By Mark Trodden | October 19, 2009 5:07 pm

It has been a remarkably busy few weeks for me, as I’ll report on in a post very soon. But I did want to immediately mention one important thing (at least for me personally) that happened recently. A couple of weeks ago I went through my interview (which I got through successfully) for US citizenship. I’ve lived in the US for over seventeen years now, and it’s high time I acquired and exercised my right to vote (and never again apply to renew my green card).

I started the process earlier this year and, apart from a small hiccup with mailing addresses due to my recent change in circumstances, it has, so far, gone incredibly smoothly. Most interestingly to me was that on the several occasions I’ve needed to speak directly with an immigration official by phone, they have been available, polite, and extremely helpful and efficient. Given the stories one often hears, I wasn’t expecting this, and it was a lovely surprise.

While the interview is relatively straightforward for someone like me (English speaking, with a long and continuous employment record, and married to a US citizen for well over a decade), one does have to go through the civics exam, in which one is asked ten questions chosen randomly from a list of one hundred, which one can study in advance from a booklet. The questions are not particularly difficult, and one only needs to get six correct to pass. However, being a good nerd, I studied dutifully, and made sure I could answer all one hundred correctly if necessary.

One particularly disappointing question from the possible choices was:

What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?

for which the allowed answers were given as

  • U.S. diplomat
  • oldest member of the Constitutional Convention
  • first Postmaster General of the United States
  • writer of “Poor Richard’s Almanac”
  • started the first free libraries

Even though I’m now a member of the Penn community, I wasn’t offended that these didn’t include founding the University of Pennsylvania. However, although this is a civics test, as a physicist I would have loved to see some reference to Franklin’s scientific activities. Nevertheless, arguing this with my examiner did not seem to be a smart course of action, and so I stayed silent, and sold Franklin out.

The other problem for the geek taking the citizenship test is that if you get six correct before the examiner reaches ten questions, he just stops asking, and tells you you’ve passed. One must then avoid the temptation to say “No, come on, ask me the rest! I know the answers, honestly, just try me!” Pathetic, I know.

  • Chip Brock

    Congratulations. I have a friend – a Brit from Fermilab – who when he finished his exam was asked by the judge whether he had any questions about the U.S. Yes, he answered: “Please explain to me…the infield fly rule.”

  • Mandeep Gill

    Mark- congrats on becoming a full-on ‘Merican!

    The downside of this is how much being an American is taken for granted by so many in our society today. E.g. just how badly most of those who have lived here their entire lives would do on this exam, as we hear all these horror stories about — and alas, i saw the hard stats of in an article i read a few weeks ago, linked below — and now you have a chance to challenge yourself further with the questions in it! They don’t give the answers — but i know them to each of the questions below. I bet most CV blog readers do, too.

    The stats on how high school students did on it are *freaking* depressing. Sigh. Judge for yourself on how hard the questions are. And — for sure an uninformed populace is a more pliable populace. And definitely certain segments of our society would in general prefer to keep it this way, alas.

  • Thanny

    I’m not sure I understand the nature of the question. Was it free-response with those being the acceptable answers?

    Surely his work with electricity is at least as famous as anything else on that list (most notably the kite experiment).

    Then again, I think, sadly, that the majority of native-born Americans wouldn’t know either that or the items on that list.

  • Mark

    Mandeep: I’m not sworn in yet, but it is the final remaining step.

    Thanny: I didn’t make it very clear, you’re right. It was indeed free response, with those being the allowed answers. I don’t know if other correct ones not on the list are accepted. They certainly are for some questions (like naming a Native American tribe).

  • HP

    Franklin was also a notorious womanizer, and the author of the phrase “all cats are gray in the dark.”

    And as The Simpsons is the King James Bible of my generation, I’ll close with chapter and verse (Ep. 3F20):

    Proctor: All right, here’s your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?

    Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter–

    Proctor: Wait, wait… just say slavery.

    Apu: Slavery it is, sir.

  • HP

    Oh, I almost forgot. Congratulations, I think.

  • Sean

    I’m sure you’ve jinxed yourself with the INS by writing this post. But it’s good to see you transform into a Philadelphia patriot! (Go Phils!)

  • Mark

    Yeah, that actually did occur to me Sean. The transition isn’t complete, but the Phillies are definitely helping.

  • Roman

    Practical advice – you don’t have to go crazy about being on time for your sworn in ceremony. It take hours to set it up, at least here in LI NY.
    I was late 15min and thought it is all over for me. Not to worry.

  • Peter Coles


  • greg

    Congratulations Mark.

    For posterity’s sake, I would keep hold of various papers and whatnot related to your citizenship. It will be interesting for any of your descendants who have an interest in genealogy. I have the letter requesting naturalization that one of my great-grandmothers wrote and it’s a much more connective document than her passport or death certificate.

    Out of curiosity, out of the 100 questions, how many would you say you didn’t already know the answer to prior to studying?

  • John (gordon) Faughnan

    I really appreciated this one! I also grossly over-prepared for my Citizenship test — because I greatly enjoyed the study materials.

    The examiners must be accustomed to this; mine seemed quite amused. I had less discipline than you and showed her my study notes after she made me stop, as I recall she expressed interest in reviewing them (which I’m sure she immediately discarded but it was kind of her).

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  • Saurabh

    Congratulations, Mark!

  • Ashutosh

    Congratulations! I remember that when Godel took his citizenship exam he wanted to point out to the judge how the US constitution contained a loophole through which the country could be turned into a dictatorship. Apparently his friends Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern stopped him from doing this.

  • CarlZ

    Hey Mark, congratulations. I’m in exactly the same boat: been here many years, took the exam a couple of weeks ago and have the Oath ceremony this Thursday!

    And I’m also astonished at how efficient, polite and helpful the INS has become in recent years. When I first started going there in the mid-1990s, it was as if every body who was too bitter and sarcastic to work at the DMV anymore got shipped up to INS where at least they weren’t dealing with citizens who had a congressperson to complain to. And then somewhere around 1999, there was a complete sea-change in the culture. Weird.

    By an amusing coincidence, when I got to the Franklin question I had exactly the same reaction as you: I turned to my (American-born) wife and asked how they could leave off his scientific accomplishments?

    Of the 5 officially acceptable answers, the only one I could have offered before studying for the test was that he was a diplomat.

  • John R Ramsden

    > “The other problem for the geek taking the citizenship test is that if you get six correct
    > before the examiner reaches ten questions, he just stops asking, and tells you you’ve
    > passed. One must then avoid the temptation to say “No, come on, ask me the rest!

    and the temptation to explain a logical flaw in the US constitution, which Kurt Godel apparently planned to do in his citizenship interview before Einstein managed to talk him out of it.

    No idea what it is, but possibly that one about US Presidents being able to wangle more than two terms of office under some implausible but possible conditions.

  • Mark

    Thanks to all for the congratulations – hopefully the swearing in is a formality.

    Peter, that’s half-traitor – I still get to hold a British Passport as well.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Franklin was also a notorious womanizer, and the author of the phrase “all cats are gray in the dark.””

    Indeed. Check this out:

    Remember to carry a basket with you, just in case (see point 5.)!

  • Ele Munjeli

    Congratulations! Thanks for joining the club!

  • Sili

    Does the UK allow dual citizenship? I can never figure out who does and who doesn’t.

    I’d have to look this one up (I think he wrote and almanac, yes, and had a press, but somehow the postmaster thing sounds familiar too). The first things I think of are electricity (+ lightning rods), bifocals and an improved fireplace. Some anecdote of his wife making fun of him walking around with loaves in his pockets when she first saw him, too.

    Of course, it’s not likely that I’ll ever be employed in the US (hopefully I will be employed somewhere eventually).

    ETA: Oh! They’re all correct. I thought it was the multiple choice thing that you’re so fond of over there. (Yes, you get to be part of “them” now.)

  • DTS

    Good booklet. About the Vietnam war, it says “The war ended in 1975 with the temporary separation of the country into communist North Vietnam and democratic South Vietnam” (page 21), which is new to me.

  • Gray Gaffer

    Congrats from a fellow expat!

    I came to LA in 1975, got my Green Card in 1978 when they were a) still green and b) granted for life. Except Clinton nixed that, made them require renewing every 10 years, and the INS neglected to tell me. A lawyer friend discovered it just two months before the 2 year grace period ran out, so I did sneak in, but it could have been very nasty. So I decided to convert in 2000, finally made it through all hurdles in 2002. Took me so long because the INS had misplaced my file. I ‘landed’ in LA, but renewed in Seattle, also converted in Seattle, but they looked for my file in LA when it was still in Seattle.

    I got the questions on what the three branches’ responsibilities are. During Bush’s reign. I kept to the book.

    The dual citizenship thing is mutual with the UK. Generally speaking, you use the country’s passport in which you are landing to go through customs. Leaving the USA they may not even look, but use the USA one. Leaving the UK you also use the USA passport.

  • Toiski

    As a European who grew up in the era of American domination of TV, movies and games, I could only name three of the Native American tribes off the top of my head, all of them also names of military helicopters…

  • CarlZ

    Re. dual citizenship:

    Britain decided to be a lot less uptight about it some years ago. The official position now is that an oath you take in front of some other country’s officials is not binding on the UK, which therefore still claims you as a citizen, and if you want to forfeit your British citizenship you have to say so in front of a British official.

    The US used to be restrictive, but made an exception for dual US/Israeli citizenship during the early years of modern Israel’s existence IIRC (lots of Jewish Americans wanted to show support for Israel but not at the cost of giving up their, in many cases hard-won, US citizenship). Then at some point (mid-1960s?) the courts decided that you couldn’t give special treatment to one class of people, i.e. dual citizenship with Israel but not other countries. Since then the US has taken a position of official indifference: Even though the naturalization oath includes a promise to renounce all prior loyalties, this has not been taken to mean formally giving up other citizenships.

  • Gray Gaffer

    I was told by my interviewer that the reciprocal dual citizenship with the UK dated from WWII but was not bandied about. Until my interview I had assumed I had to give up my UK citizenship since it seemed required by the oath. I have not tested this, but I suspect one might get taxed twice if one were to go do some work in the UK that did not involve actually moving back there. As to moving back, that is assumed by the INS to be an abandonment of your USA citizenship so one loses it. So not quite so reciprocal. Or, naturalization has some second-class properties as compared to native born citizenship.

  • Doc

    Trods, that will make flying a bit more exciting…! Also, what’s the point of these citizenship tests? what if one is simply stupid – does that preclude citizenship? discuss

  • Gray Gaffer

    Doc: yes, although I think they give you a second chance, and you might even get an examiner not above prompting you.

    The standards for admittance as an adult are way higher than native admittance, which only requires being born breathing.

  • marciepooh

    Doc: We have enough native born citizens who can’t get 60% of those questions right we don’t need more voters with who don’t know what the 3 branches of government are suppose to do.

  • abbruzzesse

    Regarding the Red Booklet, I find in it something more peculiar
    than its (understandably) selective description of Franklin’s
    achievements. Among the rights of US citizens it lists the
    “right to bear arms”. Apparently, the booklet’s authors
    have their own ideas about how to interpret the Second Amendment,
    and present their own opinion as fact.

  • straightbat

    Gray Gaffer (#26) you might want to consult with that lawyer friend of yours on that bit about abandoning naturalized citizenship by moving back. You can move hither, thither and anywhere without any such problems (but do remember to feed the IRS). I know plenty of naturalized citizens who are either back in their home country or in a third country with no such issues. I seem to recall reading that this was litigated and it was found that it would be unconstitutional/illegal to strip naturalized citizens of citizenship for such reasons.

  • vivek

    In my case, the guy stopped after three questions and then spent the rest of the time telling me about a vacation he had recently taken which involved a train journey in Alaska; he had a photo up on his wall, and I asked him about it…

  • Suzanne

    CONGRATULATIONS – I went through that whole process 2 years ago. Actually, I wasn’t only disappointed that I didn’t get to answer the ten questions but was done after 6, but they also didn’t do the English Comprehension and reading/spelling test (I was sooo gonna ace it) and before the citizenship ceremony they told us to learn the “Oath of Allegiance” (not Pledge, the Oath – it’s different) because we would need to know it for the ceremony.

    I studied my head off – I could recite the thing backward, forward, standing on my head, or any other way possible — and then all they did was have ONE PERSON UP FRONT read it out loud and all we (the future citizens) had to do was answer I SWEAR…..yeah — I wanted to swear alright – some not so nice things actually….

  • mel

    Congratulations. Like you, my wife and I were also waiting for our oath ceremony schedule. Ours have taken place on 9/2/2009 at the Callowhill office. Mine went smoothly with just a 10 minute wait. But my wife waited for at least a 2-hour delay on her appointment. That gave her some jitters, although she did study for a month. She said she was so glad that she passed and she will not forget the experience (she blanked out on one question for a while but still managed to give the correct answer).

    I came across this blog searching for info on the next scheduled oath ceremony. Still unsuccessful with my search though…


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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