ACT Reading : Identifying and Analyzing Main Ideas in Natural Science Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for ACT Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Natural Science Passages

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.

The purpose of this passage is ___________.

Possible Answers:

to attack a scientist for his faulty methodology

to discuss several interpretations of a phenomenon

to cast doubt on a widely accepted scientific law

to propose a definitive experiment

to describe new research

Correct answer:

to discuss several interpretations of a phenomenon

Explanation:

Throughout this passage, the author describes several theories explaining "the brilliant colors of flowers and fruits." In the first paragraph, he describes the ideas of "a recent writer," who quotes observations made by "M. Grisebach" and "M. Ch. Martins." In the second paragraph, the author disagrees with the theory of the "recent writer" and agrees with Grisebach, who turns out to have a opinion distinct from that of the "recent writer." Nowhere in the passage does the author "cast doubt on a widely accepted scientific law," as the theory of the "recent writer" is a theory, not a scientific law; similarly, nowhere does the author "propose a definitive experiment," "attack a scientist for his faulty methodology." While the writer does describe research, his doing so is not the main purpose of the passage. He only describes research in order to bring data into his discussion of one of the various theories mentioned in the passage.

Example Question #1 : Organization And Structure In Science Passages

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.

The author’s critique of the theory presented in the first paragraph is that __________.

Possible Answers:

the facts were gathered in an unscientific manner and are thus not reliable, making the theory doubtful

only some of the facts are true, casting doubt on the reliability of the theory as a whole

they are true, but do not support the theory established based on them

the facts supporting the theory are false, so the theory is also false

The author does not critique the theory presented in the first paragraph; he wholeheartedly agrees with its claims.

Correct answer:

they are true, but do not support the theory established based on them

Explanation:

At the start of the second paragraph, the author says, "Admitting the facts as above stated to be in themselves correct, they do not by any means establish the theory founded on them." So, the correct answer is that "[the facts] are true, but do not support the theory established based on them."

Example Question #1 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Narrative Science Passages

"Cacti" by Ami Dave (2013)

Cacti are plants suited to the desert, and we must always keep this factor in mind when growing ornamental cacti in our gardens, for it helps us provide cacti with conditions that allow them to survive and thrive. For example, a cactus should never be watered over its body, as it will start to rot. This is because it is covered with a waxy coating which prevents water loss through evaporation. When one waters the cactus over its body, the waxy coating is washed away and the plant begins to rot. The amount of water that one must supply to the cactus is very much dependent upon the season and upon the climate of the place. During the summer season one should water cacti every four days, whereas in the rainy season, once every fifteen days is quite enough.

Cacti need a minimum of two and a half hours of sunlight per day; however, they should not be kept in the sun all day because they may wrinkle when exposed to too much bright sunlight. Unlike other plants, cacti produce carbon dioxide during the day and oxygen during the night, so they are ideal plants to be kept in bedrooms to freshen up the air at night.

If a cactus is to thrive and prosper, the size of the pot in which it is grown needs to be monitored carefully. The pot should always be a little smaller than the plant itself because it is only when the plant has to struggle to survive that it will thrive. If the pot is too spacious and the plant does not need to struggle, chances are that the cactus will die. Similarly, if a cactus shows no signs of growth, stop watering it. Watering should be resumed only when the plant begins to grow again.

The substrata of a cactus pot is ideally composed of pieces of broken bricks at the bottom, followed by a layer of charcoal above the bricks, and then coarse sand and pebbles above the charcoal. Leaf mould is the best manure.

Grafting cacti is very simple. A very small piece of the cactus plant should be stuck with tape to the plant that needs grafting. The smaller the piece, the easier it is to graft. To reproduce cacti, one has to simply cut off a piece of the cactus, allow it to dry for a few days, and then place it over the cacti substrate. It will automatically develop roots.

It is very easy to differentiate between cacti and other plants that look like cacti. All cacti have fine hair at the base of each thorn. The so-called “thorns” are in fact highly modified leaves which prevent loss of water through transpiration. If one ever gets pricked by cacti thorns, one should take tape, place it over the area where the thorns have penetrated the skin, and then peel it off. All of the thorns will get stuck to the tape and will be removed.

The purpose of this passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

explain the proper conditions and protocols for growing cacti

describe the physical characteristics of a cactus

explain what to do if you prick yourself on cactus thorns

outline the differences between cacti and other plants

explain how to correctly graft cacti

Correct answer:

explain the proper conditions and protocols for growing cacti

Explanation:

Cacti grafts, physical characteristics of cacti, what to do if you prick yourself on cactus thorns, and differences between cacti and other plants are all ideas that are discussed in the passage; however, they are not the MAIN purpose of the passage. They are all details that comprise the paragraphs. The purpose of the passage is to explain the proper conditions and protocols for growing cacti.

Example Question #11 : Natural Sciences

"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 the main point introduced in the second paragraph?

Possible Answers:

Many programmers are mere technicians, not real computer scientists

Computer science is a very practical science for most topics

The applied nature of computer science creates a unique set of problems regarding the discipline's unity

Computer science only becomes "real" when it is applied to the real world

None of these

Correct answer:

The applied nature of computer science creates a unique set of problems regarding the discipline's unity

Explanation:

The second paragraph focuses on the fact that computer science has a host of practical applications. In particular, these practical applications make it even more difficult to see the focus of computer science studies. Therefore, they tend to hide the unity of the topic even more (that is, even beyond the more "academic" issues discussed in the first paragraph).

Example Question #1 : 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 will be the effect of increased orderliness in computer science studies?

Possible Answers:

It will set to rest the debates about computer science's importance

It will be easier to understand the distinct topic studied in computer science

It will help to overcome biases against practical applications of computer science

It will make scheduling much easier for most students

It will allow for greater progress in experimentation

Correct answer:

It will be easier to understand the distinct topic studied in computer science

Explanation:

The main focus of this whole passage is the fact that it is hard to figure out the single thing studied by computer science. It has many branches, all of which seem to be rather different and unrelated (or at least not very related). With increased orderliness, we can assume that it will become clearer just what is the special topic studied in computer science—as opposed to mathematics, physics, or information technology.

Example Question #1 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In Science Passages

"Abstraction in the Sciences" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

Thinking “abstractly” is not a term that means quite the same thing in all of the sciences. Although we rarely think about this, it plays a key role in almost all of our day-to-day thought. Consider a zoologist working in a lab with many animals. When she is studying any individual tiger, she is not completely worried about the particular tiger—at least not primarily. Instead, she is trying to figure out certain characteristics of tigers in general. By meticulous testing, the zoologist carefully works out the physiology of tigers and considers what are absolutely necessary elements of their physical makeup. Even when she places a tiger in different habitats, her sight is aimed at the general condition of tigers and their needs in general.

However, things become even stranger when you start to consider how we think about mathematical objects. Consider the case of geometric figures. A triangle appears to be rather simple for most of us to think about. You can draw a triangle on a piece of paper, each side having a certain thickness and length. However when you think about this in geometry class, the triangle’s edges have no real thickness. Neither a point nor a line has a thickness for the mathematician. Such a thickness only exists on our paper, which represents the point or line. Consider also a line drawn on a piece of graph paper. Technically, there are an infinite number of points in the line. Indeed, even between 4.5 and 4.6, there are an infinite number of numbers—for example 4.55 is between them, then 4.555 between 4.55 and 4.6, and 4.5555 between 4.555 and 4.6, et cetera. In all of these cases, the mathematical reality takes on a very peculiar character when you consider it in the abstract. However, the concrete triangle remains very tangible and ordinary. Likewise, 4.6 and 4.5 inches still have 0.1 inches between them. Nevertheless, in the abstract, mathematical realities are quite strange, even stranger then the idea of “a tiger in general.”

Which of the following would strengthen the ending of the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

None of the other answers

"Every animal is carefully tested as a potential test subject."

"Each individual tiger has its own unique characteristics and abilities."

"The details of any particular tiger’s life are interesting only as a means to this end."

"Of course, she becomes quite attached to all of the animals in her care."

Correct answer:

"The details of any particular tiger’s life are interesting only as a means to this end."

Explanation:

As written, the last sentence in the first paragraph states that the scientist is interested in figuring out what "tigers in general" are like. Therefore, any particular tiger is not as important as this general nature of tigers (how they generally can live, thrive, etc).  The best way to end this paragraph is by reiterating this point, which is what the correct answer does.

Example Question #1 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme 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.

Which of the following best summarizes this passage’s remarks on Greek science?

Possible Answers:

Their work was the basis for modern astronomy.

They were the only people to think the world was orderly.

They did have a true science in one regard at least.

None of the other answers

Their mania for celestial phenomena advanced science to a great degree.

Correct answer:

They did have a true science in one regard at least.

Explanation:

Throughout this passage, the author lays out the case that the Greeks had at least one science, namely something like what we would call "astronomy." Although they did not have many other sciences—in the opinion of the author, at least—they had at least this one branch of science "in the modern acceptance of the term."

Example Question #1 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme 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 the main idea of the second paragraph?

Possible Answers:

That the Greeks could not fathom the depths of the universe's orderliness

None of the other answers

That science was only possible because of the orderliness of the heavens

That science has finally outlined the complete details of the orderliness of the universe

That science depends upon the regularity of that which it studies

Correct answer:

That science depends upon the regularity of that which it studies

Explanation:

The general idea of the second paragraph is that orderliness is necessary for there to be any science, for science discovers laws and enumerates them. The paragraph goes on to stress the growth in this awareness. However, it does not say that every detail has been so recognized. Likewise, it does not speak disparagingly of the Greeks, though they did not realize the extent to which modern physics would assert order in the whole of the cosmos. The most direct answer is the best: "That science depends upon the regularity of that which it studies."

Example Question #1 : Understanding Main Ideas In Natural 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 purpose of this passage is __________.

Possible Answers:

to explain why one should feed a captive hummingbird insects and not flower nectar

to consider the opinions of scientists on what hummingbirds eat

to discuss the Polytmus’ feeding habits

to critique the opinions of other scientists

to propose a definitive experiment about what hummingbirds eat

Correct answer:

to consider the opinions of scientists on what hummingbirds eat

Explanation:

When answering questions about a passage’s purpose or main idea, it’s important to pick an answer choice that is broad enough to encompass the entire passage. For instance, while the Polytmus’ feeding habits are discussed in the passage, it can’t be said to be the purpose of the passage, since it’s only mentioned as a small detail. The passage can’t be said to critique the opinions of other scientists, because for the most part, the author quotes findings by scientists with whom he does not disagree. A definitive experiment is never proposed, and captive hummingbirds are never discussed. The passage does provide the opinions of scientists on what hummingbirds eat; this accurately captures the intent of the entire passage, not just some of its parts, and doesn’t state it too broadly.

Example Question #1 : Content Of Natural Science Passages

Adapted from “Darwin’s Predecessors” by J. Arthur Thomson in Evolution in Modern Thought (1917 ed.)

In seeking to discover Darwin's relation to his predecessors, it is useful to distinguish the various services which he rendered to the theory of organic evolution.

As everyone knows, the general idea of the doctrine of descent is that the plants and animals of the present day are the lineal descendants of ancestors on the whole somewhat simpler, that these again are descended from yet simpler forms, and so on backwards towards the literal "Protozoa" and "Protophyta" about which we unfortunately know nothing. Now no one supposes that Darwin originated this idea, which in rudiment at least is as old as Aristotle. What Darwin did was to make it current intellectual coin. He gave it a form that commended itself to the scientific and public intelligence of the day, and he won widespread conviction by showing with consummate skill that it was an effective formula to work with, a key which no lock refused. In a scholarly, critical, and preeminently fair-minded way, admitting difficulties and removing them, foreseeing objections and forestalling them, he showed that the doctrine of descent supplied a modal interpretation of how our present-day fauna and flora have come to be.

In the second place, Darwin applied the evolution-idea to particular problems, such as the descent of man, and showed what a powerful tool it is, introducing order into masses of uncorrelated facts, interpreting enigmas both of structure and function, both bodily and mental, and, best of all, stimulating and guiding further investigation. But here again it cannot be claimed that Darwin was original. The problem of the descent or ascent of man, and other particular cases of evolution, had attracted not a few naturalists before Darwin's day, though no one [except Herbert Spencer in the psychological domain (1855)] had come near him in precision and thoroughness of inquiry.

In the third place, Darwin contributed largely to a knowledge of the factors in the evolution-process, especially by his analysis of what occurs in the case of domestic animals and cultivated plants, and by his elaboration of the theory of natural selection, which Alfred Russel Wallace independently stated at the same time, and of which there had been a few previous suggestions of a more or less vague description. It was here that Darwin's originality was greatest, for he revealed to naturalists the many different forms—often very subtle—which natural selection takes, and with the insight of a disciplined scientific imagination he realized what a mighty engine of progress it has been and is.

What is the overall purpose of this passage?

Possible Answers:

To praise every aspect of Darwin's account of evolution

To provide comprehensive account of the history of Darwin's thought

None of the other answers

To list some theories with which Darwin disagreed

To defend Darwin's account of evolution against those who deny its cogency

Correct answer:

None of the other answers

Explanation:

In this selection, the main idea is stated in the very first sentence, so long as you pay attention to it: "In seeking to discover Darwin's relation to his predecessors, it is useful to distinguish the various services which he rendered to the theory of organic evolution." The passage is directing our attention not to his predecessors per se. It is presenting "the various services which he rendered to the theory of organic evolution." It lists several such "services" that Darwin rendered in order to show how he helped to develop the theory of evolution in biology. None of the answers state this adequately. 

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