Space without Physics…

I’m indebted to a colleague (Annabel Cartwright) for sending me this (coincidentally topical) sample question, illustrating the quality of a modern British school science examination.

Since it’s now clear  that there is no room for science in the new era of the UK Space Agency, I suppose we should get used to the removal of science from other things too. Starting with science exams.

This question is taken from a GCSE Physics examination.

Some people think that governments spend too much money on space research.

Which ONE of the following statements is true?

  1. Science can tell us what the planets are made of, and whether they ought to be explored.
  2. Science can tell us what the planets are made of, but not whether they ought to be explored.
  3. Science cannot tell us what the planets are made of but can tell us whether they ought to be explored.
  4. Science cannot tell us what the planets are made of, nor whether they ought to be explored.

Apparently one (and only one) answer is correct. Any offers?

20 Responses to “Space without Physics…”

  1. 1 clearly, haven’t you seen Avatar yet? Claim those mining rights for the new British (space) empire.

  2. Mr Physicist Says:

    More like GCSE physics without physics.

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by telescoper: Space without Physics…:

  4. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Peter,

    I’m not sure this is such a bad question. It invites the student to contemplate the limits of what science can address and the tension with other deserving sources of money. I’m pretty sure I know what the answer is.

    It depends on context. If this is the only question of this form and the rest are actually about physics I’d have no objection. If instead the paper is stuffed with questions like this (or even if it is primarily multiple choice regardless of subject) I’d be pretty dismayed.



    PS Here’s a related question based on today’s budget. The government withdraws 10% of your funding. It then decides to give you 2% of it back provided you agree to do 4% more work. Should you be
    a) Happy
    b) Sad

  5. telescoper Says:


    I don’t object at all to questions addressing science in the wider context of society, which is presumably what this question is intended to do.

    The problem is I really don’t know which is the “right” answer.

    Can science tell us what the planets are made of?

    Surely not. What is in the centre of Neptune? Does anyone know?

    But then I’m told (2) is the “right” answer….


  6. I think 2 is the answer they are looking for. The composition of a planet is an objective fact that can be verified by scientific methods. What we should spend money exploring is a value judgment.

    But then this question has little to do with actual science.

    • telescoper Says:

      The composition of a planet may in principle be something that science can shed light on. But don’t you think the question implies that science already has supplied answers to the question? Or is it just me being obtuse?

  7. I was going to choose 2 as well. To me, “Science can tell us” sounds sufficiently unlike “Science has told us”. But I suppose it depends on whether “science” is the method or the existing body of knowledge.

    Anyway, I wonder if the rest of the paper looks like this?

  8. I’m utterly out of touch with the education system in the UK these days, so please bear that in mind. Options 3 and 4 can be ruled out I think but I’m torn between 1 and 2. But I have to think of the circumstance where you have some planets you want to explore and “science” tells us one of them has water. If you have limited funds then surely science would be used to explore that planet?

    The question is more of an essay type question than a multiple choice one, and perhaps something that should be done in a coursework essay at the start of a physics/science course rather than a final physics exam?

    Or perhaps I’m missing something.


  9. telescoper Says:

    I read “Science can tell us” as meaning “Science is able to tell us”, which in this context it can’t. Not yet anyway. I’d have liked the question if it had said

    “Science may at some point be able tell us what the planets are made of, but …”

    We can differ on interpretation of what “can” means, but the fact that there’s a difference surely makes this a badly worded question.

    I think the second clause is better because the introduction of “ought” expresses “duty or obligation, moral rightness or suitability” (Chambers), which is something can’t tell us. Science may provide some motivation for exploring the planets but will never be the sole factor deciding whether we “ought” to do it.

  10. No I think it means that science can in principle tell us. It may or may not have told us now but it is the type of question that you turn to science for an answer.

    In any case science has gone a long way toward determining the composition of planets. So it would seem that the difference is moot.

  11. telescoper Says:

    I’d agree that it would make sense if it said “in principle”. But it doesn’t. Let me ask you the following question:

    Can science tell us what dark matter is?

    It can, in principle, but we don’t know whether it can, in practice, until it does.

  12. Well there is always ambiguity in language. In this case the philosophical motivation behind the question is clear enough to me that I simply can’t see any confusion. Even the Dark matter question is only confusing when separated from the context in which it is asked. Language cannot stand alone. It always depends on context.

    My only problem with the question is that it isn’t really a science question.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think this question is meant to be about something called the is-ought problem, which has been widely discussed since the time of David Hume. My primary objection was – and remains – that it is so badly worded that it appears (at least to me!) also to be a question about what science actually tells us about the composition of the planets..

  13. Anton Garrett Says:

    I always thought the “is-ought” question was part of biological science, specifically anatomy (as in “aorta deal with this issue now”.)

  14. telescoper Says:

    I hereby lodge a moral objection to that joke.

  15. Paul Newman Says:

    5. Science can [in principle] tell us what the planets are made of, if we are prepared to fund their exploration 🙂

  16. Anton Garrett Says:

    The preceding three blog entries have all attracted 10 comments at the time I am typing this. What is the probability of that?

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