Good, bad and ugly

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Benjamin Robinson offers some thoughts on the textbooks that helped him through his recent science A-levels

Throughout my A-level science courses, textbooks piled up on my desk as the months went by - each promising complete understanding of its subject. Much time (and money) was wasted in slogging through unfriendly or inadequate books, but there was also the joy of finding a clear, concise, yet comprehensive volume.

Biology textbooks were generally good, with Ann Fullick's Heinemann Advanced Science Biology (Heinemann Pounds 21.50) the most user-friendly. The layout is modern, and while the main text remains essential, well-organised, colour-coded boxes keep monotony at bay.

Diagrams, spread over a double A4 page, are comprehensively annotated in a reasonably-sized typeface. Ms Fullick manages to be clear and concise while maintaining an encouraging tone on even the most complex biological systems.

By contrast, Biological Science 1 and 2 (Cambridge University Press Pounds 16.50 each) contains so much information it is published in a two-volume set as well as in a single hardback. Much is beyond the scope of A-level, but the extra depth aids understanding. The appendices on statistics and experimental technique are useful, especially if you do no other science subjects.

Chemistry textbooks face the task of teaching a predominantly practical subject. The Nuffield Advanced Science Chemistry Student's Book genuinely aims to teach through experiment and interpretation. This approach, while perhaps not the easiest, is the most satisfying and the best at encouraging deeper understanding - as long as you have a good teacher and well organised notes.

Heinemann Advanced Science Chemistry by Ann and Patrick Fullick (Heinemann Pounds 21.50) is as clear and well-presented as the biology book in the same series. I was encouraged to plunge into challenging subjects such as entropy and electrochemistry by the engaging language and step-by-step explanation.

Advanced Chemistry 1 and 2, by Philip Matthews (Cambridge University Press Pounds 19.95 each) takes a different approach. This two-volume set is divided into physical and industrial chemistry, and inorganic and organic chemistry. The chapters are short and specific. This approach works well because it crystallises the seemingly amorphous mass of chemical facts.

The occasional humorous observation and frequent historical perspectives provide a unifying backdrop to seemingly disparate concepts. The easily daunted should beware, however - there is too great a depth of information in many sections, and most will consider Pounds 40 for the set too expensive.

Choosing a physics textbook requires care. Understanding Physics for Advanced Level, third edition by Jim Breithaupt (Stanley Thornes Pounds 24.50) tries to liven up the subject with colours and fun pictures. But unlike Heinemann Biology, its attempts are cosmetic. A long unbroken stream of text, surprisingly verbose for a physics textbook, and the off-boxes and pictures, are messy enough to distract from the main text, giving the layout a cluttered feel.

By far the best physics book is Physics by Roger Muncaster (Muncaster, Stanley Thornes Pounds 22.50). The single-column pages, large clear text, logical progression and development of ideas, with copious and well-chosen questions (with numerical answers) and comprehensive explanation of difficult concepts made Muncaster the first choice among my fellow students and teacher. Despite its thickness and lack of colour, it becomes something of a friend amid the impersonal formulae and high-powered ideas of A-level physics.

Whichever textbooks you choose, learn the most important lesson quickly - that the hard work of getting information from print to memory remains, as ever, down to the student.

Benjamin Robinson passed A-levels in biology, chemistry, physics and French at the Latymer School, north London, this summer

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