Thursday, April 26, 2012

This is not science literacy

I really think that more people should be science literate. So, when I saw someone link to a "Science Literacy Quiz" I decided to check it out.

It starts off strong with a question about the most common gas in the atmosphere. Then a question about science history. It then continued on with questions of variable Googlability or Wolfram|Alphability. But then, question 7:

7. In physics, what letter is used to represent the speed of light in a vacuum?
  • a
  • b
  • c
  • d
Um, whichever letter you want, as long as you say something like, "where a represents the speed of light in vacuum." While there is some convention, the choice of letter hardly qualifies as science literacy. A better question might have been:
7. Which quantity is fastest?
  • The speed of light in water
  • The speed of light in vacuum
  • The speed of sound in water
  • The speed of sound in air 
This question is followed by various science history, or vaguely sciency questions, (and a really stupid one about Newton's First Law) and then, question 16:

16. The lowercase of what letter of the Greek alphabet is used to denote diverse phenomena such as the photon, the third angle in a triangle, the heat capacity ratio in thermodynamics, a type of high frequency electromagnetic radiation?
  • alpha
  • beta
  • gamma
  • delta
This is even stupider than number 7! "denote diverse phenomena"?!? That phrase is totally meaningless! It can be a variable that may or may not have a unit associated with it, it can be a descriptive label, it can be a placeholder for a larger, more annoying expression. It's just a letter, a label. I can label any angle in a triangle with any letter, or symbol, or hieroglyph I want! The heat capacity ratio -- there's no single convention! Hell, just look at the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on it. It could be γ, κ, k, or a drawing of a pickle.

Feel free to check out that quiz, but it sure ain't a test of science literacy.


  1. Who labels angles in triangles? I can't remember the last time a triangle came up in physics.

    You had more patience than I did. When I saw each question was on a separate page and had to be scrolled individually, I stopped pretty quick. I never saw 7 or 16.

    1. Yeah, the needing to click 8 million times to go through the quiz was incredibly frustrating.

      And, occasionally you label angles in triangles when trying to find vector components, or ray-tracing, or something. But rarely all three. And usually it winds up being \theta \phi and \alpha.