Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Is Anything Worth Knowing?

I don't listen to the radio much these days, but did so this morning for some reason. The station I was listening to had a contest to give away concert tickets. The contest was patterned after the Jeff Foxworthy show: Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader, but asked, according to the disk jockey, First Grade questions. Adult contestants, vying for the concert tickets, dropped like flies, unable to answer some the simplest questions. One caller, a student at our local university, got four out of his five questions correct, but was stumped by: How long does it take for the earth to complete one orbit around the sun? His first guess was 40 million light years. He quickly revised his guess and suggested one day as his answer. Was either answer in the ball park?

That's quite a spread, isn't it, from 40 million light years down to one day. One light year is the distance that light, travelling at 186,000 miles per second, travels in 365 days. The distance would be 186,000 miles X 60 seconds X 60 minutes X 24 hours X 365 days in the year, calculated to a result of 5,865,696,000,000 miles. That's five trillion, eight-hundred-and-sixty-five billion, six-hundred-and-ninety-six million miles. Then, multiply that by 40,000,000 to get the total distance. That's a pretty big number, isn't it? If you tried to calculate the result with a calculator, you may have given it a headache.

The correct answer to the question was, of course, one year.

Here, to arm yourselves in case you ever compete for concert tickets on your local radio station, are some interesting astronomical facts:

All figures are approximate.
  • Distance of Earth to Sun: 150,000,000 kilometers (93,000,000 miles)
  • Distance of Earth to moon: 250,000 kilometers (160,000 miles)
  • Speed that Earth travels through space: 100,000 kilometers per hour (67,000 miles per hour)
  • If you attempted to count all the stars in a galaxy at a rate of one every second it would take around 3,000 years to count them all.
Naturally, we can't all remember every bit of information we have ever learned. I certainly can't. I am more concerned that some of the simplest things, things everyone should know, are unknown by many people. Jay Leno, in his 'Jaywalk' segment, once asked of people he stopped on the street which was closer to Earth, the sun or the moon. This is something that anyone should be able to deduce, even if they didn't remember what they were taught in school. After several of the people he questioned got the answer wrong, I asked the question of some people I knew. One answer I got was, "The sun of course." "Why," I asked. "Because it looks bigger in the sky," was the response.


I don't know everything, but wish I did. Many people know far less than I, but don't care. That's scary.


  1. I'm not sure what's scariest, the fact that he didn't know the year (and seasons) are determined by the earth's orbit around the sun, or the fact he thought that light-years are a unit of time!

    But then again, he is quite representative of our sadly scientifically illeterate society. No wonder so many people still question evolution.

  2. You're right, peple don't care. Everyone laughs their heads off because 1 out of 5 Americans in a survey couldn't point out the USA on a world map. But will there be any change? Unlikely.

    Nice work on testing that question yourself though. Personally, I'd be too embarassed for the other person to ask and have them give me the wrong answer. I don't know what I'd say in response...

  3. I guess what gets me is that kids are taught all of the politically correct stuff like caring for the environment, etc., but have no clue of how we and our world fit into the overall scheme of things in our universe.

  4. Wikipedia is what I use a whole lot to look up details about something I can't recall... My children do this, too and I don't know if they are getting DEEP information. Sometimes remembering trivia is fun but my memory sucks for details. China drills their students but look -- they are good at copying but not creative thinking.

    I went to a prep school and was taught that it was important to know where to go for what you need to know. The ability to think was most important, and what to think about.

    Having said that, trooper's comment about how students don't know geography or world history. One of the coolest thing my daughter learned in high school was for her geography final she had to draw the world map with all the countries from scratch and their capitol cities. She made an A. What a teacher to cover the world. Think what she has learned.

    Your last comment, Atavist, is very true.

  5. I like Wikipedia and use it myself. There are complaints that it is light on fact-checking, etc., but in my personal experience it has been just fine. It is, after all, user-driven, and occasionally some self-serving material is bound to be posted. Otherwise , it is a great tool.

  6. You have heard it said by them of old time; With age comes wisdom, but verily, verily, I say unto you: This is an illusion created by the fact that the people around you aren't educated or disciplined nearly as well as you have been, and the younger they are, the worse a case it is!

  7. What I find truly amazing is that so many of these people who are unable to answer the simplist question, have graduated from or are attending college.

    I think it has something to do with paying attention to something other than yourself.