Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Questions of the Day--#8

Which is older—the Roman Coliseum or the Pyramid at Giza?

What are both the tallest and largest living organisms in the world?

Which country was the first to send a satellite up into space?

The English language belongs to which language family?

Of an oophyte, onomatologist or oenophile, the one who would enjoy imbibing a chardonnay?

What is the nut that is used in the manufacturing of dynamite?


Anonymous said...

Another set that shouldn't need much research.But perhaps your students are too young to remember the largest living organism hitting the front page

ProfK said...

The point of the research exercise is not to have the students spend X amount of time doing the research. One skill I hope they attain is to reduce the amount of time needed for the research by learning about the hierarchy of sources available and going to the more/most reputable sources first rather than stumbling upon them by accident. They need to be able to evaluate web sites so they can judge the accuracy/timeliness of the information on those sites.
They also need to be able to examine a research topic carefully such that any pitfalls in the questions asked will be accounted for in their research.

Most students, and I imagine most people in general, head straight for Yahoo or Google when they need to research something and they assume, many times erroneously, that the answer they are looking for will be in the first 20 hits presented, and that the answer they find will be accurate and up to date. Hopefully the students will have picked up better research habits before they leave my class, as well as some critical thinking skills.

David Staum said...

I knew #'s 1, 3, and 4 without checking. The internet gave me the answers to #'s 5 & 6. But I couldn't determine a definitive answer to #2. Giant redwoods? Giant undergound fungus?

ProfK said...

The Internet should also have given you the answer to the organism question. A "definitive" source would be a .edu domain or a .gov domain.

The California redwoods, the Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), are the tallest and largest living organisms in the world.

Anonymous said...

Prof K:

Not so fast. There was a story that hit the news a few years ago about a gigantic fungus covering many acres underground in Michigan being the largest organism; it was in all the major newspapers. The original work is published in Nature 356:428-431. There is another paper in Nature (don't have the exact cite handy) a few issues later claiming a many acre stand of aspen in Utah is really a single organism with a single root system, and was even bigger.

Either easily beats a redwood for anything other than height.

Just because a site is on an edu domain doesn't make it authoritative. usually any professor can post stuff to a personal or departmental site, and not all professors are equally authoritative.

ProfK said...

The question said both tallest and largest. It is possible that a student could read that question to be asking for two organisms: one the tallest and another the largest. It is also possible, and probably more likely, to read the question as asking for one organism that is both tallest and largest. The organisms you mention don't qualify in the tallest range.

But they are also not the largest organisms by acclaim of all either. Much as it pains me, I'll let the NY Times do my talking for me. First, regarding the aspens: "Its root system is alleged to be intact, whereas the fungus was acknowledged to have many tiny breaks in its network of tentacles and mushrooms."

"Identifying the largest organisms was once a simple task. You could see them whole, as living entities bounded by skin or an outer covering. The largest were thought to be whales, elephants and giant sequoia trees; the giants of yore were the dinosaurs.

But now, armed with the fancy new tools of genetic analysis, scientists are tempted to define as an organism anything that is genetically uniform and clumped more or less together. Even if no one can see the whole thing, or even be sure it is intact."

In short, the finds reported in Nature are "supposed" to be the largest organisms, but they have not been proven to be so. The aspens are only "alleged" to have a completely intact root system; it has been acknowledged that the fungus has many small breaks in its system, which would make it multi-organisms rather than one. As there is no way at present to determine if the aspen root system is indeed one complete, unbroken system, it is only theoretical that the aspen could be the largest organism, and you would have to discount the height part of the question because aspens are not as tall as sequoias.

Obviously you have to look at the who and what of a .edu carefully, but in the hierarchy of domains a .edu and a .gov stand higher and are deemed more reliable IN GENERAL then a run of the mill .com in matters of academic research.

Anonymous said...

Yes, given the choice between a .edu and joeqpublic.com, I'd take the letter. Refereed journals, however, beat either, and Nature is one of the best.

If you meant to find an organism that is both the largest and tallest, than it is quite possible that there is no answer.

Anonymous said...

Oops, I meant, I'd take the former.

Anonymous said...

I should add, that a good researcher would not only look at the original article, but would do a citation search to find whether subsequent research bore out the claim, or contradicted it.