooks, the open-source textbook arm of the Wikimedia Foundation. I worked on the Physics With Calculus wikibook, particularly the Scalar and Vector Quantities, The SI Unit System, and Motion In One Dimension chapters.
There’s an open source science textbook project called, appropriately, Free High School Science Texts, running out of the University of Cape Town in South Africa. I’ve been meaning to contact these folks for a while and toss my physics hat into the ring, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.
In reading these texts so far, I can come up with one word that accurately describes them all. Boring. Even my own writing — it’s hard to come up with personality in writing when you’re trying to match others’ style. And face it — text is easy to write. Beautiful pictures or illustrative movies are time- and sometimes cost-intensive to produce.
Most high-school level texts are at best unexciting, and at worst boring. It would seem that the lower level of mathematics required would allow authors to have a bit more “fun” in their presentation, but perhaps this “fun” would spell the death of the book in the eyes of a school board’s textbook adoption committee. Paul Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics has been a success not just because of Hewitt’s fine artwork, but because of his conversational tone and his casual presentation.
Ironically, the college texts that include more mathematics are usually a lot more fun. A personal favorite of mine is Eugene Hecht’s book (aptly named Physics). It provides classical proofs as well as modern realizations of simple physics concepts. While not completely accessible to all students, most average to advanced first-year physics students would be served well by Dr. Hecht’s book.
The key to a good physics book is the problems. The end-of-chapter problems must exhibit a large variety of subjects and difficulties. Physics takes practice, and students who are invested in their practice will succeed. Students who are subjected to boring, too-simple or too-complex problems will not enjoy physics.
While I love Hecht’s work, I really want to put him out of business. Hecht has made money on his books, I’m sure. But the real profit goes to the publishing houses that print these books. The books are beautifully printed, and all that comes at a cost. The textbook manufacturers make nothing on the dissemination of information — their job is to sell glossy-paged tomes to students or school districts trapped into using them.
Best of luck to Virginia’s effort. I’d love to see this succeed and carry over to mathematics and other sciences. I’d be participating in the project, but it looks for now that it’s only open to Virginia classroom teachers. That’s too bad — while I understand Virginia’s desire to keep their work “in-house”, on the Internet state (and national) borders don’t exist.
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “Everyone has the right to education.” We now have the technology to rapidly disseminate fundamental ideas, whereas we once did not. We must use this gift to train the next generation.