Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Robot Language

Dr. Universe: Do robots have their own language? And is there a translator? – Hank, 8, Virginia

Dear Hank,

Robots do have their own language—and yes, there’s a translator.

That’s what I found out from my friend Manoj Karkee, an engineer at Washington State University who is also really curious about robots.

Karkee and his team work on lots of robots that help farmers do important jobs. They can program robots to do different tasks such as pick apples or pull weeds.

Robots are machines that use computer languages to work. But this language is different than the one humans use.

The English language, for example, is made up of more than a hundred thousand words which are made up of just 26 building blocks called letters. Robot languages are built on just two basic building blocks.

“In a very basic form, computers, and for that matter robots, run with ones and zeroes,” Karkee said.

You might think of these ones and zeroes kind of like a light switch. The ones and zeroes help computers know how to send a current of electricity through robots or other electronics.

Zero stands for “off.” One stands for “on.” It’s all part of the binary system. In binary, for example, the number one is “0001” and the number two is “0010” and the number three is “0011.”

The combination of ones and zeroes can also represent letters to form words like “Hi.” The capital letter “H” for example is written as 01001000 in binary. The lowercase letter “I” is written as “01101001.” But there’s a bit of a catch.

“These days when we have to tell robots to do something, we don’t provide ones and zeroes,” Karkee said. “We provide a set of instructions in a language that is not like our human language, but that humans can understand.”

Lots of different computer scientists throughout human history have worked with those ones and zeroes to build more complex robot languages. These are called programming languages. Karkee and his team had to create a specific program, for example, to help the robots pick apples.

Karkee said that creating robot and computer programs requires a lot of math. So, if you want to program or build robots one day it is important to practice those math skills.

But the hard work pays off, especially when you get to build something new and amazing that can help people do important things.  Humans have programmed some robots to speak in human languages. Other people have programmed robots to translate human languages.

“Robots and other computer programs can act as a translator of human language. There are intelligent programs that can translate English into Spanish or Spanish to Nepali,” he said.

Of course, it took the work of programmers to tell the robots how to do that task in the first place.

Who knows, maybe one day you will help us create new languages for robots or come up with ideas to change our world. You might just become a translator yourself—connecting humans to the world of robotics.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

doc

Know a kid with a science question?

With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Coins

Dr. Universe: How are coins made? -Dahlia, 10, Olympia, WA

Dear Dahlia,

In the United States, pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and other coins are made through the U.S. Mint. It turns out, they’ve been making a lot more coins than usual during the global pandemic. But more on that in a moment.

It takes both science and art to make coins. Coins are made from metals that have been mixed together. We call these kind of metals alloys. The very first coins in the world were made thousands of years ago in Turkey from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. A penny is made from an alloy of copper and zinc.

According to the U.S. Mint, an artist will design the coin with all its details. Then sculptors create a model of the coin in clay or using a digital model and use it to make a plaster cast.

People scan the plaster cast using a computer and the computer’s software helps cut the coin design into the end of a metal cylinder. The metal cylinder is used to create more stamps, or dies, that will be used to press the coin design into metal.

Meanwhile, a machine cuts out flat circle shapes from sheets of metal. The circles are called blanks. The blanks heat up, get a bit soft, cool, go through water, and dry.

They go through a machine that raises the edges of the coin before going through another machine that presses the design into the coin.

Finally, the coins are bagged and shipped out to banks. We use them as we buy different things or do laundry at the laundromat.

Each month the U.S. Mint produces about 1 billion coins, which are made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Denver, Colorado.

But because people are trying to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, they haven’t been exchanging many coins lately. There are fewer coins moving through the economy.

That’s what I found out from my friend Elizabeth Reilly Gurocak, an economist at Washington State University. She’d been noticing a lot of signs at restaurants and supermarkets informing customers that the country is having a coin shortage.

Your question even inspired her to start collecting coins from around the house and from family members. She takes the coins to counting kiosks at stores or to the bank to exchange for paper money.

“I’m going to start paying for things with coins just to put them back in the economy,” she said. “I’m going to be like the coin fairy!”

To help add more coins to the economy the U.S. Mint also plans to make about 1.65 billion coins each month for the rest of the year. You can help with the coin shortage, too.

“Empty those piggy banks,” Reilly Gurocak said. “Bring coins to the bank to exchange for paper money, buy things with coins, or take them to coin kiosks. We can solve this problem together.”

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

docKnow a kid with a science question?

With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Dogs Telling Time

Dr. Universe: Can dogs tell time? -Sam, 8, Indiana

Dear Sam,

Dogs might not use clocks to tell time like humans do, but they are pretty good at following a schedule. They often know when it is time for a walk, dinner, or sleep.

A lot of animals rely on something called a circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle, to help them figure out when it is time to do different things. This system is sort of like an inner clock.

That’s what I found out from my friend Lynne Nelson, a veterinarian and researcher at Washington State University who takes care of lots of animals.

The circadian rhythm system is controlled by light. Humans’ ability to sense light is part of the reason why they are awake and alert during the day. And that’s why when it’s dark out, they go to sleep.

Different animals can have slightly different circadian rhythms. Cats, for example, are diurnal animals. They go out at night and sleep a lot during the day.

In a way, humans have helped dogs learn to tell time. When humans train dogs, dogs learn how to interact with both their humans and their environment.

“Dogs are training their brains based on different events, like owners coming home or when the food is going to come out,” Nelson said.

She also told me about something called entrainment, or the interaction between an animal’s circadian rhythm and the environment. You can think of it sort of like the way your stomach growls to signal that it is almost time for lunch.

“Dogs and cats know when they normally eat. So, they start to get hungry before then and start to bug their owners—even before they put the food out,” Nelson said.

All these things are entrained based on certain genes that control the development of different traits, as well as wiring in our brains, Nelson said.

“It all goes on in our brains and it happens without us even anticipating or knowing,” she adds.

There are some animals that not only have daily schedules, but seasonal schedules. We see this in animals that migrate or hibernate. They get cues from nature in the form of daylight and temperature. As winter approaches, bears know it is time to make their move because days get shorter and the air gets colder.

Nelson is really curious about bears. She said bears are really good at knowing schedules, including when it is the best time to get into people’s trash cans. They use clues from their environment, along with their circadian rhythms, to know when humans will put out the trash. Then they can look for a snack.

“Animals that are food-motivated like dogs and bears can become especially attuned to telling time because of special treats,” Nelson said.

When dogs aren’t eating or playing, they spend a lot of their time sleeping. Dogs sleep for around 14 hours or so a day. No matter the hour, it is almost always prime time for a nap.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

docKnow a kid with a science question?

With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Why We Need to Eat and Drink

Dr. Universe: Why do we need to eat and drink? -Victoria, 7, MN

Dear Victoria,

Just like a car needs gas to run, food is the body’s fuel. Food gives us energy, or the power to do work. It helps us run, jump, think, and do all kinds of things.

That’s what I found out from my friend Alice Ma, a dietician at Washington State University.

When you take a bite of food it goes down your throat, or esophagus, and down into your stomach. In the stomach and small intestine, things like bile, acid, and enzymes help digest, or break down your food so your body can absorb the parts it needs.

Food also contains carbohydrates, a substance rich in energy that is made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

Carbohydrates can give us a lot of energy, especially when they come from foods like grains, pasta, rice, veggies, breads, legumes, and nuts.

Here’s how it works: the body breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars, which get absorbed into your blood.

Sugar levels rise and your pancreas—an organ down on the right side of your belly—releases something called insulin, which helps move the sugar into your cells. Your cells can now use the sugar to produce energy, or store the sugar for later use.

There are all kinds of different foods to try in our world. One of Ma’s favorite ingredients is peanut butter. She likes to put it on top of her pancakes, cook it into curry, and dip spring rolls into a peanut butter sauce.

“I cook a lot of different things,” Ma said. “I’m always experimenting.”

She said one question she also gets is, “What would be the one good food to take with you if you were stranded on a deserted island?”

“There’s not one single food that everyone can eat to power everything,” she said. “You need a variety of foods.”

Food also contains lots of different parts such as vitamins and minerals that get absorbed as digestion happens. Protein from foods like meat and peanut butter get stored in muscle, skin, and other tissues and organs. Calcium from things like cheese or green leafy veggies can help the heart pump and keep bones strong.

As a dietician at WSU, Ma helps plan and create meals that fill the bellies and power the brains of thousands of university students. She also encourages people to drink plenty of water.

Water is important to our cells, along with our organs and tissues. In fact, water is what makes up most of our blood. Blood helps carry things like oxygen and nutrients through our body.

We lose a lot of water everyday through things like breathing, sweating, and going to the bathroom. That’s why it is so important to drink water every day.

While food and drinks are important to our health, they are also a big part of culture. Humans celebrate entire days about food and throw festivals to appreciate different cuisines. What kinds of foods do you celebrate in your family? Tell us about it sometime at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

P.S. If you or someone you know needs access to food or wants to donate to a food bank, search the Food Finder for more information: https://foodfinder.us/

docKnow a kid with a science question?

With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Birds’ Nostrils

Dear Dr. Universe: I am wondering if birds can smell because I have chickens and have seen their nostrils! –Lila, 9, Philadelphia, PA

Dear Lila,

Birds have nostrils, or nares, on their beaks that can help them smell all kinds of things.

That’s what I found out from my friend Dave Oleyar, a scientist with HawkWatch who recently taught a course on ornithology at Washington State University.

He said that when an animal breathes air, they can also breathe in different scents, or combinations of molecules.

The nose has receptors that pick up on scents and send information to the brain, including a part called an olfactory bulb. It’s all part of the olfactory system. You have an olfactory system, too. This system can help animals navigate the world through a sense of smell.

Maybe you’ve used your olfactory system to smell your breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Birds can also use their olfactory systems to sniff out food. Oleyar told me about a few different birds and their amazing smell abilities.

The kiwi bird uses its long bill to dig into the dirt. Its nostrils are on the outside and very tip of its bill.

“It’s thought that they use that sense of smell to pick up chemicals emitted by their food. Grubs, worms, and other things that are in the ground,” Oleyar said.

Oleyar said one bird of prey that has a really great sense of smell are turkey vultures. He said vultures are scavengers, meaning they eat dead animals.

“They have an incredible sense of smell. They use their nose to pick up chemicals from things that are decaying,” he said.

Turkey vultures have one of the strongest senses of smells among birds. They have been known to smell food that was over a mile away.

But albatrosses, big sea birds that can have wingspans around ten feet, have been known to sniff out food from even greater distances—about 12 miles away.

These big seabirds can pick up chemicals from dead fish or groups of fish. They can even smell the scent that krill give off when they are eaten by fish. That helps them find the fish via the krill.

Birds don’t just have a sense of smell, but many emit different scents of their own. Some birds may use their noses to smell for other birds. This can help them find their family or even start a family of their own, kind of like a game of smell-and-go-seek.

The male crested auklets have little orange feathers on their heads that they use to attract females. But they also give off a citrus scent, along the lines of lemons and tangerines, that the females can use to find them.

While a sense of smell is helpful for birds, it isn’t the only useful or even sometimes the strongest sense—they also use their senses of hearing, sight, and taste. The next time you watch your chickens, or other birds in the neighborhood, maybe you can observe how they use all these senses.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

doc

Know a kid with a science question?

With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Bees’ Wings

Dr. Universe: What are bees’ wings made of? -Natalia, 13, Kennewick, WA

Dear Natalia,

Bee wings may be small, but they are really strong. I learned all about bee wings from my friend Melanie Kirby, a honey bee researcher at Washington State University.

Kirby said you can think about bee wings as if they were a kite. If you make a kite out of thin tissue, it might rip. But if you make it out of a strong plastic film it will be stronger.

Bee wings are made of a material called chitin (KITE-IN) and it’s a lot like keratin, the material that makes up your fingernails. Chitin is what makes up the wings on each side of the bee’s body.

There are the forewings, which are longer and the hindwings which are shorter. When a bee isn’t flying, the hindwings often get tucked in behind the forewings.

Kirby told me that chitin covers the bee’s entire body and is what makes up the exoskeleton. While you have a skeleton under your skin, bees wear their skeletons on the outside of their bodies.

Bee wings are very thin and transparent, which means you can see through them, a bit like clear glass. But the strength of the material can help a bee carry a lot of nectar. In fact, a bee can carry a load of nectar that is almost equal to its body weight.

I found out chitin isn’t the only thing that makes up bees’ wings. There are also veins filled with hemolymph, or insect blood. And there are air tubes and nerves, too. These parts add strength and stability to the wings, Kirby said.

The veins are kind of like the cross sections of the sticks in a kite. Different types of bees have different vein patterns on their wings.

“Scientists can identify bees by looking at the wings close up under a microscope. And like a kite it has a cross section of sticks, or the veins, which reinforce the wing,” Kirby said.

The wings are connected to muscles in the middle section of the bee, or its thorax. Small barbs called hamuli can connect the forewing and hindwing together. When the hamuli are connected, the wings come together to act like one big kite. This helps the bees glide as they fly.

When the hamuli are separated, the wings are like little rotary motors moving around in a circle like a propeller. This helps the bees get lift and steer themselves in different directions as they fly.

Bees’ wings are the last thing to form before they emerge as adults (bees also develop through metamorphosis similar to butterflies). Their wings will carry the bees through their whole lifetime. Researchers estimate that bees get about 500 miles on their wings before they start to tear and wear out.

During their lifetime, bees will fly from flower to flower. They move tiny grains of pollen around to help plants grow things like nuts, fruits, and vegetables. It’s called pollination. The next time you hear the buzz of a bee’s beating wings remember how important they are to our world and how they help us have food to eat.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

doc

Know a kid with a science question?

With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Bird Sounds

Dr. Universe: Why do some birds cheep loudly while other birds cheep quietly? -Traver, 4, Indiana

Dear Traver,

That’s a great observation. Birds make all kinds of sounds and for lots of different reasons.

When I got your question, I called up my friend Jessica Tir, a graduate student at Washington State University who studies songbirds.

She said one of the main reasons a bird will make a loud sound is to attract a mate. When the birds find each other, they can make a nest for their eggs and wait for babies to hatch.

Songbirds, such as swallows and starlings, learn their songs when they are babies. Usually, they learn the song from their dad.

“That’s the song they are going to sing for the rest of their life,” Tir said.

One of Tir’s favorite bird sounds is the varied thrush, an orange and black songbird that lives in the Pacific Northwest. They are known for their calls that sound a bit like a UFO. She also told me not all birds have songs. Some birds like hawks and seagulls make noises such as caws, clucks, or screeches.

Birds may also get loud because they want to let other birds know they’ve found some food. It’s almost like an invitation to dinner. Baby birds may also chirp quietly or loudly when they are hungry.

In the lab at WSU, Tir records songbirds’ songs on microphones to learn more about how they communicate with each other, especially when they are hungry. The research will help us learn more about communication and how much food there is some birds’ habitat.

Birds may also get loud when they sense danger in their environment. When birds hear a fellow bird send out a warning, everyone might get really quiet. You might not hear a peep. This can help the birds stay safe from predators.

If birds are being a bit quieter, it might just mean they are sort of chatting throughout the day. Different situations may call for different volumes. This is true among humans, too. Maybe a friend yells across the playground to get your attention or maybe you have to be really quiet and put on your listening ears during story time.

While humans can make sounds with help from their vocal cords, birds use a part called the syrinx (SEE-RINKS). Ostriches have a much bigger syrinx than, say, a tiny swallow, but they work in similar ways.

As air moves through the syrinx, it helps produce the different sounds. It sort of reminds me of how air moves through a musical instrument.

And those bird sounds can make my ears perk right up. Maybe they’ve caught your attention too and inspired you to look for the source of the sound.

The next time you go outside, keep your ears out. How many different kinds of birds can you hear? Can you find the bird making the sound?

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

doc

Know a kid with a science question?

With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Making Paper

Dr. Universe: Here is my question. How is paper made? I asked this question because there are different kinds of paper and I’m curious about how it is made. Sincerely, Sonakshi, 9, Michigan

Dear Sonakshi,

We can make paper in lots of different ways. It often starts with trees. In fact, one of the first kinds of paper we know about was made in China using rags, plants, and bark from mulberry trees.

These kinds of materials are made up of parts called fibers. Fibers are what help give plants strength to stand up. Humans who eat plants like lettuce or celery have actually eaten some of these fibers. A lot of the clothes we wear come from plant fibers, too.

Plant fibers are called cellulose. Humans aren’t able to digest these fibers because they are really hard to break down. But strong fibers are great for making paper.

My friend Karen Adams, a Washington State University Master Gardener, is really curious about plants. Adams and her family have been missing seeing a lot of friends and family lately. They decided to make paper and write some letters. You can try making your own paper at home, too.

First, you will want to find a bin—something like an empty salad container or a large plastic tub. You will also want to make a deckle. This is a frame with a screen that will help you form the paper. To make a frame, you can glue together popsicle sticks or use an old picture frame.

Where you would normally put a picture, staple or tack on some mesh. This could be the mesh from a window screen or even the mesh from a bag of onions or oranges.

Once you have your bin and deckle, rip up old paper into one-inch pieces. Use about two cups of paper to one cup of water. Soak the pieces of paper in water for 30 minutes or even overnight. Next, get a grown-up to help you blend up this mix to make a paper smoothie (but don’t drink it!).

The goal is to break down the old paper and create a fine pulp. In paper factories, humans sometimes create a soupy pulp of fibers from wood, lignin (which helps hold the fibers together), and a few chemicals. This helps everything break down into a mixture for paper.

After you blend the paper, you can add some small flower petals, tiny seeds, or food coloring. Pour the pulpy mix into the bin filled with about three to four inches of water. Hint: More water will make thinner paper and less water will make thicker paper. You can experiment with this a bit.

Finally, slide the deckle into the water at an angle and lift it up evenly so the surface is horizontal and covered in the pulpy mix. Press the pulp down with a paper towel and then gently remove the towel. Peel off the paper from the mesh and let it dry for a day or so. When it’s ready, you can write a message or draw a picture for a friend.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

doc

Know a kid with a science question?

With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Soap Bubbles

Dr. Universe: Why does soap get bubbly? Samuel, 9, East Peoria, IL

Dear Samuel,

When you wash your hands with soap and water, a few different things happen to make bubbles.

Just like you, water and soap are made up of parts called molecules. Water molecules really like to stick together.

If you’ve ever jumped in a puddle or a pool, you may have even observed how water splashes in the shape of little drops. As water sticks together, it likes to form spheres.

That’s what I found out from my friend David Thiessen, a chemical engineer at Washington State University. Thiessen is really curious about bubbles and droplets, especially how they work in different kinds of space technology.

If you took a straw and blew bubbles in a glass of water, you would see air bubbles form underwater. When they rise to the top of the water, they immediately pop. But if you added some soap to the water and blew into the straw, you’d see a lot of foam coming up out of the glass.

That happens because of the nature of the molecules in soap. They are called surfactant molecules and they spread themselves out evenly and sit on the surface of water.

This happens because surfactants have two ends. Thiessen said chemists usually talk about surfactants as having a “head” and a “tail.” The head likes water and wants to stick to the water. The tail doesn’t like water and likes to stay in the air.

When we see a bubble, there is also a force called surface tension at work. This force makes water behave a bit like a thin sheet of rubber. That’s how bugs can sometimes even stand on water without falling through.

The surface tension of water is really high, but when soap is added to water it lowers the tension. The surfactant molecules push their way between water molecules and in the process separate water molecules from one another, reducing their attractive force. The soap helps spread the water out into a thin film that forms a sphere: the bubble.

You can learn more about surface tension with a really simple activity. Pour some water on a plate. Sprinkle some pepper on top of the water. Then put a drop of soap on your finger and touch the middle of the pepper. The soap lowers the surface tension and the pepper scatters to the plate’s edge.

Soap and water molecules can not only help create bubbles but also help cut through grease on dirty dishes and even get rid of germs on your hands. Besides behaving in all kinds of interesting ways, bubbles can also make some really interesting colors.

When light hits the surface of a bubble and reflects off the two sides of the film, the light rays interfere with each other. It creates a phenomenon called iridescence and displays a rainbow of colors.

The next time you wash your hands or help out with the dishes, take a look at how many tiny bubbles you made and remember—it’s chemistry.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

 

doc

Know a kid with a science question?

With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Vaccines

How are vaccines made? – Sibagh, 7, New York City, NY

Dear Sibagh,

It might seem strange, but a small piece of something dangerous can protect you against something much more dangerous. This idea has been around for a long time—and it works.

To learn more, I talked to Guy Palmer at Washington State University. As a scientist who studies infectious disease, Palmer likes learning about how to protect both human and animal health. Vaccines are one way to accomplish this.

Instead of making you sick, vaccines do something very powerful. They help your body learn more about a germ and how to protect you from it.

Vaccines work by pushing a little piece of a virus or bacteria into your body. But they don’t give you the full germ that makes people sick. Instead, they give you a version that’s weak or dead. This germ can’t make copies of itself or spread in your body.

When your body meets the weak germ, it makes antibodies. Antibodies are like little warriors in your blood. They help you fight strong germs if you ever meet them in the future. This gives you a special kind of protection called immunity.

It’s no accident that the word “vaccine” comes from the Latin word “vaca,” meaning “cow.” The first vaccine was invented over 200 years ago, to protect against smallpox. It was created by pulling cowpox from a cow’s skin, then injecting it into a human.

Since then, scientists have invented more complicated ways of making vaccines. They can now safely work with viruses and bacteria in a lab, pulling out and changing pieces of them.

“All vaccines work essentially the same way,” Palmer explained. “The way they’re made is how they differ.”

Some vaccines use only parts of a germ, or a very weak version of it, so it can’t spread inside you. With other vaccines, the germs are killed by heating them up or using chemicals.

Vaccines help you build antibodies like a shield. But in order to make that shield, scientists have to figure out how different germs work. Some germs are more complicated than others, changing all the time. So we don’t have vaccines for everything yet.

“As time has gone on, we’ve gotten more sophisticated,” Palmer said. “We now can find the very piece of the organism that induces the immune response that protects us against disease. But the basic way vaccines work has stayed the same.”

It takes a long time to create a new vaccine. Scientists test them to make sure they are safe, and that can take several months to over a year. “First you have to test it to be sure it doesn’t cause disease in people—that it actually is safe, and there’s not something you weren’t expecting,” Palmer said.

It’s not very fun to get a shot. But remember: the sting is temporary, and the protection lasts. By getting vaccinated, you’re keeping yourself and everyone around you safe.

“We know through research that vaccines are safe,” Palmer said. “They protect us.”

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

doc

Know a kid with a science question?

With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Parachutes

How do parachutes work? -Lucas, 11, Alberta, Canada

Dear Lucas,

Have you ever blown on a puffy white dandelion? Your breath sends dozens of seeds scattering, gliding to a soft landing somewhere new.

Look closely at one of those seeds, and you’ll see a familiar shape. The tiny passenger (the seed) has a wispy, circular top, which helps it float to its next destination.

Parachutes work a lot like dandelion seeds—using the same invisible forces all around us. Nicholas Cerruti, a physics professor at Washington State University, helped me learn how.

The air around you is packed with tiny things called molecules. You can’t see them, but you’re constantly bumping into them. This is true for you, and for every object in motion on Earth.

“As an object moves through air, it needs to move the air around it,” Cerruti explained.

Imagine you drop a piece of paper. As the paper falls, it strikes air molecules. Molecules bounce off the paper and each other. Bumping together, they produce a force. As the paper falls, air molecules push against it in the opposite direction. This force slows the paper’s motion.

Scientists call this “air resistance” or “drag.” Gravity pulls everything down on Earth: whether it’s a person jumping from a plane or a paper falling from your hand. But drag works against that pull, slowing it down.

Some objects fall faster than others because they produce less drag. “A classic example is a penny and feather,” Cerruti said. “If you drop a penny and feather at the same time, the feather will drop at a slower rate.”

A feather takes up more space than a penny, just like a person takes up more space with a parachute. With more surface to work against, the air gives a bigger push against gravity’s pull. That’s why someone with a parachute falls more slowly than someone without one.

Parachutes work by creating lots of drag. The same idea appears in nature: in dandelion seeds, bird wings, and more. “Flying squirrels have a skin between their legs that develops like a parachute,” Cerutti said. “Instead of the squirrel dropping out of a tree, they can glide.”

Every year, Cerruti and the Physics and Astronomy Club test these ideas by dropping pumpkins from the top of a tall building.

“Usually we use parachutes on pumpkins as a joke,” he said. “We’ll put a very small parachute on, and it doesn’t slow it down very much. But we’ve been doing an egg drop the past couple of years. Using parachutes really does slow down the egg, and it can land safely.”

You can try this out yourself at home. Ask an adult to help you find a coffee filter or plastic bag and some string.

Try attaching your “parachute” to different small objects: an action figure, pencil, or penny.
When you drop them, do they slow down? Can you help your passenger fall to a soft landing? Try it and see what works!

Happy experimenting,
Dr. Universe

docKnow a kid with a science question?
With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – What Tornadoes are Made Of

What is a tornado made of? – Alice, 6, Ames, Iowa

Dear Alice,

Have you ever felt a warm wind blow by you, followed by a cold gust of air? You can’t see it, but you can sense it on your skin. Invisible to you, winds mix together.

Usually, these winds are harmless. But under the right conditions, they can also be the main ingredients for a tornado.

To learn more, I chatted with Jon Contezac, Craig Oswald, and Joe Zagrodnik, a team of Washington State University scientists who are very curious about the weather.

To make a tornado, they explained, you need two big things: rising air and rotating air.

“When you have the right amount of both, a storm is more likely to produce a tornado,” Zagrodnik said. “That’s no guarantee—you’re just more likely to have a tornado under those conditions.”

A special storm called a “supercell” often has those ingredients. Supercells form as a rotating mass, with air rising quickly within.

Different temperature winds can cause rising and rotation. Warm air rises, but cool air sinks. Warm air trapped near the surface can rise fast if there’s much cooler wind above it. When these winds cross paths from different directions, they may spin skyward.

Rising, rotating air can form a funnel cloud: the first visible sign of a potential tornado. Funnel clouds look like an ice cream cone pulling down from the sky. They’re usually dark gray, made of condensed water like other clouds.

Tornadoes get their color from moisture, plus things picked up along the way. “It’s like a cloud at some point,” Oswald explained. “If it reaches the ground and starts to stir up dirt, it will lift that dirt up into the funnel and turn it dark.”

If a funnel cloud’s rotation touches the ground, it becomes a tornado. But many funnel clouds never do. Their rotation fades, and they disappear without causing damage.

Tornadoes aren’t the only weather patterns to form from twirling wind. Where I live in Washington, I sometimes see dust devils: spirals of swirling dirt. But they’re different from tornadoes.

“Tornadoes’ rotation comes from the cloud and goes down to the surface,” Contezac said. “But dust devils have pockets of intense hot air at the surface, and air spins rapidly around those pockets. They’re generated from the surface upward.”

Not all rotating storms cause tornadoes. But it’s important to know how to stay safe if a tornado happens near you. A watch means the ingredients to produce a tornado exist. A warning means a tornado has actually been created.

During a tornado watch, you should be on the lookout for storms in your area. A tornado warning is when you should go to a safe location, like a basement or bathroom. Talk to grown-ups you live with about where to go.

Although scientists know tornadoes’ general recipe, they still hold a lot of mystery. We’re still trying to learn why some storms make tornadoes and others don’t. Maybe someday you can help uncover the answer.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – How Bees Fly

How can bees fly? – Christopher, Kansas

Dear Christopher,

Bees fly like a blur, with wings too fast to see. Often, you hear them before you see them. They’re small, but their sound is unmistakable. Bees hover with a telltale buzz.

And that buzz offers a big clue. It comes from very fast vibrations—the secret to bees’ flight.

That’s what I learned from Steve Sheppard, an entomologist at Washington State University who studies bees.

Look closely at a bee, and you’ll see their bodies have three major parts: a head, a middle bundle, and a large, striped rear. That middle part is called the thorax, home to all six legs and four wings. It’s also the anchor for the bee’s movement.

Bees’ wings attach to muscles in the thorax. They work sort of like spoons inside a shoebox, Sheppard explained.

“Think of a shoebox with the lid slightly smaller than the box,” Sheppard said. “Then you have the wings—let’s say they’re like wooden spoons sticking out through that gap. So you can imagine that if the lid goes up and down, then the wings go up and down.”

Bees’ wings work similarly. They’re hinged to the thorax. When the bee moves its thorax up and down, its wings move too.

But the wings don’t exactly flap up and down. They actually twist in a special figure-8 pattern. Combining short, choppy rotations with incredible speed, bees’ wings can beat over 200 times each second!

When bees churn their wings like this, they spin the air around them. Twisting wings create a vortex, a sort of small tornado. Rotating the air around them, bees can lift their body up, down, forward, and backward. They can even hover in mid-air.

But there’s another very special thing about bee flight. Like birds, bees direct their wings through signals from their brain. When the brain sends instructions to the flight muscles, the wings move.

For most birds, one brain signal equals one wing flap. “When you think of a bird, it sends an electrical signal to the muscle and it says, ‘Boom, contract,’” Sheppard said. The muscle tightens and relaxes, flapping the wing.

But bees’ wings work differently. They rely on something called resonance frequency: very fast vibrations, started by one initial movement. Their brains don’t send signals for every single rotation. Instead, their wings beat by vibrating.

“They just send a signal every now and then, and that’s enough to keep the muscle bouncing,” Sheppard said.

Using this combination of rotation and vibration, bees can move their wings very fast with each brain signal. That’s what helps them beat their wings at such incredible speed.

Bees aren’t the only insects who use this method. Flies and beetles fly like this, too. Even hummingbirds beat their wings with vibration—a very unusual style for a bird.

The next time you meet a bee, you probably won’t see its wings beating within the blur. But you’ll know there’s a lot going on beneath its buzz.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Know a kid with a science question?

With help from my friends at Washington State University, we’re investigating tough and smart questions from curious kids around the world.

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – The Internet

How does the Internet actually work? I know you can type in most anything and it just pops up and all that, but how? – Eden, age 8, Oregon

Dear Eden,

If you wrote me a physical letter, it would take a few days to reach me. You put the letter in your mailbox. A postal worker picks it up. Then it travels between different post offices on its journey from you to me.

But within seconds of you sending this question over the Internet, it was sitting in my inbox. How can this be?

The whole Internet works like the mail system—but much faster. That’s what I learned from Adam Hahn, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Washington State University.

You can think of the Internet as one big network connecting different devices. They’re all able to “talk” to each other because they follow the same rules, called protocols. Computers all have their own address, called an “IP address.” An IP address is a long combination of letters and numbers.

The Internet carries information through electronic signals, invisible to you. But it needs physical things to carry these signals. Special devices called “routers” pick them up and push them to their destination, using wires and cables.

Some computers play a special role as “servers.” Servers are like filing cabinets, keeping all the information of a particular website. They receive your request for information, find the right file, and send it back to you.

When you search for something, your request goes from your IP address to the nearest router. That router bounces it to another router, and so on, until it reaches the server. The server sends information back to your IP address the same way, through the router network.

But what are those electronic signals made of? All the information on the Internet travels in the form of “packets.” Packets are broken-up pieces of a file. They’re written in a language of 1s and 0s, which computers can read. Everything you send or receive is made of packets—whether it’s this question, a Google search, or even a video call with family far away.

“You can think of a packet like an envelope, and your IP address as like a zip code or mailing address,” Hahn explained. If you wrote me a letter, you’d send it in a single envelope. But on the Internet, your message travels as lots of packets.

Imagine writing a letter, cutting it into tiny pieces, and sending them in their own individual envelopes. When the letter arrives, it would have to be taped back together!

But on the Internet, information travels faster sliced into pieces. Packets take different routes to arrive at the same place. When all the packets arrive, your computer puts them all back together like a puzzle. This all happens in under a second.

I’m glad the Internet does this work for us. There’s nothing more exciting to me than reading your curious questions. Thanks to the Internet, I don’t have to wait long to see them.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Orange Carrots

Why are carrots orange? – Caden, 11, NC

Dear Caden,

When you picture the carrot section at a grocery store in the United States, you probably imagine rows of orange. But carrots can come in a rainbow of other colors: purple, yellow, red, and more.

And the first carrots weren’t orange at all. They were stark white.

That’s what I learned from Tim Waters, a Vegetable Specialist at Washington State University-Extension. He studies how to grow different kinds of vegetables, and helps others learn how to grow them too.

Carrots you eat today are domesticated. Domestication happens when humans tame wild plants or animals for many generations. Over a long period of time, people bred the carrot ancestors for traits such as sweet taste and attractive color.

Domestication helps explain how wolves became dogs, and how teosinte became maize. It’s also how a wild white root became sweet and orange.

“Before carrots were domesticated, they were believed to be white and very bitter and woody,” Waters said. “When people began domesticating them, the first types that were bred and fed upon by humans were purple and yellowish in color.”

Scientists think people first domesticated carrots in Central Asia around 1100 years ago.

Even though the first carrots weren’t as sweet as the ones you eat today, people probably weren’t eating the roots.

“It’s known that carrots were first grown primarily for seed and the uses of leaves,” Waters said. But as more colors emerged, the roots became tastier and became the more valuable part of the carrot.

We don’t know exactly when the first orange carrots appeared. But we have a good idea of why that color stuck around—simply because humans liked it.

“Orange wasn’t a naturally occurring color. It was kind of a genetic flaw, and then it was selected for,” Waters said.

One story says orange carrots became popular in the Netherlands in the 1600s. Orange became the national color, so orange carrots were supposedly associated with the royal family and William of Orange. But orange carrots probably weren’t bred by the Dutch. They just became more popular there.

Over time, orange carrots became the most common variety in some parts of the world. “That’s really why, in Western society, everybody perceives carrots to be orange,” Waters said.

But that orange color isn’t just for looks.

Orange carrots are packed with chemicals called carotenoids—specifically, beta-carotene. Your body turns beta-carotene into vitamin A, which helps you grow and protects you from getting sick.

Beta-carotene isn’t just nutritious. It’s also loaded with orange pigment. That’s why vegetables with lots of beta-carotene—like sweet potatoes, squash, and pumpkins—share the same color.

But what about that rainbow of other carrot colors? They have their own special qualities, too. Purple carrots get their color from loads of anthocyanin, a chemical that is healthy for your heart.

Carrot breeders have even created carrots with multiple colors. You can get the best of both worlds: a carrot that is orange on the inside, purple on the outside!

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Get the full answer!

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Popcorn

How was popcorn discovered? – Jalen, 12, Benson, N.C.

Dear Jalen,

There’s nothing like popcorn in progress: the snapping kernels, the warm buttery smell, and the knowledge that a delicious snack will be ready in minutes. It gives you some good time to think and wonder: how did humans first start doing this?

To find out where popcorn came from, I visited my friend Erin Thornton, an archaeologist at Washington State University. Archaeologists study how humans lived in the past—including the things they ate.

To learn the story of popcorn, we have to trace the history of maize.

Maize is another word for what you think of as corn. Humans grow it all over the world today, but it all started in Mexico.

Long before maize, there was a plant called teosinte (tay-oh seen-tay). If you saw teosinte in person, you probably wouldn’t guess it’s the grandparent of your popcorn. “It doesn’t really look like modern maize at all because it lacks large cobs—instead it looks more like a weedy grass,” Thornton said.

But over time, ancient people selected teosinte plants with softer and larger numbers of kernels. Over many generations, this resulted in the plant we know as maize.

Many scientists think all the first corn was popping corn. It was very important to the people who made it. The Aztecs used popcorn for both decoration and for eating. They also had a word, “totopoca,” for the sound of popcorn popping.

The Maya even tell stories about humans being created from maize. “It speaks volumes about how important this crop was to people who lived at that time,” Thornton said.

Popcorn is easily destroyed, so it can be hard for archaeologists to find it after hundreds or thousands of years. But the oldest popcorn ever found comes from a cave in New Mexico, estimated to be 5,600 years old. (Not quite as fresh as your popcorn, straight out of the microwave.)

We don’t know exactly who first discovered that popcorn can pop. But it’s a process that would have happened when people first started mixing dried kernels and heat.

Popcorn pops through interaction with heat. If you’ve ever looked at popcorn kernels before popping, you know they have a very hard outer shell. The insides are very hard too—until heat touches them.

When heat meets the natural moisture in the kernel, it creates pressurized steam within the shell. This steam softens the kernel’s insides. That heat and pressure increases, until the kernel can’t hold it anymore. And then pop! It explodes.

With that pop, the pressure in the kernel suddenly drops. The steam expands. All that inner goodness puffs out. That’s why popcorn looks like a little cloud.

We don’t know if the first popcorn-makers used flavorings. But when European colonists first learned about popcorn, they enjoyed eating it with milk and sugar like cereal!

Thornton told me white cheddar is her favorite popcorn flavor. Which kind do you like best?

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Green Grass

Dr. Universe: What is inside a blade of grass and why is it green? Green is my favorite color. We really like reading your articles in our newspaper.Luke, 5, Ogden, Utah

Dear Luke,

I’ve been wondering the same thing lately.  Every time I go on walks, I notice new splashes of color. Watching bugs in the grass, I pretend they’re crawling through a jungle. Everything is bright and bursting with green.

When I saw your question, I knew Michael Neff would know the answer. Green is his favorite color, too. (In fact, when we talked over video, he wore a green Hawaiian shirt.) Neff researches plants at Washington State University, and he is especially curious about grasses.

If you chopped a piece of grass and looked at it with your eyes alone, you might not see much. But if you looked at it under a microscope, you’d see tiny structures containing even tinier parts.

All living things—you and grass included—are made of cells. Cells are like little building blocks with different jobs. Every blade of grass is made of millions of them.

Plant cells contain a smaller part called a chloroplast. “Chloroplasts look like fat sausage-shaped balloons,” Neff said.

Chloroplasts have a special job: making food. Grasses can’t search for food like animals can. So instead they make it themselves, taking in sunlight and carbon dioxide.

“Food for a plant is a combination of sunlight and carbon dioxide together,” Neff explained. “And the chloroplast is the factory that turns those two pieces into energy.”

But where does the green color come from? Something else inside the chloroplast is responsible: a special pigment called chlorophyll.

Your eyes see color based on light. Many different colors make up sunlight, and objects either absorb or reflect them. When light gets absorbed, you don’t see its color. But when light reflects off objects, including grass, the color reaches your eyes so that’s what you see. That’s why the sky often looks blue. It’s absorbing all the other colors of light, except blue.

The same thing happens with chlorophyll. “Chlorophyll does a very good job of absorbing all colors of light except for green. When we look at the blade of grass, we’re seeing green light being reflected off the blade of grass,” Neff said.

But maybe you’ve noticed grass isn’t always green. Depending on the time of year and where you live, different grass grows at different speeds. Here in Washington, most grass grows in the cool spring and fall weather.

Spring grass looks especially green because it contains new cells. New cells have tons of chlorophyll, reflecting green light.

In the summer and winter, grass might turn brown or yellow. It’s still alive. It just doesn’t have as much chlorophyll. It isn’t putting as much energy into new growth.

But when spring returns, so do the ingredients for growth—lots of water, light, and carbon dioxide. The grass takes it all in, making new cells full of chlorophyll. The cycle begins again.

Tiny blades sprout. Patches of color creep in. And before you know it, green surrounds you everywhere you look.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Get the full answer!

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Sinkholes

What is a sinkhole? What causes one? – Kathrine, 12, Calgary, Canada

Dear Kathrine,

Sinkholes can be scary to think about. They don’t happen too often, but when they do, they can take people by surprise. The solid ground disappears, and a hole suddenly appears.

It might seem like sinkholes appear out of nowhere. But they actually need specific conditions to form.

To have a sinkhole, you first must have a cave.

“You can think of a sinkhole as the end of the life cycle of a cave,” Kurtis Wilkie explained. He teaches Geology at Washington State University. He is very interested in how Earth’s features form over long periods of time.

A lot happens underground that we can’t see. Dirt and rock layers lie beneath our feet. Water flows around them, shifting and moving these layers.

With the right type of rock, enough water, and a lot of time, a cave can form.

Wilkie said caves often occur in rock called limestone. Limestone is made mostly of calcium carbonate (the same substance that makes up seashells!).

Limestone isn’t a very strong type of rock. It’s full of tiny cracks. They’re hard to see, but big enough for water to run through. Lots of contact with water can make those gaps get bigger. Over time, the limestone dissolves and breaks apart. This process is called erosion.

As the rock dissolves, empty space gets left behind. Eventually, that space gets bigger and bigger until a cave forms. This happens extremely slowly, much longer than any human’s lifetime.

“We’re talking not just thousands of years, maybe millions of years. It’s not as if you start the process now and then 10 years or 100 years from now you have a cave. It takes a very long time,” Wilkie said.

Most caves remain caves. But if water continues to interact with limestone, it can keep slowly eroding. The cave’s roof can become too weak to hold the heavy ground above it. If the roof collapses, the ground above it falls through. That’s how a sinkhole happens, and part of the cave comes to an end.

A sinkhole is the end of a cave’s life—but not every cave’s life. Most caves don’t ever collapse or turn into sinkholes. A sinkhole only happens if the cave’s roof becomes too thin and unsupported. Humans can cause sinkholes to happen more than they would naturally by pumping water from underground, reducing support for the ground above.

Sinkholes happen more in some places than others. You might hear about sinkholes in Florida, an area with lots of limestone. But here in Washington State, where I live, other types of rock abound. So sinkholes are very rare.

The odds of the ground collapsing beneath you are very small. You’re much more likely to get to visit a cave someday.

And if you do, you can look up at its walls and remember the forces that shaped it. All it takes is a special rock, a lot of water, and plenty of time.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Get the full answer!

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – The End of the Universe

Where does the universe end? – Oriah, 8, Pullman, Wash.

Dear Oriah,

When you look up at the night sky, it can feel like the universe is a big blanket of stars above you. But unlike a blanket, the universe doesn’t have corners and edges. Far beyond what humans can see, the universe keeps going. As far as humans know, it never stops.

When I saw your question, I went straight to my friend Michael Allen to learn more. He is a Senior Instructor of Physics and Astronomy at Washington State University.

The universe is bigger than the biggest thing you’ve ever seen. It’s bigger than the biggest thing this cat can imagine. It’s so big that even your question has more than one very big answer.

Allen explained that you can think of the universe kind of like a rubber band. If you look at a rubber band’s flat surface, you can see it has no beginning and no end. It keeps going around and around in a loop.

Imagine you drew dots on that rubber band. If you pull on the rubber band, what happens? The rubber band stretches, and the dots move further apart. The universe is like that. The distance between all its galaxies, planets, and stars is stretching all the time, like dots on a rubber band. It never ends, but it’s also constantly expanding.

Scientists don’t think there is a true edge of the universe. But there’s an end to what humans can see of the universe. This is called the edge of the observable universe. It’s the farthest we can see, based on how we get information from light.

Everything you see depends on light bouncing off objects. Light reflects off the things around you and your eye absorbs it. When you look at your hand, you see your hand in that exact moment.

But when you look at a star, you’re actually seeing that star in the past. That’s because the light has to travel a very long time to reach your eyes. The farther away the star, the longer it takes. It takes light from the nearest star, the Sun, eight minutes to get to our eyes. Light from the next nearest star, Proxima Centauri, takes about four years to get to us!

Light moves very fast — about 186,000 miles per second — but the universe is very big. So the farthest edge of the observable universe is the oldest light we can see: about 13.8 billion years in the past.

But that edge is just what we can see from Earth. But that’s just what we can see from Earth. Earth isn’t the center of the universe. It’s just one location. The edge of the observable universe depends on where you are. If we were somewhere else in the universe, we would have a different view.

No matter where you are, you can think of yourself as a time traveler of sorts. When you gaze up at the stars, you’re looking up at the past.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Liking Different Foods

Why do I like buffalo wings and not broccoli? – Joe, 10, New York City, NY

Dear Joe,

You’re not alone—cats don’t like broccoli much either. As a carnivore, I think a nice, meaty buffalo wing sounds great.

But humans are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and meat. They’ve developed a taste for all kinds of things growing and living all over the world. So where do individual people’s preferences come from?

To find out, I visited Carolyn Ross, a professor of Food Science at Washington State University. Like you, she is very curious about why people like the foods they like.

You probably got part of your preferences from your human ancestors. Humans tend to seek the taste of fat, sugar, and salt. These ingredients are more scarce in nature, but abundant in foods we cook today. (That’s why it can be hard to stop at just one buffalo wing.)

Your individual experiences shape your tastes in a big way. If you’re familiar with a food and have good memories of it, you’re more likely to keep eating it.

But your genes also have an impact. Genes are like instructions written inside the body, which you get from your parents. They affect all kinds of things about you, including the way some foods taste. That’s why some people think cilantro makes a great addition to tacos, and some think it tastes like soap.

Your genes might even make you a “supertaster”—someone very sensitive to bitter tastes.

Your tongue is covered in little bumps called tastebuds. Tastebuds help you sense the flavor of what you’re eating. Humans’ tastebuds can detect five basic flavors: sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and umami (a savory, meaty taste.)

Supertasters have more tastebuds than most, making them more sensitive to different tastes. About 25% of people in the U.S. and Canada have a supertasting tongue. It’s possible you’re one of them.

Supertasting might seem like a superpower. “But being a supertaster is a gift and a curse because you’re very sensitive,” Ross said. Sweet things taste sweeter, but bitter things taste much more bitter.

Broccoli is one of the foods supertasters tend to dislike. “Supertasters find broccoli to be more bitter than people who are not supertasters and may eat less of it, at least when they’re younger. They also find cheddar or aged cheese to be exceptionally bitter. Their food choices are somewhat based on that,” Ross said.

If you’re a supertaster, you might always find broccoli to be too bitter. Even regular tasters find there are some foods they never love. To this day, Ross doesn’t like raw broccoli.

But your tastes might also change over time. It takes about six tries before your like or dislike for a food becomes a stable preference. So give it a few more tries. Check in with your tastes now and then. You might find a food you once hated eventually becomes enjoyable.

As a cat, though, my taste buds can’t sense sweet things. I’ll never know what you humans like so much about donuts.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Get the full answer!
Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Viruses

How do viruses form? Since the coronavirus has been all over the news, I’ve been wondering this question for a long time. – Samantha,12, N.C.

Dear Samantha,

Viruses are strange things. They’re not alive like you or me. But they behave somewhat that way—spreading, growing, appearing in new forms. How can this be?

There’s a lot scientists don’t know yet about the new coronavirus. But they do know a lot about how viruses work and make people sick.

To learn more, I talked to Sylvia Omulo, a scientist specializing in infectious diseases at Washington State University.

Your body is made of tiny building blocks called cells. Different cells do different types of work. They all follow instructions written in your body: your genes.

Viruses also have genes, but they don’t have cells like you or me. Instead, they rely on other creatures’ cells to come “alive.”

“A virus is a particle of genetic material that causes an infection by invading a cell,” Omulo explained. “It’s extremely small, smaller than a cell.”

You can think of a virus particle like a letter with bad news, tucked inside an envelope. Layers of protein (the envelope) cover a bundle of genes (the letter), protecting it until it’s ready to be opened and read.

Virus particles spread through the air or on surfaces. They cause infections if they get inside someone’s body. The envelope opens if the virus enters a creature’s cell, called the “host.” The virus uses its genetic instructions to take over the cell.

The virus disrupts the cell’s usual work, Omulo said, using its resources to make copies of itself. Those virus copies invade other cells, repeating the process. The host becomes sick as a result.

Usually, the virus copies itself exactly. But because viruses have genes, they also evolve over time. This means they’re changing, even as they’re making copies of themselves. That’s part of how new virus forms emerge.

Viruses have been around for millions of years, much longer than humans. Some only affect plants or bacteria. Some affect only some animals.

Other viruses spread from animals to humans. Omulo explained this is one way “new” viruses appear. A virus might affect humans, but not the animals carrying it. If it gets the opportunity to jump to humans, it can make them sick.

But remember: a virus isn’t alive on its own. It needs an opportunity to enter a cell. It’s your job to ruin that opportunity.

When you wash your hands with soap, you rub off the virus’s “envelope.” The bad news can’t go anywhere. When you keep distance from others, you close your “mailbox.” Virus particles can’t enter your cells or anyone else’s.

Without a host, a virus can’t do anything. That’s why it’s so important not to give the virus that chance.

Stay safe and stay curious,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Submarines

How do you make submarines? – Luke, 5, Western Washington

Dear Luke,

The next time you’re in the bathtub, turn a cup upside down on the water. Push down on it as hard as you can. See if you can get it to sink below the water.

It’ll be difficult to do! The air inside the cup makes it lighter than the water. But what happens if you turn the cup on its side, allowing water to rush in? You’ll see it’s easier to push underwater.

Those same basic forces make a submarine work.

That’s what I learned from Ian Richardson, an engineer at Washington State University. He is very curious about how liquids and solids interact. He has even helped NASA work on a submarine to someday go to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

Buoyancy describes an object’s ability to float. It’s key to making a submarine. “It’s pretty easy to get something to sink and easy to get something to float,” Richardson said. “To get something to stay in the middle of a liquid is very challenging.”

Ships float because they’re full of air. Air is lighter than the water around them. But submarines dive and rise. They’re able to do this because they control their weight using a combination of water and air.

Ballast tanks are the secret. These special containers sit inside the submarine and control its buoyancy.

“These tanks either let water in or they blow water out with air, and that’s how they control their buoyancy. They dive or surface based on how much water is in their ballast system,” Richardson said.  When air enters, the submarine gets lighter and rises. But when the tanks fill with water, the submarine becomes heavier and sinks.

There are other important parts of a submarine’s design. Special parts create oxygen for passengers to breathe. The inside temperature stays steady to protect sensitive technology inside. And they’re usually made of strong metal, like steel or titanium.

Maybe someday you’ll help design these important features. Until then, you can make your own miniature submarine. All you need is an empty plastic bottle, 4 heavy coins, a flexible straw, and tape.

First, have a grown-up help you make holes in the bottle: three on its side, and one in its cap. Screw the cap on. These holes will allow water and air into your submarine.

Next, tape the coins next to the row of holes in the side. Two should go near the top of the bottle, and two near the bottom. They’ll make the submarine heavier, but keep it balanced.

Now, take your flexible straw and put it in the hole on the bottle’s cap. Make sure the straw is pointed up, so it will stick out of the water.

When you’re ready to test your submarine, set it in water. As water enters, you’ll see the submarine sink. But if you blow into the straw, air gets pushed inside. The submarine rises.

Soon you’ll be ready to explore the far reaches of your bathtub.

Happy experimenting,
Dr. Universe

Get the full answer!
Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – Seashells

How are seashells formed? And why are they different colors? Can seashells live or die? – Caroline, 9, Crestwood, Ky.

Dear Caroline,

Seashells come in an astounding variety. Some are curved and round, others long and tube-like. Some are smooth, others bumpy. Some are large, others small. Plus, they come in a rainbow of colors: red, green, brown, purple, pink, and more.

All that variety comes from the same source: little animals called mollusks, with a mighty muscle called a mantle.

I found out all about them from my friend Richelle Tanner, a scientist at Washington State University. She is very curious about the ocean and knows a lot about mollusks, a type of animal with a soft, moist body.

There are many kinds of mollusks: both on land and in the sea, with and without shells. If you’ve ever seen a snail or a slug, you’ve met a mollusk in real life.

Unlike humans, cats, and other animals with backbones, mollusks don’t have skeletons inside. Many move through life with just their soft bodies. But some grow shells for protection, as a kind of traveling armor.

That’s where seashells come from, Tanner explained. “A seashell is a protective outer coating secreted by the animal’s mantle, which is one of their muscles,” she said. The mantle forms the soft outer wall of their body.

The mollusk’s mantle builds the shell from the bottom up. It absorbs salt and chemicals from the water around it. When it has enough of the right ingredients, it uses them to form a hard substance called calcium carbonate.

Strong, healthy seashells are made mostly of calcium carbonate. (So are eggshells!) A mollusk produces calcium carbonate from its mantle, laying down layers of it over its lifetime. Together, those layers form the seashell.

You can think of a seashell kind of like your own hair. Your hair grows and is part of you, but it isn’t alive on its own. A living mollusk produces a shell with its body, but the shell itself isn’t alive.

When a mollusk dies, it leaves its shell behind. But even after the life of the mollusk inside has ended, its shell is important. Seashells provide shelter for fish and hermit crabs, nest material for birds, and even nutrients for other animals to build their own shells.

You’re right to notice that seashells can come in many different colors. The way the shell forms helps explain where the color comes from.

“The material for the color comes from the mollusk’s environment—so it’s either taken out of the water or from what they eat,” Tanner said.

For example, seashells from warm waters tend to be more colorful than those from cold areas. This might have to do with their diet. Warm Caribbean waters have more colorful foods than the cold ocean near Maine.

We know seashells’ colors come from their environment. But scientists don’t know yet how the colors get spread around, creating brilliant patterns.

If you keep asking questions and hunting for answers, maybe you could help figure this out.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Get the full answer!

Submit a question!

Ask Dr. Universe – “Bears”

Why are bears called bears when they can be called anything else, not just a bear? – Natallia, 8, Yakima, Wash.

Dear Natallia,

You’ve noticed something very important: there’s no natural reason for the words humans use. Any sound could be used to describe a big mammal that eats berries and salmon.

But people who speak English choose “bear.” People who speak Spanish use “oso.” People who speak Maricopa say “maxwet.” They’re all different, but they’re all correct.

That’s what I learned from my friend Lynn Gordon, a linguist at Washington State University.

“Why do we call bears ‘bears’?” she said. “Because we’ve agreed to.”

Humans have a unique knack for speech. They talk about things in the past or future. They make up new words. They even say things they’ve never said before (like you did with your excellent question).

To be understood, speakers of a language agree about its rules. This happens very early, when a baby is first learning to talk. When you were little, you learned by listening to others. You agreed to your language’s rules without even thinking about it.

“Most of what we know about culture people didn’t teach us,” Gordon said. “They acted it out in front of us and we absorb it by being human. We’re driven to absorb the culture and language around us. Our brains are built that way.”

That’s how English speakers have passed down the word “bear” for generations. We don’t know exactly how or when the first word for bears was created. But linguists can hunt for a word’s history by looking at its relatives.

English, German, and Dutch are like cousins. English speakers say “bear,” Dutch speakers say “beer,” and Germans say “bär.” These languages sound similar because they share an ancestor – Proto-Germanic, an old language that isn’t spoken anymore.

Before “bear,” Old English speakers used “bera.” This word may come from the Proto-Germanic “*berô,” meaning “the brown one.” Others think “*berô” might be related to the Latin “ferus,” making it mean “the wild one.” We don’t have any written examples, so linguists use an asterisk (*) to show it’s their best guess.

Others look farther back at Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Germanic’s ancestor. This language had a different word for bears: “*rtko.” That’s where the Ancient Greek “arktos” and Latin “ursus” come from.

But how could “*rtko” become “*berô”? It’s possible people didn’t want to say a bear’s true name out loud, so they said “the brown one” or “the wild one.” People might have been afraid of warning bears they hunted, or calling bears to attack them.

That part of the history involves a lot of guessing. But it’s clear “*berô” became “bera,” and “bera” became “bear.”

All of this shows languages change over time. It’s normal for words to shift in sound and meaning. It’s even normal to create new words. Humans move around, meet new humans, and borrow words as they go. They agree to the rules, but the rules can change.

So whether you call me “cat” in English, “gato” in Italian, or “kedi” in Turkish, it’s all right by me.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Fingerprints

Dr. Universe: Why do people have different fingerprints? – Mary, 12, South Carolina

Dear Mary,

Did you know even identical twins have different fingerprints? It can be hard to tell twins apart, but a close look at their fingertips can reveal who’s who. The reason lies partly in their genes, but mostly from the unique way everyone’s skin grows before birth.

That’s what I learned from my friend David M. Conley, a professor at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

“The reason fingerprints are unique is the same reason individual humans are unique,” Conley said. “Variation is the norm, not the exception.”

There’s no single cause for your unique fingerprint design. Instead, it’s the result of both your genes and your environment. This is called multifactorial inheritance.

Look closely at the lines on your fingertips. These are called “friction ridges.” It’s hard to see, but they actually stick up above the rest of the skin.

“Fingerprints are impressions left behind when your fingers touch a glass, or when you put ink on your fingers and press them on a piece of paper,” Conley said. “Friction ridges are the actual patterns on your fingertips and palms.”

Friction ridges grow in different designs, like arches or whorls. If your parents’ fingers have a certain pattern, you might be likely to have it too. That’s because genes give the basic design, and you get your genes from your parents.

Genes are like instructions written inside the body. They give directions things like eye color, nose shape, and more. (Or, if you’re a cat like me, the length of your fur or the number of toes you have.)

Genes also tell the skin how and when to grow. Before a baby is born, they grow as a fetus inside their mother’s womb. The dermis (the inside skin layer) and epidermis (the outside skin layer) grow together. Friction ridges appear where these layers meet, guided by genes.

But these layers don’t grow at the same speed for every fetus. If one layer of cells grows faster, it can stretch and pull the others. As the fetus moves, their fingers can rub against the side of the womb.

These tiny forces push the skin as it grows. Together, they mold the direction of the growing ridges. The result is a unique fingerprint unlike anyone else’s.

Everyone’s skin grows in a slightly different environment. That’s why it’s so unlikely anyone has the same fingerprints as you – about a 1 in 64 billion chance.

Koalas and chimpanzees have unique fingerprints, too. Like humans, their hands and feet are covered in friction ridges. They also spend a lot of time climbing trees, just like humans’ primate ancestors did millions of years ago. That might mean friction ridges give texture to grab rough or slippery things.

Scientists don’t know yet if cats have different pawprints. But have you ever looked at the bumps on a cat’s nose? Some scientists think cats might have unique noseprints. I’m going to go check that out in the mirror later.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Sea Turtles

Why won’t a female sea turtle lay her eggs in the ocean? How do baby turtles know where the ocean is when they hatch from their eggs? – Jasmine and Shereen, 8, Gainesville, Fla.

Dear Jasmine and Shereen,

Sea turtles spend almost their entire lives in the ocean. Even as babies, sea turtles’ bodies have special traits for living at sea, helping them glide and paddle through the water. After emerging from their eggs, baby sea turtles (called “hatchlings”) scramble to the ocean to live the rest of their lives. Only female sea turtles return to land as adults, to lay eggs and begin the cycle again.

I talked with my friend Frank Paladino to learn more about sea turtles. He completed his Ph.D. at Washington State University. Today he is a professor at Purdue University-Fort Wayne and former president of the International Sea Turtle Society. He is especially interested in leatherbacks, the largest living turtle.

I learned that a female sea turtle must return to the beach to lay eggs, even though she is most comfortable in the ocean. This is because her eggs can only survive on land.

Baby sea turtles breathe through their eggs before hatching. Oxygen passes through the eggshell and membrane, a thin barrier surrounding the turtle. Even buried in sand, the turtle can still breathe through the egg. But they cannot breathe if the egg is in the water.

Sea turtle eggs also need warm temperatures to grow properly. Beaches provide the right conditions to help eggs develop. Mother sea turtles bury their group of eggs (called a “clutch”) in sandy nests to protect them until they are ready to hatch.

But when lots of humans are around, a beach can be a difficult place to lay eggs. “Normally, female turtles do not lay their eggs in the water. But if disturbed when on the beach and distracted multiple nights from returning to the nest, they will dump their clutch in the ocean,” Paladino said.

Humans can also cause problems for hatchlings as they leave the nest and head toward the ocean.

To find the ocean, hatchlings follow the brightest light source. Have you ever noticed how a pond or lake sparkles in the sun? This is because light bounces off the surface of the water. Under natural conditions, the ocean is brighter than the beach because it reflects light from the sun and the moon.

But when humans are around, other light sources can confuse turtle hatchlings. “Lights from houses and hotels on turtle beaches distract them. Instead of going to the sea, they will head toward the house lights which are the brightest horizon,” Paladino said.

Light pollution can be dangerous for hatchlings, so some places have created rules to protect them. Paladino told me that turtle nesting beaches in Florida have shields to block human sources of light. There are even special street lights designed not to confuse hatchlings looking for the ocean.

Sea turtles follow their instincts, in a cycle that takes them from the land to the ocean. Although humans pose challenges to sea turtles, science can help them live alongside each other.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Why the Wind Blows

Dr. Universe: Why does the wind blow? – Odin, 7, Mt. Vernon, Wash.

Dear Odin,

When the wind blows, it can do all kinds of things. It can help pick up tiny seeds and carry them away, so plants and flowers can grow in new places. It can push a big sailboat across an ocean. We can even harness the wind to make clean energy to power our homes and schools.

That’s what I found out from my friend Gordon Taub, an engineer at Washington State University. He is very curious about wind energy and told me more about why the wind blows.

Whether it’s a breeze, a gust, or a gale, winds are blowing in our atmosphere all the time. When the sun heats the earth, it doesn’t actually heat the earth evenly.

Part of the reason the Earth doesn’t heat up evenly is that the sun is really far away. Because the Earth is a big sphere, when the sun’s rays finally get to us, they are going mainly in one direction. They are mainly pointed at the Earth’s equator. That means that rays have to travel further to get to the ground at the poles than they do at the equator. As the sun’s rays pass through the air, they get weaker.

When the air at the equator warms up, it expands, Gordon reminded me. Things start cycling around as warm air moves in to places where there is cooler air. It is this mixing and movement of air at different temperatures and pressures that gives us our winds.

The wind holds a lot of energy, too. Wind turbines can help take the kinetic or motion energy of wind and turn it into electrical energy that can power our world.

Taub’s students are actually working on a wind turbine project of their own this year and will debut it at a national competition in 2020. If you are curious about wind, maybe one day you’ll join students at WSU to investigate wind power, too.

Maybe you’ve also seen some wind turbines if you’ve traveled across our state. Taub said wind turbines usually start spinning when the wind is blowing about 11 m.p.h. They usually shut down when winds reach speeds of about 44 m.p.h., so the blades don’t get busted up.

You know, we have some pretty strong winds on planet Earth, but that’s nothing compared to other planets. Jupiter’s red spot has winds of up to 250 mph, almost twice the speed of the fastest wind on Earth [163 mph was the highest recorded]. And Neptune’s winds are the fastest in the solar system reaching 1,600 mph—even faster than a fighter jet.

On earth, wind can also help us stay cool on hot days. I think I’m going to make my very own wind-powered pinwheel this summer. You can try to make one of your own, too. We’ll need some scissors, paper, a wooden stick, and a brass fastener. Find all the instructions here and then watch your creation spin in the wind.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Why Brains are Mushy

Dr. Universe: Why are brains mushy? – First Graders, Waller Road Elementary, Puyallup, Wash.

Dear First Graders,

You’re right, brains are quite mushy. It turns out the three-pound organ between your ears is mostly made up of water and fat.

I found out all about brains from my friend Jim Peters, a neuroscientist at Washington State University.

“It’s gooey. It really is squishy,” he said. “When it is warm, it is kind of like butter.”

The brain may be soft but it is surrounded by a tough layer called the dura materto help protect it. I also found out the brain actually floats around in a kind of liquid. This liquid helps keep the brain from touching the bone of your skull.

The bones in your body are actually made up mostly of minerals, like calcium, which give them strength and hardness. If you bonk your head on something, the bone in your skull is a great material to help protect your squishy brain.

Still, bone can sometimes crack or break. That’s why it is so important to wear a helmet when you are being an adventurous rock climber, bicyclist, or playing football. It protects both your tough skull and squishy brain.

Part of the reason it is so important for brains to be soft is because they need some flexibility to work. The brain can change itself—the actual connections and the way it functions—and helps us make different thoughts and memories throughout our lives.

The brain is actually made of lots of tiny parts called neurons. When you were born, you had many more of these neurons than you do today. As you grow and learn your brain trims these neurons to make just the right connections and circuits.

These neurons that make up the brain communicate with each other to help your body do lots of different things—move, smell, see, touch, and sense the world around you. There are billions and billions of them.

Peters told me these cells are surrounded in a coat of fat called the membrane. The membrane is like a wall that surrounds the cell and gives it a good structure. That way all the parts inside the cell can stay together.

When cells communicate, they use electricity to make it happen. That’s right— your brain is full of electricity. The fatty membrane helps direct the flow of electricity to the right spot so that it can release chemicals called neurotransmitters. So in a way, the squishiness helps brain cells make connections and pass those messages to other brain cells.

The brain is not only soft, but it has kind of bumpy, grooved, or wrinkly surface. If you were to unfold the brain, it would take up quite a bit of space. Some people have estimated it would cover an area the size of one to two pages of a newspaper. That’s a lot of brain tucked into your skull.

Our mushy brains do all kinds of things for us, including helping you read this very sentence and ask big questions about our world.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – When Trees Make Oxygen

Dr. Universe: Do trees still create oxygen and clean the air after their leaves fall off? – Nova, 8, Palouse, Wash.

Dear Nova,

The trees that lose their leaves in fall, such as chestnuts, oaks, aspens, and maples, are called deciduous trees. Once they lose their leaves, most aren’t able to take in carbon dioxide gas from the air or produce any oxygen.

That’s what I found out from my friend Kevin Zobrist, a professor of forestry at Washington State University.

“Don’t fret, though,” Zobrist said. “For they more than make up for it in the summer.”

Leaves play a big part in how trees take in carbon dioxide gas from the air and create the oxygen gas that we all breathe. These gases come in and out of a tree through tiny pores on its leaves called stomata.

These gases are part of a process called photosynthesis. Trees take in carbon dioxide from the air, use sunlight as energy to turn that carbon dioxide into sugars, and then use those sugars as their food. In this process, trees also make oxygen.

Photosynthesis actually occurs in the green parts of the leaf called chloroplasts. These chloroplasts are what give leaves their color.

But as leaves start to lose their green colors in fall and winter, they can no longer do photosynthesis. However, there are some deciduous trees, such as aspens, that have green stems.

Zobrist told me some of these stems can actually do photosynthesis, as well. If the temperatures are warm enough in winter, the stems start to photosynthesize.

But in this case, the tree doesn’t take carbon dioxide from the air. Instead, it uses some carbon dioxide that it makes on its own.

In addition to photosynthesis, trees also go through a process called respiration. The tree will use some of the sugars it makes from photosynthesis to carry out different jobs in their daily lives.

As the sugar molecules break apart, they release energy. This process requires trees to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. If you’re thinking that sounds just like the opposite of photosynthesis, you are right. This process happens in both the leaves and the stems.

Trees with green stems may use some of this tree-made carbon dioxide to do photosynthesis after their leaves fall off. Still, there’s not nearly as much photosynthesis going on in winter as there is in summer.

Trees do most of the work creating oxygen and cleaning the air of gases like carbon dioxide in the spring and summer. For the most part, they take a kind of fall and winter vacation.

Still, at any given moment there is a tree on our planet creating the oxygen that we breathe. After all, even though it might be winter where you live, that means it is summer elsewhere on the planet.

While the branches in your neighborhood might be bare, in other parts of the world people are starting to see trees growing their new leaves.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Baby Communication

Dr. Universe: Do babies have ways of communicating? –Jalen, 12, North Carolina

Dear Jalen,

Babies can communicate in a few different ways. For the most part, they use their emotions.

Humans come into the world crying, but that’s actually a good thing. In a way, babies start communicating from the moment they are born. Of course, it can be hard for their caregivers to know exactly what they mean with all those cries.

It takes some time, but caregivers can learn to pick up on what different cries are signaling. For example, a baby might be hungry, need a diaper change, or just be uncomfortable.

After babies are born, many will be given a test to see how they react to things in their environment. A baby might even get a gentle pinch or have some boogers softly sucked out their nose to see how they respond.

The person giving the test, usually a doctor, will look to see if the baby pulls away, sneezes, coughs, or twists their face into an expression we call a grimace.

Still, a cry or grimace doesn’t always mean there is a problem. Sometimes babies will cry because they are having a hard time settling down, but if left alone, will figure out how to soothe themselves, which is a good skill. They might suck on their thumbs or distract themselves.

I learned a lot about how babies use emotion to communicate from my friend Masha Gartstein, a professor of psychology at Washington State University.

She told me that crying is just one way babies communicate. After two or three months, babies will usually start to smile with a purpose.

“It’s an amazing thing,” Gartstein said. “That becomes another way of communicating.”

It’s also a nice relief for caregivers, or a baby’s brothers and sisters, especially after hearing lots of crying for a few months. Babies and caregivers can now both communicate joy or happiness.

At about six months old, babies can usually respond to their own names. But they still can’t talk like kids and grown-ups.

Instead, they might use gestures or point at things to communicate ideas to others. They might use their hands, fingers, or bodies to send out a message like, “I want that toy!” or “Look what I did!”

When a baby is about twelve months old, they will start to put together sounds that make up words like “mama” or “dada.” All the while, the baby’s personality is developing, too.

Gartstein also told me about something she studies called temperament. It’s a combination of the emotions and behaviors we each display that are reactions to our experiences or attempts to regulate these reactions.

Perhaps, you are a very calm person or maybe you get easily stressed and angry. These kinds of temperaments often begin when we are babies.

In Gartstein’s lab, she sees lots of different expressions and emotions on the faces of babies who come to visit with their families. The babies even wear little swim cap-like hats with little electrodes that help the researchers learn about their brain activity.

Babies don’t just have the ability to communicate, but sometimes they can help us do science and learn about human nature.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Axolotls

Dr. Universe: What do Axolotl eat? What species are they? Do you think they are cute? – Erin, 10, Florida

Dear Erin,

An axolotl (ax-a-lot-l) is a creature with big frilly gills like a lion’s mane, tiny eyes with no eyelids, and a mouth in the shape of a smile. They come in lots of colors: pink, black, golden, or grey.

These animals have been nicknamed “the walking fish,” but they are not really fish. An axolotl is a type of salamander.

That’s what I found out from my friend Ed Zalisko. Zalisko earned his Ph.D. at Washington State University and is now a biology professor at Blackburn College in Illinois.

A salamander is a type of amphibian, a cold-blooded animal that has gills, can breathe air, and lives under water. We find axolotls mainly in Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco in Mexico. The species name is Ambystoma mexicanum.

Because humans need water to survive, that means there is less water left for some of the amphibians. Axolotls are actually a critically endangered species, Zalisko said.

There are many species of salamander that are part of the group Ambystoma. About a decade ago, Zalisko discovered a new kind of axolotl. These particular axolotls can hold their breath for a whole year!

Axolotls breathe through their gills and lungs and sort of inflate like a balloon. The kind that Zalisko discovered don’t let the air out.

“No one knows why they hold their breath so long,” he said about the BC Axolotl, named after Blackburn College.

When they puff up, they flip over on their bellies. That means when they eat, they eat upside down.

Upside down or right side up, axolotls actually eat all kinds of different things, Zalisko said. They are carnivorous which means they eat meat. Some axolotls like to snack on snails, worms, insects, fish, and sometimes even other kinds of salamanders.

Finally, we explored your third question about axolotl cuteness.

“I think they are spectacularly cute,” Zalisko said. “And you can quote me on that. They just sit around most the time and look as cute as can be.”

In the lab, researchers can watch these amphibians develop in real-time because the axolotl eggs are see-through. It’s kind of like looking through a window.

In addition to being cute, axolotls may be able to teach us a thing or two about how to re-grow limbs, like arms and legs. If an axolotl loses a leg, it can regenerate it. Who knows, maybe one day you can help us learn more about these creatures.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Zalisko gives a special thanks to his teachers John H. Larsen Junior at Washington State University and Ron Brandon at Southern Illinois University who studied salamanders for many years.

Ask Dr. Universe – Evergreen Trees

Dr. Universe: Why are evergreen trees green all year? – Emily, 10, Silverdale, Wash.

Dear Emily,

Whenever I go for a hike in the woods, I can’t help but admire the tall evergreen trees. No matter what time of year it is, the pines, hemlocks, cedars, and spruces are usually all green.

My friend Bert Cregg is also very curious about the lives of trees. He graduated from Washington State University and is a professor at Michigan State University.

Cregg told me that evergreens have lots of needles, which are their leaves. We have even seen some trees, such as bristlecone pines, that have had the same needles for more than 16 years.

Each tiny needle on a great big evergreen is working hard to make food for the tree. It all happens through a process called photosynthesis. Here’s how it works:

The tree’s needles contain something called chlorophyll that gives them their green color. But the chlorophyll also has another important job. The chlorophyll absorbs sunlight which the tree can use to turn carbon dioxide from the air and water into sugars. It is these sugars that help the tree grow and stay green.

But while some trees, such as maples, stop doing photosynthesis in the colder months, evergreens keep on photosynthesizing (pho-toe-synth-uh-size-ing). In addition to sugars, evergreen trees also need something called mineral nutrients to help them grow.

In fact, humans also need mineral nutrients, such as calcium, potassium, and iron to help them grow. But while humans get their nutrients from food, trees get a lot of their own kinds of nutrients from the soil.

Cregg said that evergreens are really good at living in cold places where there aren’t a lot of nutrients in the soil.

“Once you have worked hard to take up those nutrients,” Cregg said, “you want to hang on them.”

Evergreens store up all those nutrients and can use them through the winter months. These types of trees are also good at storing up water in their needles which can help them stay green, too.

The nutrients help trees to do all kinds of things, including go through photosynthesis. But I also found out that some even evergreens do lose at least some of their green color. We might see some of their needles at the bottom of the tree start to turn orange. That means those needles are at the end of their lifespan.

“They drop their needles but they don’t do it all at one time,” Cregg said.

We have quite a lot of evergreen trees in Washington state, as you can tell from the state’s nickname “The Evergreen State.” The next time you look up to an evergreen, think about how each little needle is doing the job of keeping the tree green and growing. What kinds of evergreen tree species are growing in your state or neighborhood? Can you find some of their needles or pinecones Or do you have other kinds of trees in your part of the world? Tell us about what you see some time at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Snow Globes

Dr. Universe: How do you make a snow globe? – Alexa, 10, Salem, MO

Dear Alexa,

If you have a long winter break ahead and are looking for a great way to spend the afternoon, you might just want to make your very own snow globe. There are a few different ways to build a snow globe, but the first thing you’ll need is the perfect container.

To make a small snow globe, you might use something like an empty baby food jar. Or maybe if you want to make a bigger snow globe, you could choose an empty spaghetti sauce jar.

An empty water bottle could also work well for a snow globe. This is a great project to do if you have a few old items you want to make into something new. Once you have your perfect container, you’ll want to fill it up with certain kinds of liquids.

My friend Lindsay Lightner, a Ph.D. student at Washington State University, teaches people how to become science teachers and knows lots of great science activities to try. Her students make lava lamps to learn about something called viscosity. A lava lamp actually isn’t too different from a snow globe when it comes to viscosity.

Viscosity is a property, or characteristic, of liquids. We often use the word viscosity to describe how fast or slow a liquid flows. If you stuck a spoon into a jar of peanut butter, it would probably stick to the spoon. It’s really thick and has a high viscosity—it behaves almost like a solid.

But if we heated some peanut butter in the microwave, it would move around much more freely and have a much thinner consistency. It now has a much lower viscosity. For your snow globe, you will want to figure out how viscous to make your liquid. You can try it out with an experiment.

You can fill up one jar with water. Then fill another jar with water and a teaspoon of something called glycerin. Glycerin is what we sometimes use to make bubbles and it can make water more viscous. It’s easy to find in many stores. You might even make a third jar with a tablespoon of glycerin. You can adjust the amount, as needed.

Finally, you can add your “snow.” There are all kinds of different things you can use for snow. You might make your snow out of aluminum foil. You can use a hole punch to create some tiny flakes that will reflect the light.

If you want to re-use a material, Lightner said you can also use eggshells to make your snow. You could wash out the eggshells and then crush them up with a rolling pin into snowflake-sized pieces. No matter what solid object you decide to use, you will want to make sure it doesn’t dissolve in liquid. Lightner adds that you could also add little toys, like old Lego people, to decorate the inside of your snow globe.

Finally, you’ll want to put the lids on your containers tightly and give them a shake. Which of your snow globes has snow that falls the slowest or fastest? Tell us about what you created sometime at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Why Microwaves Hum

Dr. Universe: Why do microwaves hum? – T.J., Middle School, Ohio

Dear T.J.,

Long before humans invented microwave ovens, they had to rely on stoves or an open flame to heat up their food.

These days, we can warm up food in a matter of minutes, or even seconds. A lot of parts had to be invented to make that all happen. These parts help electricity flow through the microwave in lots of different ways.

One part called a transformer helps move the electricity from one area to another. As it does so, it may vibrate or shake a little, and that tiny movement can cause a humming noise.

Electricity is actually a big part of what powers microwaves, just as it does refrigerators, lightbulbs, and cellphones. The electrical current travels through a wire, sort of like water through a hose.

Inside of a microwave, we also find tiny parts called diodes which work like gates, allowing electricity to move in one direction but not the other. We might also find some capacitors in the microwave which work to store electrical energy.

You may also be interested to know that microwaves are actually a form of electromagnetic energy.

I found out all about it from my friend Sumeyye Inanoglu, a graduate student researcher at Washington State University. She is very curious about how we can preserve food and use microwave technology to make better ready-to-eat meals.

These kinds of energy move in waves, not too unlike the shape of the wave you see crashing onto the beach.

The light you see with your eyes is also a kind of energy. There are a lot of different kinds of electromagnetic energy, so many that we call them part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The spectrum is sort of like a rainbow of energy, with the different lengths of waves forming the colors of the rainbow. We find very long waves, like radio waves, at one end of the spectrum, and very short waves, like X-rays, at the other end. Microwaves are in the middle.

Sumeyye told me that many years ago there was a scientist named Percy Spencer who was studying radar and was experimenting with microwaves—the wave, not the appliance.

One day Spencer had chocolate in his pocket and those microwaves ended up melting all the chocolate. That melted chocolate eventually led to the invention of the actual appliance.

The waves are produced inside the appliance from a part called a magnetron. The magnetron is mainly made up of two big magnets. You may also hear some sounds or vibrations coming from a fan that cools the magnetron.

Lots of tiny parts can add up to do really useful stuff. But they’ll also make some noise as they vibrate. Those vibrations are also why moving parts eventually wear out and have to be replaced.

You might just say you are hearing the sounds of engineering. It’s something to think about the next time you are waiting for the microwave timer to beep.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Naming Places

Dear Dr. Universe: How do people name continents or places on earth? Thank you. – Lila Grace, 8, Virginia

Dear Lila Grace,

Our world is full of so many different places. They get their names in lots of different ways.

One way a place might get a name is from the person who explored it. The Americas are named after an Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. But Amerigo wasn’t the first person to explore these continents.

There were already people living there when he arrived. Still, “America” was named after Amerigo. For the most part, people name things because they are claiming possession of a place. Because of that, sometimes the original names of places are lost or erased.

That’s what I found out from my friend Theresa Jordan, a history professor who teaches a geography course at Washington State University.

I also found out that Native Americans in the northeast of North America were already calling the place they lived “Turtle Island.” The Guna people, the first to live in Panama and Columbia, called the Americas “Abya Yala.”

The names of places can also come from stories, legends, or myths. “Europe” comes from a Greek myth about a princess called Europa. One of Jupiter’s moons is also named after Europa.

“Asia” originated from another Greek story about the east coast of the Aegean Sea, which is near the place we today call Greece. We still don’t really know the origin of the name “Africa.”

Meanwhile, some places are named after leaders or people in power. Sometimes we will take a person’s full name and put a twist on it. For example, the state of Georgia is named after the English King George the II. Louisiana is named after Louis XIV, king of France. Washington state was named after our first president, George Washington.

Believe it or not, some people have different names for the same place. For example, people in the U.S. might call a country South Korea, but the people who live in South Korea call their country Hanguk.

People in Japan or China might call it Chosŏn. It’s a good reminder that people look at the world through different lenses, or worldviews.

In fact, if we looked at maps around the world they might look very different depending on where were visiting. In a classroom in China, you might find that the country is in the middle of the map rather than to the left as it is in U.S. classroom maps.

Jordan said it’s great to think about questions like the one you’ve asked. In fact, historians and researchers think about these kinds of questions a lot.

“Who is writing the history? Who’s history are you reading?” Jordan said. “As historians we always have to be asking those questions.”

Those are good questions for all of us to ask, too. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll study history or geography to help us understand more about the past and work to help shape our future.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Cows’ Milk

Dr. Universe: How do cows make milk? How do humans get milk from a cow? – John, 4, Colton, Ore.

Dear John,

Quite a few things have to happen for a cow to make milk. First, the cow has to eat lots of food, such as hay, grass, or grain. You may have heard that a cow will regurgitate her food, or sort of spit it up, and then chew on it again.

A cow will chew this mashed up food, or her cud, so she can get all the good stuff out of it—protein, sugar, fat, vitamins, and other nutrients. Milk is actually mostly water, plus those good nutrients.

That’s what I found out from my friend Amber Adams-Progar, an animal scientist at Washington State University who studies cow behavior.

When the cow eats, those nutrients get absorbed into the cow’s bloodstream. The bloodstream is like a highway that moves the nutrients around the body.

In particular, the bloodstream helps deliver nutrients to the cow’s udder, which hangs down under the cow’s belly near her hind legs. It’s here in the udder where the milk is made.

Believe it or not, the cow’s brain is also involved in producing milk. When a cow’s body senses that she is going to have a baby, the brain will release certain chemicals. The chemicals help send out a signal for her body to produce milk.

When a calf is born, it will reach up to its mother’s udder to drink some milk. The milk has a lot of good ingredients the calf needs to grow up strong and healthy.

Of course, a cow doesn’t always have milk in her udder. She will only produce it when she has a baby. A cow has live young, hair, and produces milk. That makes her a mammal. There are more than 5,000 mammals on our planet. You are a mammal, too.

Humans have actually been using milk from cows for thousands of years. They even figured out how to turn that milk into ice cream, butter, and cheese.

In the past, some farmers would milk cows by hand and collect milk in small buckets. These days, some farmers use milking machines. They want to keep everything sanitary. They clean the cow’s udder and clean the milking equipment.

Most milking machines have about four cups which attach to a cow’s udder. These cups use suction to help release the milk. The milk flows down into a tube and gets collected in a huge tank. The person who is milking the cow will then clean the udder and milking equipment.

Adams-Progar also told me that some milking machines actually rely on robotics. On some farms, a cow can choose what time of the day she wants to go to the milking machine. A robot’s laser technology will line up her udder with the cups. Meanwhile, tiny sensors can help track her behavior.

You might say that a jug of milk all starts with a mama cow eating dinner. It’s something to think about the next time you go to the grocery store.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Eyebrows

Why do we have eyebrows? -Zach, 11, Kettle Falls, Wash.

Dear Zach,

Humans have hair on their heads, arms, and as you mention, even the face. If you feel your face, you might feel some small, fuzzy hairs on your cheeks and forehead. But the hair of your eyebrows is usually a bit thicker.

I asked my friend Mark Mansperger why we have eyebrows. He’s an anthropologist at Washington State University.

Eyebrows appear to serve two main purposes, he said. One of the purposes of eyebrows is to keep things like rain or sweat from rolling down your forehead and into your eyes.

“It guards your eyes in that way,” Mansperger says.

All the hairs on your body grow out of tiny holes on the skin called follicles. Each follicle can grow a single strand of hair. There are tiny little blood vessels in the skin that give the root of the follicle everything a hair needs to grow.

The human body isn’t perfectly symmetrical. Sometimes one eye or eyebrow might look a bit different from the other. Everyone’s eyebrows are just a little bit different.

Some eyebrows might be brown, blonde, black, or red. People who have had eyebrows for a long time might have hair that is gray or white. The eyebrows might be really thick or very thin.

You may have also noticed that some people have just one eyebrow. Scientists have discovered one of the indicators in human DNA that will help determine if someone will grow a unibrow.

Meanwhile, some people’s genes don’t have the typical instructions for growing hair. They have something called alopecia. Alopecia occurs when the body’s immune system attacks hair follicles. People will often lose their hair, including their eyebrows.

Eyebrows can also play a part in communication. The muscles inside your face and the hair on the outside can help you make all kinds of facial expressions. A furrowed brow might communicate that you are angry or concerned. Raising your eyebrows might let someone know you are surprised or maybe disapproving.

As Mansperger summed it up, eyebrows serve important functions. They help protect our eyeballs and communicate to those around us.

Finally, eyebrows can also be a bit entertaining. Some people have the talent of raising just one eyebrow at a time or making their eyebrows do a kind of dance. A lot of people can actually train their eyebrows to move using the muscles in their faces. While some people are naturals, others require quite a bit of practice. These 100 kids gave it a try. Maybe you’ll try it out, too.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Poisonous Bugs

Dr. Universe: How do bugs have poison? – Wyatt, 11, New Zealand

Dear Wyatt,

There are all kinds of insects crawling and flying around our planet. And you’re right, some of them—but not all of them—are poisonous.

I learned all about poisonous insects from my friend David James. James is a researcher at Washington State University who is very curious about monarch butterflies.

Monarchs can actually eat plants that would be poisonous to most other animals. After a monarch caterpillar hatches, it will eat its own eggshell. Once it runs out of eggshell, it will start chomping on the poisonous milkweed plant. But it doesn’t cause the insect any harm.

In fact, monarchs need milkweed to help them grow and become a butterfly. Later, the butterfly will use the milkweed plant as the perfect spot to lay its eggs. That way when new caterpillars hatch and finish up their eggshell, they will have milkweed to eat.

When monarchs eat poisonous milkweed, the chemicals in the plant help form poison in their bodies. These chemicals are called toxins. When an animal inhales, touches, or eats a toxic creature, they can experience the effects of poison. It can be deadly, but sometimes it just makes the animal sick.

If a bird eats a monarch, they might throw it up or spit out the butterfly. The predator probably won’t try to eat another monarch in the future. That poison can help the monarch species survive in the long run.

Milkweed and monarchs have actually been helping each other survive for a long time. The plant provides food for the butterfly. Meanwhile, the butterflies help move pollen around to help new milkweed plants grow.

It turns out that different insects can get their poison with help from different plants. The cabbage white butterfly caterpillar, for example, eats a lot of cabbage.

The cabbage white uses a combination of chemicals from the cabbage to produce a toxin in its own body. They can actually secrete the poison from their hairs, or setae. If you look under a microscope, you would see little droplets that look like oil on their hairs, James explained.

Of course, humans don’t produce toxins from their hairs when they eat cabbage. Instead, they usually just get a lot of nutrients and fiber. Different toxins can impact different species in different ways.

You might also be interested to learn that venom is a bit different from poison. Venom is usually a kind of toxin injected through stinging or biting. If you get a bee sting or spider bite, you are experiencing the effects of their venom.

Whether an animal is venomous or poisonous, it will often use its bright colors or patterns to warn a predator. For example, monarch butterflies have orange and black patterns on their wings. The monarch caterpillars are yellow with white and black striped bands.

These brilliant colors can help send a message to predators like, “Don’t eat me, I’m poisonous!” It’s a helpful reminder for the predators and can help insect species survive.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Snake Senses

Dr. Universe: If snakes smell with their tongues, what do they do with their noses? – A.J., 5, Kennewick, WA

Dear A.J.,

You’re right, snakes have an amazing sense of smell. They can use their tongues to pick up on all kinds of scents in the air.

Whenever we smell something in the air, we are actually sniffing tiny building blocks called molecules. These molecules are what make up the scents of everything around us—things like baked bread, fresh-cut grass, and warm cookies.

If you were a snake, you might sniff out the scent of a slug or mouse. You’d use your tongue to pull the molecules from the air into your mouth.

Then those molecules would reach a part of the roof of your mouth called the Jacobson’s organ. This organ helps de-code the molecules into smells. The smell might help you find some prey or let you know to slither away from a predator.

I learned all about snakes from my friend Rocky Parker. Parker graduated from Washington State University and is currently an assistant professor at James Madison University in Virginia. He is very curious about how snakes use their senses.

While the tongue does most of the smelling, snakes also use their nostrils to take in odors. Parker said we are still learning exactly how snakes use their nostrils, tongues, and Jacobson’s organs to smell the world. But we do know that some other kinds of animals use all these parts to smell, as well.

Lizards will flick their tongues in different patterns to collect odors from the air. Elk and deer will stick their noses up in the air and lift their upper lips to transfer some molecules inside their mouths. It gives them a kind of “sixth sense” that helps them know their world, said Parker.

Of course, a snake’s nose is important for more than just helping with their sense of smell. Like pretty much all animals, snakes need a healthy supply of oxygen to survive. The nostrils are oxygen’s way into the body. Oxygen is really important to animals because it helps them produce fuel for their bodies.

Our planet is home to about 3,600 different species of snakes, so we see different snakes with different kinds of lungs. But for the most part, snakes only breathe through one lung.

In most snakes, the left lung is usually smaller or missing completely. It’s a kind of leftover part from their ancestors and doesn’t work for breathing. The right one that runs along their long, tubular bodies is what helps them breathe.

Even though humans can’t smell with their tongues, all of their five senses are powerful tools for navigating the world. Have you ever thought about becoming a scientist one day? With great questions like these, I’m getting the sense that you are well on your way.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe – Brain Dead

Dr. Universe: What does it mean to go brain dead? – Noelle, 10, Sumner, WA

Dear Noelle,

Let’s say we wanted to find out what kind of electrical activity was happening inside your brain at this very moment. Yep, you read that right: your brain is full of electricity. It actually generates enough electricity to power a lightbulb.

In fact, the tiny cells in your body use electricity to send messages to each other. That’s part of what helps the brain and body communicate. I decided to visit my friend Samantha Gizerian, a neuroscientist at Washington State University, to find out more about our brains.

She said if we wanted to observe activity in a human brain, we could do a test called an electroencephalogram (uh-lek-trow-uhn-seh-ful-luh-gram), or EEG for short. We’d attach some small discs with thin wires, or electrodes, to a person’s head.

Then we could watch as a computer translated that brain activity into spikes and dips on a screen. Scientists can look for patterns on the screen to learn more about our active brains. But we can also use this test to help us find out if someone is “brain dead.”

Perhaps you’ve heard a person say that they were feeling “brain dead” if they made a mistake or maybe forgot to do something. But when someone is actually “brain dead” it means that the electrical connections between cells have stopped working altogether. We wouldn’t see any spikes and dips from the EEG on the computer screen.

That’s a lot different from a coma. A person in a coma is alive, but unable to respond to or interact with the environment around them. Brain death usually happens when the brain stem at the bottom of the brain dies. If the brain stem isn’t functioning anymore, a person can’t survive.

Along with EEG tests, doctors will also test patient reflexes to see if they will respond to pain, if their pupils move when they shine light, or if their heart rate and body temperature start to drop when they remove some of the technology that helps keep the lungs breathing or the heart beating.

“The reason they do all these tests is because any one on its own could still happen when the patient is alive,” she said.

Gizerian said these tests are really important for making sure people follow medical laws, too. When doctors first started doing surgeries to take out people’s organs for transplants, they wanted to make certain a person’s brain was no longer working. It turns out the term “brain dead” actually has more to do more with laws than anatomy.

When someone dies, the organs in their body can sometimes still help other people who need an organ to survive. There are a lot of organs that have been transplanted over the years—hearts, liver, lungs, kidneys. But we’ve still yet to learn how to transplant the brain.

In fact, there’s still quite a lot we don’t know about the brain. Who knows, maybe one day you will use your own brain to investigate all kinds of questions about that three-pound organ between our ears.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe