Dr. Universe: Why do we change our minds? – Stella, 10, Tennessee

As a science cat, I’ve changed my mind a lot over the years. I used to wear a fancy neck scarf called a cravat all the time. Now I’m comfy in my lab coat.

I talked about that with my friend Makita White. She’s a graduate student in the psychology department at Washington State University.

She told me that we change our minds when we get new information or insight that tells us we need to make a different choice.

It turns out that we have lots of opinions and beliefs. They’re also called attitudes. We have attitudes about what we like to eat or wear. We have attitudes about other people and how the world should be.

White told me that having attitudes helps us out.

“Your brain uses things like attitudes as shortcuts to make decisions really fast,” she said. “That way you don’t have to develop a new opinion about something every time you see it.”

Let’s say you have an attitude that pineapple is the best pizza topping. Thanks to that brain shortcut, you don’t have to decide if you like pineapple every time someone offers you some. You know you like it.

But sometimes you get new information, or something shakes up our attitudes. Maybe you try a different pizza topping and like it even more than pineapple. Maybe you get some rotten pineapple and start feeling grossed out by it.

Changing your mind about pizza toppings isn’t a big deal. But it’s harder to change your attitude about something that feels important to who you are as a person.

I recently watched a cartoon about a world full of humans and elves. They hated each other and lived in separate places. But then some humans went on a journey with an elf. They eventually became friends. That was a huge change because disliking each other was part of being a human or an elf. It’s how they fit in with their families and friends.

White told me that when a person has an attitude and then has an experience that doesn’t fit with the attitude, they feel cognitive dissonance. That’s the uncomfortable feeling when the things you think or the ways you act clash with each other.

Like if you’re a human who thinks elves are terrible and scary. But you’re also friends with an elf who’s not terrible or scary at all. That’s going to make your brain uncomfortable. Then you must decide what to do about it.

You can stick with your old attitude and run away from your elf friend. You can make an excuse for why your friendship with this one elf doesn’t mean you were wrong before. Or you can examine the attitude and change the kind of human you are.

White says it may be easier to change your mind if you have a growth mindset. That means believing you can change and grow. It means letting go of attitudes that don’t work for you anymore.

Maybe that’s why I was able to figure out my lab-coat-wearing destiny. Maybe someday I’ll try something new and like that, too.

It’s just a matter of adjusting my cat-titude.


Dr. Universe

Dr. Universe: Why are some veggies called fruits because of their seeds? – Valerie, 10, New Mexico

Dear Valerie,

Every summer I grow peppers in my garden. I always thought they were vegetables. But you’re right that my peppers have gobs of seeds like fruits do.

To figure out what’s going on, I talked with my friend Jacob Blauer. He’s a plant scientist at Washington State University.

He told me that whether something is a vegetable or fruit depends on what part of the plant it comes from.

“Plant products that come from plant parts like roots, leaves or stems are veggies,” Blauer said. “If they come from a flower and bear seeds, they’re a fruit in botanical and scientific terms.”

Botany is the plant science that looks at the structures that make up a plant’s body. Like its roots, leaves and stems. When you chow down on a carrot, you’re eating the carrot plant’s root. When you eat lettuce, you’re eating the lettuce plant’s leaves. When you chomp on some celery, you’re eating the celery plant’s stem. These are all vegetables.

But my peppers don’t come from the pepper plant’s roots, leaves or stem. A pepper forms when my pepper plant reproduces through a flower. That’s how it makes seeds that will become baby plants.

After a flower forms, pollinators like the wind or insects come along. They move pollen from one part of the flower to another part of the flower. Or between flowers. Soon, a teeny, tiny pepper full of seeds begins to grow.

Pollinators move pollen from the anthers (blue circle) to the stigma (green circle). Sometimes that happens within the same flower. Sometimes they move pollen between different flowers.

The whole point of the pepper is to move those seeds to a new place. In the wild, birds gobble up the peppers and seeds. Then, they fly off and poop out pepper seeds somewhere else. Those pooped-out seeds can grow into new pepper plants.

Since peppers come from a flower and have seeds, botanists call them fruits. Even though they’re not sweet or tart like most fruits. There are lots of fruits like that—like tomatoes, squashes, eggplants, cucumbers and avocados.

As a science cat, I think it makes lots of sense to classify plant foods based on botany and plant science. But humans are complicated animals. So, nutrition experts sometimes classify a plant food based on other traits, too. Like how sweet or savory it is. Or how it’s usually cooked.

That’s why some fruits—like my peppers—wind up in the vegetable group. If that seems a little confusing, that’s because it is. It can make it challenging for scientists who work with plants that are classified in more than one way. It can also make it harder for food programs to get the most nutritious foods to people—because there are lots of opinions on how to classify plant foods.

Blauer told me that potatoes have a classification problem like my peppers do. According to science, they’re vegetables. They’re a plant part that grows underground called a tuber. That’s an underground branch that stores vitamins and complex sugars called starches.

But sometimes potatoes get kicked out of the vegetable group and called less nutritious because of those starches. That’s a shame because the humble spud is so nutrient-dense that it’s fed hungry people throughout history and helped shape the world we know today.

When it comes to nutrition, it’s a real peeler of strength.


Dr. Universe

Dr. Universe: Do babies open their eyes when they are in their mom’s tummy? – Neela, 6, Washington state

My litter mates and I were born with our eyes closed. It takes a week or more for newborn kittens to open their eyes and see the world. But newborn humans can open their eyes and look around right away.

I talked about your question with my friend Cindy Brigham-Althoff. She’s a nurse midwife and professor at Washington State University.

She told me that whether unborn babies can open their eyes depends on their fetal age, or how close they are to being born.

Most babies are ready to be born after about 38 weeks of growing and developing. (Or 40 weeks if you count the way doctors do and add two weeks because it’s hard to figure out the exact moment the development process starts.) But some babies are born earlier or later.

For the first eight weeks, an unborn baby is called an embryo. That’s the time when all the major body parts develop, including the eyes. An embryo’s developing eyes are open because the eyelids haven’t formed yet.

From the end of the 8th week on, the embryo is called a fetus. The end of the 8th week is also when the eyelids form and seal themselves shut. That protects the delicate eyes as they grow and develop. They’ll stay that way until the eyelids unseal at 26 weeks (about 6 months).

“They start to be able to open their eyes at 26 weeks,” Brigham-Althoff said. “But they don’t really fully open until 28 weeks.”

So, once the eyelids unseal, what can unborn babies see? Probably not a lot.

For one thing, their eyes aren’t fully developed—and won’t be for a long time. Their eyes will grow and mature for an entire year after they’re born.

The other issue is that a fetus develops inside a pouch-like organ called a uterus. It’s pretty dark in there. Plus, it’s filled with amniotic fluid. Amniotic fluid starts out as mostly water. But then the fetus begins swallowing the fluid and peeing it back out.

Even fully developed human eyes don’t see as well underwater—or under-urine. So, a fetus can’t make out details inside the uterus. It’s probably super blurry.

But a fetus can see light.

Their eyes begin to detect light by the 31st week. The dark pupils in the center of the eyes expand or shrink depending on how much light there is. Like yours do.

Brigham-Althoff told me that scientists can use flashlights and special equipment to see how fetuses react to light. That’s how scientists know that babies who are almost ready to be born will turn their heads and move their eyes to look at the light—especially if the flashlight looks like a human face.

That’s probably kind of weird for the fetus. But it’s one way science opens our eyes to the mystery of human development.


Dr. Universe

Dr. Universe: Why are cats scared of cucumbers/snakes? — Aurelia, 8, Canada

It’s been almost ten years since someone went viral for recording a cat freaking out about a cucumber. In that video, a human sneaked up behind a cat while it was eating. They silently placed a cucumber behind the cat. When the cat turned around, it jumped super high and ran away. Soon, lots of people were making those videos.

I asked my friend Jessica Bunch why all those cats were scared. She’s a veterinarian at Washington State University.

She told me that cats can be surprised by new things. That’s especially true if the new thing shows up without warning. Or while the cat has its guard down. Like when a cat is eating, and a human sneaks up with a cucumber.

It’s possible that the surprise sets off an internal alarm that warns cats about intruders. That instinct to startle and flee from potential danger helps cats survive in the wild. It’s an instinct that persists for house cats living cushy, non-wild lives.

“Even though we’ve domesticated them to a certain extent, cats aren’t considered 100% domesticated like dogs are,” Bunch said. “They still resemble wild cats. They still have some of the natural behaviors their wild cohorts do.”

If you’ve ever seen me pounce on a round of Cougar Gold cheese, you know that’s true.

African wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica) live in Africa and Asia. Thousands of years ago, some of these cats began to live with humans. They’re the ancestors to domestic cats. © Claudia Komesu/iNaturalist

The second part of the question is whether that fear reaction is because a cucumber resembles a snake. Could it be an inherited fear of snakes that freaks out my fellow felines?

Bunch told me that cat experts aren’t sure about that. In the wild, cats are more likely to be predators than prey. Many wild cats are even apex predators. That means they don’t have natural predators in their ecosystems.

It’s true that a particularly large and bold snake might gobble up smaller cats and baby cats. But cats are just as likely to prey on snakes. Bunch said there simply isn’t enough evidence to say that this fear is about snakes.

But cat experts do agree that this trend can cause problems for cats and the humans who love them. Just like people, cats have personalities. Some cats and some people are more sensitive or anxious than others. Unfortunately, most cats can’t tell you what stresses them out.

The startle-and-flee response that looks so silly in the videos is a clue that it’s a scary experience. There are other clues that a cat feels unsafe. Like if they start hiding more or don’t want to interact with their people as much. An unsafe cat might even do things that humans hate. Like destroying your furniture or using your stuff as a litter box.

It’s pretty special that cats have lived and worked with humans for at least 10,000 years. And that our mutual respect is our bond—and not just total dependence like some other pets. It would be a cat-astrophe to break that trust over a cucumber.

Dr. Universe

Build Boat and Sail

submitted by Adam Burks

Suttons Bay, MI – Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA) is seeking area youth to participate in a free boat building program. Beginning January 11, 2020, youth ages 8-12 can participate in a three-month Opti-Pram Sailboat Building Workshop. Classes are held on Saturdays from January through March at the Great Lakes Discovery Center campus in Traverse City. Students can earn a scholarship for a 2020 Traverse Area Community Sailing (TACS) class to learn how to sail the boat they build. The workshop is free, but space is limited and registration is required.

Students work in small groups with professional instructors and trained volunteers to build two opti-pram sailboats. The boats then go into the TACS fleet for sailing instruction. Students learn project management, shop safety, woodworking, and small tool use in a safe and welcoming environment. “These programs are one of the ways we create a love of the lakes, and hopefully future stewards. There is something about using a vessel that you built that makes you want to preserve the body of water so you can continue to be on it,” said Fred Sitkins, Executive Director of ISEA.

Any youth age 8-12 is eligible for the free workshop, but space is limited to ten for the course. Fred Sitkins added, “The one-on-one attention that students receive, along with the teamwork learned, during these workshops also benefit the students who participate.” To register for the free Opti-Pram Sailboat Building Workshop, contact Adam Burks at or 231-620-1148. Adults interested in working alongside students in this program may also contact Adam for more information.

In addition to the Opti-Pram workshop, adults can assist with other ISEA boat shop projects such as a coracle building workshop with students, restoring and re-rigging a lapstrake sailing skiff, and building a new staysail boom.  Any adult (experienced or not) interested in being part of these projects is welcome to come learn and participate. Contact Adam for more information.

Inland Seas Education Association is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Suttons Bay, Michigan, dedicated to STEM education on the Great Lakes. Its shipboard and shore-side education programs are designed to inspire people of all ages to provide for the long-term stewardship of the Great Lakes. ISEA offers programs to schools, groups, and the public. For further information, contact Inland Seas Education Association at (231) 271-3077 or on the web at

Sportsmen for Youth – Youth Day

Sportsmen for Youth presents

Date:  September 8, 2018
Location: Muskegon County Fairgrounds 6621 Heights Ravenna Road from 9am-3pm.

sfyyouthdayThis is an absolutely FREE family friendly day. The first 2500 youth who are 17 yrs. and younger will receive a t-shirt, free lunch, prize drawings, and goodie bag.

Youth Day is designed to introduce and educate youth to all things outdoors. From hunting and fishing to conservation and good stewardship of our natural resources.  Youth Day is dedicated to promoting the safe pursuit of outdoor activities.

Youth Day includes fantastic guest speakers at the Hawg Trough which is a semi-trailer size tank that will be filled with local fish species and act as a stage for guest speakers.  Mark Martin, Logan Locke, Dan Zatarga, Mitch Johnson, Chris Noffsinger, Kyle Buck, Todd Sokolow and Stacey Chuppallo will entertain the crowd.  A rock climbing wall and birds of prey exhibit will be on hand.

Return favorites to Youth Day are: the “Trout Pond” where live trout are caught and cleaned for youth, shooting of firearms and archery, and many others. Over sixty exhibitors will be on hand to educate the youth.

A partnership between Sportsmen for Youth and the Muskegon County Area Fire Chiefs was formed several years ago. At Youth Day, attendees will experience various fire safety exhibits, demonstrations and tours of fire trucks of all types.  Law Enforcement will also be on hand with displays.

Sportsmen for Youth is a non-profit organization is able to continue Youth Day free thanks to the generosity and donations from local businesses and private donations. It costs approximately $30,000 to make Youth Day happen free of charge.  Again this year there will be a raffle for 5 firearms.  All proceeds to be used for Youth Day!

Please direct any questions to, Thank you, Sportsmen for Youth Executive Board