SHiPS Resource Center ||   BOOK BRIEF

reviewed: 8/96 Rediscovering Optics. Nahum Kipnis. Bena Press (Minneapolis, 1993). ISBN 0-9636784-0-X. $24.95pb. 259pp.

Browsing through this book I was dissatisfied with the style, reminding one of Galileo's Dialogo. I dislike the style as it normally forces me to read the whole of the text even if I want to use the book merely as a source for special information. Fortunately, this was a prejudice!

Kipnis offers the science teacher a 'historico-investigative method', by which he means teaching scientific thinking not by memorizing but by studying nature" using mostly simple experiments performed by pupils themselves(!) on self-made(!) apparatus in school and(!) at home. He offers an 'investigative technique' applicable to science generally that is used and properly exemplified throughout the book. The reader is strongly recommended to perform the experiments for himself, but I have so far had no time to do this.

The approach to optics is consciously qualitative (this limitation should be kept in mind) as a necessary first step towards scientific, quantitative physics. This doctrine raises difficulties in the chapters on interference, where the (quantitative) wavelength comes somewhat out of the blue.

Though all topics of classical optics (only velocity of light is missing) can be found in logical order, Rediscovering Optics is not intended just as a textbook, but as a source from which units may be taken and adjusted to any given audience, even at the high school level. This is a great advantage which is supported by its construction out of useful sub-units and parts of historical information, original texts and pictures, made accessible and structured around clear pictographs.

Even the well informed teacher will find lots of details, not only historical ones, but of new and simple experiments, burning mirrors, anatomy of the eye, physiology of color vision, etc. The biographical parts are generally short and "interesting stories." The history is a mostly internal one. Each chapter ends with a short but instructive bibliography including sources, modern works and recent articles. As for the problems the pupils (and the teacher) may be faced with, the 'discussions' included can help, though sometimes it was boring to read 'Dorothy' or others repeatedly putting the right question and having the right problem exactly at the right time (Teacher: "Very good!"), but the reader can skip here. Because the teacher gives the "final verdict," discussions are mostly one-way undertakings and the historical texts are not selected for use without commentary.

Even these discussions, however, cannot overcome a lack of experimental training, and the teacher should be very careful in selecting experiments for pupil's use, because several of them require experienced observers. To improve observation is one of the declared aims of the book. Mathematics is carefully excluded, which seems somewhat strange to the German reader.

The introduction announces an attempt to "blend optics with elements of history" which implies, to me, linking and mixing historical and experimental work closely together with discussion. This has been achieved in seven of the twelve chapters (Light and vision, reflection, colors, color vision, interference, diffraction and polarization). The remained five chapters (mirrors, refraction, lenses, telescopes, and "The Eye") contain historical information only at the end. Though the "blending" in these five chapters can be done by the user himself, it was surprising that for refraction this chance is lost and the problem of particle/wave theory is brought in from outside without participating pupils.

What about my objections? They can be easily overcome by "adjusting" as Kipnis suggests and his book provides an excellent basis. This is a book one can use as a ready-made collection of teaching units, but one need not: I think the statement on the back flap is right: "This book is for You!"

--Michael Barth
[Reprinted from the British History of Science Society's Education Forum]

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