MARTY RUSSELL: What’s that you’re breathing? It ain’t oxygen



Scientists last week announced the discovery of one of the oldest things ever found on this planet and, no, it wasn’t a Christmas fruitcake that had been passed down since the age of the dinosaurs.

What they found was a small, zircon crystal on a sheep ranch in Australia that, based on carbon dating, something I tried when I was younger, dates back about 4.4 billion years. Considering the Earth is only about 4.5 billion years old, that means the crystal has been around longer than the Twinkie.

But wait, you say, how can that be? I thought the Earth was only about 6,000 years old and just popped into existence one day fully populated with people and platypuses. And all those so-called “dinosaur” fossils were just weird rock formations, otherwise where did they all go?

Therein lies the problem, at least in science education. The National Science Foundation recently conducted a survey to gauge the public’s knowledge of basic science and the need for more basic science education. What they found was a little scary.

According to the survey, 1 in 4 Americans believes the sun revolves around the Earth. After all, it comes up in the east, goes down in the west and comes back up in the east again the next day. Wrong. Copernicus and Galileo figured out the Earth revolves around the sun, as do all the planets in the solar system, as far back as the 16th century. Of course, part of the problem is that it took the Catholic church until 1992 to finally acknowledge that, a good argument for keeping religion out of education.

While we won’t know the exact findings of the survey until after it is presented to the president and Congress, most respondents barely passed, averaging only 6.5 correct answers out of the nine questions.

So how would you respond if asked what the most abundant element in our atmosphere is? Oxygen, you say? (Loud, annoying buzzer sound). Wrong. It’s 78 percent nitrogen.

And which parent determines the sex of a child? Both, you say? (Somebody turn that buzzer off). Wrong. It’s the father. Males carry both X and Y chromosomes. Females only have two X chromosomes. So to produce a male offspring, the father has to pass along a Y chromosome.

And here’s one many of us have been guilty of. You have a cold or the flu so you demand your doctor give you antibiotics. Most of the survey respondents did not know that antibiotics only attack bacterial infections, not viruses which are the cause of colds and flu.

You can find the survey questions online and see how your science knowledge stacks up. Here in the Bible Belt I won’t even bring up the question that asked what is the Big Bang Theory? I suspect they got a lot of answers along the line of it’s a situation comedy show on TV.

Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at

Click video to hear audio