SAT Critical Reading : Context-Dependent Meaning of Words in Natural Science Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #11 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Natural 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 “coloration”?

Possible Answers:

Undertaking

Mood

Outline

Application

Focus

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 #61 : Sat Critical Reading

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:

amazing

common

coterminous

modern

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 #1 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

"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:

Realization

Explanation

Negation

Culmination

Reaction

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 #1 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In 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 primarily made of helium

That something is centered on the earth

None of the other answers

That something floats like helium gas

That something is centered on the sun

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 #11 : 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 meaning of the underlined word “evolutions” in context is __________.

Possible Answers:

ideas

rebellions

rotations

movements

modifications

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 #1 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

"Comparing Technologies: A Difficult Endeavor" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

Comparisons of technology are often difficult to make, not only because of the rapid pace of improvements but also because of the many new applications that are available as time progresses. If we were to consider the contemporary graphing calculator and the calculation capacities of computing machines from fifty years ago, there would be astounding improvements between these two devices. However, the improvements are not reduced merely to speed improvements. A graphing calculator also has numerous output capacities that far exceed those available much older computers, none of which had the ability to represent their output in any manner even closely resembling that of contemporary devices. Merely consider the display capacities of such a device. These enable users to input many new kinds of information, enabling design engineers to design new hardware functions to match the new means of collecting user input.

The situation is even more obvious when one considers the numerous functions performed by a modern “smartphone.” These devices are equipped with a panoply of features.  With all of these new functions come many new types of computational capabilities as well. In order to process images quickly, specialized hardware must be designed and software written for it in order to ensure that there are few issues with the phone’s operation. Indeed, the whole “real time” nature of telecommunications has exerted numerous pressures on the designers of computing devices. Layers of complexity, at all levels of production and development, are required to ensure that the phone can function in a synchronous manner. Gone are the days of asynchronous processing, when the computer user entered data into a mainframe, only to wait for a period of time before the processing results were provided. Today, even the smallest of digital devices must provide seamless service for users. The effects of this requirement are almost beyond number.

What is meant by the underlined word “applications”?

Possible Answers:

Formal requests

Practical uses

Computer software

Employment opportunities

None of the other answers

Correct answer:

Practical uses

Explanation:

The word "apply" has a number of meanings, though they all have a general sense of taking something from one domain and placing or using it in another. When we apply for a job, we take a form (or series of documents) and give them to someone. Likewise, we apply a decal to a window by placing it upon the window. Ideas are "applied" to reality when they are used in new practical settings. This is the idea of the term in this sentence. Do not be confused by the metaphorical use of the term in a word like "software application." The passage is trying to trick you into confusing these terms.

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

"Comparing Technologies: A Difficult Endeavor" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

Comparisons of technology are often difficult to make, not only because of the rapid pace of improvements but also because of the many new applications that are available as time progresses. If we were to consider the contemporary graphing calculator and the calculation capacities of computing machines from fifty years ago, there would be astounding improvements between these two devices. However, the improvements are not reduced merely to speed improvements. A graphing calculator also has numerous output capacities that far exceed those available much older computers, none of which had the ability to represent their output in any manner even closely resembling that of contemporary devices. Merely consider the display capacities of such a device. These enable users to input many new kinds of information, enabling design engineers to design new hardware functions to match the new means of collecting user input.

The situation is even more obvious when one considers the numerous functions performed by a modern “smartphone.” These devices are equipped with a panoply of features.  With all of these new functions come many new types of computational capabilities as well. In order to process images quickly, specialized hardware must be designed and software written for it in order to ensure that there are few issues with the phone’s operation. Indeed, the whole “real time” nature of telecommunications has exerted numerous pressures on the designers of computing devices. Layers of complexity, at all levels of production and development, are required to ensure that the phone can function in a synchronous manner. Gone are the days of asynchronous processing, when the computer user entered data into a mainframe, only to wait for a period of time before the processing results were provided. Today, even the smallest of digital devices must provide seamless service for users. The effects of this requirement are almost beyond number.

What does the underlined word “panoply” mean?

Possible Answers:

Several items

Amazing advancement

None of the other answers

Large assortment

Advanced technology

Correct answer:

Large assortment

Explanation:

Generally speaking, the word "panoply" means a complete assortment or complete collection. In the sentence following this one, the passage continues, "With all of these new functions . . . " This implies that there are many different functions on modern "smartphones." The best option is "large assortment," which captures the sense of completeness or sheer number that is part of being a "panoply."

Example Question #11 : Natural 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 term "substrata" as it is used in the passage refers to __________.

Possible Answers:

the foundation of a ceramic pot

a layer of dirt beneath the surface soil

the scientific classification of the cactus

the thorns of a cactus

the stalk of a cactus

Correct answer:

a layer of dirt beneath the surface soil

Explanation:

As used in the passage, "substrata" most likely refers to a layer of dirt beneath the surface. Context clues, such as "coarse sand and pebbles above it" and "leaf mould" hint at this definition of the term. 

Example Question #21 : Natural 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.

What is the most reasonable definition of the underlined word "transpiration," as it is used in the last paragraph of the passage?

Possible Answers:

An act of revealing something

An act of going across something

The act of watering something

The evaporation of water from peripheral regions of the plant

The occurrence of an important event

Correct answer:

The evaporation of water from peripheral regions of the plant

Explanation:

The keywords here are "loss of water." This implies that transpiration has something to do with how the plant gets rid of water. The only answer choice that has anything to do with water is the one that addresses the evaporation of water, which is indeed how the cactus rids itself of water.

Example Question #21 : Passage Based Questions

Adapted from The Effects of Cross & Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom by Charles Darwin (1876)

As it is impossible to exclude such minute pollen-carrying insects as Thrips, flowers which it was intended to fertilise with their own pollen may sometimes have been afterwards crossed with pollen brought by these insects from another flower on the same plant; but as we shall hereafter see, a cross of this kind does not produce any effect, or at most only a slight one. When two or more plants were placed near one another under the same net, as was often done, there is some real though not great danger of the flowers which were believed to be self-fertilised being afterwards crossed with pollen brought by Thrips from a distinct plant. I have said that the danger is not great because I have often found that plants which are self-sterile, unless aided by insects, remained sterile when several plants of the same species were placed under the same net. If, however, the flowers which had been presumably self-fertilised by me were in any case afterwards crossed by Thrips with pollen brought from a distinct plant, crossed seedlings would have been included amongst the self-fertilised; but it should be especially observed that this occurrence would tend to diminish and not to increase any superiority in average height, fertility, etc., of the crossed over the self-fertilised plants.

As the flowers which were crossed were never castrated, it is probable or even almost certain that I sometimes failed to cross-fertilise them effectually, and that they were afterwards spontaneously self-fertilised. This would have been most likely to occur with dichogamous species, for without much care it is not easy to perceive whether their stigmas are ready to be fertilised when the anthers open. But in all cases, as the flowers were protected from wind, rain, and the access of insects, any pollen placed by me on the stigmatic surface whilst it was immature, would generally have remained there until the stigma was mature; and the flowers would then have been crossed as was intended. Nevertheless, it is highly probable that self-fertilised seedlings have sometimes by this means got included amongst the crossed seedlings. The effect would be, as in the former case, not to exaggerate but to diminish any average superiority of the crossed over the self-fertilised plants.

Errors arising from the two causes just named, and from others,—such as some of the seeds not having been thoroughly ripened, though care was taken to avoid this error—the sickness or unperceived injury of any of the plants,—will have been to a large extent eliminated, in those cases in which many crossed and self-fertilised plants were measured and an average struck. Some of these causes of error will also have been eliminated by the seeds having been allowed to germinate on bare damp sand, and being planted in pairs; for it is not likely that ill-matured and well-matured, or diseased and healthy seeds, would germinate at exactly the same time. The same result will have been gained in the several cases in which only a few of the tallest, finest, and healthiest plants on each side of the pots were measured.

Kolreuter and Gartner have proved that with some plants several, even as many as from fifty to sixty, pollen-grains are necessary for the fertilisation of all the ovules in the ovarium. Naudin also found in the case of Mirabilis that if only one or two of its very large pollen-grains were placed on the stigma, the plants raised from such seeds were dwarfed. I was therefore careful to give an amply sufficient supply of pollen, and generally covered the stigma with it; but I did not take any special pains to place exactly the same amount on the stigmas of the self-fertilised and crossed flowers. After having acted in this manner during two seasons, I remembered that Gartner thought, though without any direct evidence, that an excess of pollen was perhaps injurious. It was therefore necessary to ascertain whether the fertility of the flowers was affected by applying a rather small and an extremely large quantity of pollen to the stigma. Accordingly a very small mass of pollen-grains was placed on one side of the large stigma in sixty-four flowers of Ipomoea purpurea, and a great mass of pollen over the whole surface of the stigma in sixty-four other flowers. In order to vary the experiment, half the flowers of both lots were on plants produced from self-fertilised seeds, and the other half on plants from crossed seeds. The sixty-four flowers with an excess of pollen yielded sixty-one capsules; and excluding four capsules, each of which contained only a single poor seed, the remainder contained on an average 5.07 seeds per capsule. The sixty-four flowers with only a little pollen placed on one side of the stigma yielded sixty-three capsules, and excluding one from the same cause as before, the remainder contained on an average 5.129 seeds. So that the flowers fertilised with little pollen yielded rather more capsules and seeds than did those fertilised with an excess; but the difference is too slight to be of any significance. On the other hand, the seeds produced by the flowers with an excess of pollen were a little heavier of the two; for 170 of them weighed 79.67 grains, whilst 170 seeds from the flowers with very little pollen weighed 79.20 grains. Both lots of seeds having been placed on damp sand presented no difference in their rate of germination. We may therefore conclude that my experiments were not affected by any slight difference in the amount of pollen used; a sufficiency having been employed in all cases.

As it is used in the passage, the underlined word “dichogamous” in the second paragraph most likely means __________.

Possible Answers:

invasive 

sterile

hermaphroditic

impressive 

monotheistic

Correct answer:

hermaphroditic

Explanation:

“Dichogamous” comes from the word "dichogamy," which is the production of male and female reproductive organs by a single organism at different times. A “dichogamous” plant is therefore a "hermaphroditic" plant, or a plant that has both male and female sexual organs. A few clues are given to the meaning of "dichogamous," as the prefix "di-" indicates that the word in question will relate to the number two, or two of something, and the sentence in which "dichogamous" is used in the passage also says "for without much care it is not easy to perceive whether their stigmas are ready to be fertilised when the anthers open." "Stamens" and "anthers" are the sexual organs of flowers, so one can infer from the sentence that one type of flower has both of these parts, so "dichogamous" must be most similar in meaning to "hermaphroditic."

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