Re: UK science answers

From: Gary Collins (
Date: Tue May 06 2003 - 09:17:17 EDT

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    >Date: Fri, 02 May 2003 12:30:43 +0100
    >From: "Steve Bishop" <>
    >Subject: UK science answers
    >These are (allegedly) genuine answers given in UK examinations:

    My favourite is one sent by a school teacher to New Scientist's 'feedback' page
    in reponse to this - or a similar - list:

    Feedback reports on howlers by biology students (30 January). I teach in a large comprehensive
    school and among other gems that pupils have put my way is the fact that "an octopus is a fish
    with eight testicles" and "the whole of northern Russia is covered in carnivorous forest" (also
    known as the Siberian Taiga, I presume).

    And in a similar vein,

    This is apparently one of Magnus Magnusson's favourite after-dinner stories, but originally came
    from the "Engineers Weekly" of Denmark, and illustrates the virtues - and pitfalls - of "thinking for
    oneself". It concerns the following question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen:

    "Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer."

    One enterprising student replied: "You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower
    the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the
    barometer will equal the height of the building." This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that
    the student was failed immediately. The student appealed, on the grounds that his answer was indisputably
    correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.

    The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of
    physics; to resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to
    verbally provide an answer which showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.
    For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time
    was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn't
    make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

    Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the
    time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 1/2gt
    squared (height equals half times gravity time squared). But bad luck on the barometer.

    Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length
    of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper's shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of
    proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.

    But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing
    it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the
    difference in the gravitational restoring force (T> = 2 pi sqr root of l over g).

    Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height
    of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up.

    If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure air
    pressure on the roof of the skyscraper, compare it with standard air pressure on the ground, and convert the
    difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.

    But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods,
    undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor's door and say to him "If you would like a nice new
    barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper."

    ....the unfortunate bit of this story is we never find out if the candidate in fact passed on the basis of this answer
    or was failed for being too cocky!

    Hope you enjoyed these!

    "By tying up the weak case for a young earth in the same package as the strong case for creation, recent-creationists are almost asking to be defeated."
    -- Alan Hayward, "Creation and Evolution: The Facts and Fallacies," p.81

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