Changing Planet

How Much Do You Really Know About Science?

Sometimes when we’re on the road for Change Reaction, photographer Spencer Millsap and I can get pretty nerdy. Actually, it’s more just me. Often when Spencer is setting up our cameras to film an interview, I’ll chat with the subject about about his or her research. Fairly quickly, we get to things like pH balance or the structure of molecules. Chemistry, one of my old teachers used to say, can be pretty chool.

I had a lot of good science teachers back in high school and college—teachers who knew how to use a little liquid nitrogen or a beaker on fire to fascinate a room full of teenagers. It’s probably why I chose a career where I can get my hands dirty for the sake of a story.

I was thinking about this recently when I saw the results of a survey about science, and specifically about how much the U.S. public understands some core concepts. The answer: not as much as you’d think. We’re by no means in last place, but when it comes to debating things like climate change, pharmaceutical testing, and nanotechnology, what seems clear is that our foundation of understanding these ideas isn’t that firm, which obviously impacts the solutions we can come up with for hard problems.

Here are a few questions from the survey. If you promise not to cheat, I’ll post the answers at the bottom.

Photo by zhouxuan / Flickr
Photo by zhouxuan / Flickr

1) Electrons are smaller than atoms. Is this statement…
a) True
b) False

2) Lasers work by focusing sound waves. Is this statement…
a) True
b) False

3) Which one of the following types of solar radiation does sunscreen protect the skin from?
a) X-Rays
b) Infrared
c) Ultraviolet
d) Microwaves

4) Which gas makes up most of the Earth’s atmosphere?
a) Hydrogen
b) Oxygen
c) Carbon dioxide
d) Nitrogen

5) Which is an example of a chemical reaction?
a) Water boiling
b) Sugar dissolving
c) Nails rusting

Most people (83%) answered the sunscreen question correctly. Very few (20%) got the one about Earth’s atmosphere. The rest were somewhere in the middle. You can take the entire quiz here, and read the report that breaks it all down here.

So whose fault is it that a large chunk of adults don’t understand some basic science concepts? Pew did the study (along with Smithsonian Magazine) to shine focus on STEM education. States and local governments investing more into classroom activities that make science fun seems to be one answer. Or maybe it’s a communication issue, demanding we simply find more compelling ways to talk about the world around us, and the science in it.

That’s our challenge here at National Geographic, to inspire people to care about the planet. But more than that, the fundamental ways it works. It’s a thrilling goal. If you think you have an idea for how to do it—or simply just want to gloat about your score on the quiz—join the discussion in the comments below.




1. a) True
2. b) False
3. c) Ultraviolet
4. d) Nitrogen
5. c) Nails rusting


  • Colin chambers

    A black hole…… Is a massless Plasma With time non-existent.
    The event Horizon Is where Particles and matter = time are Dissolved ???

  • D. J. Hawkins

    The preview might have given me a small leg up taking the quiz, but I finished in about 60 seconds with a perfect score. This isn’t bragging; the bar was ridiculously low. If you missed more than 2 of these questions you should stay home on election day. Seriously. You don’t have the fundamental knowledge necessary to make informed decisions in a modern, technical democracy.

  • canali

    hopefully you’ll explain some of these answers in more detail ie, the nail rusting. btw I got a perfect score…and I”m no science buff either: I majored in lit ! 🙂

  • Jeff fletcher

    What are you talking about, ” massless black holes”? Where do u think the gravity comes from? It’s collapsed mass (neutron star). Very dense.

  • george

    After practice a few of the blog posts on your website now, i truly like your way of running a blog. I book marked it in order to my book mark website listing and will be examining back before long. Pls look at my web site as well and also let me know what you believe.

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