Looking for a way to kill time while you wait for proof that you covered all your Y2K bases a few months ago? Spend a few of your otherwise squandered brain cycles proving you’re a true Geek for the New Millennium by taking our Y2K Geek Trivia Challenge! We’ve collected 20 questions that will test your useless knowledge quotient on a variety of fronts, from quantum physics to pop culture. And don’t worry about your boss saying that you’re wasting time—he’s probably not around today anyway.
Rate your geek power
At TechRepublic, we take the label “geek” seriously. So don’t expect these questions to be easy. Use this scale to rate your success.
|Number of correct answers||Your rating|
|Less than 10||What did you study in school, anyway—poetry?|
|10-13||Time to renew your subscription to Omni.|
|14-16||You should spend a little less time studying for your MCSE.|
|17-19||Maybe your boss does have a point about your wasting time.|
|20||Bill Gates, look out.|
If you want to check your answer immediately, click on the link at the end of the question. If you have a little more patience, just click to the last page of this article to see how you fared.
These questions come to you courtesy of our Geek Trivia TechMail service, which delivers puzzlers like this to your inbox every day. Click here to see a sample of our Geek Trivia TechMail and to sign up for the service.
OK, here we go.
1) His wife was the mother of this invention
Computing pioneer John Mauchly, a teaching instructor at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, is widely considered to be the guy who wrote the memo that got all this electronic computer stuff rolling. In 1942, Mauchly submitted his memo “The Use of High Speed Vacuum Tubes for Calculating” to both his on-campus bosses and the Army. Although originally ignored, the idea was resuscitated by Lt. Herman H. Goldstein, who just happened to have a Ph.D. in math, and by the spring of 1943 out popped Project PX, the initiative to build ENIAC. Oddly enough, Mauchly got his idea from his wife’s job at the Moore School. WHAT DID MAUCHLY’S WIFE DO AT THE MOORE SCHOOL? Click here to see the answer.
2) The script on the edge of a feud
Well-known science-fiction author Harlan Ellison was one of the original Star Trek series’ biggest supporters until he had a falling out with Gene Roddenberry over edits to one of Ellison’s scripts. Ellison, who’s won three Hugo and seven Nebula awards throughout his distinguished career, then became one of the show’s most outspoken critics. (Ellison is pretty much outspoken about everything.) Ironically, the episode that started all the fuss, guest-starring Joan Collins, is now widely revered as the best Star Trek installment ever filmed. CAN YOU NAME THE EPISODE THAT CAUSED THE FEUD? Click here to see the answer.
3) Underground assault
In the Atari arcade classic Dig Dug, our hero (who looks disturbingly like a Smurf) tunnels through an underground world with no apparent motive other than to gobble up randomly appearing vegetables and to avoid equally cute villains Pooka and Fygar. Exactly what these guys want, we don’t know either. At any rate, Dig Dug was a beautifully simple game—the only controls were a directional joystick and a single button that evoked the POV character’s sole weapon. WHAT WAS THE ONLY WEAPON DIG DUG CARRIED? Click here to see the answer.
4) Strange signals from space
We listen to space, but we don’t always understand what we hear. When modern astronomers first heard weird, regular bursts of radio waves coming from outer space, they labeled them LGMs, for Little Green Men. But now we know better. WHAT ASTRONOMICAL PHENOMENON CREATES REGULAR BURSTS OF RADIO WAVES? Click here to see the answer.
5) Change of address for the Caped Crusader
Everybody knows that Superman lives in Metropolis and Batman lives in Gotham City. But Batman didn’t always live in Gotham City. When the Caped Crusader made his debut in Detective Comics #27, he was keeping shop in another bustling burg. WHAT WAS BATMAN’S ORIGINAL HOMETOWN? Click here to see the answer.
6) This disc ground to a halt
Want to buy a cheap movie on disc? Circuit City has been selling them for about 99 cents, but of course, they’re in DIVX, the hideously failed DVD derivative owned by the electronics super-chain. Obviously, you’re not alone if you don’t know this one, but WHAT WAS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DIVX AND DVD, ANYWAY? Click here to see the answer.
7) Even Microsoft had to start somewhere
Today a tough trivia question would be “What kind of software does Microsoft NOT produce or sell?” But, you’ve got to start somewhere, and Redmond kicked off with DOS, Basic, and other seriously geeky stuff, particularly for the early ‘80s. WHAT WAS MICROSOFT’S FIRST SOFTWARE RELEASE THAT WAS NOT AN OS OR LANGUAGE? Click here to see the answer.
8) Foo film that wasn’t so fun
Foo Fighters, the band, has made some pretty funny videos, particularly the one in which they parody those stupid Mentos commercials. Back in World War II, another kind of foo fighter was showing up on film, and the people who saw it weren’t so amused. IN WORLD WAR II, WHAT WAS A “FOO FIGHTER”? Click here to see the answer.
9) Certainly a lot of confusion over certainty
You may have seen a bumper sticker with the slogan, “I’m fairly certain Heisenberg was here.” Of course, that’s only funny if you know that German physicist Werner Heisenberg is best known for developing the uncertainty principle. A lot of really smart guys get paid lots of money to sit around and debate exactly what Heisenberg was talking about, but we’ll ask you, in simple terms, WHAT DOES THE HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE DICTATE? Click here to see the answer.
10) Racy Gillian stuff that wasn’t created in Photoshop
The Web is cluttered with sites dedicated to Gillian Anderson. You’ve got men who love her, women who love her, women who love men who love her—the list goes on and on. And then there are those sites with allegedly dirty pictures of the lovely actress. THEY’RE FAKES, in case you couldn’t tell by the amateurish Photoshop seams around the disproportionately sized head. Anderson has never done any of that type of modeling, but she did talk dirty once, and you can find that at your local bookstore. WHAT RACY AUDIO PRODUCT DID GILLIAN ANDERSON WORK ON BEFORE THE X-FILES? Click here to see the answer.
11) A really big sphere of influence
Star Trek’s Captain Picard had to get out of one, and Larry Niven has won a basket of awards writing about them in his classic Ringworld novels and stories. All good geeks have heard of a Dyson Sphere, but DO YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHERE THE CONCEPT OF A DYSON SPHERE ORIGINATED? Click here to see the answer.
12) Setting off the big bang
Not that you’d ever have any use for this knowledge, but WHAT’S THE TRIGGERING DEVICE IN AN H-BOMB? Click here to see the answer.
13) CGI’s big-screen debut
Computer-generated imaging (CGI) is everywhere in the movies these days, and many fans are beginning to murmur that it’s just getting way out of hand (thanks, Jar Jar). Anyway, nobody was complaining about computer effects back in 1989 when James Cameron blew everybody’s mind with CGI’s big-screen coming-out party. Esther Williams never had dance fountains like this. WHAT CAMERON FLICK PUT CGI ON THE BIG SCREEN TO STAY? Click here to see the answer.
14) Etymology of cyberspace
Everybody’s talking about cyberspace this and cyberspace that. WHO COINED THE TERM “CYBERSPACE”? Click here to see the answer.
15) Bill paid $1 million for what?
In 1986, Microsoft bought a failing company called Falcon Technology for $1 million—a lot of money to pay for a struggling hardware business. Falcon was founded by Tim Paterson, who just happened to write DOS. WHAT WAS SO VALUABLE ABOUT FALCON TECHNOLOGY? Click here to see the answer.
16) Odd guests at the Star Wars party
Lots of stuff is going on in the background of almost every shot of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And, OK, a lot of it doesn’t make sense, but it’s still kinda cute. WHAT NON-STAR WARS ALIEN RACE CAN BE SEEN IN THE BACKGROUND OF THE BIG SENATE SCENE IN THE PHANTOM MENACE? Click here to see the answer.
17) MP3: A lot of sound in a little space
We won’t tell your boss, but you’ve probably got a few MP3 audio downloads on your system, right? The things sound great, particularly coming from a $70 pair of PC speakers. And they’re a snap to download. BUT HOW DOES THE MP3 FORMAT JAM ALL THAT SOUND INTO THOSE LITTLE FILES? Click here to see the answer.
18) Lazar’s secret hangar
Bob Lazar has become a poster boy for the UFO/government conspiracy camp since he came out in the early ‘90s with claims that he worked on alien vessels at a top-secret base. Lazar claims that this facility, where he was employed to reverse-engineer propulsion systems, is so top-secret that he was flown by a small vessel into the base. WHERE DOES BOB LAZAR CLAIM HE WORKED ON UFOs? Click here to see the answer.
19) The super-punch line
Like you don’t have better things to do with your time. IN MORTAL KOMBAT II, WHICH CHARACTER TRANSFORMS INTO A DRAGON TO DELIVER HIS SUPER-FATALITY MOVE? Click here to see the answer.
20) Crunchy crime
IBM’s first PC came packaged with the word processor Easy Writer, released by a company called Information Unlimited Software. What IBM didn’t know was that the simple program was written in jail by Captain Crunch, a famous predecessor of today’s hackers who did not get away with his crime. Captain Crunch earned his odd nickname from his scheme to rip off Ma Bell. WHAT WAS CAPTAIN CRUNCH’S SIGNATURE CRIME? Click here to see the answer.
And now, the answers…
1) What did John Mauchly’s wife do at the Moore School?
Mauchly’s wife, Mary, was the instructor for a group of young women at the school who hammered away on desktop calculating machines to create parabolic artillery firing projection tables. It took 100 of these human computers about a month to do one 3,000-entry table. Mauchly figured there had to be a better way, and along with 22-year-old electronic engineer John Presper Eckert, he dreamed up the ENIAC. Mauchly guessed that his machine could do calculations in 100 seconds that would take a mechanical differential analyzer 15 to 30 minutes to complete. Back to the quiz.
2) What episode of Star Trek caused a feud between sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry?
It was “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which aired in the show’s second season. Kirk and Spock must go back in time to save the present, only to find that it requires the ultimate sacrifice—Kirk must let the woman he loves (at least this week) die. The script won a Hugo and a screenwriter’s award, but Ellison always claimed the final on-screen version was a watered-down mockery of his original work, which involved illicit drug dealing on the Enterprise. The feud is such a well-established bit of Trek trivia that Ellison published his original version of the script a few years ago. Back to the quiz.
3) What was the only weapon Dig Dug carried?
It was an air pump, which he used to inflate and eventually explode the villainous Pooka and Fygar. Dig Dug could also tunnel under rocks and drop them on the baddies, who made a great sound when squished. Although the game’s UI was almost too cute, Dig Dug had an unusually mean streak for the era—at the end of every round, the last Pooka or Fygar would run away, and it was up to you to hunt it down and kill it for a better score. Cool. A nice version of the game is still available in Microsoft’s Return of Arcade collection. Back to the quiz.
4) What astronomical phenomenon creates regular bursts of radio waves?
Originally labeled pulsars (scientists really didn’t know what was up), neutron stars are responsible for those weird transmissions. The collapsed residue of a star that’s exploded in a supernova, a neutron star is a solid mass of neutrons 10 miles wide with a gravity field many trillion times as powerful as that of Earth. As the star rapidly rotates, captured electrons spiral out from its magnetic poles, creating beams of radio waves that act like a lighthouse’s beam. As the rotating spiral passes us, we perceive a burst of radio transmission. Scientists have mapped about 500 neutron stars. Back to the quiz.
5) What city did Batman call home before moving to Gotham City
Where else but New York? For the first few installments of Batman’s adventures, he lived in the Big Apple and did things his way, which included openly carrying a holstered gun, something Batman purists know he would never do these days. Among his first adversaries were a vampire who called himself The Monk and a gorilla who just sort of showed up out of nowhere. Back to the quiz.
6) What’s the difference between Circuit City’s failed DIVX video format and DVD?
Very little, except for a bad marketing idea. DIVX players and discs operate on a lockout code that disables a disc a few days after you first play it—that is, unless you use the player’s communication device and pay for more viewings. DIVX players can play DVD discs, but not vice versa. Circuit City thought DIVX would be a great way to break into the rental market with $4 to $5 disposable discs. Except you have to go to a Circuit City to get the things. Go figure. Back to the quiz.
7) What was Microsoft’s first software release that wasn’t an OS or a language?
It was Adventure, a text-based role-playing game that Microsoft packaged on the first IBM personal computer, released in August 1981. Microsoft also prepackaged Basic with the system, for all those users who really needed to generate a random number between 1 and 1,000. Adventure, which was in the public domain before its release, was a stripped-down version of a WALK NORTH RPG written on an MIT mainframe. Back to the quiz.
8) What did the term “foo fighter” mean in World War II?
That was the common nickname given to the unidentified flying objects that American pilots reported all the time. Typically, these objects were described as fiery balls of light that flew at impossible speeds. At the time, military intelligence feared the Axis powers may have come up with a new weapon. Today, the foo fighter mystery is a favorite bit of lore for UFO conspiracy theorists, who believe aliens were monitoring us closely during WWII. Back to the quiz.
9) What does the Heisenberg uncertainty principle dictate?
It says that by the very act of measuring something, you change it, and therefore you can never be completely confident about a measurement. Sure, this seems a little bit ridiculous if you’re talking about weighing yourself as you get out of the shower. But Heisenberg’s principle is one of the two anchors of quantum physics. Think about it: How would you see an electron without bouncing another quantum particle off it? Back to the quiz.
10) What racy audio product did Gillian Anderson work on?
It was a 1993 audio book of Exit to Eden, the sleazy “expose” of life at a pleasure colony written by vampire pundit Anne Rice under the name Anne Rampling. Anderson’s publicity photo on the back cover of the tape is hysterical—she has billowing long hair and is next to a giant sunflower or something like that. Back to the quiz.
11) Where did the concept of a Dyson Sphere originate?
In a 1960 paper published in Science, theoretical physicist J. Freeman Dyson proposed that any alien civilization advanced enough to contact Earth must be millions of years old and so must have enormous energy needs. Therefore, these races would reconstruct their very solar systems to enclose the central star and trap all that energy. This guy was serious—he became a professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in 1953, where he specialized in quantum physics. Back to the quiz.
12) What’s the triggering device in an H-bomb?
Why, it’s an A-bomb, of course. The force of the fission explosion creates enough heat and pressure to fuse hydrogen into helium. By the way, H-bombs can use as much fuel as you care to pump into them—the more juice, the bigger the bang. A-bombs can use only about the amount of unstable atomic fuel that constitutes a critical mass for fission. Wimps. Back to the quiz.
13) What 1989 James Cameron flick added computer-generated imaging (CGI) to the vocabulary of everyday film buffs?
That was The Abyss, a pretty good movie about deep-sea drillers and the less-than-friendly aliens they encounter underwater. The entire alien technology is based on salt water, and that made for some great effects, particularly the stream of “solid” water that winds through the drillers’ vessel. A director’s cut of the flick is out on video now, but don’t bother—despite the added footage, the ending still doesn’t make much sense. Back to the quiz.
14) Who coined the term “cyberspace”?
Sci-fi writer William Gibson first used the phrase in his 1984 novel Neuromancer to describe a somewhat more intense experience than just surfing over to Amazon.com. Gibson was describing a well-established sci-fi notion of the human mind being jacked directly into an electronic network, which would then become tacitly real to the mind within it. Now the term is freely used to describe sending e-mail. Jargon inflation. Back to the quiz.
15) What was so valuable about failing Falcon Technology that prompted Microsoft to pay $1 million for it?
Falcon Technology had as an asset a perpetual license to resell MS-DOS without making royalty payments—the license was payment from Paul Allen to Falcon owner Tim Paterson for work he did for Microsoft. When Falcon went under, foreign investors started sniffing around the invaluable license. Bill Gates reportedly got really hacked off, and Paterson ultimately got $1 million and a job at Microsoft. Back to the quiz.
16) What non-Star Wars alien race can be seen in the background of the big Senate scene in The Phantom Menace?
There’s a pod of E.T.s in a couple of shots, included as a joke between George Lucas and his buddy Steven Spielberg. There’s also a pod of Ewoks, which just isn’t funny in any context. Back to the quiz.
17) How does the MP3 format jam all that sound into such little files?
MP3, or MPEG 1 Audio Layer 3, simply throws away digital audio information that it considers unnecessary. Typically, the husk that gets dumped is “redundant” sounds, allowing MP3 to compress audio data to one-twelfth its size on a standard audio CD. However, many audio purists complain that those redundant sounds are part of the harmonics of a song, and their absence creates noticeable sound quality degradation on higher-end audio equipment. Back to the quiz.
18) Where does conspiracy cover boy Bob Lazar claim he worked on UFOs?
Lazar says the super-secret base S-4 is built in the side of a mountain in Nevada, about 15 miles from Area 51. In fact, Lazar says the dopes over at Area 51 are yesterday’s news—they don’t even get to play with the flying saucers. In all fairness, Lazar has been embraced by many UFO advocates as one of the more credible sources to go public about the government’s alleged involvement with alien craft. Back to the quiz.
19) Which character in Mortal Kombat II transforms into a dragon to deliver his super-fatality move?
That’s Liu Kang, the game’s cover boy and homage to Bruce Lee. By the way, if you’ve never been able to pull it off, the combination for the PC version is: move close, down, forward, back, back, high kick. Back to the quiz.
20) What was the signature crime of Captain Crunch?
Captain Crunch was what used to be called a “phone phreak”—he stole long distance. More to the point, he discovered that a free toy whistle that came in Captain Crunch cereal emitted a tone that caused the Bell system to cough up free long-distance access to the caller. Feds tend to frown on that kind of thing. Back to the quiz.
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Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRepublic.com and ITBusinessEdge.com.