Cavendish Experiment in Physics Textbooks: Why do Authors Continue to Repeat a Denounced Error?

  • Josip Slisko Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla
  • Zalkida Hadzibegovic University of Sarajevo



Since long time ago, many authors advocated for more presence of physics history in physics teaching and learning in order to give students a better vision of the “nature of science”, in other words, to let them learn not only established physics knowledge but also the ways of how physicists managed to get that knowledge. Generally, historical episodes are either not treated in physics textbooks (and consequently in teaching) or their treatment is reduced to a minimum: scientists’ names and years. When a episode is treated with more details then some of those details are erroneous. In this article we analyze how physics textbooks authors treat one of the most famous experiments in physics history: Cavendish’s determination of the density of Earth. Authors of all revised textbooks continue to repeat erroneous information, claiming that Cavendish measured the gravitational constant. As the erroneous nature of that claim for the Cavendish experiment was demonstrated many times in pedagogical and other journals, it is normal to ask: why do the authors continue to repeat it? Our hypothesis is that the “culture of teaching” is different from the “culture of research” regarding the appearance and correction of errors. We believe that only way to fight against errors in textbooks is to establish better mechanisms of veracity control, similar to those in research journals.


Abd-El-Khalick, F., Waters, M. & Le, A.-P. (2008). Representations of nature of science in high school chemistry textbooks over the past four decades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 45(7), 835-855.
Arriassecq, I. & Greca, I.M. (2007). Approaches to the Teaching of Special Relativity Theory in High School and University Textbooks of Argentina, Science Education, 16, 65-86.
Bauman, R. P. (1992a). Physics that textbook writers usually get wrong. I. Work. Physics Teacher 30(5), 264-269.
Bauman, R. P. (1992b). Physics that textbook writers usually get wrong. II. Heat and energy. Physics Teacher 30(6), 353-356.
Bauman, R. P. (1992c). Physics that textbook writers usually get wrong. III. Forces and vectors. Physics Teacher 30 (7), 402-407.
Blickensderfer, R. (1998). What’s wrong with this question? The Physics Teacher 36(9), 524-525. Bohren, C. F. (2009). Guest editorial: Physics textbook writing: Medieval, monastic mimicry.
American Journal of Physics 77(2), 101-103.
Brush, S. G. (1989). History of Science and Science Education. Interchange, 20 (2), 60-70.
Carvalho, G. S., Silva, R. & Clement, P. (2007). Historical analysis of Portuguese school textbooks (1920-2005) on the topic of digestion. International Journal of Science Education 29(2), 173- 194.
Cassidy, D., Holton, G. & Rutherford, J. (2002). Understanding Physics. New York: Springer. Clotfelter, B. E. (1987). The Cavendish experiment as Cavendish knew it. American Journal of Physics 55(3), 210-213.
Cornu, M. A. & Baille, J. B. (1873). Détermination nouvelle de la constante de l’attraction et de la densité moyenne de la terre. Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des Sciences 76, 954-958.
Cutnell, J. D. & Johnson, K. W. (2004). Physics. Sixth Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Dagenais, A. (2010). Teaching High School Physics with a Story-Line. Interchange 41(4), 335-345.
Dimopoulos, K., Koulaidis, V. & Sklaveniti, S. (2005). Towards a framework of socio-linguistic analysis of science textbooks: The Greek case. Research in Science Education 35(2-3), 173- 195.
Ducheyne, S. (2011a).Testing universal gravitation in the laboratory, or the significance of research on the mean density of the earth and big G, 1798–1898: changing pursuits and long-term methodological–experimental continuity. Archive for History of Exact Sciences 65(2),181– 227.
Ducheyne, S. (2011b). The Cavendish Experiment as a Tool for Historical Understanding of Science. Science & Education. DOI 10.1007/s11191-011-9382-z, retrieved September 25 2011.
Entwistle, T., Gengile, D., Graf, E., Hulme, S., Schoch, J., Strassenburg, A., Swartz, C., Chiaverina, C., Beck Clark, R., Durkin, T., Gavenda, D., Peterson, F., Robertson, C. & Sears, R. (1999). Quibbles, Misunderstandings, and Egregious Mistakes. The Physics Teacher 37(5), 297-305.
Falconer, I. (1999). Henry Cavendish: the man and the measurement. Measurement Science and Technology 10, 470-477.
Fishbane, P. M., Gasiorowicz, S. G. & Thornton, S. T. (2005). Physics for scientists and engineers.
Third Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Galili, I. & Lehavi, Y. (2003). The importance of weightlessness and tides in teaching gravitation. American Journal of Physics 71(11), 1127-1135.
Galili, I. & Hazan, A. (2000). The influence of a historically oriented course on students’ content knowledge in optics evaluated by means of facets-schemes analysis. American Journal of Physics 68(7), S3-S15.
Galili, I. (2010). Discipline – Culture Framework of Implementating the History and Philosophy of Science into Science Teaching. Retrieved from
Gauld, C. (1997). It must be true – it’s in the textbook! Australian Science Teachers’ Journal 43(2), 21-26.
Gearhart, C. A. (1996). Specific heats and the equipartition law in introductory textbooks. American Journal of Physics 64(8), 995-1000.
Giancoli, D. C. (2005). Physics. Principles with Application. Sixth Edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Guisasola, J., Almudí, J. M., & Furió, C. (2005). The nature of science and its implications for physics textbooks. Science & Education 14(3-5), 321-338.
Heilbron, J. L. (editor) (2005). The Oxford Guide to the History of Physics and Astronomy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hewitt, P. G. (2010). Conceptual Physics. Eleventh Edition. Boston: Addison-Wesley.
Holton, G. & Brush, S. G. (2005). Physics, the Human Adventure. From Copernicus to Einstein and Beyond. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Höttecke, D. & Celestino Silva, C. (2011). Why Implementing History and Philosophy in School Science Education is a Challenge: An Analysis of Obstacles. Science & Education 20 (3-4), 293-316.
Iona, M. (1987). Why Johnny can’t learn physics from textbooks I have known. American Journal of Physics 55(4), 299-307.
Irwin, A. R. (2000). Historical Case Studies: Teaching the Nature of Science in Context. Science Education 84(1), 5–26.
Johnson, K., Adamson, S. & Williams, G. (2001). Spotlight Science 9. Cheltenham, UK: Nelson Thornes.
Kirkpatrick, P. (1959). On colleagues and clients. American Journal of Physics 27(6), 390- 396. Lally, S. P. (1999). Henry Cavendish and the density of the Earth. The Physics Teacher 37(1), 34-37.
Lauginie, P. (2007). Weighing the Earth, weighing the Worlds: From Cavendish to modern undergraduate demonstrations, in Heering, P. & Osewold, D. (editors). Constructing Scientific Understanding through Contextual Teaching (pp. 119-148). Berlin: Frank & Timme.
Lehrman, R. L. (1982). Confused physics: A tutorial critique. The Physics Teacher 20(8), 519-523.
Leite, L., (2002). History of Science in Science Education: Development and Validation of a Checklist for analyzing the historical Content of Science Textbooks. Science & Education 11, 333-359.
Magie, W. F. (1969). A Source Book in Physics. Tenth printing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Matthews, M. R. (1994). Science Teaching: The Role of History and Philosophy of Science. New York: Routledge.
Matthews, M. R. (1998). The Nature of Science and Science Teaching. In Fraser, B. J. and Tobin, K.
G. (Eds.). International Handbook of Science Education (pp. 981-999). Kluwer Academic Publisher.
Monk, M. & Osborne, J. (1997). Placing the History and Philosophy of Science on the Curriculum: A Model for the Development of Pedagogy. Science Education 81, 405–424.
Moreno González, A. (2001). “Weighing” the Earth: a Newtonian Test and the Origin of an Anachronism. Science & Education 10(6), 515-543.
Niaz, M. (2008). Physical science textbooks: history and philosophy of science. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.
Niaz, M. (2009). Critical Appraisal of Physical Science as a Human Enterprise: Dynamics of Scientific Progress. New York: Springer
Niaz, M. (2010). Innovating Science Teacher Education: A History and Philosophy of Science Perspective. New York: Routledge.
Nussbaum, J. (1998), History and Philosophy of Science in the Preparation for Constructivist Teaching: The Case of Particle Theory. In Mintzes, J. J., Wandersee, J. H., i Novak, J. D. (Eds.). Teaching Science for Understanding. A Human Constuctivist View (pp. 165-194). San Diego: Academic Press.
Orgill, M., & Bodner, G. M. (2006). An analysis of the effectiveness of analogy use in college-level biochemistry textbooks. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 43(10), 1040-1060.
Osgood, T. H. (1940). Research and the college teacher. American Journal of Physics 8(2), 107-111. Ostdiek, V. J. & Bord, D. J. (2005). Inquiry Into Physics. Fifth Edition. Belmont, CA: Brooks / Cole Thomson Learning.
Redish, E. F. (1999). Millikan Lecture 1998: Building a Science of Teaching Physics. American Journal of Physics 67(7), 562-573.
Rigden, J. (1998). Guest Comment: Teaching and research: Friends or foes? American Journal of Physics 66(3), 175-178.
Roche, J. J. (1998). The Mathematics of Measurement: A Critical History. New York: Springer. Santos-Benito, J. V. and Gras-Marti, A. (2005) Ubiquitous Drawing Errors for the Simple Pendulum. The Physics Teacher 43(6), 466-468.
Sawicki, M. (1996). What's wrong in the nine most popular texts. Physics Teacher 34(3), 147-149. Seroglou, F., Koumaras, P. (2001). The Contribution of the History of Physics in Physics Education: A Review. Science & Education, 10 (1-2), 153-172.
Serway, R. A., Faughn, J. S., Vuille, C. & Bennett, C. A. (2006). College Physics. Seventh Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks / Cole.
Shamos, M. H. (1987). Great Experiments in Physics: Firsthand Accounts from Galileo to Einstein. New York: Dover.
Slisko, J. (1995). The limitless world of textbook mistakes. The Physics Teacher 33(6), 318. Slisko, J. and Krokhin, A. (1995). Physics or reality? F = k (1C)(1C)/(1 m)2. The Physics Teacher, 33(4), 210-212.
Slisko, J. (2000). Los mitos más populares de la física escolar. La parte I: Trayectorias erróneas de tres chorros de agua. Alambique. Didáctica de las Ciencias Experimentales 25, 96-102.
Slisko, J. (2006). Electric charge of humans: should students buy what the textbooks sell?. Physics Education 41(2), 114–116.
Slisko, J. (2010). “Total force” on bodies immersed in air and water: An error living three centuries in physics textbooks, Review of Science, Mathematics and ICT Education 4(1), 5-23.
Snow, C. P. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Solbes, J. & Traver, M. J. (1996). La utilización de la historia de las ciencias en la enseñanza de la física y la química. Enseñanza de las Ciencias, 14 (1), 103-112.
Stinner, A. (1992). Science textbooks and science teaching: From logic to evidence. Science Education 76(1), 1-16.
Stinner, A. & Williams, H. (1998). History and Philosophy of Science in the Science Curriculum. In Fraser, B. J. y Tobin, K. G. (Eds.). International Handbook of Science Education (pp. 1027- 1045). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Stylianidou, F., Ormerod, F. & Ogborn, J. (2002). Analysis of science textbooks pictures about energy and pupils' readings of them. International Journal of Science Education 24(3), 257-284.
Teixeira, E. S., Greca, I. M. & Freire, O. (2009). The History and Philosophy of Science in Physics Teaching: A Research Synthesis of Didactic Interventions. Science & Education, on-line first: DOI 10.1007/s11191-009-9217-3.
Tipler, P. A. & Mosca, G. (2004). Physics for Scientists and Engineers. Fifth Edition. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.
Trefil, J. & Hazen, R. M. (2004). Physics Matters: An Introduction to Conceptual Physics. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Van Eijck, M. & Roth, W. R. (2008). Representations of scientists in Canadian high school and college textbooks. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45(9), 1059-1082.
Walker, J. S. (2007). Physics. Third Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice –Hall. Williams, J. D. (2002). Ideas and evidence in science: The portrayal of scientists in GCSE textbooks. School Science Review 84(307), 89-101.
Wilson, J. D., Buffa, A. J. & Lou, B. (2007). College Physics. Sixth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson / Prentice-Hall
Young, H. D. & Geller, R. M. (2007). Sears & Zemansky College Physics. Eight Edition. San Francisco: Pearson/Addison Wesley.
Young, H. D. & Freedman, R. A. (2008). Sears and Zemansky’s University Physics. 12th edition. Volume 1. San Francisco: Pearson / Addison – Wesley.
How to Cite
SLISKO, Josip; HADZIBEGOVIC, Zalkida. Cavendish Experiment in Physics Textbooks: Why do Authors Continue to Repeat a Denounced Error?. European Journal of Physics Education, [S.l.], v. 2, n. 3, p. 20-32, mar. 2017. ISSN 1309-7202. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 26 feb. 2021.