Science literacy

The Christian Science Monitor has a quiz going around that allows you to test your science literacy. The 50-question quiz was not a particularly easy one. It covered a wide range of sciences including biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and mathematics. I took the quiz and ended up answering 43 out of 50 questions correctly. Here are the 7 questions that I got wrong (I won’t tell you the correct answers in case you want to take the quiz yourself):

  • How many nanometers are there in a centimeter? (I was off by 1 order of magnitude.)
  • What is the heaviest noble gas? (I should have known this one.)
  • Named for the 19th century English physicist, what unit of measurement is defined as the energy exerted by the force of one newton acting to move an object through a distance of one meter. (I mistook the nationality of the scientist I selected.)
  • If you were to apply a net force of one Newton on a 200 gram object, what would be the acceleration of the object? (Forgot the formula.)
  • Geologists categorize rocks into three types: Igneous, sedimentary, and what? (Guessed.)
  • Over half the world’s supply of what element, which gets its name from the epithet of the Greek goddess Athena, is used in catalytic converters. (In hindsight, I should have known this based on the Greek epithet hint alone.)
  • In quantum mechanics, the physical constant used to describe the size of quanta–denoted as h–is named after what German physicist.

Overall, however, 43 out of 50 isn’t too bad for someone without a degree in a physical or biological science. It amounts to an 86%, or a solid B. That I could manage a solid B in science literacy without having majored in a science is due to three things, I think:

  1. A good science foundation in high school. I took AP biology and AP physics in high school. I took the standard chemistry course. That AP physics course was taught by an outstanding teacher, Dr. Goldman. It was my first introduction to physics and it left a real impression on me.
  2. Isaac Asimov’s science essays. After graduating from college, I gradually made my way through all 399 of Isaac Asimov’s science essays that he wrote for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF) from 1958 through his death in 1992. These essays taught me science in a way that I never learned it in high school or college–from a cumulative, historical perspective. This perspective made many of the concepts much easier to understand because you always started at the beginning, when nobody knew anything about a subject. You could also see the mistakes scientists made along the way and how they recognized them as such and corrected them. I was able to answer a good number of the questions on the quiz because I’d read Asimov’s essays.
  3. Keeping up with science through magazines like Scientific American, New Scientist, and Discover. Science is constantly evolving and there is no way for any one person to keep up with all of it. But my intent in reading these magazines (aside from the enjoyment I get from them) is to do my best to stay current with the trends and discoveries in all branches of science.

I wonder what the average score on the science literacy test is, but I am almost afraid to ask. I fear that an number I chose that seemed sufficiently low, would turn out to be not low enough.


  1. Only got a 31, and I do have an advanced science degree. It is in molecular biology, but my undergrad was Anthro/Archaeo with a triple minor in Bio, Geo, and Chem… It isn’t surprising to me that the questions I missed were a lot of the physic (including some of the electrical) and the space orientated questions. (and few of the math) Remembering a general studies class in HS is much harder than your own speciality field. Funny though, the questions I knew, i knew instantly. This was an awesome exercise. Thanks for posting it to FB.

    1. EJ, yeah, I’d guess with your background in molecular bio you’d have gotten the Gregor Mendel question correct. 😉 Glad to post it. It was an interesting exercise.

    2. Wow! Thanks guys. I feel much better about my score. I only got 47 our of 50 (yes, without “cheating.”)

      I missed:
      35. The mathematical constant e is defined as the base of the natural system of logarithms, having a numerical value of approximately what?
      A. 3.142
      B. 0.567
      C. 1.618
      D. 2.718
      I chose C. 1.618. The correct answer is D. 2.718.

      43. What word, which derives from a Greek term meaning “unequal” or “bent,” describes a triangle whose three sides are of unequal length?
      A. equilateral
      B. isosceles
      C. oblong
      D. scalene
      I selected isosceles (partly because it sounds so cool to say) and mainly because I never took geometry. D. is the correct answer.

      45. In quantum mechanics, the physical constant used to describe the sizes of quanta – denoted as h – is named after what German physicist?
      A. Erwin Schrödinger
      B. Max Planck
      C. Albert Einstein
      D. Werner Heisenberg
      I thought it was Heisenberg (I think the ‘h’ tripped me up) but it’s actually Planck.

      All in all, not too shabby for someone out of school for over 25 years.

  2. I got a 28 out of 50 (58%) but it’s early, I haven’t had enough caffeine and I got my degree in English in 1977. Also, some of the ones i got wrong I knew…just 2nd guessed myself.

    I want to go back to my grandma’s and read the 3 sets of encyclopedias she bought us when i was in grade school.

    I didn’t read Asimov’s science essays when I was a kid, but when I was in college I loved his study of the Bible and his study or Shakespear

    1. Asimov’s GUIDE TO THE BIBLE and GUIDE TO SHAKESPEARE were fantastic! I think he considered them the first of his “annotations” although technically, they were not annotations since neither contained the complete work in question. Keep your eyes open for a post later today or tomorrow on Asimov’s Annotations that I was planning to make in order to stir jealousy in a few of my friends. 😉

  3. 45/50 (90%), but since I have a master’s in physics and took biology and chemistry courses for fun in college, I feel like I should have done better. But then, I haven’t thought about science much in the past decade until I started writing a few nearish-future SF stories last fall.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.