Matter & Interactions

A Modern Perspective on Calculus-Based Introductory Physics

Matter & Interactions is a textbook by Ruth Chabay and Bruce Sherwood (John Wiley & Sons, 4th edition, 2015) that emphasizes a modern perspective on the calculus-based introductory physics curriculum taken by science and engineering students. It engages students in:

Starting analyses from fundamental principles rather than from secondary formulas.
Making macro-micro connections, based on the atomic nature of matter.
Modeling physical systems: making idealizations, simplifying assumptions, estimates.
Constructing computational models to predict the time evolution of system behavior.

20th century physics and a contemporary perspective are integrated throughout the curriculum.

Volume 1: Modern Mechanics

Modern Mechanics emphasizes the atomic nature of matter and integrates traditional mechanics with thermal physics to provide a more coherent and contemporary perspective on the subject. There is strong emphasis on a small number of fundamental principles: the Momentum Principle (Newton's form of Newton's second law), the Energy Principle (which subsumes the first law of thermodynamics), the Angular Momentum Principle, and the fundamental assumption of statistical mechanics, which leads to the second law of thermodynamics. The ball-and-spring model of solids plays a crucial role. Photon emission and absorption in quantized systems is included.

Volume 2: Electric & Magnetic Interactions

Electric and Magnetic Interactions builds on the atomic nature of matter and the treatment of electric force and energy in Modern Mechanics with the addition of the field concept, Maxwell's equations, and the role of electrons in conductors and insulators. A thorough treatment of the effects of fields on atomic matter makes it possible to unify the analysis of electrostatics and circuits. The climax is the classical interaction of light and matter.

What's new in the 4th edition

Here is an overview of the 4th edition, published by John Wiley & Sons, 2015, which includes a sample chapter.

Here are PowerPoint and pdf versions of a presentation by Ruth Chabay and Bruce Sherwood about the 4th edition.

For students

The M&I student web site ( offers the following materials:

Chapter 1 which contains an introduction to the way 3D vectors are used in both volumes
Three supplements: S1 (gases), S2 (semiconductors), and S3 (waves)
Annotated video clips of lectures by Prof. Ruth Chabay (mechanics) and Dr. Matthew Kohlmyer (E&M)
Demo programs that illustrate concepts in 3D

The copy of Chapter 1 is provided to help students taking E&M who did not take M&I mechanics, since it develops the M&I approach to 3D vectors and has an introduction to the use of VPython.

Who uses Matter & Interactions?

The curriculum is now in use in large engineering and science courses, where major change is challenging, at Purdue University, Georgia Tech, NCSU, the University of Texas Austin, Cal State Long Beach, and Carnegie Mellon. Other large institutions including the University of Michigan use it in courses for honors students or physics majors. A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) developed at Georgia Tech based on Matter & Interactions attracted a huge number of students.

The curriculum is used in several dozen small colleges, where change is much easier, including Carleton, St. Olaf, Wellesley, Haverford, Union, Albion, etc. It is also used in a few community colleges and high schools. The curriculum has also been used outside the United States, including at the University of British Columbia, the University of Calgary, the University of Cape Town, South Africa, the Australian National University, Macquarie University, Australia, the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and the University of Helsinki. A group of physicists in four Spanish-speaking countries is preparing a Spanish translation to be published by the Mexican publisher Trillas. Physicsts at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, are preparting a Portuguese translation.

Computational tools

VPython is an unusually easy to use 3D programming environment that is based on the widely-used Python programming language. VPython can be used by students with no previous programming experience, which makes it feasible to include computational modeling in the Matter & Interactions curriculum. GlowScript is a similar 3D programming environment which permits writing and executing VPython programs in a browser, without having to install any sofware.

A recent review

Here is a May 2014 review of Matter & Interactions in Wired by Rhett Allain, Southeastern Louisiana University.


Development of this curriculum has been supported in part by the National Science Foundation through grants MDR-8953367, USE-9156105, DUE-9554843, DUE-9972420, DUE-0237132, DUE-0320608, and DUE-0618504. Opinions expressed are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of the Foundation.