Science & Technology

Can You Answer the 10 Questions on the US Government's Science Knowledge Survey?

Every two years, the National Science Foundation compiles a report about the state of science and engineering in the U.S. A lot of it is pretty technical — there's detailed analysis of the labor force, higher education, and research trends, among other things — but deep in the report is a section devoted specifically to the everyday person. It's entitled "Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding," and in it, the NSF grades the American public on their ability to answer a handful of basic science questions. Even people outside of science careers should have some understanding of how science works, the Foundation figured, so they designed the questions to see if people had enough knowledge "to understand a quality newspaper's science section." Seems reasonable enough.

See if you can answer the questions yourself, then scroll down to find out how you stack up against Americans — and the rest of the world.

The Questions

Answer "true" or "false" for each question.

  1. The center of the Earth is very hot.
  2. The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move.
  3. The Earth goes around the sun.
  4. All radioactivity is manmade.
  5. Electrons are smaller than atoms.
  6. Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
  7. The universe began with a huge explosion.
  8. It is the father's gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
  9. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
  10. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

Scroll down to check your answers and see how other countries fared.

1. The Center of the Earth Is Very Hot: TRUE

The Earth's core is more than 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (6,000 degrees Celsius), roughly as hot as the surface of the sun. But although the outer core is liquid, the very center of our planet is solid iron. Weird, right?

Here's how the world did on this question:

2. The Continents Have Been Moving for Millions of Years: TRUE

That's thanks to plate tectonics, the phenomenon where sections of the Earth's crust known as tectonic plates move around, causing earthquakes, volcanoes, valleys, mountain ranges, and other geologic features. As we speak, plate tectonics is causing Africa to slowly split in two.

Here's how the world did on this question:

3. The Earth Goes Around the Sun: TRUE

Specifically, the question people were asked was "Which is correct? A: The Earth goes around the sun B: The sun goes around the Earth." The correct answer is A: the Earth goes around the sun. We know that for many reasons, not least of which is that the position of the stars in the sky changes seasonally, which proves that the Earth isn't stationary.

Here's how the world did on this question:

4. All Radioactivity is Manmade: FALSE

There was radioactivity before humans existed, and there will be radioactivity long after we're gone. The sun and stars produce cosmic radiation — which poses a problem to astronauts — and here on Earth, soil, rock, and even water contain radioactive elements like uranium, thorium, and radium. You even have radioactive potassium-50 and carbon-14 in your body.

Here's how the world did on this question:

5. Electrons Are Smaller Than Atoms: TRUE

Electrons are a part of atoms. Think of that old trusty atom diagram (which isn't really accurate, by the way): You've got your protons and neutrons in the center and your electrons orbiting around them like planets.

Here's how the world did on this question:

6. Lasers Work by Focusing Sound Waves: FALSE

Lasers work by focusing light waves — sort of. LASER is an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation," since it technically works by producing light particles from the radiation of excited electrons. That makes it so all of the light particles are the same wavelength, which helps them stay focused.

Here's how the world did on this question:

7. The Universe Began With a Huge Explosion: TRUE

If you want to be pedantic, the universe actually began with a huge expansion — the fabric of spacetime itself expanded from a single point. But at the level of everyday science knowledge, you might as well say that the Big Bang was an explosion.

Here's how the world did on this question:

8. The Father's Gene Decides Whether the Baby Is a Boy or a Girl: TRUE

Again, to get technical about it, you'd say that it was the father's chromosome that determines the baby's sex. Chromosomes contain DNA, segments of which form genes. Still, it's the father's sperm that determines whether the baby will be a boy or a girl. When sperm carrying a Y chromosome reaches the mother's X-chromosome-carrying egg, it creates a boy. When sperm carrying an X chromosome does the same, it creates a girl.

Here's how the world did on this question:

9. Antibiotics Kill Viruses as Well as Bacteria: FALSE

Antibiotics kill bacteria; antivirals kill viruses. That's why you should never take antibiotics for viral infections, like cold or flu.

Here's how the world did on this question:

10. Human Beings Developed From Earlier Species of Animals: TRUE

As a tongue-in-cheek project from the National Center for Science Education puts it, more than 1,000 scientists named Steve agree that the evidence is in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Go back far enough in our own evolutionary history, and you'll find a human ancestor that doesn't look much like us — in some cases, alarmingly so.

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Written by Ashley Hamer June 18, 2018

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