ISEE Upper Level Reading : Determining Context-Dependent Word Meanings in Science Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for ISEE Upper Level Reading

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Example Question #1 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

Adapted from On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

How will the struggle for existence, discussed too briefly in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organization becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favorable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic.

We shall best understand the probable course of natural selection by taking the case of a country undergoing some physical change, for instance, of climate. The proportional numbers of its inhabitants would almost immediately undergo a change, and some species might become extinct. We may conclude, from what we have seen of the intimate and complex manner in which the inhabitants of each country are bound together, that any change in the numerical proportions of some of the inhabitants, independently of the change of climate itself, would most seriously affect many of the others. If the country were open on its borders, new forms would certainly immigrate, and this also would seriously disturb the relations of some of the former inhabitants. Let it be remembered how powerful the influence of a single introduced tree or mammal has been shown to be. But in the case of an island, or of a country partly surrounded by barriers, into which new and better adapted forms could not freely enter, we should then have places in the economy of nature which would assuredly be better filled up, if some of the original inhabitants were in some manner modified; for, had the area been open to immigration, these same places would have been seized on by intruders. In such case, every slight modification, which in the course of ages chanced to arise, and which in any way favoured the individuals of any of the species, by better adapting them to their altered conditions, would tend to be preserved; and natural selection would thus have free scope for the work of improvement.

In context, "extinct" most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

refusing to evolve

none of these answers

a combination of these answers

no longer alive for one generation

no longer alive for the rest of time

Correct answer:

no longer alive for the rest of time

Explanation:

In context, we can undertand that "extinct" most nearly means no longer alive for generations to come. The notion of extinction means the end of the line for that species by Darwin's definition.

Example Question #2 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

Adapted from On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

How will the struggle for existence, discussed too briefly in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organization becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favorable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic.

We shall best understand the probable course of natural selection by taking the case of a country undergoing some physical change, for instance, of climate. The proportional numbers of its inhabitants would almost immediately undergo a change, and some species might become extinct. We may conclude, from what we have seen of the intimate and complex manner in which the inhabitants of each country are bound together, that any change in the numerical proportions of some of the inhabitants, independently of the change of climate itself, would most seriously affect many of the others. If the country were open on its borders, new forms would certainly immigrate, and this also would seriously disturb the relations of some of the former inhabitants. Let it be remembered how powerful the influence of a single introduced tree or mammal has been shown to be. But in the case of an island, or of a country partly surrounded by barriers, into which new and better adapted forms could not freely enter, we should then have places in the economy of nature which would assuredly be better filled up, if some of the original inhabitants were in some manner modified; for, had the area been open to immigration, these same places would have been seized on by intruders. In such case, every slight modification, which in the course of ages chanced to arise, and which in any way favoured the individuals of any of the species, by better adapting them to their altered conditions, would tend to be preserved; and natural selection would thus have free scope for the work of improvement.

What does Darwin mean by the phrase "economy of nature?"

Possible Answers:

the banking world

none of these answers

the world of nature, creatures, and evolution

a combination of these answers

that islands and some climates are a complex economy 

Correct answer:

the world of nature, creatures, and evolution

Explanation:

In context, we can see that Darwin is referring to the economy of animals and creatures throughout time. He writes, "But in the case of an island, or of a country partly surrounded by barriers, into which new and better adapted forms could not freely enter, we should then have places in the economy of nature which would assuredly be better filled up;" here is is disucssing not one specific place or creature, but the scene they have lived in as a whole.

Example Question #42 : Passage Based Questions

Adapted from "Recent Views as to Direct Action of Light on the Colors of Flowers and Fruits" in Tropical Nature, and Other Essays by Alfred Russel Wallace (1878)

The theory that the brilliant colors of flowers and fruits is due to the direct action of light has been supported by a recent writer by examples taken from the arctic instead of from the tropical flora. In the arctic regions, vegetation is excessively rapid during the short summer, and this is held to be due to the continuous action of light throughout the long summer days. "The further we advance towards the north, the more the leaves of plants increase in size as if to absorb a greater proportion of the solar rays. M. Grisebach says that during a journey in Norway he observed that the majority of deciduous trees had already, at the 60th degree of latitude, larger leaves than in Germany, while M. Ch. Martins has made a similar observation as regards the leguminous plants cultivated in Lapland.” The same writer goes on to say that all the seeds of cultivated plants acquire a deeper color the further north they are grown, white haricots becoming brown or black, and white wheat becoming brown, while the green color of all vegetation becomes more intense. The flowers also are similarly changed: those which are white or yellow in central Europe becoming red or orange in Norway. This is what occurs in the Alpine flora, and the cause is said to be the same in both—the greater intensity of the sunlight. In the one the light is more persistent, in the other more intense because it traverses a less thickness of atmosphere.

Admitting the facts as above stated to be in themselves correct, they do not by any means establish the theory founded on them; and it is curious that Grisebach, who has been quoted by this writer for the fact of the increased size of the foliage, gives a totally different explanation of the more vivid colors of Arctic flowers. He says, “We see flowers become larger and more richly colored in proportion as, by the increasing length of winter, insects become rarer, and their cooperation in the act of fecundation is exposed to more uncertain chances.” (Vegetation du Globe, col. i. p. 61—French translation.) This is the theory here adopted to explain the colors of Alpine plants, and we believe there are many facts that will show it to be the preferable one. The statement that the white and yellow flowers of temperate Europe become red or golden in the Arctic regions must we think be incorrect. By roughly tabulating the colors of the plants given by Sir Joseph Hooker as permanently Arctic, we find among fifty species with more or less conspicuous flowers, twenty-five white, twelve yellow, eight purple or blue, three lilac, and two red or pink; showing a very similar proportion of white and yellow flowers to what obtains further south.

By the underlined phrase “act of fecundation” in the second paragraph, the author means __________.

Possible Answers:

seasonal shedding of leaves

process of becoming active after a period of dormancy

pollination

the consumption of a prey organism by a predator

the expansion of the area in which a given type of organism is found

Correct answer:

pollination

Explanation:

The phrase "act of fecundation" appears in the following sentence:"[Grisebach] says, 'We see flowers become larger and more richly colored in proportion as, by the increasing length of winter, insects become rarer, and their cooperation in the act of fecundation is exposed to more uncertain chances.' (Vegetation du Globe, col. i. p. 61—French translation.)" From this context, we can infer that whatever the "act of fecundation" is, insects are cooperatively involved in it. The only answer choice in which insects play a part for flowers is "pollination," so "pollination" is the correct answer. None of the other answer choices are supported by the text.

Example Question #3 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

Adapted from An Introduction to Astronomy by Forest Ray Moulton (1916 ed.)

The ancient Greeks, at a period four or five hundred years preceding the common era, definitely undertook to find from systematic observation how celestial phenomena follow one another. They determined very accurately the number of days in the year, the period of the moon's revolution, and the paths of the sun and the moon among the stars; they correctly explained the cause of eclipses and learned how to predict them with a considerable degree of accuracy; they undertook to measure the distances to the heavenly bodies, and to work out a complete system that would represent their motions. The idea was current among the Greek philosophers that the earth was spherical, that it turned on its axis, and, among some of them, that it revolved around the sun. They had true science in the modern acceptance of the term, but it was largely confined to the relations among celestial phenomena.

The conception that the heavens are orderly, which they definitely formulated and acted on with remarkable success, has been extended, especially in the last two centuries, so as to include the whole universe. The extension was first made to the inanimate world and then to the more complicated phenomena associated with living beings. Every increase in carefully recorded experience has confirmed and strengthened the belief that nature is perfectly orderly, until now every one who has had an opportunity of becoming familiar with any science is firmly convinced of the truth of this principle, which is the basis of all science.

What is meant by the underlined word “current”?

Possible Answers:

coterminous

common

modern

amazing

disputed

Correct answer:

common

Explanation:

We generally use "current" in a strictly temporal sense, meaning now or present. It can also be used in the sense of meaning common—as though it is "now accepted by everyone." This is the sense in this sentence, which basically is saying that the ideas listed were relatively common among Greek philosophers.

Example Question #4 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

"The Multiple Sides of Computer Science" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

It often takes some time for a new discipline to become recognized as an independent science. An excellent example of this is computer science. In many ways, this science still is a hodgepodge of several different sciences, each one having its own distinct character. For example, some computer scientists are almost indistinguishable from mathematicians. Many of the most difficult topics in pattern recognition and data communications require intensive mathematics in order to provide software solutions. Years of training in the appropriate disciplines are necessary before the computer scientist can even begin to work as a programmer in such areas. In contrast to those computer scientists who work with complex mathematics, many computer scientists work on areas of hardware development that are similar to disciplines like electrical engineering and physics.

However, computer science has its own particular problems regarding the unity of its subject matter. There are many practical applications for computing work; therefore, many computer scientists focus on learning a large set of skills in programming languages, development environments, and even information technology. All of these disciplines have a certain practical coloration that is quite distinct from the theoretical concepts used in other parts of the field. Nevertheless, these practical topics add to the broad range of topics covered by most academic programs that claim to focus on “computer science.” It can only be hoped that these disciplines will increase in orderliness in the coming decades.

What is meant by the underlined word "character"?

Possible Answers:

Temperament

Morality

Personality

Disposition

Nature

Correct answer:

Nature

Explanation:

The word "character" often has to do with someone's moral dispositions. A person of "good character" is someone who is upright and moral. However, it can more generally mean the "nature" of the person. (This is why the word is related to "characteristic.")  In this passage, this second meaning is by far the better option for the word "character." The idea is that the several topics studied in computer science are of differing natures. This is why it is so hard to tell exactly what is the single, united focus of the science.

Example Question #11 : Hspt Reading

"The Multiple Sides of Computer Science" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

It often takes some time for a new discipline to become recognized as an independent science. An excellent example of this is computer science. In many ways, this science still is a hodgepodge of several different sciences, each one having its own distinct character. For example, some computer scientists are almost indistinguishable from mathematicians. Many of the most difficult topics in pattern recognition and data communications require intensive mathematics in order to provide software solutions. Years of training in the appropriate disciplines are necessary before the computer scientist can even begin to work as a programmer in such areas. In contrast to those computer scientists who work with complex mathematics, many computer scientists work on areas of hardware development that are similar to disciplines like electrical engineering and physics.

However, computer science has its own particular problems regarding the unity of its subject matter. There are many practical applications for computing work; therefore, many computer scientists focus on learning a large set of skills in programming languages, development environments, and even information technology. All of these disciplines have a certain practical coloration that is quite distinct from the theoretical concepts used in other parts of the field. Nevertheless, these practical topics add to the broad range of topics covered by most academic programs that claim to focus on “computer science.” It can only be hoped that these disciplines will increase in orderliness in the coming decades.

What is meant by the underlined word “coloration”?

Possible Answers:

Mood

Application

Undertaking

Focus

Outline

Correct answer:

Focus

Explanation:

To have a certain "coloration" is to have a character that is similar to something else. Something with a "religious coloration" likely reminds us of religious settings and realities. Something with a "practical coloration" has a practical focus or a practical appearance. Here, the point is more about the focus of these disciplines than about their appearance.

Example Question #71 : Sat Critical Reading

"Darwinism's Effect on Science" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

For much of the history of human thought, the sciences have studied subjects that seemed to be eternal and unchanging. Even the basic laws of the Nile’s flooding were investigated in the hopes of finding never-altering laws. Similarly, the scientific investigations of the ancient Near East and Greece into the regular laws of the stars ultimately looked for constant patterns. This overall pattern of scientific reasoning has left deep marks on the minds of almost all thinkers and found its apotheosis in modern physics. From the time of the early renaissance to the nineteenth century, physics represented the ultimate expression of scientific investigation for almost all thinkers. Its static laws appeared to be the unchanging principles of all motion and life on earth. By the nineteenth century, it had appeared that only a few details had to be “cleared up” before all science was basically known.

In many ways, this situation changed dramatically with the arrival of Darwinism. It would change even more dramatically in early twentieth-century physics as well. Darwin’s theories of evolution challenged many aspects of the “static” worldview. Even those who did not believe that a divine being created an unchanging world were shaken by the new vistas opened up to science by his studies. It had been a long-accepted inheritance of Western culture to believe that the species of living organisms were unchanging in nature. Though there might be many different kinds of creatures, the kinds themselves were not believed to change. The thesis of a universal morphing of types shattered this cosmology, replacing the old world-view with a totally new one. Among the things that had to change in light of Darwin’s work was the very view of science held by most people.

What is the meaning of the underlined word “apotheosis”?

Possible Answers:

Culmination

Explanation

Negation

Reaction

Realization

Correct answer:

Culmination

Explanation:

The final sentences of the first paragraph give a good clue to the meaning of "apotheosis." The general idea is that modern physics represented the highest development of this idea of unchanging laws. Indeed, it did so to the point of seeming as though everything had been discovered—only details needed to be "cleaned up" and finalized. Therefore, the best meaning, based on our context clues, is "culmination," meaning high point.

Example Question #11 : Specific Words In Natural Science Passages

"Interpreting the Copernican Revolution" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

The expressions of one discipline can often alter the way that other subjects understand themselves. Among such cases are numbered the investigations of Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus is best known for his views concerning heliocentrism, a view which eventually obliterated many aspects of the ancient/medieval worldview, at least from the standpoint of physical science. It had always been the natural view of mankind that the earth stood at the center of the universe, a fixed point in reference to the rest of the visible bodies. The sun, stars, and planets all rotated around the earth.

With time, this viewpoint became one of the major reference points for modern life. It provided a provocative image that was used—and often abused—by many people for various purposes. For those who wished to weaken the control of religion on mankind, it was said that the heliocentric outlook proved man’s insignificance. In contrast with earlier geocentrism, heliocentrism was said to show that man is not the center of the universe. He is merely one small being in the midst of a large cosmos. However, others wished to use the “Copernican Revolution” in a very different manner. These thinkers wanted to show that there was another “recentering” that had to happen. Once upon a time, we talked about the world. Now, however, it was necessary to talk of man as the central reference point. Just as the solar system was “centered” on the sun, so too should the sciences be centered on the human person.

However, both of these approaches are fraught with problems. Those who wished to undermine the religious mindset rather misunderstood the former outlook on the solar system. The earlier geocentric mindset did not believe that the earth was the most important body in the heavens. Instead, many ancient and medieval thinkers believed that the highest “sphere” above the earth was the most important being in the physical universe. Likewise, the so-called “Copernican Revolution” in physics was different from the one applied to the human person. Copernicus’ revolution showed that the human point of view was not the center, whereas the later forms of “Copernican revolution” wished to show just the opposite.

Of course, there are many complexities in the history of such important changes in scientific outlook. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see the wide-reaching effects of such discoveries, even when they have numerous, ambiguous effects.

What is meant by “heliocentrism”?

Possible Answers:

That something is centered on the sun

None of the other answers

That something is primarily made of helium

That something is centered on the earth

That something floats like helium gas

Correct answer:

That something is centered on the sun

Explanation:

Perhaps you do not know the word "heliocentrism." However, from the context clues in the selection, you can tell that Copernicus' theories were opposed to earlier ones that held that the earth was the center of the universe. The word "heliocentric" comes from the Greek "helios," which means sun, with the suffix "-centric." To be "heliocentric" means "to be centered on the sun," as is the planetary motion of our solar system.

Example Question #1 : Finding Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Narrative Science Passages

Adapted from “Humming-Birds: As Illustrating the Luxuriance of Tropical Nature” in Tropical Nature, and Other Essays by Alfred Russel Wallace (1878)

The food of hummingbirds has been a matter of much controversy. All the early writers down to Buffon believed that they lived solely on the nectar of flowers, but since that time, every close observer of their habits maintains that they feed largely, and in some cases wholly, on insects. Azara observed them on the La Plata in winter taking insects out of the webs of spiders at a time and place where there were no flowers. Bullock, in Mexico, declares that he saw them catch small butterflies, and that he found many kinds of insects in their stomachs. Waterton made a similar statement. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of specimens have since been dissected by collecting naturalists, and in almost every instance their stomachs have been found full of insects, sometimes, but not generally, mixed with a proportion of honey. Many of them in fact may be seen catching gnats and other small insects just like fly-catchers, sitting on a dead twig over water, darting off for a time in the air, and then returning to the twig. Others come out just at dusk, and remain on the wing, now stationary, now darting about with the greatest rapidity, imitating in a limited space the evolutions of the goatsuckers, and evidently for the same end and purpose. Mr. Gosse also remarks, ” All the hummingbirds have more or less the habit, when in flight, of pausing in the air and throwing the body and tail into rapid and odd contortions. This is most observable in the Polytmus, from the effect that such motions have on the long feathers of the tail. That the object of these quick turns is the capture of insects, I am sure, having watched one thus engaged pretty close to me.”

The meaning of the underlined word “evolutions” in context is __________.

Possible Answers:

ideas

rebellions

modifications

rotations

movements

Correct answer:

movements

Explanation:

Seeing the word “evolutions” in a science passage may bring specific things to mind—Darwin, natural selection, and survival of the fittest, perhaps. However, it’s always important to consider how the word is used in the passage provided. Words with very strong common meanings may be used for their more obscure secondary meanings in order to trick you. The passage uses the word “evolutions” in this sentence: 

“[Other hummingbirds] come out just at dusk, and remain on the wing, now stationary, now darting about with the greatest rapidity, imitating in a limited space the evolutions of the goatsuckers, and evidently for the same end and purpose.”

If the word “evolutions” weren’t used here and there were instead a blank space in the sentence, what kind of word would you use to fill it in? Maybe something like “motions” or “behavior,” right? With that in mind, let’s consider the answer choices. “Modifications,” which may seem to be most in line with the typical meaning of “evolution,” doesn’t make sense in the sentence’s context. Neither does “rebellions” or “ideas.” Choosing between “movements” and “rotations,” nothing tells us that the hummingbirds are specifically “rotating,” so the best answer choice is the more general “movements.”

Example Question #5 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

Adapted from “Introduced Species That Have Become Pests” in Our Vanishing Wild Life, Its Extermination and Protection by William Temple Hornaday (1913)

The man who successfully transplants or "introduces" into a new habitat any persistent species of living thing assumes a very grave responsibility. Every introduced species is doubtful gravel until panned out. The enormous losses that have been inflicted upon the world through the perpetuation of follies with wild vertebrates and insects would, if added together, be enough to purchase a principality. The most aggravating feature of these follies in transplantation is that never yet have they been made severely punishable. We are just as careless and easygoing on this point as we were about the government of the Yellowstone Park in the days when Howell and other poachers destroyed our first national bison herd, and when caught red-handed—as Howell was, skinning seven Park bison cows—could not be punished for it, because there was no penalty prescribed by any law. Today, there is a way in which any revengeful person could inflict enormous damage on the entire South, at no cost to himself, involve those states in enormous losses and the expenditure of vast sums of money, yet go absolutely unpunished!

The gypsy moth is a case in point. This winged calamity was imported at Maiden, Massachusetts, near Boston, by a French entomologist, Mr. Leopold Trouvelot, in 1868 or 69. History records the fact that the man of science did not purposely set free the pest. He was endeavoring with live specimens to find a moth that would produce a cocoon of commercial value to America, and a sudden gust of wind blew out of his study, through an open window, his living and breeding specimens of the gypsy moth. The moth itself is not bad to look at, but its larvae is a great, overgrown brute with an appetite like a hog. Immediately Mr. Trouvelot sought to recover his specimens, and when he failed to find them all, like a man of real honor, he notified the State authorities of the accident. Every effort was made to recover all the specimens, but enough escaped to produce progeny that soon became a scourge to the trees of Massachusetts. The method of the big, nasty-looking mottled-brown caterpillar was very simple. It devoured the entire foliage of every tree that grew in its sphere of influence.

The gypsy moth spread with alarming rapidity and persistence. In course of time, the state authorities of Massachusetts were forced to begin a relentless war upon it, by poisonous sprays and by fire. It was awful! Up to this date (1912) the New England states and the United States Government service have expended in fighting this pest about $7,680,000!

The spread of this pest has been retarded, but the gypsy moth never will be wholly stamped out. Today it exists in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, and it is due to reach New York at an early date. It is steadily spreading in three directions from Boston, its original point of departure, and when it strikes the State of New York, we, too, will begin to pay dearly for the Trouvelot experiment.

Based on the context in which it is used, what is the most likely definition of the underlined word “entomologist”?

Possible Answers:

a type of insect that eats other insects

someone who causes and then solves a problem

a scientist who studies invasive species

someone who draws pictures of insects

a scientist who studies insects

Correct answer:

a scientist who studies insects

Explanation:

The word “entomologist” is used in the following part of the passage:

“The Gypsy Moth is a case in point. This winged calamity was imported at Maiden, Massachusetts, near Boston, by a French entomologist, Mr. Leopold Trouvelot, in 1868 or 69.” 

“Entomologist” is describing “Mr. Leopold Trouvelot,” so it cannot mean “a type of insect that eats other insects.” Nothing in the passage suggests that Mr. Trouvelot drew insects, so we can discard “someone who draws pictures of insects” as an answer choice. The answer “someone who causes and then solves a problem” doesn’t make sense either; while Mr. Trouvelot causes a problem by introducing the gypsy moth to the United States, he isn’t able to solve it. This leaves us with two answer choices: “a scientist who studies invasive species” and “a scientist who studies insects.” Nothing suggests that Mr. Trouvelot is a scientist who studies invasive species; indeed, at this point in the passage, the gypsy moth hasn’t even been released yet, so it is debatable whether we could call it an invasive species before it “invades.”

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