Astronomy research often beats out other physics fields for headlines in the popular media, but does the general public understand these articles? A recent survey conducted at a science museum aimed to answer that question with six true/false questions.
|The M-74 spiral galaxy.|
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI / AURA)- ESA / Hubble Collaboration
Overall, the museum goers scored pretty well. We'll go over the results later, but for now it's your turn to take the test. Here's the six true/false questions that researchers recently presented to attendees of the Franklin Institute, a science museum in Philadelphia:
Questions: True or False?
1. Scientists have discovered planets going around other stars.
2. Scientists know pretty much all there is to know about the Universe.
3. Scientists have found life on Mars.
4. Scientists can calculate the age of the Earth.
5. Scientists can calculate the age of the Universe.
6. Science (peer-reviewed) journals are very similar to the NY Times or National Geographic.
1. TRUE; Scientists have discovered planets orbiting other stars (exoplanets). The Kepler space telescope spootted hundreds of exoplanets that caused slight dips in the amount of sunlight from their host stars as the planets passed in front of, or transited, the star. Unfortunately, the Kepler telescope recently experience technical difficulties, causing the end of its planet-hunting days. Nonetheless, Scientists have used – and continue to use – several other methods to successfully find distant planets.
2. FALSE; Scientists don't know "pretty much all there is to know" about the Universe. Questions and mysteries still abound, and the vast(!) majority of the Universe remains unexplored.
3. FALSE; Scientists have not found definitive proof of life on Mars. This question's more controversial than the first two, prompting many respondents to ask for clarification. Although the search for life on Mars often rears its head in news reports, scientists haven't yet to find microorganisms or little green men. Several other findings, such as an abundance of methane on the red planet and the existence of water ice, suggest that their may be micro-organisms lurking under the surface.
4. TRUE; Scientists can calculate the age of the Earth. Scientists originally tracked our planet's age by searching for the oldest rocks they can find. Certain isotopes with extremely long half lives (into the 100's of billions of years) decay very slowly, so scientists can determine how old rocks are based on how much of these isotopes remain in the rocks.
More modern methods have made use of the isotopes found in ancient, pristine meteorites that haven't undergone as much of the geological smashing, melting, and re-forming of most terrestrial rocks. Data extracted from analyses of these meteorites suggest the Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old.
5. TRUE; Scientists can calculate the age of the Universe. Astronomers use a number of methods to estimate the age of the Universe. Searching for the oldest, most distant stars will place a lower bound on the age of the Universe, but that won't lead to a definitive answer. Consequently, astronomers also measure the expansion of the Universe and trace that expansion back to the Big Bang to calculate the age of our Universe.
Estimates for the Universe's age vary, and physicists continue to tweak them. At last count, the Universe was thought to be about 13.8 billion years old.
6. FALSE; Science (peer-reviewed) journals are very similar to the NY Times or National Geographic. Peer-reviewed journals publish research that has been approved and edited by the authors' research peers (usually anonymously). Popular science outlets, such as National Geographic, may publish articles about this research without as much detail as the original research paper. Research articles often provide a much deeper analysis and overview of the field compared to news articles.
How many did you get right? Tally up your score so you can compare it to the museum attendees in Philadelphia.
|Image Credit: Love et al. via their arXiv paper.|
For the actual survey, researcher Christy Love (Rowan University) and her colleagues asked over 1,000 attendees these six questions. Also, they collected demographic information such as age, gender, and educational attainment.
Unsurprisingly, those with more education scored more highly on the survey. There was a gender gap as well: male attendees answered the questions correctly about 7 percent more often. In total, the attendees as a group achieved a score around 81 percent; for each individual question, at least half of those surveyed answered correctly. For some questions, 80 to over 90 percent answered correctly.
|Image Credit: Love et al. via their arXiv paper.|
Very few attendees overestimated scientists' ability, as evidenced by their high scores on the "scientists know just about everything" questions. The question about life on Mars had much more mixed results, possibly due to the barrage of media reports mentioning the discovery of water ice on Mars and past Martian climates that may have been more conducive to life on Mars.
Headlines often mention the search for life on Mars, but much of the research done on the red planet is searching for evidence that Mars is or could have been habitable.
Curiously, most respondents thought the age of the Earth could be calculated but not the age of the Universe. The researchers wrote that this question sparked a lot of debate from those surveyed, with several people calling the age of the Universe speculative, philosophical, or more akin to guesswork.
While these survey results suggest the respondents knew their science pretty well, this was not a random sample of the population. Those taking the survey were science museum attendees, and many of them expressed great interest in science – a sentiment that may not be shared more widely. Consequently, these results have to be taken with a grain of salt.
You can read the rest of the results in the research team's article on the arXiv (PDF).