The National Science Foundation conducts a survey every few years to evaluate how good Americans are at science and compared to other countries. The questions vary slightly from year to year, but they all have to do with basic facts in physical and biological sciences.
Both the general public and people who have obtained bachelor’s degrees were stumped by the quiz. College graduates consistently scored higher than the general public, but didn’t earn a perfect score on any question.
See if you can pass the most recent version of the test:
1 – True or false? The center of the Earth is very hot.
Of the general public, 85% got this right, as did 89% of college grads surveyed.
This is true. The temperature of Earth’s core is an estimated 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit— as hot as the surface of the sun. The Earth consists of four concentric layers: inner core, outer core, mantle and crust.
2 – True or false? The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move.
Of all those surveyed, 81% answered correctly, and 87% of college graduates specifically.
True. Earth’s outermost layer, called the lithosphere (or crust), is broken into tectonic plates that shift several centimeters every year. Earthquakes and volcanoes are most likely to occur at plate boundaries.
The theory of plate tectonics says that the supercontinent Pangea broke apart and that individual continents are still moving thanks to the motion of these plates. But Pangea wasn’t the supercontinent – several existed before, and will likely exist again.
3 – Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
Overall, 73% chose the correct answer. College grads scored 10% higher with 83%.
The earth goes around the sun. Before the Space Age gave us photos of the solar system, astronomers observed the phases of Venus, moons of Jupiter, and stellar parallax— the changing positions of stars over time — to prove that the Earth is not stationary and that it orbits the sun.
4 – True or false? All radioactivity is man-made.
In total, 70% of respondents got this right. People with college degrees pulled ahead by 10% again with 80% correct answers.
As Dwight would say: FALSE. Stars, like our Sun, emit cosmic radiation that interacts with Earth’s atmosphere. There’s also natural radioactive material in soil, water, and vegetation.
5 – True or false? Electrons are smaller than atoms.
Less than half of Americans got this right at 48%. College graduates did a little better with 59%.
Electrons are much less massive than the protons and neutrons that make up the nucleus of an atom. Electrons are so small that they act by rules completely different from those that govern objects you can perceive directly. No one has been able to determine their size, but they have calculated the largest their radius could be, and that’s one billionth billionth of a meter. Atoms have a radius of roughly one ten billionth of a meter. That is, they’re about 100 million times bigger than electrons.
6 – True or false? Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
Again, less than half (45%) of Americans picked the right answer. Just over half of college graduates (52%) got it right.
False. “Laser” stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. As such, lasers concentrate light waves, not sound waves.
7 – True or false? The universe began with a huge explosion.
39% of those surveyed got this right compared to 44% of college grads.
The Big Bang was more of an expansion/inflation than an ‘explosion’, but the correct answer is “true.”
8 – True or false? It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
Overall, 59% percent answered correctly, as did 71% of those with a bachelor’s degree.
True. A baby’s sex is determined at the time of conception. When the baby is conceived, a chromosome from the sperm cell, either X or Y, fuses with the X chromosome in the egg cell, determining whether the baby will be female (XX) or male (XY). It is the Y chromosome (from the male) that is essential for the development of the male reproductive organs, and with no Y chromosome, an embryo will develop into a female.
9 – True or false? Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
Just over half of Americans chose correctly at 51% in contrast to 73% or almost 3/4 of college grads.
Antibiotics only kill bacteria, not viruses, so this is false. This is why doctor’s don’t prescribe antibiotics for the common cold, because it is a virus.
10 – True or false? Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.
In total, 52% percent got this right. As for college graduates, 63% were correct.
True. Evolution by natural selection is one of the best substantiated theories in the history of science. While the theory of evolution is well accepted in the UK compared with the rest of the world, a survey in 2005 indicated that more than 20% of the country’s population was not sure about it, or did not accept it.
Perhaps it’s because evolution is not fully understood. For example, some question the theory by asking, “If humans evolved from apes, why do apes still exist?“. The simple answer is that humans did not evolve from apes: both apes, humans, and other primates evolved from a common ancestor.
For the full results of the test and to see how your country fared, download the PDF.