1. You know that light travels at a speed of 1 light-year per year, don’t you? You also know that the universe is 13.5 billion years old? Okay, if you’re so smart, how far away is the farthest object we can see in our telescopes?

  2. When Gregor Mendel started experimenting with how organisms inherited characteristics he started with mice. What made him switch from mammals to peas?

  3. In what way did the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 save Albert Einstein’s reputation and clear the way for acceptance of his relativity theories later on?

Give me your answers in the comments, and I’ll give you mine next time!


  1. Bill Goodwin says:

    1. The age of the Universe may be 13.5 billion years, but because of the expansion of space we can theoretically observe objects farther away than 13.5 billion light-years. The edge of the observable universe is thought to be somewhere between 46 and 47 billion light-years away, in principle. In practice we can only see as far as the “surface of last scattering” (before which the universe was opaque to photons). Neutrino and gravity-wave observations may penetrate slightly farther. We might even hear the last words uttered before the Big Bang: “Wait, don’t touch that…”

    2. A local bishop objected to the fornicating of the mice. Which was just as well; Mendel could better control the breeding of peas, by cross-pollenating them with a paint brush.

    3. In 1911, Einstein miscalculated (by half) the degree of starlight-bending that should be observed during a total solar eclipse. If his results had been tested during the eclipse of 1914, he would have looked the fool…but the outbreak of war prevented that. A year later he had the right answer, and when his predictions were confirmed by observations made during the eclipse of 1919, he became a celebrity.

  2. Rory Kent says:

    1) 93 billion light years (metric expansion)
    2) Simpler genes with obvious traits, so the dominant and recessive features are more obvious
    3) I’m not sure, but I’m guessing it has something to do with his opposition to the war earning him respect from the Allied scientists.

  3. Michael says:

    1) Well, the furthest confirmed object observed was ~13.2 billion light years away (GRB 090423) detected by the Swift satellite. I would guess that the furthest object we could see would be no more than the age of the universe – a couple hundred million years that it takes for stars to form. A terrestrial telescope would be rather more limited, due to atmospheric refraction and a whole host of other things I don\’t really understand…but I think that number is in the hundreds of millions of miles, due to earth light pollution, and the need for a magnitude of brightness able to penetrate the atmosphere.

    2) his religious leaders thought mice were not a genteel area of study.

    3) He met Arthur Eddington?

  4. dave schutz says:

    Peas don’t bite

  5. Brenda says:

    1. Since the universe is constantly expanding, the object that emitted the light from 13.5 billion years ago that is just now hitting the retinas of someone on Earth could be very far from where it once was. It might not even exist any more. I’m not sure you could say very much about the current state or position of an object based on the light that left it 13.5 billion years ago. So I’m going to have to say “no way to tell”.

    2. Mendel switched to peas because his observations on inherited characteristics don’t work on higher forms of life. Or even many plants. It turns out that Mendel’s peas were one of the only living things that DID seem to adhere to some easily-observable list of inherited characteristics.

    3. No idea. Maybe the patent business picked up?

  6. Jim says:

    An admission: I used Google for all of these answers.

    1. As of April 2009, a Gamma Ray Burst was detected 13.1 billion light years away.
    1a. Of course, the star that exploded creating the GRB is no longer there, right now. But 13.1 billion years ago it was, and now we are within its light cone.
    1b. It really depends on what you define as “seeing” something. Does seeing something as it existed billions of years ago count? Or does it only count if we are seeing it “right now”? If so, we can’t “see” the sun in our telescopes – we are seeing the sun 8 minutes ago.
    1c. It also depends on what you mean by how “far” away something is. We are seeing where the GRB was 13.1 billion years ago. But where it is now, or the remnants of it are now, are in a different place.

    2. This was funny – a good cocktail party trivia item. For a certain value of nerdiness at that cocktail party. Apparently, Gregor Mendel was asked to stop experimenting on mice because it wasn’t appropriate for a religious man to watch mice breeding. Pistols and stamens are much less “stimulating”.

    3. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything. If this was an exam for a course, I would take a guess, act confident, and hope for partial credit. My best guess? In 1914 Albert received a directorship at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. Perhaps the Institute hired him on to bolster German accomplishments in an era of increased nationalism? Or is it because of Einstein’s support of pacifism that increased during WWI, letting him be accepted internationally as someone who was a “world citizen”, not a nationalist? I don’t know. Incomplete. See me after class.

  7. Lars says:

    I”ll hazard a guess at the furthest visible object in the universe – theoretically 6.75 billion ly away – however, this would only be true for an optically-visible object if there was no dust etc. in the way. Also you will have to trim some time off that estimate because the universe was opaque for the first hundred thousand years or so after the Big Bang.
    Having had some experience with mice, I would say that Mendel preferred the peas because they were sessile, non-smelly, and took up much less room and care than an equivalent sample of mice. Also, it was much easier in his day to establish true-breeding lines homozygous for a trait of a single character – this sort of thing was much less obvious in mice, which hadn’t been domesticated for very long and were much less variable. Peas had characters such as flower colour, pant height, or pod colour that had two distinct traits, making inheritance much easier to follow. However I am willing to bet that Mendel gave up on mice because his abbot told him to get all of those stinking animals out of the abbey.
    No clue with the Einstein, sorry.

  8. Craig says:

    1: Roughly 13.3 billion light years. If I recall the lights turned on in the universe about 300,000 years after the big bang.

    2: He hated mice? no idea.

    3: I know this… (thinks hard). It forced Arthur Eddington to perform a test of general relativity on an island off of Africa that ended up having clear viewing conditions and thus allowing him to observe the impact of gravity on light?

    I only cheated enough to make sure I got Arthur Eddington’s name correct (I misremembered it has ‘Eddings’).

  9. Some call me Tim says:

    1. I remember an NPR episode recently that said some astronomers “saw” a gamma ray burst from 13 billion years ago that just reached earth, making it the furthest detectable object. So 13 bly?

    2. Generation time?

    3. His theory that light should be deflected in the presence of extreme gravity, I believe. Something to do with E=MC^2 suggesting that a photon’s energy is equivalent to mass, so it too should be affected by gravity. It was to be tested by someone during an full solar eclipse, but the start WWI prevented the observation.

  10. TonyC says:

    Farthest star is about 3 billion light years away (it would be around 30th magnitude, since that is the resolution of Hubble)

    Mendel chose peas because the mice were too slow (and inaccurate) to breed

    Einstein was a signatory to a statement in 1914 (Manifesto to Europeans) condemning German aggression, one of only a few scholars to do so. He retained and grew his pacifist credentials in future years (including a meeting with Gandhi in 1925). His non-alignment with ‘Prussian aggression’ meant that his theories were not automatically discounted, which gave them prominence when in 1919 a solar eclipse confirmed his theories (on gravitational lensing)

  11. David says:

    I saw a documentary about Einstein recently on The Science Channel. WWI prevented the timely testing of General Relativity via observations of the apparent motion of stars near the edge of a solar eclipse. By the time eclipse observations were available to test and confirm the theory, Einstein had found and corrected his mistake.

    I don’t have the answers to the first two questions off the top of my head, so now it’s someone else’s turn.

  12. Scott Hauger says:

    On #1, do you mean how far away was it when it emitted the photons we see now? Or how far away it is now (relatoively speaking)?