Astronomy Quiz popular at the Texas Science and Engineering Festival
On the weekend of November 5 and 6, staff, postdoctoral fellows, and students represented the Astronomy Department and McDonald Observatory at the Texas Science and Engineering Festival, which was held at the Austin Convention Center. Organizers estimate 32,000 children and parents visited the festival; the Astronomy booth was certainly busy the whole time.
Dr. Isa Oliveira greets attendees at the Texas Science and Engineering Fesitval
Graduate students Brian Mulligan, Marshall Johnson, Emma Yu, Kyle Kaplan, Andrew Riddle, and Keaton Bell, along with research fellows/associates Isa Oliveira, Mia Bovill, Joel Green, and Roderik Overzier represented the Department of Astronomy and McDonald Observatory.
Besides tons of fliers, posters, and StarDate magazines to hand out to the public, McDonald Observatory had supplied us with a number of very pretty astronomy books and T-shirts that we decided to have a little fun with. We used them as prizes for an astronomy quiz, and that brought people flocking to our booth like students to free pizza. Close to 1,000 people submitted their answers to us. Here are the results:
Question 1: What is the closest star to Earth? (This one really didn’t fool the public as much as it does most astronomers. 82 percent understood we meant that glowing ball of gas right outside your window.) The answers given were Sun: 82 percent, Alpha/Proxima Centauri: 5 percent, Moon: 5 percent, Sirius: 4 percent, North Star: 2 percent, and Mars: 2 percent.
Inspired by these results, we decided to step it up a notch with our second question:
Question 2. How old is the Universe? This one really got kids and parents thinking, usually resulting in the largest numbers people could imagine (which apparently can be as small as 8 years and as high as 10 to the 24th power). For many people, 100 million years appeared to be a really really large number, with which they could associate the age of the universe. We were, however, pleasantly surprised by the large number of people that knew the answer is around 10 to 15 billion years, so it seems we (or the media) have been doing a great job getting the word out! Some interesting alternatives were 8, 15, and 2011 years; “as long as time exists” (correct!); “unknowable”; “forever”; and infinity. (We also got a small number of responses in the 5,000 to 10,000 year range.)
Nearly 1,000 people, including these scientists-to-be, took the quiz
Question 3. How many planets have we discovered? Just about everyone was concerned with whether or not they should include Pluto, but we explained that we meant all planets within and outside the solar system (making Pluto irrelevant). Very small children with their typical pre-William-Herschel-kind-of-mindset seem to prefer 6 planets. Mid-sized children tend to go for 8 after doing a subtraction involving 1 Pluto. Teenagers and their parents tend to know that the true answer is in the range of several tens to several hundreds, and many people had heard about Kepler! The true answer according to NASA last Sunday was 561 planets and counting.
Drs. Joel Green, Mia Bovill, and Isa Oliveira
Question 4: How long does it take light to reach us from the Sun? We received another 152 answers to this question. 57 percent gave the correct answer of 8-9 minutes, with many giving the precise answer of 8.3 minutes. The wrong answers showed the number 8.3 in interesting units or permutations: 8.3 seconds (8 people), 3.8 seconds (1), and 3.8 million years (1). Another 5 percent of the contestants thought 1 day or 1 (light) year made more sense.
It was a great chance to meet with all the parents and children and to share some of the excitement we feel about astronomy.
More photographs can be found at:
Texas Science and Engineering Fest 2011
[Story and photographs by Roderik Overzier]