Election 2000: Doing the Science and Math

A Modest Proposal
Mercury rocketThe only science in presidential elections seems to be political science. And when it comes to mathematics, the most important numbers to the candidates may be the results of public opinion polls.

That's not the way it should be, according to mathematics professor, author, and columnist John Allen Paulos, who raises a serious question: How much science and math should the next president of the United States know?

In his "Who's Counting?" column for ABCNEWS.com, Temple University mathematician John Allen Paulos recently took a cue from the network television show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He challenged this year's presidential candidates to play a round of "Who Wants to Be a Scientifically Literate President?"

"Nobody expects (them) to calculate quantum wave functions or spout out pi to 50 digits," Paulos wrote in his column, "but reasonable answers to a few elementary questions on mathematics and science would nevertheless be reassuring."

The topics Paulos throws at the candidates in this imaginary competition range from percentages and medians to earthquake science and distances in outer space. You'll find some of the questions in the table below. Try your hand at answering them. Compare your answers with the ones that appeared in the column.

Question

Answer

A crucial number to know is the population of the country you want to be president of. What is the approximate population of the United States? The world? What percentage of the latter is the former?  
You're campaigning in a Midwestern community where the mean price of a house is $400,000 and the median price is $50,000. What does this say about the distribution of house prices here? If (someone) builds a $10 million dollar mansion in the community, which goes up more, the mean or the median value of the houses?  
Biotechnology breakthroughs are much in the news recently. What is the shape of the DNA molecule. Very roughly how does it function as a code?  

Source: "Who Wants to Be a Science-Savvy President?," by John Allen Paulos, ABCNEWS.com

  • What science and math questions do you think the next president should be able to answer and why?
  • Read the entire column by John Allen Paulos.

Science Achievements
Some past presidents of the United States have become known for their background in math and science or for their commitment to scientific programs. Monticello

Thomas Jefferson served as the third president from 1802-1809, authored the Declaration of Independence, and founded the University of Virginia. But he was also an architect, who designed his home Monticello, in Virginia, and much of the University of Virginia campus in nearby Charlottesville. Take an interactive tour of Jefferson's architectural contributions to the university.

John F. Kennedy helped launch the United States space program during his shortened term in office from 1961-1963. Besides presiding over America's first manned flights in the Project Mercury program, Kennedy set the United States on a course to land astronauts on the moon by the end of the decade. Hear part of his speech. (Requires QuickTIme. Download now.)

Jimmy Carter, in office from 1977-1981, departed from the tradition of many American presidents who had graduated from law school. Carter received a Bachelor of Science degree from the U.S. Naval Academy. He did graduate work in nuclear physics and worked in the Navy's nuclear submarine program.

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Getting Advice
The Carter administration was the first to have the full benefit of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which came into existence in 1976. The members of this office, located in the White House, advise the sitting president on science and technology questions. Among the issues the OSTP has addressed during the past year of the Clinton administration:

  • Technological innovation in the new millennium

  • Higher efficiency automobiles

  • International climate change, including global warming

  • The Human Genome Project—the international effort to map and sequence the roughly 100,000 genes that make up the human genetic code

Learn More
The candidates taking the "Who Wants to Be a Scientifically Literate President?" quiz could have prepared themselves with some Riverdeep activities.

  • Get a grip on medians in the Defining the Mean and Median activity in Destination MATH's Mastering Skills and Concepts: Course V.

  • Check out the Biology Explorer activity The Genetic Code to explore how this code is organized.

In April, John Allen Paulos answered questions in the Riverdeep.net Webcast "Speaking of Numbers."

Related Resources
For a primer on how mathematics enters our everyday lives, check Dr. Paulos's books:

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