Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Directions in Space

In space, which way is up? –Pablo, 10, Spokane, WA

Dear Pablo,

We might not always think about it, but every day gravity keeps us pulled to the Earth. It’s what brings us back down when we jump on a trampoline. It’s why a Slinky tumbles down stairs.

Now think about what it would be like to live in a place with very little gravity. Let’s say you were 200 miles off the ground, orbiting earth in the International Space Station. Here, the idea of up and down really gets flipped around.

On Earth, the human balance system  helps the head figure out how move up and down under the force of gravity. It’s what helps people figure out to look up to the ceiling or down to the floor. If you are floating around in space, up and down is different.

I decided to visit my friend Afshin Khan to find out more about it. She is a researcher and astrobiologist at Washington State University.

Khan explained that even things in space have a little gravity, and whichever object is being pulled toward another due to stronger or larger gravity is what we call “down.” The opposite is what we call “up.” We use these words to help us navigate.

But in reality, there really are no true directions, Khan said. There is no up and down in space.

It’s kind of like when we look at a globe, she explains. If you are trying to get to Japan from the U.S., you can see it is both east and west of the U.S. It depends on the direction you want to travel. If you want to cross the Atlantic Ocean, you go east. If you want to fly over the Pacific Ocean, you go west. It’s all relative.

Inside the International Space Station, the ceiling might as well be the floor. The walls might as well be the ceilings. It’s enough to make your head spin.

In fact, researchers at NASA are asking big questions about what happens to the human brain when it can’t figure out which way is up or down. They are curious how it changes the activity of the brain.

Some scientists have even tackled questions about how to help plants “grow up” in these environments with very little gravity. To help plants grow upright, scientists have developed little plant pillows. The pillows are full of dirt, water and plant food to help the plants stay grounded. Otherwise, their roots would grow out in all different directions.

As the concept of direction may be different in space, engineers and scientists have to think about it when they are designing tools to help us navigate the universe. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll come up with a great idea that can help us explore, too.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Rain and Water Pollution

Where does rain go? –Finn, 8, New Zealand
How does pollution effect the world’s water? – Emily, 13

Dear, Finn, Emily, and friends,

When a raindrop falls from a cloud, there are quite a few places it could end up.

We might follow that raindrop into a stream, river or ocean. If it’s in the ocean and it gets warm enough, it might evaporate into even tinier droplets of water to form clouds. It’s part of the water cycle.

Clouds can only hold so much rain before they get saturated. Then it starts to rain again.  Maybe this time the raindrop falls into soil and helps a plant grow. Or perhaps the raindrop falls onto the sidewalk, street, or highway. If it falls on the pavement, it could flow into a drain and back into the streams and oceans.

Lots of these raindrops make up what scientists call storm water. But it’s not just water. Along the way, water can pick up other things on the road. It might sweep away something like leaves. It also picks up things that aren’t very good for our planet, like oil, animal waste, metal from car brakes, or other kinds of chemicals and pollutants.

We can’t always see these pollutants with our eyes, but they can really threaten animals who call the streams, rivers, and ocean home. Pollution can create a toxic environment for fish. As a researcher at Washington State University, my friend Michelle Chow studies some of the fish that get sick from pollutants in storm water.

Coho salmon that live in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. will often die if they are in this polluted water for a couple of days. But Chow and other researchers at WSU are working on ways to help save the salmon.

It turns out soil is really great at filtering toxic stuff out of water. If you are curious how it works, check out this video, “Polluted Puddles.” One thing people can do to help clean up the environment and help save salmon is to plant a rain garden. When the rain comes down, it gets filtered through the garden’s soil instead of running off into the road. You can find out how to plant a rain garden in your community with the help of friends at WSU Extension.

Another way researchers are helping is by developing a kind of pavement that looks a bit like a Rice Krispies Treat. It’s called permeable pavement and is designed to let water go straight through the pavement down into the soil. That way, it doesn’t run off and carry pollutants to nearby bodies of water.

Chow said there are other ways we can also help keep pollutants out of our environment. Can you think of something you might be able to do? I might just walk to work or ride my bike. Helping find solutions is good for salmon who live in the water and good for animals who like to eat them, too. Together, we can help improve and restore healthy water habitats.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Feet

Why do feet smell?
-Jose, 10, Costa Mesa, Calif.

Dear Jose,

We live in a world filled with all kinds of smells. Take off a pair of tennis shoes after a long day and you might even get a whiff of something pretty stinky. You can blame it on your bacteria. Millions of these tiny things live on your feet.

While bacteria are too small to see without a microscope, sometimes you can just smell them doing their job. They like dark, damp, warm places, where they can eat dead skin and drink sweat. Inside your shoes and socks, for example.

There are more glands that produce sweat on your feet than any other part of the body. As bacteria eat there, they also turn your dead skin and sweat into chemical products that can really reek.

It might just make you want to plug your nose. But at least you’ll know the system that helps you smell, the olfactory system, is working well. Your brain, nose, and a bunch of smell receptors work together to help you figure out what you are smelling.

Maybe it’s stinky feet. Or maybe it’s fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Do either of these bring back any memories for you? Scientists have found that our sense of smell is tied pretty closely to our memories—and there are more than 10,000 different kinds of smells, or aromas.

Sniffing out chemical combos

Smell is a really important part of our daily life, said my friend Sindhuja Sankaran, a biological engineer and researcher at Washington State University. The ability to smell can also help us identify spoiled foods, find quality foods, and even remind us to take out the trash.

She said that knowledge of the way humans smell has allowed us to develop electronic devices that can help pick up on these different combinations of chemicals.

Scientists like Sankaran can use a kind of sensor, you might call it an electronic nose, to study the quality of foods and sniff out any problems bacteria might be causing when food is in storage. She even uses this technology to study what chemicals released by plants can tell us about whether they are infected by a disease or attacked by an insect.

For example, some kinds of plants can release chemical combinations into the air to warn other plants that a particular predator is around. Some evidence points to the idea that plants can sense some chemical messages in their roots, too.

Lucky for them they can’t smell stinky feet. What kinds of things have you smelled lately? Keep exploring all the aromas around you. You might even try to find out what combinations of chemicals give things like fresh cut grass, garbage and bacon their smells.

Dr. Universe

And now for 3 smelly facts with Dr. Sankaran

  1. Humans have about 5 million receptor cells in their olfactory system to help them smell.
  2. Dogs noses are about a thousand times more sensitive than humans. They have around 220 million olfactory sensors.
  3. A pair of feet can have about 250,000 glands for making sweat.

Ask Dr. Universe – Mirages

What causes mirages? –Georgia, 10, Wash. 

Dear Georgia,

Imagine you’re riding in the car on a very hot day, when you look out the window and see a shimmering puddle of water up ahead. As you get closer, you find there’s not really anything there. It’s a mirage.

While you aren’t really seeing a puddle, you are definitely seeing one of light’s many wonders. It has to do with the way light travels, and with the way our eyes and brain take in light.

That’s what I found out when I went to visit my friend Jeff McMahon, a physicist at Washington State University.

If you’ve ever tried to get some place in a hurry, you probably took the fastest way possible. Light does this, too. It travels fast and wants to take the shortest path, McMahon said. But sometimes it will slow down if something gets in its way. Cold air, for example. Light can travel faster through hot air than cold air.

Now think of a paved road on a hot day. The ground would be really hot and so would the layer of air right above it. Meanwhile, any air above this warm layer would get colder and colder.

Light will travel slowly through the cold air. However, if light wants to take the shortest and fastest trip, it will swoop down into the warm air near the ground and speed up.

But the light still has to go back up to your eyes so you can see. The light heads back up toward you, traveling through the colder air again. It makes a bit of a U-shaped trip. And where the cold and warm air layers meet, the light bends.

Your eyes and brain try to figure out what’s going on. After all, they are used to taking in light that comes in at a straight line. When the light bends, your brain and eyes see a mirage.

This bending light is what we call refraction. Where the light bends, you’ll likely see an image of the sky refracted on the ground.

This doesn’t just happen on pavement, McMahon said. It can also happen on water. People have seen mirages of boats and islands. Some people think this is where we might have come up with the stories of ghost ships. Little did they know at the time it was all refraction—a journey of light. Can you think of how refraction might happen on the ocean?

Refraction happens in lots of places in our universe. Here’s an easy way to really surprise your friends and classmates, while also seeing how light can work when it passes through different materials. Draw an arrow on a piece of paper. Then, place the paper behind a glass. Fill the glass with water. What happens to the arrow? Tell me about it sometime at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Ant Headaches

Dear Dr. Universe: I have a question for you about ants. From what I searched on Google, an ant has a nervous system, blood, open circular system, muscles, and a brain. So, Dr. Universe, the question is, do ants or other insects get headaches? Cause they work hard.
–Joseph, 14, Singapore

Dear Joseph,
If you’ve ever had a headache, it might have felt like pain was radiating right out of your brain.

Curious about how exactly headaches happen, I visited my friend Samantha Gizerian. She’s a brain scientist at Washington State University.

It turns out the brain doesn’t have sensors or receptor cells for pain. It’s the reason a lot of patients can be awake and even talk during brain surgery.

Headaches most often happen when sensors or receptor cells in your skin, head or neck, send a message to the brain. There, the brain helps you translate the message into a feeling of pain.
It happens with the help of the central nervous system, the network of your brain, spinal cord, and a whole lot of nerves in your body. It’s all part of what allows you to sense your world.

You’ve done some great research in finding out that the humans and insects have some similar anatomy. Of course, there’s also quite a lot of differences. Insects do not have pain receptors like we do.

Even though they don’t have these same receptors, there’s still the question of whether they experience pain or some kind of headache. Good science takes collaboration, so I also visited fellow scientist Jenny Glass. She’s a scientist at WSU who studies insects.

She explained that while insects don’t have these particular kinds of pain receptors, they do respond to things in their environment with touch, smell, taste, vision, and chemical signals.

Some insects scurry or roll away from whatever might be harming them. It’s often an automatic response that helps them survive.

Many studies have shown that insects are capable of learning from their experiences. They know to avoid certain situations that might be harmful.

Glass explained that there are still a lot of questions when it comes to whether or not this response or learning translates to feeling pain, effort, or injury. The research doesn’t yet have a clear answer.

“But Joseph is onto something as many scientists are looking into the consciousness, or awareness, of insects and other animals,” Glass said.

Who knows, maybe one day you’ll be a scientist who helps us investigate big questions like this one. In fact, continuing to explore this question might just change the way some of us think about ants and other animals. Either way, we can all agree, you ask a very compassionate question.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Weeds

Dr. Universe:
Why do weeds grow sooo fast? 
– Leah, 9, British Columbia

Dear Leah,

If you’re like me, you’ve picked up a little dandelion fluff ball and blown the seeds around. Weeds like these make a lot of seeds. They get picked up by the wind and planted far and wide. And as you observe, they grow pretty fast, too.

My friend Tim Miller is a researcher at Washington State University working to help stop weeds from making life difficult for plants we would rather have. Sometimes, weeds are bullies to other plants.

“Weeds are simply plants that are able to compete well with the plants we want to grow,” Miller said. “Imagine two plants growing side by side. Let’s say one is a squash and one is a weed.”

He explained that these plants compete for resources both of them need to grow: sunlight, water, nutrients, and space.

“The weed is able to grab those resources before the vegetable plant can get them, so they tend to grow a little faster and a little better than the vegetable does,” Miller explained.

The weed seeds are already in the garden soil. They wait for just the right temperature and moisture conditions. So, when you plant your seeds, the weeds race out of the ground before whatever you planted can even get started.

Sometimes gardeners help their vegetables by growing them in pots and then transplanting them into the garden. That gives the veggie a head start against the weed.

Miller said some weeds grow from a root that has been alive for many years. These kinds of plants are called perennials. The grasses in your lawn are also perennials. Perennial weeds grow especially fast and are much harder to kill than annuals, which have to grow from seed every year.

Perennial roots have lots of energy in them from previous years of growth. Miller explained that energy helps the shoots grow very quickly. This makes perennial weeds particularly hard to control.

Dandelions are one kind of perennial. Each dandelion fuzz ball has as many as 100 seeds that travel in the wind. If a dandelion plant makes 10 flower heads, that’s 1,000 seeds waiting to sprout wherever they land. How many dandelions do you think you have in your lawn? If there are 50 plants, just think of those 50,000 new dandelions that can sprout from all those seeds. It’s no wonder weeds are so hard to control.

While they may be bullies to plants, weeds have also inspired some interesting ideas. The engineer who invented Velcro was inspired by those prickly weed burrs that stuck to his clothes and his dog’s fur. You never know what might inspire a great idea or when that idea will strike.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Ocean Water Movement

Dear Dr. Universe:
–Case, 5, Yakima

Dear Case,
You know, most cats like to stay a comfortable distance from water.

But when I got your science question about our big ocean, I was ready to jump right in.

Ocean water moves in all kinds of ways. Waves curl and crash on the shore. Big conveyer belts of water, currents, flow for thousands of miles around our planet. The tides go out and come back in.

And yes, the wind plays a big part in all of it. That’s what I found out when I went to visit my friend Jeff Vervoort, a geologist and professor of oceanography at Washington State University.

If you stand on the shore, you can often hear and feel the ocean breeze. On windy days, waves start stirring. The smallest waves, called capillaries, start growing as the wind blows across their surfaces.

The stronger the wind blows, the bigger the waves can get. They can reach great heights—some as tall as six-story buildings. When the wave reaches shallower waters, it will start to curl, then break.

If you’re anything like me, you might be wondering where the wind comes from, too. Vervoort explained that our planet is rotating around on its tilted axis. The sun heats the Earth unevenly as it turns. These conditions actually affect the air and wind patterns on the planet surface. All of this moving air pushes the water in the ocean around.

Vervoort pulled down an Earth-shaped beach ball from the shelf in his office. He explained that winds blow in different directions. If Earth wasn’t rotating on a tilted axis, winds would blow very differently.

But, because of the Earth’s spin, wind belts in the northern hemisphere bend to the right. It also makes the winds in the southern hemisphere go to the left. Ocean currents bend in the same way, caused by the Coriolis effect.

The moving water can sometimes also act like a food delivery system. Some currents deliver important sources of nutrients and oxygen down to animals that live in the deep ocean.

Other currents bring up nutrients for animals that live near the surface. These nutrients allow tiny organisms—plankton—to live and grow to great numbers. These very tiny plankton get eaten by bigger animals like krill. Krill are an important food source for even bigger animals such as whales.

Meanwhile, back up on the surface tides go in and out. While wind impacts the tides a little bit, they mostly happen because gravity from the moon, and a little less from the sun’s gravity, pull water on Earth.

For the most part when it comes to water moving in the ocean, your hypothesis is correct, Case. It’s wind that mostly keeps our ocean surface in motion.

Dr. Universe

Find this article printed in Washington State Magazine!

Ask Dr. Universe – Twins

Here’s a treat! We are raffling off some fun field guides to elementary/middle school explorers! E-mail Dr.Universe@wsu.edu w/ subject: “science rules” for a chance to win a class set! Ends Nov. 30. 

Dear Dr. Universe: How are twins made? –Brody, 8, Kauai, Hawaii 

Dear Brody,

By the time you finish reading this sentence, about twenty babies will have been born into our world. Sometimes they’re twins.

When I got your question, I figured what better place to go than the Washington State Twin Registry based in Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. Ally Avery, a researcher who studies twins, was happy to help with the answer.

You may remember that cells are the building blocks of life, Avery says. We are made up of billions of cells. Each one carries DNA, the miniaturized master plan that, among other things, influences how tall we are or what color our hair will be.

“People also have cells for making babies,” Avery says. “Males carry sperm cells. Females carry egg cells.”

When these two kinds of cells come together, the sperm cell fertilizes the egg, which begins growing and dividing.

“Nine months later, a baby is born,” says Avery.

As you’ve noted, sometimes two babies are born. Twins start their journey like most babies do. Then something pretty rare happens.

Sometimes a single egg cell will divide into two. When I asked Avery why it happens, she said the research hasn’t yet shown us exactly why. It’s still one of the mysteries of science.

We do know that when an egg cell divides into two, identical twins are born. They have very similar DNA and may look alike, but they aren’t exactly the same. They may have very different personalities. They even have different fingerprints.

Humans aren’t the only ones that can be identical. One animal that scientists study to learn about multiple births is the nine-banded armadillo. They are very curious about this critter because it very often gives birth to not just two, but four identical babies.

Of course, not all twins are identical. Some are fraternal. Fraternal twins happen when two totally different eggs are fertilized.

The number of fraternal twins born differs around the world, while the number of identical twins is the same. Again, we aren’t entirely sure why. Registries of twins can help us learn more about twins around the world, though. We know that Benin, a country in central Africa, is home to the most twins on the planet.

Meanwhile, in the Washington State Twin Registry, there are more than 18,000 twins who have agreed to be studied. That’s more than 9,000 pairs of adult twins.

One thing Avery and WSU researchers study is discordance. That means one twin has a health condition and the other does not. They can look at twins living in different environments, how they travel, and how it affects their health. One study has helped them find evidence supporting the idea that living in a place with access to outside activities is really good for health.

Together twins are helping researchers answer big questions that can help improve health for all of us—whether you came into the world solo or with a buddy.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Earthquakes

Dear Dr. Universe: When will the next major earthquake be? Earthquakes really interest me and I want to know so I can be prepared when the next major quake happens. – Carmen, 11, Chowchilla, CA

Dear Carmen,

Our planet’s surface is constantly on the move. Sometimes this movement really shakes things up.

The Earth’s crust is made up 14 major pieces and dozens of smaller ones, called plates, that move in super slow motion. Earthquakes can happen when these plates suddenly slip past each other. They send out waves of energy that make the ground shake.

We can learn a lot about earthquakes after they happen, but the truth is they are pretty unpredictable.

“Everyone wants to know precisely when the next earthquake will be, but the best answer is that we really don’t know the exact timing,” said my friend Katie Cooper, a geologist at Washington State University.

According to the National Earthquake Information Center, more than a million large and small earthquakes shake the planet’s surface each year. By the way, if you’re curious about where some of the recent earthquakes have happened, check out this cool map from the USGS.

You’ll be able to spot some places where there have been earthquakes today. If we look at earthquake patterns, we can say with pretty good confidence that they happen every day along plate boundaries. We just can’t pinpoint exactly where or when they’ll happen next.

Because we don’t precisely know, it’s a good idea to be prepared, especially if you live in an earthquake-prone region like a plate boundary. Cooper said scientists are working on ways to inform people at the very early part of an earthquake.

Some earthquake warning systems can pick up on some of the first seismic waves generated by an earthquake. This may give people ten or so seconds to prepare before the ground starts shaking. That might sound like a really short time, but even a few seconds can help save lives, Cooper said.

Engineers are also helping us prepare for earthquakes. Along with fellow universities, engineers here at WSU are working on new building materials to help people’s houses stay upright on shaky ground. They are using layers of lumber glued together to create thick solid panels. Later, they’ll use the materials to construct a 10-story building. Then they’ll simulate an earthquake in a laboratory. I can’t wait to see what they discover.

One thing you can do to prepare for earthquakes is join the millions of people who participate in the Great ShakeOut, which helps people prepare for earthquakes at school or at home. If you haven’t already, you might even put together your own earthquake kit. It could include items such as a three-day supply of food and water, a flashlight, batteries, and other things you might need in case of a disaster.

Who knows, maybe one day you’ll discover another way to help us prepare for earthquakes—or help find ways to predict them. It’s a good question you ask, Carmen. Even when we don’t know exactly when an earthquake will happen, we can do our best to get ready.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Ants

Dear Dr. Universe: I would like to find out how ants are so strong. How is it possible that they can carry weight that is heavier than themselves?

–Anita, 11

Dear Anita,
Ants are pretty good little weightlifters. My friend Rich Zack, a scientist at Washington State University who studies insects, knows a lot about ants. One kind of ant that he has studied can carry up to 20 times its own weight.

Ants don’t have special muscles that give them super strength. In fact, their muscles are actually quite a bit like the muscles of other animals.

Zack explained that we often think about strength as the ability of an animal to carry something heavy. Ants can lift big sticks, leaves, and some can even carry a full-grown grasshopper. Of course, they couldn’t lift a fork at the dinner table like you can. Their strength is all relative to their size.

When it comes to figuring out how they are so strong, it also helps to do a bit of measuring, adds my friend Dan Rodgers. He’s an animal scientist at WSU and the Washington Center for Muscle Biology.

One thing we can look at is the animal’s volume, or the amount of space something takes up. Then, there’s the surface area of the object. When we measure the outside of an ant’s body we can find its surface area.

As you observed, a regular-sized ant is able to lift things much heavier than itself. But what if we doubled the size of the ant? Do you think the ant might get even stronger?

“An ant the size of your house would have much more absolute strength than a regular-sized ant,” Rodgers said. “However, it could no longer lift 50 or so times its weight and the small ant would be stronger, relatively.”

If we doubled the size of an ant, the surface area of the ant would also double. But its volume would actually more than double. This is an idea that holds true with pretty much all objects. If things appear twice as big, they actually weigh more than twice as much.
You may have also heard ants wear their skeletons on the outside. Their muscles don’t have to support such a heavy skeleton, so they can instead use their strength to help carry other things.

Ants and other insects have a large surface area compared to their volume. And the muscle strength of an animal is pretty closely related to surface area, Rodgers said. Yes, it’s true ants are strong. But it’s all compared to their size.

There are actually some insects that, for their size, are even stronger than ants. Do you know what insect that might be? Send me your best guess at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu for a chance to win a Dr. Universe sticker.

Dr. Universe

Try it out! You can explore area with a fun, simple activity. Print your own graph paper and make your own pop-up paper creature. Can you find its surface area?

Ask Dr. Universe – Facial Hair

Why do people grow hair under their nose? Why does it grow down instead of up? 
–Riley, 11, Prior Lake, MN

Dear Riley,

Humans have hair all over their bodies, including above the upper lip. Of course, not all hair is quite the same. A lot of people have very fine hairs on their faces. Others can sprout a beard or mustache.

Cats might not have mustaches, but we do have another kind of hair: whiskers. In fact, hair is one of the things mammals have in common. Even dolphins have it. Hair can help keep us warm and protected from the elements.

Human hairs sprout from tiny little sacks under the skin called follicles. The root of the hair feeds off of tiny blood vessels to keep growing. Some hair follicles are too small for the eye to see. As males develop from kids to adults, the size of these hair follicles can get bigger.

This change is related to a chemical in the body called testosterone, said my friend Lori Nelson, a biologist at Washington State University. When follicles get bigger, the hair also gets thicker, and it can draw some attention to the upper lip.

Many males have facial hair because they have more of this hormone circulating in their blood than females do. But having more testosterone doesn’t always mean you’ll have more hair, Nelson adds.

She said there’s been some debate over whether or not facial hair might also help with attracting a mate. I suppose the exact purpose of a mustache is still a bit of a mystery. It’s an interesting observation you make about the direction the hairs grow, too.

At first, I thought the answer would be right under my nose. My guess was that it had something to do with gravity pulling the hair toward the ground. It turns out the direction of your hair follicles is actually determined when you are still growing inside your mother’s womb.

That’s what I found out from my friend Ryan Driskell, a researcher at WSU who studies wounds and how the skin regenerates.

He explained how some of the cells that make you up use different chemicals to communicate with one another. These chemicals can send and receive different messages. These messages carry instructions for how to form different parts of a human body.

Some of these chemicals will even direct hair to face a specific direction, Driskell said. These particular chemicals tell follicles on the upper lip grow downward. Each hair that sprouts out points downward, too.

Driskell isn’t just interested in why hair grows, but also why it sometimes doesn’t grow back. While we have medical procedures that help repair wounds, hair follicles and sweat glands are often lost. They don’t regenerate. In Driskell’s lab, their research is helping us learn how to help the human and other animal bodies heal up even better.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Astronaut Food

What do astronauts eat in space?
–Rhemi, 12, St. Louis, Mo.

Dear Rhemi,

Astronauts eat all kinds of different foods up in space. The food is often similar to what we have here on Earth. But in space, there’s very little gravity. There’s very limited refrigeration, too. On the International Space Station, the refrigerator is only about half the size of a microwave. That means scientists who prepare and package astronaut food have to do it in ways that take up very little room and don’t need to be kept cold.

In 1962, John Glenn became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth and also the first American to eat food there. He ate applesauce from a tube. In the early days of space exploration, a lot of astronauts ate food that was in little cubes or squeezed out of tubes. It helped keep the food from drifting around or floating away.

When I got your question, I decided to visit my friend Norman Lewis, a plant scientist at Washington State University. He showed me a package of cosmonaut food some colleagues in Russia gave him from a mission many years ago. Inside was dried fruit, canned meat, and a meal in an aluminum toothpaste tube.

Astronaut food has come a long way since. NASA has prepared menus that include dried fruit, yogurt, sausage, beef jerky, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, and shrimp cocktail. Even desserts. The meals are often dehydrated. The astronauts just add water.

Scientists and astronauts are also curious about growing fresh food in space. Project Veggie on the International Space Station has helped astronauts become farmers and grow their own lettuce and cabbage.

My friend Norm is also helping NASA learn more about how plants grow and develop in space, particularly how the microgravity environment affects a plant’s overall life processes.

A plant growth chamber, about the size of a mini-fridge, was sent up to the space station in two stages, the most recent stage going up in a pod last month. A big robotic arm, the Canadarm, reached out and grabbed the pod to bring it into the station. Researchers will now work with astronauts on the station to research and discover how the plants grow and how they are affected by microgravity.

The more we know about how plants work, the better we can figure out how to grow them in in space. That could mean places like the moon or Mars, Lewis said. For now, astronauts depend on teams back on Earth to restock their supplies. But if astronauts could grow enough of their own food, they could go on even longer trips into space.

Who knows, maybe instead of only eating applesauce out of a tube, astronauts will have a small tree of fresh, delicious apples. Until then, if I ever get the chance to go to space, I definitely think I’d like to take along some tuna salad. What kind of food would you most want to take on an expedition to space? Tell me about it sometime at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Eclipses

Hello Dr. Universe: I was wondering, how does an eclipse happen?
– Susan, 13, San Francisco, CA

Dear Susan,
It just so happens the Great American Eclipse is coming up on Aug. 21, 2017. This solar eclipse will be the only one visible from across the lower 48 states in nearly a hundred years. When it happens, parts of the country will experience darkness for a couple minutes during the day.

It seems prime time to answer your question. My friend Guy Worthey, an astronomer at Washington State University, was happy to help out.

“Do you have a little brother or sister? And maybe a TV?” Worthey asked. “Even if you don’t, imagine that you’re trying to watch TV, and your little brother or sister gets in the way. You can’t see the TV anymore.”

He said we can think of the TV as the sun. Your little brother or sister is the moon. You are the Earth. A total solar eclipse happens when, the sun, moon, and Earth are lined up just right and, for a few minutes, the moon blocks the Earth’s view of the sun.

The moon is on a bit of a wobbly orbit, so even though it passes in front of the sun often, there isn’t always an eclipse. If it’s not lined up perfectly, we see just a partial eclipse. Part of the moon blocks the sun.

During a total solar eclipse, the moon casts its shadow down to Earth. Just like we can make shadow puppets on the wall using a flashlight, the moon can cast a shadow with help from the sunlight.

The places where the moon will cast its shadow is called the path of totality. If you’re in the path of totality during the total lunar eclipse, you’ll know it.

This is the area where you can experience total darkness during the day. From Earth, you’d also see the glowing, white outer part of the sun’s atmosphere, or the corona, hopefully with protective goggles. It only takes a couple minutes for the moon to pass in front of the sun. Then, it’s light outside again.

Even if you aren’t in the path of totality in August, you may still be able to see a partial eclipse. Worthey explained that there are actually several kinds of eclipses.

Another kind of eclipse is called a lunar eclipse. During a lunar eclipse the line-up goes: sun-Earth-moon. It’s called a lunar eclipse because the moonlight is affected.

The moon shines because it reflects light from the sun. But when Earth blocks the sun, the moon gets darker or even a little reddish. There will be a partial lunar eclipse on Aug. 7. You don’t need to protect your eyes when watching a lunar eclipse, but it’s super important to protect your eyes when viewing a solar eclipse.

You can prepare for the upcoming solar eclipse with a few resources and tips for how to safely view it with help from NASA. Keep asking great questions and keep your eye to the sky.

Dr. Universe

Answer to last week’s question for readers: The strongest insect is the horned dung beetle.

Ask Dr. Universe – Lightning

Dear Dr. Universe: What causes lightning?
-Monica, 10, Costa Rica

And while we’re at it, let’s answer these questions:
When lightning strikes the ocean, what happens to the fish? –Olivia, 12, Manchester, UK
Why is lightning attracted to metal objects? –Grant, 11, Pullman, Wash.
Why does lightning sometimes just happen in clouds? –Leo, 11, Cayman Islands

Dear Monica, Olivia, Grant, and Leo:

While you are probably not in the middle of an electrical storm right now, there are more than 1,000 happening at any given moment on our planet. They happen on Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter, too.

These big, grey storms we see on Earth give us the chance to see electrical charges in action, said my friend Nic Loyd, a meteorologist at Washington State University.

Pretty much everything has a charge. You have a charge. I have a charge. These charges interact with each other. Founding Father and inventor Ben Franklin, who was really curious about lightning, is credited with giving these charges names: negative and positive.

They work kind of like the different ends of a magnet. Two charges that are the same will move away from each other. But put a negative and positive charge near each other and they are like best buds. Opposite charges attract.

Of course, even though we have charges, we aren’t walking around repelling and attracting different objects. Most of the time, objects have both positive and negative charges. They cancel each other out, leaving a neutral charge.

But sometimes, these charges are out of balance. Lightning is one way nature balances out these charges on our planet. Loyd told me about the ingredients.

As the sun heats the earth’s surface, the air above it warms up, too. Warm air rises. As the air rises, very tiny droplets of water, or vapor, rise up and form into a cloud. Air continues to rise and the cloud gets bigger and bigger. At the top of the cloud the temperature is really cold. The tiny droplets of water there turn into ice.

One idea is that bits of ice bump into each other to create electrical charge. Exactly how they do this is still a bit of a mystery. But when these charges in the sky interact with opposite charges on the ground, current runs between them and we see a bright flash of lightning. Lightning can happen within a cloud or it can happen between the cloud and the ground. It all depends on how these charges are jumping around.

Now, for a final lightning round of answers to the remaining questions. It turns out metal doesn’t necessarily attract lightning. But it is a good conductor of electricity. That means electricity can easily flow through it. Lighting will take the shortest path possible. Water can also be a good conductor. That’s why it’s important to stay away from water when there’s an electrical storm. Most of the electricity flows along the top of the water. A fish’s fate may depend on how close to the surface it swims.

Finally, thunderstorms happen more often in spring and summer, as the ingredients—especially warm air– are more likely to exist. Now that you know more about the electrical charge we can see in the sky, what about the sound we hear at or near the same time? What causes thunder? Send your idea to Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Inside Planets

What do planets have inside? –Rhianna, 10, California
Dear Rhianna,

Each planet is a little different on the inside. And what’s inside a planet can shape what’s on the outside, too. That’s what I found out from my friend Steve Reidel, a geologist at Washington State University.

“Well, there’s the rocky planets,” he said. “Then there are the big, gas giants.”

Rocky planets, like Earth, are wrapped in a thick crust. Beneath Earth’s crust is the mantle. The mantle is quite solid, but it actually behaves more like a fluid. It flows and deforms. It’s similar to Silly Putty, but a really strong version of Silly Putty. It’s about 1,800 miles thick. It is also the main source of Earth’s volcanoes.

Even deeper in our planet is the core. It’s made up of metals, like nickel and iron. In fact, at the center of Earth there may be a ball of solid nickel and iron. It’s a solid because of the intense pressure there. But the outer part of the core is under less pressure, so it’s likely more fluid.

You may have heard that Earth is like one big magnet. It’s the reason why our compasses point north. Scientists think that as Earth’s fluid interior swirls around with the spin of Earth, it helps generate the planet’s magnetic field.

Earth’s magnetism is also part of the reason we have the Northern Lights. When particles from the sun strike particles in our atmosphere near the Earth’s magnetic field, it can create colorful displays.

While we can see some of the ways deep earth shapes our planet, we can’t actually look inside it. The deepest scientists have ever explored is about 5 miles into the Earth. Since we can’t slice up a planet, scientists use different measurements to figure out what’s going on.

One way they do this is to look at waves that earthquakes produce. Scientists can use seismometers, machines to measure the shaking of the ground, to help measure the waves. Some of these waves only move through solids, like the inner core. Others move through solids and liquids, like the outer core and mantle. They can use this information from the wave measurements to put together a better picture of the planet’s composition.

Other rocky planets—Mercury, Mars, and Venus—likely have similar interiors to Earth’s. It appears Mercury has the biggest core, at least compared to its size.

Then there are the giant gas planets: Neptune, Saturn, Jupiter and Uranus.

Air is one gas we all know. We breathe it. Planes zip through it. Each of these planets in the outer solar system is surrounded by different gases. We couldn’t stand on them.

If we did travel through the center of a gas giant, we would probably find something pretty familiar to our own rocky planet on the inside.

Your friend,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Submit your own science question at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask.

Ask Dr. Universe – Snake Skin

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do snakes shed their skin? – Kalitia, 12, Zimmerman, Minn.

Dear Kalitia,

Believe it or not, pretty much all animals shed their skin. Some animals make it a bit more obvious than others. Snakes, and some other reptiles, will often shed all at once.

Instead of shedding their skin in one go, humans actually make and get rid of new skin all the time. It floats away in very small flakes. If you’ve ever had a sunburn, you know skin can shed in bigger pieces, too.

That leads us to a big part of the reason animals shed, said my friend Kenneth Kardong. He is a zoologist at Washington State University who is really curious about reptiles, especially rattlesnakes. He said animals shed to replace worn out or damaged skin.

When a snake gets ready to shed, its eyes turn a milky color. This is because a new layer of skin forms over the eyes, too. It can’t see very well. It may even try to find a place to hide out until it starts shedding. For that to happen, it needs to find something to help break a part of the skin up near its snout. Something like a stick or a rock.

Then the snake will start to wriggle out of the outer layer of skin. It slithers against rocks, trees, and plants. Some snakes will even go for a swim to help escape their old skin. In a snake’s shedded skin, we can see all the details of the original skin, its scales and even its eyeball cover.

For most snakes, that’s the end of it. At least, until the next time they shed. That’s usually in a year or two. But rattlesnakes are a little different.

Shedding doesn’t just get rid of their old skin. It also reveals new parts of the rattlesnake’s tail. The rattle is made of different sections of keratin—the same stuff that makes up your fingernails. Each time the snake sheds its skin, a new segment of the rattle is revealed.

When a baby rattlesnake is born, it can’t make a rattle sound yet. It isn’t until the first time it sheds that a new segment forms on its tail. Together, these segments vibrate to make the snake’s “chica-chica” sound.

As with other snakes, shedding also helps rattlesnakes repair any damaged skin. In fact, sometimes snakes have things called parasites. They’re creatures that takes away nutrients from their host animal to survive. Shedding helps snakes get rid of these creatures. And of course, the shedding also leaves the snakes with a brand-new layer of skin to wear out in the world.

Dr. Universe

Ever wonder what’s inside a rattlesnake rattle? Find out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pyfMnF6j_g

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in a science question of your own at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask.

Ask Dr. Universe – Feelings

Why do we have different feelings?  – Charan and Aishwarya V., 10 & 8, Rutherford, New Jersey
Dear Charan and Aishwarya,

Imagine you are playing a game of soccer and your best friend is on the opposing team. The sun is out, you are having a great time, and you score the winning goal. You’d probably feel pretty happy and so would your team.

But if you stepped in your best friend’s shoes, the emotion might be really different. Think of the players on the other team, too. Even if they had fun and played their hardest, they may be a little disappointed.

Humans feel all kinds of different emotions. They use them to react to different situations, whether that’s playing a game or maybe coming face-to-face with a saber-toothed tiger.

For your ancestors, an emotion such as fear could help increase the chance of survival if they did run into this ferocious feline. When people are faced with a potentially dangerous situation, changes in the body happen automatically.

A fear signal from the brain makes the heart race, muscles tighten, and the mouth gets dry. The body gets ready to fight or run away. You may express this fear on your face. That’s a signal to people around you that they’ve got to get ready to act.

My friend Sara Waters, a psychologist and researcher at Washington State University, is really curious about human emotions. She asks big questions about how and why we develop them and how we share them.

When you were a baby, you probably couldn’t express your emotions very well. You had to cry a lot to express yourself and get what you needed. Maybe you threw tantrums. But you soon discovered they didn’t work very well.

You may not have had the right words for your emotions yet. When you learned to talk, you started to give your emotions names, Waters explained. The grown-ups in your life probably helped you figure out what those names were. Sad. Happy. Mad. Then, you could start figuring out your feelings on your own and express them to others.

Waters’ research actually looks at how some mothers and their babies sort of catch one another’s emotions. When moms look at their babies with a certain emotion, the babies will also show those emotions. They’re kind of like copy cats.

Maybe after winning the soccer game your friend gives you a high five. Your friend tells you that it was a little disappointing to lose. Maybe your own team has lost in the past and you remember how it feels. You have a whole range of different emotions you can use to navigate the world, better understand people, and make good decisions.

What kinds of things do you do to bring others happiness? How do you show kindness? What makes you happiest? Make a list or tell us about it sometime at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Submit a question of your own at http://askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask

Ask Dr. Universe – Animals on Islands

How do animals get to islands? –Jax, 8, WA

Dear Jax,

Animals make their journeys to islands in different ways. Some float. Some fly. Others will swim.

My friend Jonah Piovia-Scott is a scientist at Washington State University. He studies how different living things interact with each other, especially in island habitats. He is really curious about predatory lizards that live on a chain of islands called the Bahamas.

“These lizards can get to islands,” he said. “They can swim, but not very well. They keep themselves afloat.”

Floating is one way animals get to islands. They may float on their own or they may take a kind of raft. This raft is often made up of plants, branches, or other things that blow out into the sea during a storm and are swept together in the ocean.

Flying helps animals like bats and bugs get to islands. Piovia-Scott reminded me that some animals fly for just a small part of their lives, too. Before some ants are fully grown, they go through a stage where they have wings. An ant might find it hard to swim in the ocean. But while it has wings, it can make a flight to a new place.

If animals are light enough, they may get picked up in the wind and sort of drift along. For example, spiders use their silk to catch the wind and move to new locations. Also, a lot of plants get to islands because of the wind. Plant seeds often catch a ride in the air. When they reach the island, they get buried in soil and start to sprout. These plants provide food for many animals.

Finally, there are animals that are just good swimmers, such as seals. They can paddle long distances to an island and some also find a home on the land.

Piovia-Scott explained that animals often take advantage of their new island life. We see these changes in animals such as the marine iguana. Most iguanas we know about only live on the land. But iguanas on the Galapagos Islands dive into water to look for food. They have developed ways to use the resources in and around their island environment.

Another place we see this is in the Pacific Northwest on the San Juan Islands. On these islands, we find raccoons that eat shellfish.

Piovia-Scott said you could probably say the same is true of people who live on islands—they tend to eat a lot of fish. That sounds like my kind of place. I might have to go and explore an island one of these days.

In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can make a flying device and floatation device to learn more about how things travel on water and in the air. You can try it out, too. Find this article and the instructions at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Submit a question of your own at http://askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask

Ask Dr. Universe – Blood

Why do we have blood? Where does it come from? –Norelle, Olympia, Wash.

Dear Norelle,

Our bodies have many living parts, like skin, muscle, brain and bones. Blood helps keep these parts alive and healthy. The system that moves our blood around the body is sort of like a city’s postal service, said my friend Astrid Suchy-Dicey.

Suchy-Dicey is a scientist at Washington State University who is really curious about blood. Her research helps people at risk for diseases.

She said it first helps to know that blood is actually made up of different things: red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and plasma.

If you think of your circulatory system like the postal service, mail carriers are the red blood cells. They transport important packages and letters (oxygen) over a vast network of streets and highways (blood vessels).

About a gallon and a half of blood circulates through the human body, dropping off these deliveries, 24 hours a day. The strong heart muscle pumps blood out into the body. It’s working hard, too. The force needed to squeeze a tennis ball is similar to what you need to squeeze blood out of the heart.

White blood cells help your body fight off infections. There are lots of different types of white blood cells with different jobs. Some of them fight off tiny bacteria and fungi. Some of them fight off viruses or other invaders.

All of the white blood cells’ jobs have one common mission: keeping you healthy.

Platelets help keep you healthy, too. Whenever you get a cut or scrape, these disc-shaped parts come to the rescue. Platelets help stop blood from flowing. They also help prevent you from losing blood and keep out invaders.
Plasma is a watery solution with a few other things floating in it, like salt and proteins. It flows, carrying other cells freely along those streets and highways we know as blood vessels.
As for your second question, Suchy-Dicey said that blood cells are produced in your bones. Specifically, they are produced in the soft fatty part inside your bones called bone marrow.

Your plasma is formed mostly using water you drink. That’s why it’s really important to drink enough water each day, Suchy-Dicey adds. While on the issue of water, here’s a quick activity you can try to find out about how much blood your heart pumps in a minute.

You’ll need a bucket of water, an empty bucket, and a small Dixie cup. Fill a bucket with about a gallon of water. Have a friend set a timer for one minute and see how many little cups of water you can move to the empty bucket.

Each time your heart beats it moves about a small Dixie cup’s worth of blood. It takes our heart about one minute to pump about a gallon of blood. Can you move the liquid faster than a heart? Try it out sometime and let me know how it works.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Submit a question of your own at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask

Follow-up video about why red blood cells look like donuts available at: https://askdruniverse.wsu.edu/2017/04/17/why-do-we-have-blood-where-does-it-come-from/

Ask Dr. Universe – Meat

Why does meat get brown on the grill? –Christina, 9, Seattle, Wash.

Dear Christina,

You know summer is just around the corner when the smell of barbecue is in the air. It’s a great question you ask and it leads us to the Meats Lab at Washington State University. That’s where I met up with my friend and animal scientist, Jan Busboom.

He’s really curious about animal nutrition and the meat we eat. Busboom explained that meat is muscle. It has a lot of different proteins. These proteins have different jobs. One of them delivers oxygen to the cells that make up muscles. It’s a protein called myoglobin.

Believe it or not, the red liquid we see in a package of meat comes primarily from myoglobin. The more myoglobin there is in a muscle cell, the redder the meat will look. Myoglobin is a big part of why meat is red in the first place—but it’s also part of the reason it turns brown on the grill, too.

Like almost everything on our planet, a hamburger is made up of atoms. As you may know, atoms get together to form molecules. These parts are arranged in ways that give things certain colors, tastes, and smells.

As is often the case when we heat up something, its atoms and molecules often start to move, or vibrate faster and faster. Then they transform.

When we heat up the hamburger meat, the myoglobin structure begins to change. Myoglobin loses its ability to bind onto oxygen. There’s also a change in one of the iron atoms at the center of the myoglobin.

These changes are happening on very small scale. But we can actually see the changes as the red meat transforms into a juicy brown hamburger patty.

It turns out color isn’t always the best sign that a burger is ready to eat. Busboom said sometimes a burger won’t brown on the grill. Even if it’s fully cooked, it will stay red.

On the flip side, sometimes a burger that is brown isn’t actually cooked. This is because there may be some other chemical factors going on here that influence color. That’s why it’s really important to use a thermometer and make sure your meat is safe to eat.

Not only does a burger’s chemistry influence color, but also its taste and smell. When we heat it up, proteins and sugars in the meat start to break down.

It was the French chemist Louis Camille Maillard (my-YAR) who discovered the way this works. When the Maillard reaction happens, it creates thousands of new chemical compounds that give meat flavor.

Yes, there’s a whole bunch of science happening right there on the grill. I suppose you might even say the grill master is a bit of a scientist.

Can you think of other kinds of science that go into building the perfect burger? Tell me about it sometime at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Submit a question of your own at http://askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask

Ask Dr. Universe – Turtles

How do turtles live so much longer than other animals? – 8th grader, Lewiston, Idaho

Dear Reader,

You’re right, turtles and tortoises live a lot longer than most other animals. If you were a turtle, you might live for more than 150 years. One giant Galápagos tortoise named Harriet even lived to be more than 170 years old, said my friend Donna Holmes.

Holmes is a professor and a member of the Center for Reproductive Biology, where scientists at University of Idaho and Washington State University work to tackle big questions about aging and animal lifespans.

Holmes explained that biologists have come up with several ideas, or theories, for how turtles can live for so long.

One theory has to do with the fact that turtles are cold-blooded and have what scientists call a slow metabolism. They don’t have to eat as much food to survive, since they use energy they get from food very, very slowly. Since they are cold-blooded, they also don’t need to use a lot of energy to keep themselves warm.

Our bodies need energy to keep us going. When we eat food, our body uses chemical reactions to turn it into energy we can use. But sometimes this chemical process also produces other products that end up damaging our tissues and cells over long periods of time. When this happens, we see signs of aging, such as wrinkles.

When we study animals with a slow metabolism, we observe that there isn’t as much damage to their tissues and cells as expected for their age and size.

A second idea about why turtles live so long is also related to that low metabolism. Turtles often hibernate. They sink down into the mud at the bottom of a lake or pond, going dormant for the season (kind of like hibernation), and use even less energy.

A third idea about why turtles seem to outlive so many other animals is one that Holmes likes best. She said it holds true for animals that have evolved special defenses against predators.

“You can see how animals that have hard shells would be protected against being eaten by another animal,” she said.

The harder the shell, the less likely you are to become someone else’s dinner. This is a benefit for each individual turtle. Lots of years to live also means that there is more time to breed and produce baby turtles who also have hard shells for defense.

The turtles that survive and breed in a particular environment will pass along to their offspring traits that are best suited for that environment—including tough shells.

“Animals with longer lifespans such as turtles, porcupines, mole-rats, bats and birds all have evolved defenses against predators in the form of shells, sharp quills, underground burrows,  or the ability to fly away,” Holmes said.

It seems that using energy slowly and having good defenses may be two key things that help turtles live slow and die old. But there are still many exciting questions left when it comes to aging and lifespan. Who knows? Maybe one day you can help us discover more about the different lives of animals on our planet.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Submit a question of your own at http://askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask

Ask Dr. Universe – Ladybugs

How do ladybugs survive the winter? Are ladybugs we see in spring several years old or did they just hatch? Are they worms before they are beetles? – Tanya, Pullman, WA 

Dear Tanya,

You know it’s springtime when animals start coming out of hibernation. That includes ladybugs that crawl out from their cozy winter hiding places.

As you pointed out, ladybugs are actually a kind of beetle called the ladybird beetle. They go through a life cycle of four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

When these young larvae hatch from their yellowish eggs, they don’t look like worms or even beetles.

They look more like tiny alligators with six legs and tiny spikes on their backs, said my friend Laura Lavine. She’s a scientist at Washington State University who studies insects and was happy to help out with your questions.

In the summer, these young alligator-looking larvae can be found searching for their favorite food. They feast on tiny insects called aphids that live on plants.

Young larvae are hungry predators. In fact, ladybird beetle larvae will even eat each other, spikes and all, if they get hungry enough. But more often, the larvae will feast on aphids.

These larvae shed their outer skeleton throughout this stage of life. They’ll use some of this shedding to attach themselves to a plant or sometimes the side of a building for their third stage of life. In this stage, they’re called a pupa and they build a cocoon to go through a transformation.

You may have heard about how a caterpillar changes into a butterfly. A caterpillar is also a kind of larva. It changes into an adult in a process we call metamorphosis. Ladybird beetle larvae go through metamorphosis to become adults, too.

After spending about two weeks inside their cocoon, or sometimes less, the adult beetle comes out into the world. Adult beetles will live for around three years or so. During that time, they will lay eggs and create several new generations. So the beetles you see in a group could be different ages.

When fall rolls around, adult beetles leave their feeding sites in yards, fields, and forests to hide out for the winter. They need a place where they can huddle together with hundreds or thousands of other beetles. This helps them stay protected from weather and keep from freezing.

They’ll find places in cracks, crevices, tree bark, and even your house or roof to spend the winter. On the Palouse where we live, we can find them in cracks of pine trees or logs. I might just have to take my magnifying glass outside and see if I can spot some ladybugs waking up from their hibernation.

Sometimes they land right on you and start crawling. But other times they can really zip around. Believe it or not, scientists have clocked ladybird beetles flying at 37 m.p.h.

Have you seen ladybugs or other insects in your neighborhood? Were they nesting together? Have you ever spotted a ladybird beetle larva? Take a look in your neighborhood and tell me about it at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Submit a question of your own at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask

Slow-motion ladybug lift off: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87iV4ISAY5U

Ask Dr. Universe – Stars

Hello! My name is Daiwik and my question is “Why are stars in space? Why are they needed? Can they be made on Earth?” No one I know knows the answer to this. Can you find out for me? Thanks, Daiwik 
P.S. You’re awesome!! 

Dear Daiwik,

If you are anything like me, you like watching the night sky. The stars we see are a lot like our nearest star, the sun. They are just much farther away. That makes stars look like small twinkly things instead of a big, furious thing like our sun.

We can’t make a star on Earth simply because it would be just so large. That’s what I found out when I visited the planetarium here at Washington State University. I met up with my friend and astronomer Guy Worthey.

Even the smallest stars are pretty big compared to Earth, he said. Maybe you’ve heard of stars like Trappist-1 or Proxima Centauri. These stars are ten times the size, or diameter, of earth. The sun is nearly 100 times larger. And the largest stars, hold on to your hat if you have one, are 150,000 times the diameter of earth, Worthey said.

It’s an interesting question you ask about we why need stars. It got me wondering what life would be like or if there could be life at all without stars. For one, it would be a pretty cold, dark place if the sun didn’t exist.

While some living things exist in dark places on our planet, almost all life as we know it depends on the sun. Plants use energy from sunlight to fuel the process that makes their food. In this process, they also make the oxygen that we breathe. Animals eat plants. Some animals eat other animals. When animals eat plants and other animals, they in effect get energy that started with the sun. You know, we are all pretty connected. And we can trace a lot of these connections back to stars.

When a star is born, it forms from a cloud of collapsed gas that pulls itself together with the help of gravity. Scientists estimate more than 100 billion stars are born and die each year. That’s more than 275 million stars per day in the observable universe.

Stars keep themselves fueled. They fuse elements together to make new elements. While we can’t make an actual star on Earth, some scientists are curious about creating this kind of reaction in the lab.

In stars, hydrogen atoms fuse together to make helium. Once the star runs out of hydrogen, the helium atoms fuse together to make carbon. Eventually, stars uses all their energy and die. Sometimes the huge stars will explode. The star stuff spews out into space. When conditions are just right, gravity helps pull this space stuff together to form new planets and stars.

We might not be able to make a star on Earth, but I must admit the view of the stars from our planet can be spectacular. Tonight, I’ll be taking an extra a moment to look up. Maybe you will, too. Who knows, the view might inspire a whole bunch new questions–and it will be quite pretty.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in a question of your own at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask.

Ask Dr. Universe – Plants

Why are plants green? –Nadia, 8, Australia

Dear Nadia,

A lush tropical rainforest, a field of sunflowers, a garden in your neighborhood. Our Earth is home to all kinds of plant life. From trees to catnip, there are thousands of different species of plants. Most of these plants are green, but not all of them.


That’s what I found out from my friend Linda Chalker-Scott. She’s a professor of horticulture at Washington State University who knows a lot about how plants work.

Chalker-Scott said plants are green because they have chlorophyll, a natural pigment that gives them their color. A plant is made up of millions of cells. Inside some of these cells we find chlorophyll.

If you remember our question about why the sky is blue, you know that sunlight is a combination of all the colors of the rainbow. This light bounces, reflects, and gets absorbed in ways that lets us see a ton of different colors.

Chlorophyll is really good at absorbing red and blue light. But it doesn’t absorb the green light. Instead, the green light is reflected back to us, so that’s what our eyes see.

If you are anything like me, you might be looking for the first signs of spring. It’s still a little snowy here where I live, but when we look close we can find some green popping out of the ground.

These plants are taking in the sunshine. As plants suck water up through their roots, they are also grabbing stuff from the air called carbon dioxide. They use these ingredients to make special sugars to survive. This process also ends up making oxygen for us to breathe. Sunlight drives this whole reaction, called photosynthesis.

It doesn’t just happen on land. Photosynthesis is going on in our oceans, too. Little algae and plant-like organisms known as phytoplankton also use chlorophyll to make their own fuel. They produce about half of our planet’s oxygen, too.

But, I wondered, what about those plants that don’t have chlorophyll? How could they survive if they couldn’t capture sunlight? Chalker-Scott told me about plants like Indian pipe, which are white and pine drops, which are brown.

They don’t have the tools needed to capture energy from the sun and make their own food. Instead, they feed on the roots of surrounding trees. They are plant parasites.

We also find plants with red, purple and yellow leaves. They still have chlorophyll, Chalker-Scott said, but other colors mask the green.

What plants, flowers, and trees are in your backyard or neighborhood? Send in a drawing or picture of your own plant collection to Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe
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Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Submit a science question of your own at http://askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask.

Ask Dr. Universe – Bumble Bees

Dear Dr. Universe: We have a lawn full of clovers that the bumble bees love. Where do bumble bees live? Do they have hives or live underground? I love watching them. Do they live through the winter? –Karen, Arizona

Here’s a chance to get your very own Dr. Universe sticker! Take the survey and enter to win at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/survey.

Dear Karen,

When it comes time for bumble bees to find a home, it’s pretty much up to the queen bee.

That’s what I found out from my friends Rachel Olsson and Elias Bloom. They are graduate student researchers here at Washington State University and really curious about bees, too.

Like you, we enjoy watching bees in their natural habitat. They buzz and zip from flower to flower, sipping nectar with their hairy tongues. Bloom said bumble bees are actually pretty social. They live in colonies with dozens to hundreds of fellow bumble bees.

As part of their research, Bloom and Olsson are helping citizen scientists collect information about these important pollinators and other kinds of bees.

While some bees live in hives, a lot of queen bees will find a place to live underground, Bloom said. They’ll use burrows that mice or other rodents have abandoned. Other queens will find a clump of grass at the surface to call home. These kinds of houses help protect them from predators and extreme temperatures.

Before winter comes around, the bumble bee colonies will rear new queens. Meanwhile, the worker bees will die off. The new queens will mate and find a place to live for the winter.

To answer your second question, only the queens live through the winter. When their eggs hatch later in the spring, the cycle begins all over.

Bloom and Olsson like to remind people that flowers like dandelions and buttercups, which we might call weeds and want to get rid of, are actually really important.

Since bees come out early in the year, before other flowers are blooming, it’s important to let these flowers grow. The plant produces nectar and pollen that attracts bees, and while collecting pollen for food, the bee helps the plant reproduce. Bumble bees continue to surprise us with the kinds of work that they can do.

Scientists recently studied how bumble bees can use tools. They showed bumble bees how to put a yellow ball into a little goal.

When the bumble bees scored, they were rewarded with sugar. They got better and better at getting the ball in the goal.

You can get involved with bee research of your own. The Bumble Bee Watch project invites citizen scientists to help conserve North America’s top pollinators.

And if any readers happen to live in the Pacific Northwest, you can get involved with a research project from WSU. You’ll help us learn more about the role pollinators play in helping us produce food and you’ll learn to identify bees in the wild. You can get started at nwpollinators.org.

Your friend,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Submit a science question of your own at http://askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask.

Ask Dr. Universe – Water In Our Bodies

Why do we have water in our bodies? –Angelika, 12, Cathedral City, CA

Dear Angelika,

Believe it or not, we are mostly water. Of course, you may have noticed we aren’t sloshing around and spilling everywhere.

That’s because a lot of water in our bodies is found inside the cells that make us up. In fact, about 60 percent of our body is water, said my friend Yonas Demissie, a civil engineer and professor at Washington State University. He’s engineering ways to make sure people have good water resources for the future.

Every day, water is flowing in and out of our bodies. When we drink, water can do all kinds of good things for us.

Water in our blood helps carry nutrients, the important things we get from food, around the body. These nutrients take a ride in the blood and are delivered to your cells to help give you energy and keep your body fueled. That’s what I found out from my friend April Davis, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at WSU.

One big reason we have water in our bodies is that it helps gives cells their structure, she said. It keeps cells a little plump. It also helps make different chemical reactions cells need to do their jobs.

Water is also in charge of moving things around the cell to keep it working. These cells make up our organs—like bones, lungs, and kidneys.

Water is a key ingredient for helping our organs stay healthy. In fact, our brain is about 70 percent water. Our lungs are about 90 percent water. The kidneys process about 50 gallons of blood each day. They process extra water your body doesn’t really need. Pretty soon, you’re running to the bathroom.

Another way water leaves the body is through sweating. If you’ve ever played soccer or just sat outside on a super hot day, you know you can sweat quite a bit. Water helps the body release heat. We do it through sweat. As the sweat evaporates from your skin, it also helps cool you down.

If we have too much water in our cells, our body has ways to get rid of it. But sometimes our cells actually don’t have enough water. We start to get thirsty and that signals our brains to find something to slurp up. There’s nothing like lapping up a cool, refreshing drink of water.

Water is so important to living things. But in some places, it is really hard for people to get clean water. Just here in the U.S. we use 10 times more than a person in countries where access to clean water is limited, said Demissie.

In Ethiopia, where he grew up, less than half the residents can get clean drinking water. Now, he’s using engineering to create water resources in our world, looking at how we can share them, and making sure that water is clean for people to drink. After all, water is important for every body, everywhere.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in a question of your own at http://askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask.

Ask Dr. Universe – Ears

How do our ears work? – Aryana, 11, Ohio

Dear Aryana,

The chirps of birds. The squeaks of mice. The barks of dogs. In a world full of different sounds, our ears take in almost everything. But it takes more than just our ears to hear.

My friend Gail Chermak told me all about it. As an expert in speech and hearing sciences at Washington State University, she offered to give us a little tour of the ear.

She said animals with two ears have what scientists call binaural hearing. Binaural hearing helps us pick up sounds that might otherwise be hard to hear with all the noise in the world. Sound that comes at you from two sides is also an advantage when you need to figure out the source of a sound, particularly one that might be a sign of danger.

Let’s say you hear a kitten meow. Probably not too dangerous. But before your brain knows that you even heard a meow, the sound travels through the air as vibrations. The vibrations enter through the bendy part of your ear made of cartilage and skin.

The vibrations make their way through the waxy ear canal. That is, until they hit a roadblock: the eardrum. It’s a good kind of roadblock, though. The sound strikes the eardrum and it vibrates.

When the eardrum vibrates, it actually moves three tiny bones. One of them looks like a stirrup on a horse saddle. The stirrup rocks in and out of a tiny opening that leads into the inner ear.

This motion creates vibrations that move along a snail-shaped part of your ear called the cochlea. This is where you start to process things like the high pitch tweet of a bird or the loud barking dog.

The signal that came into your ears now moves into your nervous system to translate the sound. Different parts of your brain help you make meaning out of sound. Believe it or not, you are actually using the part of your brain involved in hearing as you read this right now. The part of your brain that helps make meaning out of sound also helps you read.

The meow that came into your ear is no longer just a bunch of vibrations. You can understand that it is a meow and where it is coming from. Maybe the cat needs help. Maybe she’s hungry. Or maybe she’s meowing at something that you can’t hear. We cats are pretty good at picking up sounds outside the range of human hearing.

The animal kingdom is full of interesting ears. For example, jack rabbits in the desert use special circulation in their tall, thin ears to help them stay cool. Elephants can also use their big, floppy ears to scare away any potential predators. Ears can come in handy for hearing, staying cool, and keeping safe. They also help us with balance. But that’s a question for another time.

Keep sending in great science questions. As always, my friends at WSU and I are all ears.

Dr. Universe


Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in your own question at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask.

Ask Dr. Universe – Cow Burps

Why do cows burp methane?  -Silas, 10, Seattle, WA

Dear Silas,

There are more than a billion cows on our planet and they all need to burp. Just like us, they burp to get rid of extra gas in their stomachs.

We can’t see this gas. But we can often hear it escape our stomachs and vibrate part of our throats. And sometimes we can smell it.

We usually burp out extra air we’ve swallowed and the gas from our fizzy drinks. But for cows, it’s a little different. As you’ve pointed out, they belch a gas called methane.

I met up with my friend Joe Harrison to find out more about cow burps. He’s an animal scientist at Washington State University.

Harrison explained that a big part of the reason cows burp methane is because of their special stomachs. Humans have just one stomach compartment, he explained, but cows have four.

The first compartment in the stomach is the rumen. Cows love to eat grass and other plants. They use it to make energy. But they can’t do it alone.

Something else is moving around in their rumen: microbes. You’d need a microscope to see these tiny creatures, but they do a lot of work in the cow’s stomach. Microbes and cows are like best buddies when it comes to digesting food.

In fact, cows can’t digest some parts of plants on their own. They need help from the microbes that live in their stomach.

Inside the rumen, microbes help break down small parts of the plant into even smaller parts the cow can use for energy. As they do this, the microbes also make different gases.

Sometimes the microbes make hydrogen. Sometimes they make carbon dioxide. Some microbes make methane.

As the gas builds up, the cows have to get rid of it. Out comes a stinky burp.

Methane is not just the stuff of cow burps. It is also a greenhouse gas. Scientists are asking big questions about how this gas traps heat in the atmosphere, warming the planet and creating challenges for our environment.

Buffaloes, goats, and other ruminants burp methane, too. They all have special stomachs with four compartments. While stomachs may be different, burping is one way animals, including humans, take care of themselves. It keeps gas from building up in our bodies.

One really easy way to make up some gas of your own is to use a balloon, baking soda, and vinegar. Pour a little vinegar into a plastic bottle. Put a little baking soda inside a balloon. Stretch the balloon over the top of the bottle, then tap in the baking soda.

What do you think will happen? What kind of gas is in the balloon? Try it out sometime and let me know what you think at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in a question of your own at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask.

Ask Dr. Universe – Slime

Dear Dr. Universe: What is slime? How can I make it?  -Nina, 10, Richmond, VA

Dear Nina,

Our world is full of slime makers. Slugs and snails leave behind gooey trails. Bacteria can create layers of slippery slime in water pipes. Even your body makes its own kind of slime. In our joints, we have slime that helps protect our bones.

My friend Nehal Abu-Lail is very curious about slime, too. She’s a researcher and professor in chemical engineering and bioengineering here at Washington State University. Part of her work is asking big questions about ways we can get rid of harmful slimes in pipes. She’s also interested in how we make slime so our joints move better.

Slime can behave in very interesting ways, she said. Depending on what kind of slime you are working with, it might flow between your fingers. But it also might behave more like a solid. You might even be able to roll it into a ball and bounce it.

Slime is in between a liquid and a solid. We call these kinds of fluids non-Newtonian fluids. When Sir Isaac Newton was studying liquids, he found that many flowed like oil and water. But we find things like slime flow a little slower.

Abu-Lail said the first thing you’ll want to do when making your own slime is decide what properties you want. Maybe it will be stretchy, gooey, slimy, or more solid. One way to get started is to use some Elmer’s School Glue, water, and borax detergent.

Dissolve about a teaspoon of borax in a cup of water. In another bowl, mix together about a half cup of glue and half cup of water. Then mix the two solutions together. You’ll notice slime starts to form in just a matter of seconds.

Abu-Lail explained that a very special chemical reaction is happening. The glue contains long chains of molecules. We call these polymers. And we can think of them like cooked spaghetti noodles, Abu-Lail said. They are pretty tangled up.

But if we dried the noodles a bit, and lined them up in a row, they would start sticking to each other pretty well. We could line them up next to each other in a repeating pattern. That’s kind of what happens when you add Borax to the glue. The Borax is a cross-linker. It takes those noodle-like polymers and links them together. What was once a free-flowing liquid is now thickened by polymers. Then things get slimy.

You can play with polymers and add different amounts of ingredients to see if you can change the properties of your slime. Twist it, mold it, stretch it. Try it out and see how two different things made up of different chemicals can create something totally new. Tell me about your slime science sometime at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in a question of your own at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask.

Ask Dr. Universe – Animal Hibernation

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do animals hibernate?
Jarrett T., 10, Edinburgh, Indiana

Dear Jarrett,

Animals can get through winter in all kinds of ways. Us cats like to curl up on a cozy couch. Some penguins huddle in groups to create heat. A lot of birds fly south to warmer weather. Perhaps you put on mittens and a coat.

Then there are the hibernators. Some of these animals are bears, skunks, bats, frogs, and salamanders. Hibernation is like a deep, long winter’s sleep. But it isn’t exactly the same kind of sleep these animals would normally have at night.

Hibernation means big changes for these animals and their bodies. The reason they hibernate is to survive chilly winters, said my friend Nina Woodford. She’s the campus veterinarian here at Washington State University.

When scientists study hibernating animals, they find that these creatures have slower heartbeats than normal. A lot of animals can go without food for months at a time. Many don’t even have to wake up to go to the bathroom. The hibernating grizzly bears here at WSU wake up for about 15 minutes each day. They go for a quick stretch, paw their straw bedding, and rest again.

A lot of bears will spend months preparing for hibernation. While we were getting ready to go back to school, some animals were already stocking their food supply. Some animals stored their food in trees or burrows. Bears store food in their own bodies.

Researchers at WSU are learning a lot about bear behavior, including how they can survive with such a slow beating heart and so many extra pounds of fat. This year’s biggest bear, John, weighed in at 620 pounds. As he hibernates, he will lose fat. In spring, after he uses that stored up energy, he’ll be about 500 pounds. Researchers are using what they learn about bears to help us understand more about heart diseases and obesity in humans, too.

“It’s amazing how they can undergo this process and yet they are perfectly healthy,” Woodford said. “If we tried to do it, we’d become quite ill.”

Grizzly bears are big hibernators. But other kinds of bears have different techniques to survive chilly temperatures. Some panda bears migrate to warmer conditions.

Some polar bears can hibernate for about 8 months. They build dens and have other adaptations like thick blubbery fat and extra fur to help them survive in the cold, too.

And while some animals have adapted to survive chilly winters, other animals need to survive hot summers. This is called estivation. Instead of storing up food and staying warm, these animals save up water and try to escape the heat.

As as a cat that likes to snooze, I’d have to say taking a big old nap seems like quite a great way to get through the season.

Dr. Universe

Activity: Animals have all kinds of ways to stay warm in winter. Many animals that live in cold places year round have a layer of blubber that helps keep them warm. Make your own blubber!

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in your own science question at http://askDrUniverse.wsu.edu.

Ask Dr. Universe – Growing

Is it possible that we are growing every second?  – David, 9, Camas, Wash.

Dear David,

When I was a kitten, I used to keep track of my growth. Every now and then, I’d make a little pencil mark on the wall right above my ears.

We might not be growing taller every second, but parts of us do grow all the time. We grow new hair. We grow new fingernails. We grow new bone. We even grow new skin.

My friend Jonathan Jones, a scientist and professor here at Washington State University, is really curious about skin. His research helps us learn more about how our body helps heal wounds.

Skin is our body’s biggest organ, he said. It helps protect us. While you can’t see your individual cells without a microscope, your body is actually growing new ones at this very moment. And at this moment, too.

“As long as we are alive, our cells turn over,” Jones said. “I guess you could say that you turn over, or at least replace, what cells you have already.”

Every 40 days or so you’ll get a new layer of skin. Babies only take about 15 days to grow a new layer skin. I asked Jones why babies can grow new skin cells so much faster.

“We don’t know,” he said. “We would love to know why. As cells age, they get more problems. They don’t turn over as fast.”

Our bone cells have also been growing since we were babies. Our bone-building cells and bone-eating cells work away on our skeleton. In a way, our skeletal system is always remaking itself.

When you were about two years old, your brain nearly reached the size it would be for the rest of your life. We are born with tons of brain cells that will communicate with the rest of our body. For a while, scientists weren’t sure grown-ups could grow new brain cells. But it turns out they actually can grow new brain cells.

Meanwhile, other kinds of cells in our body grow pretty quickly, too. The ones in our stomach lining, for example. Our stomachs have a protective lining that we replace every five days or so. It helps keep our stomach from digesting itself.

Come to think of it, we would take up a lot of space if all our parts were literally getting bigger and growing every second. It might be a little awkward if we never stopped growing physically—if our body kept taking on new cells without getting rid of old ones.

But even if we stop growing taller, our bodies are still growing in all kinds of other ways. After all, a little more than a month from now, you’ll be in a whole new skin.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in your own science question at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu

Ask Dr. Universe – How Vaccines Work

Hi Doc Universe, I was wondering how vaccines work because I would really like to make a better way to get a shot that doesn’t hurt so much. Thanks.
–Jacob, 10, Cayman Islands 

Dear Jacob,

The quick, little sting of a vaccine shot can provide us with some big protection from germs that cause disease.

One kind of germ is a virus. Viruses are so small that you can’t see them even with a normal microscope. But if you use a more powerful electron microscope, you’d see each one wears a kind of coat with bits and knobs that stick out in different directions.

“Just like every person’s face looks different, every virus coat looks different,” said my friend Felix Lankester, a veterinarian at Washington State University.

He knows a lot about viruses, especially one that causes a serious disease called rabies. His team helps set up clinics in Africa to deliver life-saving rabies vaccines to animals. He offered to help us investigate how vaccines work.

Vaccines help kick your body’s big defense network, or immune system, into gear. When you get a flu vaccine, for example, you get a little bit of the flu virus. The virus doesn’t hurt you, though.

It’s in a really weak form but your white blood cells still notice something unusual is going on. They react by making Y-shaped parts called antibodies that attach to the virus’s coat.

“The bits that stick out of the coat of the virus are what antibodies recognize,” Lankester said. “It stimulates an immune response.”

The antibodies attack and tag the invading germs so your body knows to recognize and destroy them.

Your immune system doesn’t just fight off the germ, though. It actually memorizes it.

Particular kinds of cells in your body remember the different viruses that enter your system. It helps you build up what we call immunity. That way, if the virus returns, your body knows how to respond. It can fight off the invader before it makes you sick.

Memory cells are part of the reason we only get sick from some viruses once. When you get the chicken pox virus, your cells are able to remember. Then, if you get exposed to chicken pox virus again, your body knows to get rid of it quick and how.

Vaccines have helped eliminate serious diseases like smallpox and polio in many parts of the world. Rabies is a horrible disease that still affects people and our fellow animal friends. There is a vaccine for it, but some people live too far from hospitals and veterinary clinics to get it.

So delivering rabies vaccines to people who need it is really important. Lankester and friends at WSU are working toward a vision of a world without rabies, saving the lives of both people and their pets.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in your own science question at AskDrUniverse.wsu.edu

Ask Dr. Universe – Color of Stars

What color are our stars?
-Mira, 8, Ontario 

Dear Mira,

Just the other night, I grabbed my binoculars and looked up to the starry sky. At first the stars looked white, but when I looked closer I noticed some appeared more blue and red.

I was curious to find out exactly what color they were, so I visited my friend George Newman. He’s a physics and astronomy instructor at Washington State University.

He said that a star mostly emits the kinds of light that our eyes see as red or blue.

“The thing that determines which color they give off most is their temperature,” he said.

You may have seen the connection between color and temperature if you’ve ever made toast. The little wires inside the toaster glow red and you can feel the heat coming off them.

“We think of red as hot, but blue is actually hotter,” Newman adds.

Look closely at a flame and you’ll notice it’s made up of different colors, too. The bluish part is hotter than the reddish-orange part of the flame. It’s similar with stars.

The hottest stars are bluer. The cooler ones are redder. Of course, the cooler ones are still super hot.

And while stars may be hot at their surface, they are even hotter in their middles. Stars burn because of nuclear reactions that are continuously happening at their core. The reactions create a lot of heat and pressure.

Stars actually maintain their heat for most of their lives. But sometimes their temperatures change, as do their colors.

Young clusters of stars in the galaxy contain some of the most massive stars, which are super bright and very blue.

“There are plenty of these big hot blue stars being born in the galaxy and universe, but they burn out a lot faster, so there are a lot less of them around,” Newman said.

Stars gradually grow brighter over most of their lives. Then most puff up and cool off right near the end. They become even brighter, but redder. Older clusters will contain more stars like red giants.

One blue supergiant in our galaxy is called Rigel. While Rigel is a blue star now, it will likely puff up and get redder like another star in our galaxy, Betelgeuse.

Betelgeuse is an old, red giant. It will eventually explode in an event we call a nova, and probably become a black hole.

In fact, our sun will also become a red giant one day, too. But probably not for 5 billion years or so. The life of a star is really long and it can involve lots of different changes. The next time you look up to the night sky, remember that there’s more there than at first meets the eye.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send your own question to Dr. Universe at AskDrUniverse.wsu.edu.

Ask Dr. Universe – Trees

How long can trees live? – Jessy, 8, Seattle, WA

Dear Jessy,

As I was hiking through the bristlecone pine forests of the Sierra Nevada recently, I stumbled upon a tree barely six inches tall.

It was growing—slowly, but surely. I was surprised to find this tiny pine tree was already about 40 years old.

Some trees will stop growing once they reach that age. But others live much longer. In fact bristlecone pine trees aren’t just the oldest trees, they are some of the oldest living things on our planet. They can live for about 5,000 years.

“These trees were growing when the Egyptians were building the pyramids,” said my friend Kevin Zobrist, a forester at Washington State University.

Zobrist knows a lot about different trees and told me a bit about bristlecone pine trees.

By the time the pines are about 5,000 years old, they will stand 60 feet tall with a trunk that is nearly five feet around. If we were to cut into the trunk, we could look at its growth rings. Each ring would signify a year of its life. We would have a lot of counting to do.

On my hike, I noticed some of the trees’ young pinecones were purplish-pink. Eventually they would turn brown and fall to the ground. I spotted a few old cones by the tree. They had that fresh pine scent.

I looked up at the branches that twisted and stretched like arms up to the sky. I wondered how on earth these trees were able to live such long lives.

Zobrist explained that bristlecone pine trees are tough and have adapted to their environment. They are equipped to deal with drought, extreme climates, and insects that might cause serious damage if they attack.

For example, the tree can actually shut down or go dormant for a while, if conditions are too harsh. This helps the tree survive for thousands of years.

“They teach us that nature is resilient,” Zobrist said. “They teach us that nature can carry on.”

Of course, not all trees live quite as long as these pines. But many live longer than humans and us cats.

The redwood trees of California are about six times taller than the bristlecone pines. Some of them have been around for nearly 2,000 years.

Even when a tree dies, it finds a new life. Creatures and plants on the forest floor are counting on the trees to get old, die, and fall. They can use the fallen trees as their home or for food.

It’s been said that trees are our planet’s lungs. They help make the oxygen we breathe and keep life thriving on our planet. I took a deep breath of the mountain air and said a quick thank you to the trees before heading down the trail, on to the next adventure.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in your own question at AskDrUniverse.wsu.edu

Ask Dr. Universe – Space Volcanoes

Dear Dr. Universe: I was just wondering if there are any volcanoes on any other planets? -Danny, 10, Kenmore, WA

Dear Danny,

The answer to your question takes us out into our solar system and deep below the surfaces of other moons and planets.

It also takes us to the tallest building here at Washington State University. That’s where I met up with my friend Katie Cooper, a geologist who studies Earth and objects beyond its atmosphere.

“The largest volcano in our solar system we’ve found so far is actually not on Earth. It’s on Mars,” she said. “It’s called Olympus Mons and it’s much, much larger than any volcano we have on the Earth.”

We tend to think of the tallest feature on Earth as Mt. Everest. But it’s actually Mauna Kea, one of the five volcanoes that make up the Big Island of Hawaii. If you measure from its base on the seafloor to the peak, it’s actually taller than Mt. Everest.

“But on Mars, the Olympus Mons is almost three times as high as Mt. Everest,” Cooper said. “So, it’s a whopping large volcano.”

Olympus Mons and volcanoes here on Earth erupt molten rock, or lava. But there are also volcanoes in the solar system that erupt ice.

As a scientist, Katie is sometimes a kind of ice detective. She’s helping the people at NASA study frozen water on one of the moons of Jupiter, a big gas planet.

“Well you know, NASA is like the head of curious people, I would say and so they have sent tons of satellites out circling these planetary bodies,” Cooper said.

In fact, we’ve found that Venus has more than a thousand volcanoes. Neptune and Jupiter’s moons eject water and other gases like geysers do. On one of Jupiter’s moons, large plumes of gas can eject so high that spacecraft can see them as they pass by.

“We look for things that are tell-tale similar to what we see on Earth or might be incredibly different from what’s here on Earth, like ice volcanoes, which we don’t have necessarily here on the Earth,” Cooper adds.

Some of the ice volcanoes are on moons of giant gas planets. But it looks like Pluto has a volcano that might be erupting ice, too.

We still have lots more to explore when it comes to volcanoes on other planets. In the future, we will need scientists to help us understand more about the planets and our Earth.

Cooper explained that when looking for volcanoes on other planets, it’s almost like you have to use your imagination – a very well informed imagination.

“Always continue to remain curious,” Cooper said. “That’s what drives science. It can even be very simple questions, how do we even have volcanoes? How big can they get? Those questions aren’t completely answered yet.”

So keep asking smart and baffling questions about our universe. Maybe one day you can even help us find some more answers about volcanoes on other planets.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in your own question at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu.

Ask Dr. Universe – Digestion

Dear Dr. Universe: How does digestion work? –Abi, 12, U.S.; Megha R., 11, Dubai

Dear Abi and Megha,

All around the world, animals are eating all kinds of different foods. Our foods might be different, but one thing is true for all of us: We have to digest.

I decided to visit my friend Bob Ritter to find out how this works. He’s a researcher here at Washington State University who is really curious about the connections between our brain and stomach.

“What we eat at lunch is almost completely digested by the time we are ready to eat dinner,” he said. “It is digested, absorbed, and the food has totally changed.”

The molecules that make up a piece of meat or a vegetable on your plate are too big for your body to use, at least at first. The body breaks down the food using a nearly 30-foot-long digestive tract that runs from your head to your rear end.

And while we may all digest, different animals have different kinds of tracts. Ritter explained that a python could go for about six months without food. When it comes time to eat a meal, usually in a single gulp, the python’s digestive system will suddenly grow bigger.

Unlike pythons, humans need to eat much more often. The human digestive system can help you digest a meal in just a few hours or less.

Muscles in your stomach squeeze and occasionally grumble to tell your brain that you’re hungry. When you smell or even see food, your mouth starts to water. Even the sound of food going into my bowl makes my mouth water. This saliva helps us soften and break down food so we can swallow it.

The muscles in the esophagus, a long tube in your throat, help push food down into your stomach. There, your stomach acids and enzymes help you break down the food. Most of the food is now about the size of a grain of salt.

These little pieces move onto the small intestine, which is pretty big, despite it’s name. It’s here where the big chemicals in food are broken down to small ones that the body can absorb into your blood, like sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids.

There is a lot of surface area that makes it possible for your body to absorb these helpful nutrients, too. If you unfolded your small intestine on a flat surface, it would likely cover a tennis court, Ritter said.

Once the nutrients are absorbed, the large intestine absorbs water from the digested mix and helps give it back to your body. Some harder parts are left behind and get ready to leave the body. Pretty soon, nature calls.

Whether you are a cat, a python, or a human, the digestive system not only fuels your body, but also protects it. Humans even have a special lining in their stomach that gets replaced every few days to protect them from invaders like toxins or bacteria. It’s something to chew on the next time you sit down for dinner.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send your own question to Dr. Universe at AskDrUniverse.wsu.edu.

Ask Dr. Universe – Cats

Hi Dr. Universe! I’m Bree and I just wanted to ask, how do cats land on their feet?  -Bree, 10, Williamsburg, VA 

Dear Bree,

Curiosity can lead us cats to some pretty great heights. We like to climb trees and sneak along tall bookshelves. Sometimes we might have a bumpy landing, but more often our amazing cat reflexes help us land on our feet.

Like my fellow felines, I’ve been using my reflexes to fall on my feet ever since I was about three weeks old. But even I wasn’t sure exactly how this worked or why it doesn’t work all the time. I decided to visit my friend Matt McCluskey, a physicist at Washington State University, to find out more about it.

At first I thought the answer to your question might have to do with our tail. I suspected that as cats fall through the air, the tail helps us find balance. But it turns out cats without tails can land on their feet, too. There’s a little more to it.

McCluskey and I came across this fact in a study from a scientist in London who investigated your very question more than half a century ago. The scientist slowed down pictures of falling cats and observed their movements. He found that the cats landed in a very particular way. He published an article about it in New Scientist called, “How does a cat fall on its feet?”

Looking at the pictures of falling cats, he found that we first use our sharp ears and eyes to help us figure out which way is up. Our head, the lighter end of our body, twists one way. Then the heavier end of our body, the rear, follows. We use this movement to try to maneuver our bodies back to normal and brace for landing. Scientists call it the air-righting reflex. It’s what helps us go from free falling to feet on the floor, often in less than a second.

Our flexible spine and lack of a collarbone also make it possible for us to arch our backs in mid-air. We can arch our backs when we feel threatened, when we stretch, or to help us land after our body twists. Our arched backs help stabilize our bodies, preventing them from rotating, just before landing. McCluskey explained that even though our tails aren’t fully responsible for helping us land on our feet, they do help us be more stable upon landing.

There are actually so many cases of cats falling out of windows that veterinarians have a name for it: high-rise syndrome. Some researchers have found that cats who fall from greater heights have a better chance of landing on their feet than cats who fall shorter distances. It might be because they don’t have enough time to go through all the different movements that help them stick the landing. Sometimes we stumble. Sometimes we land in style. It’s all feline physics.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science education project from Washington State University. Send your own question in at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu

Ask Dr. Universe – Planet Earth

Why does the Earth spin?
–Morven, 8, Dundee, Scotland; Judith, 9, Sabah, Malaysia; Mara, 11, USA

Dear Morven, Judith, and Mara:

No matter how still we stand, or if we’re in Scotland, Malaysia, or the United States, we are always spinning. Our Earth spins at a constant, very fast speed as we make a trip around the sun.

But it’s not just the Earth that spins, said my friend Guy Worthey, an astronomy professor at Washington State University. The moon, the sun, and almost all the other planets spin, too.

Your question actually has a lot to do with our early solar system. Scientists think the solar system started out as a kind of giant pancake, Worthey said.

Not like a pancake you’d eat for breakfast, of course. It was more like a giant pancake-shaped cloud of gas and dust. The pancake was a unit, with all parts of it spinning in the same direction, Worthey explained.

“When the planets started to form out of this big mass of gas, they shared not only the same mix of material, but also a sense of spin,” he said. “Like little whirlpools in a bigger whirlpool.”

The Earth has been spinning for billions of years, but it’s also been slowing down ever so slightly. Some scientists are interested in tracking this, too. They’ve found that the spin slows just a fraction of a second each year. If the Earth keeps this up, it would take trillions of years before it ever stopped spinning,

The length of a year, 365.24219 days, which is how long it takes the earth to travel in a huge circle around the sun, is not changing very much. The length of a year is different depending on how a planet orbits in a huge circle around the sun.

Our Earth spins around on its axis, a kind of imaginary pole that runs through the planet from north to south. The Earth spins all the way around its pole to make one complete turn each day, or 24 hours.

But if you were to visit Venus, one day would last as long as 243 Earth days. Venus spins much slower than Earth. Scientists think that an object might have hit Venus and knocked it around a bit after the solar system formed, slowing its rotation. Uranus is another planet that spins in its own unique way. It’s got an unusual tilt that makes it spin on its side.

Our Earth also has a tilt. As it spins, it doesn’t sit upright on its axis. The imaginary pole that runs through the middle sits at an angle of 23.5 degrees compared to solar system north. This tilt makes it so that some parts of the planet get different seasons.

It’s exciting to know curious cats from all around our world are stopping to wonder about our Earth’s spin. Now, let me spin a question back to you. No matter how still we stand, we are spinning. But perhaps you’ve noticed you aren’t getting dizzy or flying off the planet. Why might that be? Send me your thoughts at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Submit your own question at http://askDrUniverse.wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe – Memories

How do we remember stuff?
– Aidan, 11, Franklin, Indiana

Dear Aidan,

Our brains have an incredible ability to help us remember all kinds of stuff. Of course, memory isn’t perfect. Sometimes we forget our homework or where we left our favorite cat toy.

My friend Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, a scientist at Washington State University, is also very curious about memory. Her research focuses on using creative technology to help people who have serious memory loss.

She explained that an important part of how we remember has to do with our hippocampus. It’s a seahorse-shaped part near the middle of our brain that plays a role in forming new memories.

Humans who have a missing or damaged hippocampus, like those in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, can’t form new memories, but they can still retrieve some of their old memories.

If you are anything like me, you know that a single smell, song, or picture can take you on a trip down memory lane.

In fact, your question reminded me of when I was first learning about our solar system.

I was having a tricky time remembering the order of the planets. Until I found out about this: “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos.”

The first letter in each word helps you remember the names and order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. I repeated this phrase over and over again to help the new information stick.

Strategies like this can help us remember big chunks of information and lay them down as new memories.

Another important part of remembering is being really attentive to information as we learn it, Schmitter-Edgecombe said. A good night’s rest can help us stay alert during the day. Some scientists are even investigating questions about how sleep triggers changes in your brain that help memories solidify.

Schmitter-Edgecombe explained that once we attend to the information, we have to help get it into long-term memory.

One way to do this is to connect new information with something you already know. As you read, your brain may be making connections with other things that you’ve learned before. The connections between your brain cells strengthen and may make it easier to remember what you have read.

And we have quite a bit of space for our memories, too. According to the magazine Scientific American, if your brain worked like a TV’s digital video recorder, it would likely hold three million hours of TV shows. And it would need to be running for nearly 300 years to fill up all the storage space.

That makes strategies for remembering the important things even more useful. Creating songs, poems, or drawings can also help our brains create stronger connections to the new information. You could even try out a few of these memory devices and see what works best for you or your friends. Let me know what you discover at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University.

Ask Dr. Universe – Fears

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do we find some things scary? -Jack H., 8, UK 

Dear Jack,

While our fears might be different, we all get scared sometimes. Vacuums, dogs, and even cucumbers make my hair stand on end. Perhaps for you it’s spiders, the dark, or the thought of monsters under your bed.

My friend Michael Delahoyde is really curious about what freaks us out. As an English professor at Washington State University, he’s even taught a course about monsters.

Delahoyde explained that our brains like to categorize information to help us make sense of our world. But monsters sort of live between different categories.

“We are comfortable with animals. We are comfortable with humans. We’ve got the distinctions down,” Delahoyde said. “But when you have a monster, like a werewolf who is somewhere in the middle, then it freaks us out.”

We can’t quite put our finger on what is happening, so we feel a sense of uncertainty. Zombies also break categories and laws of nature, as they are both living and dead.

Every culture has its own monsters, too. One in Japan is the bakeneko, a supernatural, shape-shifting cat creature whose presence in stories is often seen as a sign that a strange event is about to occur.

Our hearts start pumping. Our pupils get bigger. Our hands get sweaty. We might even get goose bumps or chills. The fear center of our brain, a little almond-shaped part called the amygdala, gets to work.

Our brain and body are getting ready to make a decision about what to do in the scary situation. We have to decide whether to face it or run away.

In some situations, our response to this fight-or-flight situation can be thrilling. That’s why some people actually enjoy watching scary movies. They know they are safe, even if they occasionally have to cover their eyes with their paws.

My friend Jaak Panksepp, a researcher in the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, is also curious about emotions, like fear, in animals.

All of our brains contain a fear system, he explained, which is designed to protect us from harm. When this system is at work, we have a feeling that can be described as scary.

While our ancestors may not have come face-to-face with werewolves, they may have encountered a saber-toothed cat. They would have to make a decision to fight it or run. The fear system automatically tells us to avoid such situations. It also helps us figure out, often in an instant, how to deal with similar frightening events in the future. Fear helps us survive.

Our personal fears can actually change, as we grow older, too. We might become fearful of new things or learn to become less afraid of the things we once feared, like dogs or monsters under the bed.

Do you have an idea for a monster of your own or a scary story to share? Send in your drawings or stories to Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in a question of your own at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu.