I have had much success with old textbooks in mathematics. Generally, for any branch of mathematics that I (as a non-mathematician) would like to learn or re-learn, I can buy a classic textbook from the 1970s, and it will be accurate and cheap.

However, as a computer scientist, I know that this is not a great strategy for all subjects.

I am interested in learning more about the geology of the Earth and the other rocky bodies of the solar system. If I buy old editions of textbooks (such as here, here, or here), what am I going to be missing in terms of up to date theory? Am I likely to purchasing a textbook full of no-longer accepted theories or disproven facts?

As a follow up question, if text books like the one from 1979 are too far out of date, how old can I generally go to get an accurate text?

  • $\begingroup$ Voting to close as "too broad." List questions aren't a good fit anywhere on the SE network, and this question asks for a list of what's been done in the earth sciences over the last 37 years. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 11:30
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen I have edited the title and kept the text the same. I have seen this question closed, so I am not asking for a list. I am asking a true/false question, though hopefully one expanded on a bit as Michael did below. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 14:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't understand why this is being closed. This is not a list question, and it's actually not broad. It has a very clear answer, one that I already answered (and received a good number of upvotes). $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 9:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael Well, I liked your answer. Thank you. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 15:39

2 Answers 2


Mathematics and computer science are exact sciences. If something is discovered and known, it is not wrong. With time, there may be better or new ways of doing something, but the old stuff is still correct. This is why you can get a textbook from the 60s and study it. Cauchy's laws are still correct and Euler's theorem is still correct.

This is not the case with earth science (which I expand from your "geophysics"). Just about every paper published in the field of earth science follows the theme of "we thought something but now we found it's actually wrong". And there are hundreds of those per year. While math textbooks teach facts, earth science textbooks present the opinion of the author at the time of writing, which is also commonly the prevailing view in the broader earth science community, but it doesn't have to. In most cases old textbooks are not going to be that bad, but there will be abundant accuracies and omissions. If you go back enough, you might finds that are completely wrong (plate tectonics was only accepted in the 1960s!). But it doesn't have to be this: take subduction zones. The understanding of what happens to slabs once they subduct was only somewhat understood (at least on an undergrad textbook level) in the past 15 years. Whether the slabs themselves melt or not isn't even known today (even though textbooks will mostly say they don't: again, this is the opinion of the author). The inner structure of the earth as understood from seismicity and tomography is being refined every year.

In your textbook links you gave the example of planetary science and volcanism. In the case of planetary science, every time there is a new mission we learn so much. Just example of some discoveries of extraterrestrial volcanoes: Io in 1979, Triton in 1989, and Titan in 2005. Also think of the latest understanding of minor planets, comets and asteroids obtained in the past 5 years. This is not something you will find in even moderately new textbooks.

To sum it up, old earth science textbooks are not completely wrong. But they are wrong to some degree, and they most probably contain a lot of omissions (depends on the exact sub-field). Online sources are usually much better for that. Maybe start with related MOOCs? These can be good starting points. Even if you prefer reading and not watching videos, you can usually find a list of (somewhat) up to date sources there.


Every textbook written between about 1930 and say.....now, is pretty useless for your purposes. You'd be better served by watching many of those slick, university produced video lectures. They are filled with great motion diagrams that are un-reproducible in the pages of a two-dimensional book. After all, geosciences are largely about dynamic processes and film is a way better medium for conveying such concepts.

Despite Michael's great answer, above, old geology textbooks are AWESOME! I simply cannot convey how fascinating it is to discover the state of ignorance of the world just beneath our feet displayed in many of these books.

My home is festooned with old geology maps, illustrations, and field sketches taken from old folios, USGS reports, and expedition compendiums. I have a 19th century map of Devils Tower that shows the tower in cross section as part of a sill and not the volcanic neck that it is...it's a small detail at the bottom of a map and easily missed, but it's hugely important in interpreting the geology of the area. After all, can you imagine explaining to professional government geologists of the day that they mis-identified the largest iconic piece of geology in the Rocky Mountains?

These old books and texts are a wealth of carefully collected local details which can be used to compare present-day environments with those observed a hundred years ago. Many old reports reference early 19th century expeditionary notes that put the lie to tightly held "truths" repeated here in the desert Southwest.

They are also anthropological treasure troves filled with the state-of-mind of the times: for example, most textbooks view geology strictly in terms of mineral opportunities, others are flights of dinosaur fantasies. European paleontology textbooks are incredible works of art filled with DaVinci-esque illustrations of fossils and their modern counterparts that have yet to be equaled for detail. And the most informative textbooks? Those that expound on evolutionary processes before Darwin. This is all outright fascinating stuff!


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.