When we call something a puzzle, rather than just a problem or a question, we are often focusing on the recreational aspect of coming up with a solution. The enjoyment derived from solving a puzzle can help fix scientific lessons in memory.
The following quiz is not a puzzle, but it is made up of puzzling questions that may surprise and stretch the mind in a satisfying way, and perhaps help reinforce or teach some scientific ideas. It is not meant to test your knowledge, but to drive home some principle of science or to illustrate some surprising phenomenon.
1. What really came first, the chicken or the egg?
a) The question leads to infinite regress. There can be no right answer.
b) The chicken. Without adult chickens, no eggs could be laid.
c) The egg. Eggs definitely existed before there were chickens.
d) The answer is still unknown.
2. If a heavy metallic object is thrown straight up and falls straight down in a vacuum, it would take exactly equal time on the upward and downward journeys. What happens in the presence of air?
a) No difference. It takes exactly the same time.
b) It takes longer on the downward journey.
c) It takes longer on the upward journey.
d) It varies depending on the direction of the airflow.
3. What’s the smallest number of people in a group for there to be an even or greater chance of two of them sharing a birthday?
4. If you had US$10 billion (only a fifth of the assets of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates) and invested it to yield 4 percent interest per year, how much could you then afford to spend every day such that you never touch a penny of your principal for the rest of eternity (assuming, of course, that our economic system and humanity survive indefinitely)?
a) A luxurious US$1,000 a day.
b) A super luxurious US$10,000 a day.
c) An unbelievable US$100,000 a day.
d) An unimaginable US$1 million a day.
5. If you threw a heavy metallic object from a floating boat into a pond, what would happen to the level of water in the pond?
a) It would stay the same.
b) It would go up slightly.
c) It would go down slightly.
d) It depends on the weight of the object.
6. You see a certain car license plate, and after the event you calculate the probability of having seen this particular license number to be 1 in 30 million. How do you explain this?
a) It was a rare coincidence, and will probably never happen again.
b) This happens all the time — calculating the odds after something happens is meaningless.
c) It is a result of synchronicity.
d) Everything happens for a reason.
7. Land mammals like human beings or lab mice breathe air through their lungs. Is it possible for them to ever breathe liquids?
a) Yes, no problem. After all, that’s what sea mammals like whales and dolphins do.
b) Never. The liquid in the lungs would cause them to drown.
c) Never. A liquid in the lungs would prevent oxygen from reaching the blood.
d) Yes, it is possible to keep a land mammal alive in the lab temporarily breathing a liquid.
8. We perceive sound because of the sound waves that fall on our ears, right? What if I told you that what people see can completely change their perception of sounds that they hear?
a) That’s impossible. Sound energy and light energy are distinct.
b) That’s possible only in some select individuals who have a condition called synesthesia.
c) This can happen in almost everyone, and in fact what we see can help us make out certain sounds better.
d) That’s impossible. The parts of the brain that process hearing and vision are different.
9. There can be an instant correlation between the properties of two physical particles that are light-years away. True or false?
a) True. Bell’s theorem proves this, and the correlation can happen at over 10,000 times the speed of light.
b) False. Relativity says that no influence can travel faster than light.
c) False. The uncertainty principle says that when one property is measured, it changes the value of all other attributes.
d) True. This makes faster-than-light information transfer possible.
10. If you keep your head and eyes steady, how much of the scene around you can you see clearly?
a) 2 degrees.
b) 30 degrees.
c) 90 degrees.
d) 180 degrees or more. Almost everything in front and on the sides.
1. (c) The egg came first.
Chickens descended from two species of jungle fowl. The eggs of these different species, and those of their ancestors, would have made equally delicious omelets. Shelled eggs were “invented” by reptiles millions of years before chickens existed.
2. (b) It takes longer on the downward journey.
Energy of motion (kinetic energy) is constantly being lost because of air resistance. Hence there is less energy on the way down, and the maximum speed attained will be less.
3. (b) Incredibly, only 23 people are needed.
That’s because the number of pairs of people who can share birthdays is very large even for relatively small numbers. A harder problem is three coincident birthdays, which requires a group of 88 people.
4.(d) US$1 million a day to spend for all eternity.
Pretty cool, huh? Do you have a newfound respect for the power of billions?
5. (c) The level will fall slightly. A floating object (or part of it) displaces a volume of water equal to its weight.
A submerged object displaces a volume of water equal to its volume. Since the metallic object is denser than water, it displaces a larger quantity of water when it is floating within the boat than when it is submerged at the bottom of the lake.
6. (b) The odds of your seeing any random car license plate, when calculated after the fact, is many millions to one.
For odds to make any sense, you have to pick the horse before the race is run.
7. (d) A liquid fluorocarbon can hold enough oxygen that an animal can be kept alive breathing it for a few hours.
Medical and space uses for these substances are being researched.
8. (c) We actually hear spoken sounds differently based on the lip movements of the speaker that we see.
This is known as the McGurk effect.
9. (a) Properties of particles can be correlated even when they are far apart, and the “speed” of this correlation has been measured as being over 10,000 times the speed of light.
This does not contradict relativity because no information can be transferred using this effect.
10.(a) Just about 2 degrees.
You can check this for yourself by focusing on a single letter on this line, and keeping your head and eyes absolutely still (it might help to close one eye). You will be able to clearly read only a few letters on either side of the letter you focused on. Why, then, do we feel that we can see a lot more? Ah, because our brains fool us so convincingly that we never catch on. The scene we think we are seeing clearly all the time is an illusion or piece of “virtual reality” stitched together by our brains based on head movements and rapid eye movements, called saccades, that we unconsciously perform all the time.
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