Big Questions

Via BioCurious, a list of science questions every high school graduate should be able to answer:

  1. What percentage of the earth is covered by water?
  2. What sorts of signals does the brain use to communicate sensations, thoughts and actions?
  3. Did dinosaurs and humans ever exist at the same time?
  4. What is Darwin’s theory of the origin of species?
  5. Why does a year consist of 365 days, and a day of 24 hours?
  6. Why is the sky blue?
  7. What causes a rainbow?
  8. What is it that makes diseases caused by viruses and bacteria hard to treat?
  9. How old are the oldest fossils on earth?
  10. Why do we put salt on sidewalks when it snows?

(The answers, and the famous people who picked the questions, can be found by following the link above.)

As usual, some of the questions are badly formed, and others tell you more about the personal biases of the people asked to suggest questions, but it’s an interesting list of trivia. How many did you get right?

24 thoughts on “Big Questions

  1. I got them all right – at least essentially right – except the age of the oldest fossils. I think they are good questions and a high school graduate certainly should have at least some idea of the answers to these questions and lots more. But then, so, too, should college grads, and how many college grads could answer the questions?

  2. 10. Why do we put salt on sidewalks when it snows?

    because we’re too damned lazy to pick up a shovel.


  3. i note a biology bias. one chemistry question (and a rather vague one at that), three earth-science questions, nothing in physics, nothing involving any mathematics at all.

    basic chemistry – be able to explain what a mole is, or the difference between an acid and a base. basic physics – define inertia, or even just explain the difference between weight and mass. *definitions* of core concepts, not random facts, is what is important.

    questions like those above are the problem of science education. they’re a view of science as random facts (aside from the Darwin one), more like things from a trivial persuit game (which is how the students will learn it if that’s how you teach it – mere trivia, easily discarded).

    that is not science as a process or even science as an application of mathematics (much less the source of most of the mathematics we know of today).


    btw, nobody in my educational years exactually explicitly explained why the sky is blue, not even in my GT earth science class. the only reason I know is because i made it my science fair project 3 years earlier.

    now a REAL good question because answering it will become a mnemonic for modelling – *how* did they discover that a rainbow was caused by water droplets? its history of science, yes, but it forces one to also know the thought process by which an experiment is constructed. it forces one to know what science itself is, not just the trivial (by comparison) fact that a rainbow is caused by water in the air.

  4. i also disagree with the Darwin answer and not just because it oversimplifies things. natural selection is not “best suited”. the “best suited” keeps up the implication that there can be only one, that existence is solely about competition, and gives the wrong impression of what Darwin (and Huxley) meant by “fitness”.

    this in turn leads to the increase in credulity to arguments supporting social darwinism.

    from wikipedia: Natural selection is the idea that individual organisms which possess genetic variations giving them advantageous heritable traits are more likely to survive and reproduce and, in doing so, to increase the frequency of such traits in subsequent generations.

    no “best” about it. just more likely than others.

  5. Blue sky and rainbows are physics questions. To answer as other than a recitation of facts requires a relativley high level of understanding. But don’t downplay the importance of simply knowing some facts. It’s not realistic to expect everyone to have a deep understanding of all areas of science, or history, or culture, but it is important that people know a little bit about many different aspects of the world. If you know enough facts, it’s possible to start putting things together. If you know no facts, it’s hard to understand much of anything.

  6. As Joe Shelby says, these are mostly trivial facts. In fact, in the pub trivia game I play in, we were asked just last week what percent of the Earth’s surface is water! (We guessed, I think, 74%, which was close enough to get a point.) I got them all, but then, I’m a science geek.

    And I agree that the Natural Selection question is, in some sense, the best, although it’s hardest to grade! Interestingly, most people have entirely the wrong conception of Darwinian Evolution. See my blog entry about this…

  7. “be able to explain what a mole is”

    It’s a seasoning paste, usually containing cocoa, used in Mexican cuisine.

    It’s a small burrowing animal and the bane of vegetable gardeners.

    It’s that sexy black spot on Marilyn Monroe’s lip.

  8. but those are “facts” that can be known well before high school. the question is not what “anybody” should or could know, but what a high school student should know be worthy of the degree. and those questions say the standards are far too low.

    rainbows isn’t in the original list. i’m aware its a physics question, and one directly related to the sky one. however, its more likely that if the topic comes up at all in high school, it’ll come up in an earth science class (or earth science section of a general sciences class). optics is not something any 12th grade physics class gets to. aside from knowing the difference between concave and convex, i didn’t see a thing in optics until 3rd semester degree physics.

    as i said, i mention rainbows not because of the fact which anybody can regurgitate, but because of the process involved.

    i’d rather someone be able to explain the scientific method itself than any of those 10 trivial facts, including Darwin’s theory.

    yet the scientific method and all of its important parts (research, hypothesis, controls, skepticism at positive results, figuring out next steps) seems to be not all that important anymore, is it?

  9. We definitely did refraction in my 11th grade physics class…including chromatic aberration and rainbows.

  10. The question about days in a year vs. hours in a day was interesting. The number of days in a year is well-defined, since both days and years reflect physical periodicity. For the number of hours in a day, my response was “We arbitrairly divided the length of a day into 24 units.”, or more pithily, “there are 24 hours in a day because we say so”. Since hours don’t have a physical basis, I think that’s a better answer. If they wanted to know why a day is as long as it is, it needs to be phrased better.

  11. my 12th grade physics class was all mechanics except a little E&M and a concepts-only discussion of modern.

  12. answering my own question, wikipedia covers one theory – :

    the division reflected the widespread use of a duodecimal numbering system (counting with each thumb the spaces between the joints of the other finger on the same hand, i.e. 3 x 4 = 12) and the equally widespread tendency to make analogies among sets of data (12 months, 12 zodiacal signs, 12 main compass points, 12 hours, a dozen).

    i am still trying to figure out when the Roman calendar got its names wrong (a practice kept by the Julian and into the modern Gregorian). Specifically, the names for months 9,10,11,12 are named for the numbers 7,8,9,10.

    more wikipedia:

    it comes from a latin naming of a possibly Greek lunar calendar, one which had days that literally weren’t in the calendar at all.

    crazy stuff, history…

  13. I objected to #5. What they mean to ask is to define “year” and “day” astronomically.

    My answers to the questions as asked: A year is 365 days because Earth turns on its axis roughly 365 times over the course of one orbit around the sun – indisputable given the defs. A day is 24 hours probably because of some combination of 12 zodiac constellations and (related?) base 6/60 cultures like the Babylonians. The hour is a completely made-up unit of time. The day and year have astronomical meaning.

  14. Joe, to the fingering thing you must add calculation of fractions. Having as divisors 2,3,4 does simply lots very easier than the alternative base 10, who has as small divisors 2 and then 5. The next “easy” basis is of course 60, having as divisors 2,3,4,5,6. With a money based on sexagesimal units, your group will never tip the waiter. Well, almost.

    A touchier thing is why the circle divides in 360 instead of 60 or 144 or 480 or any other one. This is most probably due to the 365 days of the year being near of an easy multiple of 60, thus a coincidence between Nature and Arithmetic.

  15. the sky question, as well as salt question will not be done “correctly” by most college seniors, or even most biologist PhDs. Or even the rainbow question.

    Just saying “refraction of droplets” or “different colors scatter differently” or “salt lowers melting point” is not enough, in my opinion. Correct detailed explanation requires digging a little deeper. Why is blue light scattered more than red? Why does salt make ice melt? Why different colors refract differently on small droplets?

    Considering most physics PhDs still don’t know why ice is slippery, some of these questions are a lot more difficult than people assume.

  16. See, if I were asked that worthless hours-days-years thing I’d insist on being snarky by calling it a matter of convention. I mean, sure some conventions are nicer than others (using days instead of day-pairs or something for example) but this is hardly important science, certainly not significant enough to be on a list like this. In any event, hours in a day is completely arbitrary.

  17. I am still trying to figure out when the Roman calendar got its names wrong

    I was always taught that there were ten months, and then one added for Julius Cesear, and a second for Augustus. Since the wikipedia article seems to indicate the emperors just got Quintilis and Sextilis renamed, it looks like at some point folks decided to start the year in January and not March.

    (Which is also odd, since I seem to recall January being named for Janus because it was looking forward to the next year and back to the last. Long story short, I’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, obviously.)

  18. Someone early on mentioned the lack of math in there, and while I understand that math is not a science, so it doesn’t really fit here, I have to add my question which (IMHO) is more important than any of the 10 (which probably shows my personal bias): Why is P -> Q equivalent to ~Q -> ~P but NOT equivalent to ~P -> ~Q and Q -> P.

    Actually just knowing that P -> Q isn’t the same as Q -> P is probably beyond most high school students…

  19. Re: P->Q -> ~Q->~P.

    Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear -> If you are afraid, you have something to hide (and therefore, are guilty as charged.) (Goebbels, Beria, et al.)

  20. That only works if the first statement is true, which it is not. Those who have nothing to hide, STILL have something to fear. However, yes, those two statements ARE in fact logicially equivalent…

    (I’m ignoring the whole, just because you have SOMETHING To hide, doesn’t mean you have THAT thing to hide because that’s not part of the original statement…)

  21. For the record, it is not true that the Earth completes 365 1/4 rotations in the time it takes for one revolution around the sun. Rather, the number is 366 1/4.

    And it’s not true that a rotation of the Earth takes 24 hours. It takes 23 hours and 56 minutes.

    The extra 4 minutes in the day correspond to extra rotation required to compensate for the revolution, i.e., we define the day as the time from when the sun is directly overhead until it is again directly overhead, which takes longer than one rotation.

    In the course of a year, this compensation adds up to one more rotation than days in a year.

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