“One science question”

| 45 Comments

Both RPM and Chad beat me to posting this survey [edited to add: and Janet too! Freakin’ quick triggers…], which I’ve had in my drafts box for a week. So, before absolutely everyone else beats me to it, I thought I’d pose the questions to y’all, and see how you would answer the question, “What is one science question every high school graduate should be able to answer?”

(Continued at Aetiology)

45 Comments

How many quarks can dance on the head of a pin?

Most people won’t know the answers, because now-days ignorance has a much better PR than scientific thinking. Just check “evolution” on Google Video.…

Quarks on the head of a pin? No no, the question is how many quarks in one proton (or neutron). :)

Henry

Isn’t the answer to question (5) 365.25 days…Hence the need for a leap year every 4 years ?

I wonder how many people would say yes to question (3) nowadays ?

The number of days in a year is more like 365.2422 than 365.25. That’s why leap years occasionally don’t come every 4 years. 1900 , though divisible by 4, was not a leap year. Nor was 1800 or 1700, though both 1600 and 2000 were. In a 400 year period, there are 97 leap years. (The auxiliary rule, in effect since 1582 or so, is: if a year ends with double zero, leap years are evenly dividable by 400.) Remember that in 2100. Revolting, isn’t it?

That was surprisingly easy. I got every one (including the bonus question).

I did as well Jon, and I also got the bonus question ! (The education system here must be good).

I wonder how the kids who have been educated using AIG’s homeschooling material would have fared though ?

It seems to me that a big part of misinformation/misrepresentation by pseudoscientists comes from an important question of semantics as it applies to science:

What does the word “theory” mean as it is used in science (compared to its vernacular usage by the general population).

OK, not really a science question. Still, if more people understand this… (well, I could dream, can’t I?).

Mr. Peabody

The number of days in a year is more like 365.2422 than 365.25.

The number of days in a year is not a constant. The earth is gradually receding from the sun, and gradually slowing its rotation, due to the tides.

Having worked as a scientist for more than 40 years I had problems with the answer to the question why there are 24 hours in a day. The primary fact is that the earth rotates around its axis. Then, there is a convention that the time for one turn (in relation to the sun) is divided into 24 hours, each further divided into minutes and seconds.

Modern metrology has of course changed this around since time measurements nowadays can be made much more precise than when the units of time were introduced.

My own favorite biology question to grade-school kids has to do with animal names: Those species that live today have simple names like cat and dog and fox. But why did extinct animals like triceratopses and brontosaurs have so strange names?

I’d like to point out that the listed answer to question number 3:

“Did dinosaurs and humans ever exist at the same time?”

is wrong, for two reasons. First, the answer is yes, and we call them.….birds. (So the answer to the question “what did dinosaurs taste like?” would in fact be “chicken”.) Second, a really picky person (not me, of course) would say that (non-avian) dinosaurs still exist as fossils. A better question (and yes, I do know it’s very picky) would have been, “Did non-avian dinosaurs and humans ever live at the same time?”

Second, in response to Flint’s comments, yes, the earth is slowing down as a result of tidal friction. By looking at daily growth rings on 400 my old corals, it’s possible to determine that there were about 400 days per year at that time (Raup and Stanley, 1971, Principles of Paleontology). Thus, we’ve lost about 40 days in 400 million years, or 1 day per 10 million years, or approximately .01 second per year. Can we agree, for the purposes of this question, that that’s an insignificant amount? Geeze, you’re pickier than I am!

Re “But why did extinct animals like triceratopses and brontosaurs have so strange names?”

Let me guess here - maybe because people never had to actually deal with these creatures during day to day activities?

Henry

The answer (in the original article) to why the sky is blue is incomplete. If your teacher gives you that explanation:

“Solar radiation sunlight is scattered across the atmosphere by a process called diffused sky radiation. The sky is blue because much more short-wave radiation – blue light – is scattered across the sky than long-wave radiation – red light.”

Ask him: Then why isn’t the sky purple?

to see if he really knows his stuff.

I think the one question all graduates should be able to answer is:

“What is the scientific method, how does it differ from other methods of inquiry, and why has it proved itself such a uniquely successful guide to truth?”

Ask him: Then why isn’t the sky purple?

Heddle,

I’m answering this WITHOUT consulting Google first (so hopefully I’m not too far off) … but I believe the answer is that our eyes are more sensitive to the “natural” colors in the environment(Red, Green, Blue), cosequently when the shorter wavelengths are scattered we see the blues much easier than the violets. Am I close?

Gvl You point out a couple of minor but important issues regarding the words “Live” and “exist”. Although I would argue dinosaur fossils are rocks formed from dinosaur remains and the rocks exist as evidence for dinosaurs living and are not dinosaurs themselves.

It seems to me that the IDeologists have a great deal of difficulty actually understanding the true meanings of those words and are prepared to use all sorts of lawry tactics to get the meanings as perceived by the hoi polloi not bamboozled by complexity=magic to suit their daydreams.

I did quite well, except for being off a billion years on the fossil age. But some of the questions and answers are poorly phrased and unhelpful.

4. That shorthand version of natural selection is too incomplete for full credit.

5. A day is defined as the time it takes the earth to spin once around its axis, and its division into 24 hours is a recent cultural invention.

6. “Differential light scattering” is the standard answer, but it’s just a buzz phrase unless someone explains what that actually means in terms of how we perceive the sky, and what the alternatives are.

8. Do I get only partial credit? Bacteria and especially viruses use biochemical pathways so similar to their hosts’ that it is difficult to find chemical agents or other treatments that preferentially disable the invaders.

10. “Increases the number of molecules on the ground surface”? Culturally we do it because in moderate winter temperatures it melts snow and ice, thereby improving traction for pedestrians and inhibiting lawsuits.

1. I suppose we could quibble over ice cover, lakes like the “Caspian Sea”, etc., but at least this answer is good enough. I said 70%.

2. I said “action-potentials”, since it was tough to know what they were going for. They’re right enough in their answer, but it sure is a generic “answer”.

3. They got this one right, at least. It’s a good hit at present-day pseudoscience, and uses the term “dinosaurs” as most people understand it–not including the birds in that term.

4. Famously, Darwin didn’t explain species origination to any considerable extent. Mainly he came up with a good overall scientific explanation (much more “scientific” than previous advocates of natural selection) for the apparent evolution that had been noticed previously by many scientists, with a few good ideas about how some species may have originated. I can’t give their “answer” a passing grade.

5. Well, yeah, pretty close. I wouldn’t quibble about the year not being precisely 365 days (most people who read papers know that), but I would point out that the earth spins on its axis in under 24 hours (the day is typically understood as being precise). I believe the rotation period is 23 hours and 56 minutes plus some seconds. The difference from 24 hours comes from the effect caused by the earth rotating around the sun (for those who may not understand, earth would have the same day-length as year-length if it did not rotate at all).

I’m not complaining hugely about them leaving this out, but I do think it deserved a mention.

6. Not a bad answer, but it hardly tells anyone much. I said “Rayleigh’s scattering”, also not very informative. And the sky is not “purple” because purple is typically defined as coming from the combination of red and blue light. It is not “violet” not only because our ability to see violet is not as good as our ability to see blue (partly because it in fact comes from red cones firing, which is not highly selected), but also because more than just blue and violet are being scattered.

7. They probably gave as good a short answer as they could.

8. This was a multi-faceted question needing a multi-faceted answer. I did give the two “answers” that they did, but clearly there are more issues than those in the evolution of parasitism and in the maintenance of virulence in the face of the immune system. Most or all viruses and bacteria that regularly plague us have fairly constant immune-avoidance “strategies” which are not mutating particularly rapidly (or at least the mutations aren’t being selected), while recognition factors often are mutating rapidly and being selected.

9. I believe that their answer is disputed by many researchers.

10.

Adding salt to snow or ice increases the number of molecules on the ground surface and makes it harder for the water to freeze.

This “answer” is BS. Adding water to snow or ice also increases the number of molecules on the ground surface, but water is likely simply to freeze at the times when one salts the sidewalk. Salt is used in order to interfere with the crystalline structure of ice, to give a non-precise but more accurate answer.

On the whole, they didn’t really answer their own questions especially well.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

This “answer” is BS. Adding water to snow or ice also increases the number of molecules on the ground surface, but water is likely simply to freeze at the times when one salts the sidewalk. Salt is used in order to interfere with the crystalline structure of ice, to give a non-precise but more accurate answer.

I should have mentioned that salt is not made up of “molecules” in fact, and it is the anions and cations which interfere with the freezing of water.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

It seems odd to ask what ONE scientific question should the students be able to answer. Are we looking for a question that is individually very important? Then I think the question should be about nutrition or some other health or lifestyle issue (how about: “Is fire too hot to touch?”).

However, if we are looking for an indication of the overall quality of the student’s science education, then something like the offered list of questions would be more appropriate. I like “What are Newton’s three laws of motion?” or “How does natural selection work?” If they can answer those, then their science education might be decent.

the problem with question #3 is that many people who are more intersted in biology/paleontology than the average American may answer that question yes because they consider birds to be dinosaurs.

One science question every high school graduate should be able to answer? Easy:

What is science and how does it work?

Everything else suggested so far is just trivial detail. What’s the most important question one needs to know to show an understanding of baseball? “Who is Babe Ruth?” “How many bases did Ty Cobb steal in 1908?” “How did Barry Bonds add 60 pounds of muscle to a sprinter’s physique?”

No, it’s “What are the rules of baseball?

For Flint: my length of the year (365.2422 days) might be accurate to one part in /3652422 or so or or a relative error of about .00000027 , or 2.7 parts in 10 million. (2.7x10 to the - 7 power)The earth’s decrease in rotational rate is about 1.5 milliseconds in 1oo years or .000015 seconds per year or about 4.7 x 10 to the -13 power, in days. Seems negligible to me. (But, boy, can I be wrong!) And it is true that the moon is receding from the earth a few centimeters a year due to tidal energy transfer, but does this also mean that the earth is receding from the sun? I don’t know.

I’d like to address the subject of Rayleigh scattering. My (lack of) understanding is that scattering becomes most significant when the scattering particles are about the same size as the light wavelength. If this were true, light scattered from atmospheric molecules would peak in the far ultraviolet (a few nanometers). Part of the reason we don’t see this is the limitation in our visual perceptions, but instruments could detect it. I suspect that this simply does not occur.

My guess (not original, but I haven’t found any references on this) is that it is the variation in density of the air in the upper atmosphere that is causing the scattering. Random molecular motion produces regions of fluctuating density on a very short time scale which (as far as I know) produce density pockets of about 400 nm, maximizing scattering in the blue region of the spectrum, much like the Schlerein patterns seen near radiators in our homes.

I am definitely interested in finding out if I am off base, here. And, we definitely should insist that our high school graduates have a clear understanding of these concepts :)

By all accounts that I have seen, density variations are not important in Rayleigh scattering. The equations are found at Wikipedia here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayleigh_scattering

As they write there, the coefficient for Rayleigh’s equation “is the number of particles per unit volume N times the cross-section”.

They mentioned something else that I suspected, but didn’t post previously because I had no source to back up my suspicions: One reason that we see blue is that the sun puts out more “blue photons” than violet ones. And yes, the longer wavelengths of light are significantly scattered as well (you know that at sunset that some of the red has been scattered out of the sun’s rays, since even red becomes fairly feeble then, even when striking a surface directly).

I remembered after posting previously that the period of rotation of the earth on its axis is called the “sidereal day”, which is shorter than the 24 hour “solar day”. It doesn’t come up in my life very often.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

“What is one science question every high school graduate should be able to answer?”

“What is the scientific method, and how is it applied?”

Logicman,

you are spot-on, the convolution with our eye-sensitivity is critical.

If I understand the discussion correctly, the answer to how many quarks can dance on the head of a pin is 365.2422 days?

Oww, I was unfair and not funny! Sorry, getting tired.

re: Comment #98810 What is the scientific method and how is it applied?

AMEN! Nothing else is as important as the answer to this one question.

Nobody should be allowed to graduate from High School with out a full understanding of the implications of the answer to that question.

The answer is 42.

Ask him: Then why isn’t the sky purple? I’m not positive on this, but I think the reason is two part: 1. The human eye is very poor at seeing purples. 2. Just as our ozone (thankfully) blocks UV light, I suspect it might also block a good deal of the higher energy part of the visible specturm.

Amd I thinking along the right lines here?

I remembered after posting previously that the period of rotation of the earth on its axis is called the “sidereal day”, which is shorter than the 24 hour “solar day”. It doesn’t come up in my life very often.It’s actually the other way around. The solar day is a few minutes shorter and is the one we actually measure for clocks. The sidereal day is with respect to distant stars and defines a full sidereal day as consecutive passings of a given star across the meridian.

Sorry this is off topic , but some people in the UK may never have heard Ken Ham speak. Tune into Sky Digital 765 at the moment and you will see Ham in full swing and what you are up against. He’s going on about the UK Mega-Conference ( there are a couple of clips of it in the programme), how evolution is a theory in crisis, and why the answer to question (3) is demonstrably wrong. Since I predicted that Ham would pop up here last week I think I’ll do the lottery this weekend !

Re. The length of a year. I have completed a couple of astronomy courses with the OU and for all intensive purposes they round up the length of a year up to 365.25 days. Just like a day isn’t 24 hours (I think it’s around 23 hours 56 minutes at the moment !)

As I recall, according to “Mr. Science” the sky is blue because it reflects the ocean. (Corollary: the ocean is blue because it reflects the sky.)

Logicman and Heddle:

You’re missing another important point: the solar output in the purple region (~400nm) of the visible spectrum is much lower than its output in the green region (~520 nm).

http://www.vicphysics.org/documents[…]spectrum.JPG

Part of the reason the sky isn’t purple is that there isn’t much purple light coming from the sun. Maybe that why our eyes evolved with poor sensitivity in that region of the visible spectrum?

Voisey: No, ozone doesn’t absorb visible light. (A sample of ozone looks colorless.) http://people.ccmr.cornell.edu/~plh[…]/slide2.html

And it is true that the moon is receding from the earth a few centimeters a year due to tidal energy transfer, but does this also mean that the earth is receding from the sun? I don’t know.

Same principle at work, though on an even more miniscule scale.

However, for extremely precise astronomical measurements, this infinitesimal deceleration of spin and orbital speed makes enough difference to require noticing it.

Bob Carrol:

The earth’s decrease in rotational rate is about 1.5 milliseconds in 1oo years or .000015 seconds per year

My calculations (40 days lost in 400 million years) give an average slowing of the spin of about .01 seconds (more precisely, 0.0086 sec) per year, which is orders of magnitude greater than your value. Where does your number come from? If it is correct, it implies that the rate of slowing is decellerating. Is this correct? Thanks, Greg Mead

Oops. Sorry, Bob, that should be Carroll.

As others have said: the questions are badly phrased. In particular:

Why does a year consist of 365 days, and a day of 24 hours?

I would say that there is 24 hours in a day is completely arbitary: someone in ancient times divided both the day and the night into twelve hours which added together makes 24. The reason that the year has about 365 days in it has to do with how close the Earth is to the Sun (changing how long a year is) and how fast the Earth rotates. I don’t think this is what they wanted. The question they wanted is: what is the astronomical significance of the year and of the day.

The one question?

Can you explain thoroughly and completely why einstein needed tensors to describe the theory of relativity?

The other one?

Why did the chicken cross the road?

GvlGeologist, FCD, Re “If it is correct, it implies that the rate of slowing is decellerating. Is this correct?”

I’d expect that the furthur away the moon is, the less force its gravity would have on Earth, so that would make sense.

————

BWE,

Re “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

To get away from Col. Sanders.

Henry

The rainbow answer, “Sunlight, which contains all colors, is refracted, or bent, off the droplets at different angles…”, is really poor. A ray of sunlight partially refracts INTO a droplet ( some reflects off), violet wavelengths bending more than red ones. These rays then reflect from the back of the droplet (total internal reflection) and once again hit the water-air boundary, where there is again partial refraction out of the droplet, forming the primary rainbow, and partial reflection inside the droplet. The continued trek of the latter ray gives rise to another partial internal reflection and a refraction out of the drop, which creates the secondary rainbow, with the colors reversed. Many years ago, in the Scientific American Amateur Scientist section, it was shown how one might generate the third order and fourth order rainbows in a laboratory. Certainly no-one has ever seen these in the real world, since they are seen back toward the light source. By the way, a pet peeve of this color-blind ex-physics teacher is the use of purple as a synonym for violet. There can be no purple in the solar spectrum. I must also say that none of my students over 25 years ever saw indigo, between violet and blue.

none of my students over 25 years ever saw indigo

My hypothesis is that “indigo” really doesn’t exist – it was simply invented by grade-school teachers so that “Roy G. Biv” would make sense.

;)

For Greg Mead: it took me a while to find the references to the earth’s slowing rate of rotation. My desk requires the attention of a palaeontologist. But here goes: 1.5 milliseconds per century can be found at: http://image.gsfc.nasa.gov/poetry/ask/q396.html

Interestingly, at another NASA site, the figure is 2.3 ms per century: http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclip[…]otation.html

Oops: my figure of 1.5 ms per hundred years is for the change in length of the day, not the year. Foiled by units!

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