How to become a good science player

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A good science player is always in demand. On many humanities-heavy teams, even a competent science player who can occasionally steal a question from better science teams is extremely valuable. Here are some tips on improving your science knowledge.

The Basics

There are five basic ways to get better, regardless of what subject you want to get better in or what level you're currently at. They are:

  • Go to practice
  • Go to tournaments
  • Read packets
  • Write questions
  • Ask someone who's better than you for advice

Seriously. That's all it takes to become good. Every player who has ever had a meteoric rise from poor to competent, or from competent to good or great, has done so by doing those five things.

Get Exposed to Science

Science, more than any other subject except maybe music, has its own set of indecipherable jargon that you need to learn if you're going to become a good science player.

If you're a high school player, you should at minimum take or be on track to take the highest levels of biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics your school has to offer. If your school also offers a course in earth science, astronomy, or computer science that isn't something like "Science 1" or "Computer Literacy," see if you have room in your schedule for that class as well.

If you're a college player, the only real way to become a good science player is to actually major or minor in a science or engineering field, thus ensuring that you'll be taking lots of science courses. If that's not for you, or you just want to become a competent science player at the next level, consider the following ideas:

  • If your parents want you to go to medical school, try taking a pre-med track your first two years in college while majoring in something else. At minimum, you'll be exposed to multiple biology topics, general and organic chemistry, math, and multiple (sometimes watered-down) physics topics.
  • If you don't think you can handle a science class for scientists, try taking a general education class like Introduction to Astronomy.
  • If you're deathly afraid of sacrificing your GPA in science classes, try auditing a class at your university. Seriously, a lot of introductory classes are 100+ person lecture classes where a third of the class isn't even there; it's not like anyone in the class is going to question why you're there (unless you stumbled in on midterm day). You can also look at online class notes like MIT's OpenCourseWare.
  • If even getting close to science classes is too terrifying for you as you begin your career as a science player, try reading "popular" books on science. These books are intentionally written at the level of the person with no science knowledge whatsoever, and are often written by people who know quite a lot about the field they discuss. While they may not get you points immediately, they will be able to start you on the path to understanding just what those wacky scientists are talking about.

Study Your Notes from Class

One of the greatest things about science is that it has a pre-defined canon. Stuff people learn about in high school or introductory classes is pretty common in high school and college novice packets. Stuff people learn about in upper division classes or grad school is common at the post-Regionals difficulty of most opens and college nationals. Regular college tournaments have some sort of a mix.

That means that, in roughly 90% of all competently-written science questions, every middle and giveaway clue is going to come from someone's class notes or textbook, or at least can be found there. So read the textbooks and your (or someone else's) class notes. You'll find every clue that already exists in old questions and some that don't currently exist in any old questions.

Some textbooks that you might already have from your classes, but are nevertheless excellent for writing questions out of or "studying for quizbowl" from, include:


Textbooks (If you took AP biology in high school, these are 100% readable)


  • Biology, by Neil A. Campbell
  • Clinical Microbiology made Ridiculously Simple (written in cartoon form; absolutely wonderful)
  • The Cartoon Guide to Genetics (Gonick and Wheelis)
  • Principles of Development (Wolpert)
  • Janeway's Immunobiology
  • Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain (Mark Bear, Barry Connors, et al)

More advanced

  • Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry
  • Brock's Biology of Microorganisms
  • Alberts' Molecular Biology of the Cell
  • Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene
  • Lewin's Genes
  • Guyton and Hall, Medical Physiology
  • Kandel et al., Principles of Neural Science
  • Raven's Biology of Plants
  • First Aid for the USMLE Step 1 (the entirety of medical school in 450 pages)


  • Chemical Principles, by Atkins and Jones
  • Organic Chemistry, by Clayden, Greeves, Warren, and Wothers
  • Organic Chemistry, by Bruice
  • Organic Chemistry, by McMurry
  • Physical Chemistry, by McQuarrie and Simon
  • Statistical Mechanics, by McQuarrie
  • Smith, van Ness, Abbot, Introduction to Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics
  • Separation Process Principles, by Seder, Henley, and Roper


Most of this information is courtesy of Jerry Vinokurov, via this and this.

  • Halliday/Resnick/Walker, Fundamentals of Physics
  • Goldstein/Fetter/Walecka, Theoretical Mechanics of Particles and Continua
  • Griffiths, Introduction to Electrodynamics
  • Griffiths, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics
  • Griffiths, Introduction to Elementary Particles
  • Jackson, Classical Electrodynamics
  • Kittel, Introduction to Solid State Physics
  • Ashcroft and Mermin, Solid State Physics
  • Sakurai, Modern Quantum Mechanics
  • Cohen-Tannoudji, Quantum Mechanics
  • Shankar, Principles of Quantum Mechanics
  • Kittel and Kromer, Thermal Physics
  • Reif, Statistical and Thermal Physics
  • Any of the ten volumes (Mechanics, Classical Theory of Fields, Non-relativistic Quantum Mechanics, Quantum Electrodynamics, Statistical Physics I, Fluid Mechanics, Theory of Elasticity, Electrodynamics of Continuous Media, Statistical Physics II, Physical Kinetics) of Landau and Lifshitz, Course of Theoretical Physics
  • Kundu and Cohen, Fluid Mechanics
  • Nilsson and Riedel, Electric Circuits
  • Born and Wolf, Principles of Optics

Earth Science

  • Understanding Earth, by Grotzinger
  • Earth Science, by Tarbuck and Lutgens


  • Astronomy Today, by Chaisson and McMillan
  • Introduction to Modern Astrophysics, by Carroll and Ostlie


  • Artin, Algebra
    • More advanced: Dummit and Foote, Abstract Algebra
      • Even more advanced: Lang, Algebra
  • Axler, Linear Algebra Done Right or Strang, Linear Algebra and its Applications
  • Spivak, Calculus
    • More advanced: Courant and John, Introduction to Calculus and Analysis
  • Hubbard and Hubbard, Vector Calculus, Linear Algebra, and Differential forms
    • More advanced: Shifrin, Multivariable Mathematics
  • Rudin, Principles of Mathematical Analysis
  • Stein and Shakarchi, Princeton Lectures in Analysis
    • More difficult and compressed: Rudin Real and Complex Analysis
  • Ahlfors, Complex Analysis
  • Munkres, Topology
  • Lee, Introduction to Smooth Manifolds and Riemannian Manifolds
  • Hatcher, Algebraic Topology (available free at
  • Niven, Zuckerman, and Montgomery An Introduction to the Theory of Numbers
    • More advanced: Ireland and Rosen, A Classical Introduction to Modern Number Theory
  • Atiyah and Macdonald, Commutative Algebra
  • Fulton and Harris, Representation Theory
  • Anything by J-P Serre
  • Basic Set Theory, by Levy
  • Basic Algebra I, by Jacobson
  • An Introduction to the Theory of Numbers, Hardy and Wright
  • Introduction to Analysis, Rosenlicht
  • Prime Numbers: A Computational Perspective, Crandall and Pomerance
  • Introduction to Probability, Grinstead and Snell, made available for free by Dartmouth College
  • Concrete Mathematics, Graham, Knuth et al.

Computer Science

  • Introduction to the Theory of Computation, by Sipser
  • Introduction to Algorithms, by Cormen, Leiserson, and Rivest
  • Any textbook by Andy Tanenbaum


Choose a Field of Specialty

Unless you're Eric Mukherjee or something, you're probably not going to be a great player in every subcategory of science, at least not beyond the high school level. Almost every other good science player is known as a great player in one or more subcategories and a competent player in the rest. Choose a field or subfield to lock down (if you're a science major, that's an obvious choice) and make it your own. Then branch out into other, related areas, where you can use your deep knowledge in one field to augment your knowledge of another.

Stay Current in Your Chosen Field

High-impact science journals are often mined for lead-ins, because they are publishing original, important research. Guess what that means? Every issue, there are tens of potential unique clues that have never been used before because they're just being published. Good science writers know how to (judiciously) use these new articles to connect novel and exciting research topics to old and stale answers. Please note that despite the potential for these sources to be used for new lead-ins and for general interest, they may not be all that useful for quizbowl "studying".

Even if you're not particularly interested in a given field, the introduction sections of most scientific articles are written at the level of a scientifically-knowledgeable non-expert. That's you! You can significantly broaden your science knowledge base from just reading the introductions to scientific articles, or even better, from reading review articles. Review articles are articles that review what research has been done in a field over the past several years, or just in general, depending on the scope of the article. These articles are great for picking up on new topics without having to wade through things like Materials & Methods sections or graphs of results.

Be careful not to abuse these resources when mining for clues. There's nothing more frustrating to a science player than hearing a question just rattle off names of scientists they've never heard of doing something ostensibly related to the answer.

The abstracts of articles in most high-impact journals are free online, but many of the full articles are behind paywalls. If you're connecting from a university computer or wireless network, your university's library probably has a subscription that can get you through the paywall. Some particular journals of interest include:

Multiple Fields




Earth Science



Computer Science


Final Words

Becoming a good science player can seem like an extremely daunting task, especially to people with little or no science knowledge to start with. But the great thing about science is that everything you learn in classes (except for the actual computation parts of problem sets), or in textbooks, or in journal articles, is immediately useful in quizbowl. To become a good science player requires zero actual studying for quizbowl.