How to Teach Physics to Your Dog: Obsessive Categorization

i-1e8ca3d6f1057cdc4f9532702467bc29-sm_cover_draft_atom.jpgWe're once again in the "things are in the pipeline, but nothing has been posted recently" mode, which is a good excuse for some Amazon neepery.

Since the AP review came out, and was printed in 20-odd papers, the sales rank has climbed back into the four digits, and has spent the last few days hovering around 2,000. This is pretty respectable, and Amazon proudly touts it as being "#1 in Books > Science > Physics > Quantum Theory," which sounds nice.

Of course, what does that really mean?

If you click through to the "Quantum Theory" subcategory, you'll see that it's a weird hodgepodge. How to Teach Physics to Your Dog is, indeed, #1 in the category, but the next two books on the list look like New Agey quantum twaddle. The #4 spot is held by David Griffiths's textbook, which is quite good, but not really aimed at the same market. The next serious popular science book on the list is Feynman's QED, which is really good, and a book I'm proud to have on the list. Below mine.

(Woo! I'm bigger than Feynman!)

(As of 11pm Thursday night, when I'm typing this, I've actually got two of the top twenty books in the Quantum Theory subcategory-- the Kindle edition is at #17. I had no idea they were ranked separately-- something new to obsess about...)

Of course, it's easy to be a big fish in an overly specific pond, especially when that pond alternates textbooks with godawful woo, plus a few really good books here and there. What about a broader category?

Well, as of 11pm Thursday night, I'm at #20 in the Physics category. Again, though, it's interesting to see how many of the books on the list are textbooks. The #1 best-seller in Physics, according to Amazon, is the newest edition of Halliday, Resnick, and Walker at #456 overall. That hardly seems fair, given that probably half of the wannabe engineers in America are required to buy it for class.

If you sift out the textbooks from the list, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog is the fourth-place popular science book on that list, behind Sean Carroll's new book on time, Richard Muller's Physics for Future Presidents (also really good), and, oddly, a book called This Is Your Brain On Music, which sounds like a cognitive science thing, but apparently involves enough acoustics for Amazon to put it in Physics. Again, worthy company.

What about the next level up? Well, neither Sean nor I make it into the top 100 Science books (Sean narrowly misses-- the last book on the list as of 11pm is a nursing handbook at #600, while he's at #618), so that's pretty much where any scaling needs to end.

So, if you're wondering what those sales rank numbers I keep mentioning really mean, that should put it in a little more perspective. 2,000-ish gets you in the top 20 Physics books, 600-ish in the Top 100 Science books. These are, obviously, highly imperfect given the number of textbooks on the lists (and the top Science book right now is the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, at #3. I can't begin to explain that...), but it gives a little basis for assessing how the book is doing so far, which is, basically, "pretty good for a pop-physics book."

And there's your look into my psyche for today...

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the top Science book right now is the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, at #3. I can't begin to explain that...

I have vague memories of being taught what was called APA reference style back in high school English. So I'm guessing that many of the people buying that book are doing so for non-science coursework, but since it has "Psychological" in the title, it "must" be science.

One reason why textbooks might be particularly high ranking is that at many universities classes have either just started or are about to start. (Our spring semester starts next week, for instance.) Check back in a month or so and see how well the textbook's rankings hold up.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

Yep. APA style is "the most widely used reference style in the social sciences," according to Google anyway. And my psychologist colleagues use it (as you would expect). So probably lots of undergrads and/or grad students are buying it right now. As Eric says, it should be hanging out with the Chicago Manual of Style. Ah well.

By Electric Landlady (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

So how does that translate in terms of the number of books sold? And heck, while I'm asking, is there a graph somewhere that plots the number of books sold vs. ranking?

The sales rank tracker has been updated to include the Kindle version's sales rank. Obsess away!

Also, it looks like there were a couple of instances where the script couldn't get a valid sales rank value, so there's a blank spot in the data file. How do you all think I should fix it? Remove the offending line? Interpolate between the surrounding two values? For example:

20091219_2000 47661
20091219_2200 33356

FYI: We regret to inform you that the following items have been delayed as we are still awaiting stock from our suppliers :

Chad Orzel "How to Teach Physics to Your Dog"
Estimated arrival date: February 08 2010 - February 15 2010

One of Amazon's aims is to provide a convenient and efficient service; in this case, we have fallen short. Please accept our sincere apologies.

The high rank of Halliday, Resnick, and Walker is likely anomalous due to the semester having just started. In a few weeks it will probably drop considerably.

Thanks for adding the Kindle data, Matthew. Expect another playing-with-data post in a few days comparing the two.

I've dealt with the missing data problem by just deleting the affected points. The glitch is small enough that I don't worry about losing a point here or there.

Perceval, I'm not sure what's up with that. It still lists as "In Stock" at Amazon, so it might be a local problem. If they really did sell all the copies they initially bought and are waiting for a new batch, though, that's happy news. For me, anyway. Not so much for people ordering the book.

Halliday, Resnick, and Walker is, indeed, dropping-- it's fallen to fourth in the Physics category, with a ranking of #1001. It'll be interesting to see how far it falls in, say, June, when nobody will be buying textbooks for a couple of months.