Human element in the illustrations of the physics textbooks a basis for identification
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Human element in the illustrations of the physics textbooks - a basis for identification. Vjera Lopac , Faculty of Chemical Engineering and Technology, University of Zagreb, Croatia Andjelka Tonejc and Planinka Pećina, Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb, Croatia. .

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Human element in the illustrations of the physics textbooks - a basis for identification

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Human element in the illustrations of the physics textbooks - a basis for identification

Vjera Lopac,

Faculty of Chemical Engineering and Technology, University of Zagreb, Croatia

Andjelka Tonejc and Planinka Pećina,

Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb, Croatia


  • An important element in the textbook is the illustration. It makes the textbook content livelier and more interesting, but also offers to the student an opportunity for identification. We wish to investigate the following points:

  • How many pictures in the physics textbooks contain the human figures?

  • Can the persons in the illustrations be recognized as masculine or feminine, or is this impossible to distinguish?

  • What is the relation between the numbers of illustrations containing the feminine, masculine and indistinguishable figures?

  • Are the portraits of physicists included in the textbook? How relate the numbers of men and women in these pictures?

  • Do these numbers vary in dependence on the subject treated in the textbook or specific chapter?

  • Is there any indication of the reaction of students to these properties of the physics textbook illustrations?

Present characteristics

  • Photographs and drawings show people in some activity (sport, work), or performing an experiment, or observing some physical phenomenon. The student is encouraged to identify with the person shown. However, it is sometimes difficult to discern the gender, what makes the identification difficult.

  • Sometimes the human figure is drawn as a kind of shadow, with no indication of the gender or any other personal characteristics. No identification here is possible, the human element is deliberately reduced.

Only parts of the human

figure (face, head, hands, eye) are visible, and also here the gender is indiscernible.


Human activities are often shown within the traditional role assignment, but this is not so conspicuous in physics as is in some other fields of science[2], because of the generally very small number of female figures in textbooks.

  • A dose of irony or deliberate caricature, sometimes present in the illustration, can be offensive.

It was for us a shocking discovery how little illustrations in the sections on electricity and magnetism contain human figures. Practically all of them are unattractive schematic diagrams.

The textbooks should depict the everyday situations with electricity and magnetism, including both men and women.

It has been suggested[1] that girls show less ability in the field of electricity. But it is obvious from our investigation that nothing has ever been done to make these subjects more attractive for girls. Authors have forgotten that for girls this subject is totally new, since in most families the solving of practical problems with electricity is usually left to fathers and sons.

  • Therefore, efforts should be made to make parents and families avare of these problems, to explain to them the need for girls to be involved in technical activities.Their early influence is probably even more important than the influence of the school and textbooks.

Another issue are the portraits

of physicists. They add to the human

dimension of the textbook and stress

the fact that physics, although

highly technical and specialized,

is at the same time

an important and


part of the





Physics Today

A. Volta and NapoleonI

But most of famous

physicists were men! This should be discussed in the physics class to stress the fact that in the past centuries women have not been allowed into higher education.

In the following, we analyze statistically the illustrations containing human figures in several physics textbooks, denoted shortly as: Beiser[3], Giancoli[4], Kulišić[5], Paar[6], Halliday[7] and Serway[8].


[1] T.R.Brown, T.F.Slater and J.P.Adams: Gender Differences with Batteries and Bulbs, Phys. Teacher 36, 526 (1998);

[2] E.Potter and S.Rosser: Factor in Life Sciences textbooks that may deter girls’ interest in science, J.Res.Sci.Teach. 29, 669(1992)

[3] A.Beiser: Modern Technical Physics, The Benjamin/Cummings Publ. Comp. 1978;

[4] D.C.Giancoli: Physics - Principles with applications, Prentice Hall 1998;

[5] Ž. Jakopović, P.Kulišić and V.Lopac: Fizika 1,2,3,4 (for profe-ssional high schools, in Croatian), Školska knjiga, Zagreb 1995;

[6] V.Paar: Fizika 7,8 (for elementary schools, in Croatian, textbook and exercise book), Školska knjiga, Zagreb 1999;

[7] Halliday, Resnick and Krane: Modern University Physics, 1993; [8] R.A.Serway and J.S.Faughn: College Physics, Saunders College Publ. 1999.

Illustrations in the textbooks containing HUMAN FIGURES by GENDER

In the illustrations containing human

figures, the number

of women is between

5% and 29%. Surprisingly, there are many illustrations

where the gender can not be distinguished


6% and 70%).

Illustrations in the textbooks containing PORTRAITS of physicists by GENDER

In the books

which contain

the potraits

of physicists,

the number

of portraits of

women ranges


0% and 10%.

Illustrations in the textbooks containing HUMAN FIGURES by SUBJECT

In the field of

electricity, light

and modern physics,

the number of


containing the

human figures



5% and 33%

of all illustrations

with human figures.

Figures in the textbooks containing PORTRAITS of physicists by SUBJECT

The portraits

in chapters on


light and modern



vary from

30% to 100%

of all portraits.

An example of the reactionof pupils to the ilustrations which lack humanity

In the textbook “Počela fizike”

(Principles of physics) by

O. Kučera, published in Zagreb in 1912, there is an illustration containing a human profile of indiscernible gender.

  • Someone, probably a pupil of that period, added – in pencil - the rest of the human figure, and now it can be recognized as a lady with the dress and hair-styling of the early 20th century . Here we see the need for humanization andidentification explicitly expressed, and the authors and publishers of textbooks have the responsibility to answer this need.


  • We conclude from our investigation that in the physics texbooks there are generally too few illustrations which represent human persons in different activities connected with physics. We propose that the future textbooks should contain more illustrations showing persons with which the students will be able to identify and which will increase their interest for learning and understanding physics.

  • It is necessary that in the future textbooks the number of pictures representing women be increased, and that the content of these pictures reflects the realistic situation of our time, where many women work as scientists and engineers, but also experience the laws of physics in the everyday home and outdoor life, nothing less than men. The number of portraits of women physicists should also be increased as much as possible, presenting also those women who are working in physics today. That would help the girls to feel the physics as an interesting subject and as an acceptable future career.

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