Slowly Deflating Quiz.

spoonRegular readers are familiar with the occasional pop quizzes I throw out. I try to make them fun and a little bit challenging but not too difficult because nothing annoys me more than trying to do a crossword puzzle and halfway through feeling like the antediluvian legal scholar who created it decided no one would make it past 42-across and just started making up words and I want to hunt him down and beat him with a dictionary.

Anyway I got an idea for a pop quiz while reading Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon, which is a really cool book about the periodic table and the elements that comprise it. It’s not a heavy scientific text but full of interesting stories like how in 1915 the Germans covertly took over a Colorado molybdenum mine which gave them an advantage in World War I, but that’s another story.

And then I started writing the quiz down and realized I was insane. It relied on some pretty rarefied knowledge and the clues were such a stretch I think even most chemists would find it tougher than tungsten. The answers are all scientists who aren’t household names, with one exception. Think bushy hair and moustache and sarcastic synonym for “smart person”.

They are also all scientists who’ve had elements named after them which narrows it down but they’re mostly still obscure and to make it even worse all my puns are a real stretch. And this may surprise some of the laity but the naming of elements can actually be controversial. Dmitri Mendeleev created the first modern periodic table and realized there were a lot of undiscovered elements to fill the spaces. He named the gap elements things like “ekaaluminum”. “Eka” is Sanskrit for “one” and was the element Mendeleev predicted would sit under aluminum on the periodic table. He was right about there being such an element but the scientist who discovered it named it gallium. When Marie Curie discovered polonium  in 1911 she named it in honor of her home country, Poland, which was not at the time a bona fide country and fighting Germany for independence. Now while the naming is less political scientists still rush for naming rights and some elements have gone unnamed for years while who really found them first is sorted out.

Still with me? Here’s the quiz. Get one or two and you can feel really good about yourself. Get more than half and you can non-sarcastically call yourself a smart person. Get zero and you get the grand prize: you can hunt me down and beat me with a dictionary.

Name the scientist suggested by the following puns.

1. He would prefer to wade.

Additional clues: called the “father of nuclear physics”, he won the Nobel Prize in 1908

2. Hard common vowel.

Additional clues: an Italian physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project

3. Ocean-going Star Trek villain.

Additional clues: the only living person to have an element named after him he discovered or helped discover ten elements

4. Heal him.

Additional clues: the only woman to have an element named after her (so far), she discovered both polonium and radium

5. One big mug.

Additional clues: a real smart person with a reputation for absent-mindedness. Think bushy hair and moustache.

6. Edict wash.

Additional clues: invented the cyclotron

7. Repair Bulgarian currency.

Additional clues: created the periodic table and predicted the discovery of many additional elements

This clue is also so far out if you get it without the additional clues you are either a science historian, a chemist, or are working in the wrong field

8. Doesn’t ring.

Additional clues: has a prestigious set of prizes named after him and invented dynamite

9. Hire Hunger Games star.

Additional clues: German scientist (oh, like that narrows it down) who discovered X-rays

10. A real sleeper.

Additional clues: Danish scientist who created a popular atomic model.

Answer key:


And all this is really an excuse to share Tom Lehrer’s The Elements. If you’ve all been paying attention you’ll know that since he wrote it the news of a few new elements has come to Harvard.


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  1. Ann Koplow

    This is what I got:

    1. Three right on your quiz,
    2. Inspired to read “The Disappearing Spoon,” and
    3. More Tom Lehrer!

    All in all, an elementally great time.

  2. Margot

    This was super hard! You can’t guess when it’s not multiple choice. I only got 2, and you pretty much had already given us one of them before the quiz. I don’t feel good about myself now—since I usually score high on your quizzes—and would like to beat you with a dictionary. I know you’re in Nashville…could you be a little more specific?

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Actually I gave you two in the preface to the quiz–I mentioned both Mendeleev who created the first periodic table and Curie who discovered polonium. And I thought Einstein was kind of obvious. However since this was a ridiculously hard and obscure quiz I award you the grand prize of a dictionary beating.
      Unfortunately my exact whereabouts in Nashville are not only currently unknown but subject to frequent change, even on days when I ride the bus.

      1. Margot

        Well, I only really got the Einstein hint and sort of got the Curie one. The only other one I got was Alfred Nobel. I guess we’ll just have to pick a time and place for your dictionary beating.

  3. Spoken Like A True Nut

    I’ve almost been beaten by a dictionary before. More specifically, our history teacher threw a big hardcover one at me when someone else in the class kept asking what words in our textbook meant. Why he threw it at ME I don’t know, but I’m sure glad I caught the thing before it left a permanent dent in my face. Who says words can’t hurt you?

    Anyway, I may have only gotten 6 out of 10 on the quiz, but at least I can take pride in my reflexes.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Words are some of the most dangerous weapons we have, especially when they’re in a heavy book. I do know from experience though that it’s really hard to aim a book. Someone once threw a textbook at me on the bus. I threw it back and it hit the wrong person. In retrospect I should have thrown it out the window.


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