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The Latest Questions and Answers

Episode 16: All About Volcanoes

Dr. Universe, a grey cat with a lab coat, looking through binoculars

Hello young scientists. I’m Dr. Universe and if you are anything like me, you’ve got lots of big questions about our world. I recently joined a group of junior scientists from Palouse Prairie Charter School to learn about volcanoes on the podcast. Students from the fourth-grade class in Moscow, Idaho, helped me answer how volcanoes work, how they form, what happens when they erupt, whether volcanoes are on other planets, and a lot of other cool (or hot) information about these amazing mountains.

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  • How does electrical power travel through metal?

    When you watch the zapping bolts during a lightning storm, you know how powerful electricity is. Humans have only been harnessing electricity to bring light and energy to our towns and homes for about 150 years—and metal is one of the main ways we get this powerful tool from place to place.

    To learn more, I talked to my friend Bob Olsen, a professor emeritus in the Washington State University School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

    Olsen said it’s important to realize that we don’t need metal wires to move the waves that carry electricity, which are called electromagnetic waves. Some technologies, like cell phones, pick up waves that are sent through the air.

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  • How are sea animals affected by water pollution?

    If you ever visit the beach, take a look at all the animals: crabs scuttling across the sand, seals bobbing on the waves and sea stars tucked into tide pools. Maybe there are even whales spouting on the horizon. Earth’s oceans are home to thousands of creatures.

    But, as you know, human pollution reaches our waterways and all the animals that live in them.

    To learn more, I talked to my friend Erica Crespi, an associate professor in the Washington State University School of Biological Sciences. Crespi studies how animals that live in water respond to all kinds of stresses, including pollution.

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  • Why does time fly when we are having fun?

    If you’re having a great time playing at the beach or camping with your family this summer, the day might zip right by. But the long drive to get to your fun destination might seem to take forever.

    To understand why time seems to change based on our activities, I asked my friend Alana Anderson, who just earned her Ph.D. at Washington State University. Anderson studies how people, especially babies and little kids, manage their behaviors and emotions.

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  • Why do we get sleepy when we study?

    Dear Sadaf,

    Like many good students, you’ve probably noticed that when you study, especially late in the day, you feel sleepy. Scientists don’t know exactly why, but they have a few clues.

    The human brain is packed with tens of billions of cells called neurons, which process and store information that helps us observe, understand and make decisions about the world.

    My friend Hans Van Dongen, director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center and a professor of medicine at Washington State University, said you might think about neurons as workers in a huge company. Each neuron is an expert in a piece of … » More …

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  • Why do we have toenails and fingernails?

    Dear Chloe,

    Maybe you like to paint your toenails beautiful colors or admire the dirt under your fingernails when you come in from playing outside. But you’re right to notice that nails must be more than just decoration.

    To learn more, I talked to my friend Edward Johnson, an assistant professor of anatomy and physiology at Washington State University.

    Johnson reminded me that humans are primates, just like gorillas or orangutans. If you look closely at a primate’s hand or foot, you’ll see their nails look a lot like yours. They’re wide and flat at the ends of their fingers and toes.

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  • What are butterfly wings made of?

    Dear Serenity,

    Butterfly wings may be quite thin, but they are also durable and strong. This strength comes from the material that makes up the wings: chitin (KITE-IN).

    Chitin is a kind of building material we find in nature. Chitin makes up not only the wings of butterflies but also the outer skeletons—or exoskeletons—of crabs, shrimp and lots of other insects.

    My friend David James, an entomologist at Washington State University, told me all about it.

    Read Story
  • Why do we get hiccups?

    Dear William,

    When you get hiccups, it might seem like they are coming out of nowhere—and before you know it, they’re gone.

    To find out exactly why hiccups happen, I talked to my friend Dr. Luisita Francis, a professor of medicine at Washington State University.

    She told me part of the reason humans get hiccups has to do with a very important muscle in the abdomen: the diaphragm (DYE-UH-FRAM).

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  • How is DNA built?

    Dear Riot,

    Pretty much every living thing on our planet—from a blue whale to a tiny ant—has something in common. We all have cells, which are the building blocks of life, and inside of those cells we have DNA.

    My friend Gunjan Gakhar, a Teaching Assistant Professor at Washington State University, was happy to help with your question.

    First, she reminded me that DNA contains the instructions for living things to grow, survive, and reproduce. DNA determines everything from our eye color to our hair color to our height.

    “DNA is built like a ladder,” she said. “And if you twist that ladder, that’s … » More …

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  • Why do numbers never end?

    Dear Louis,

    That’s a great observation about numbers. Whether you start counting backwards or forwards, numbers never seem to end.

    To find out more about these mysterious numbers, I took your question to my friend Kevin Fiedler. He’s an assistant professor of mathematics at Washington State University.

    He reminded me that there are a lot of different rules mathematicians follow. For instance, if you think of a number, you could always add one to it.

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  • Why do people have feelings like boredom, happiness, sadness and love?

    Dear Sophia,

    You’re stuck inside on a rainy day when all of a sudden you start to feel a bit bored. Maybe you aren’t sure what to do with the feeling. Maybe you decide to read a book or bake some cookies and the feeling starts to fade.

    Perhaps you then start feeling happiness from doing an activity you love. You know, pretty much everyone experiences a variety of different feelings every day.

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  • What did praying mantises evolve from?

    Dear Tara,

    When you think of the Jurassic Period, you might think of dinosaurs, but all kinds of insects, including praying mantises, roamed the Earth back then, too.

    Some of the mantises died and fossilized into rock and amber, which helped to preserve them for hundreds of millions of years. As scientists uncover these fossils in modern times, they can learn more about the life histories of insects.

    That’s what I found out from my friend Elizabeth Murray, an entomologist at Washington State University, who is very curious about the diversity of insects on our planet.

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  • How come some people can’t see color?

    Dear Pearl,

    Our brains have the amazing ability to gather information and interpret it. This ability to gather and interpret—or perceive— is a big part of what helps humans see colors.

    Our eyes have tiny cones that receive light, turn it into chemical energy and activate nerves that can send information to the brain. You might see an apple and think to yourself, “That’s the color red.”

    My friend Rachna Narula, an optometrist at Washington State University, told me all about it.

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  • Why is too much salt bad for you?

    Dear Dot,

    The human body uses salt in all kinds of different ways. Salt helps the cells in our bodies do their jobs, it helps the muscles contract and it plays a big part in keeping us hydrated.

    But as you’ve pointed out, too much salt can cause problems. My friend Catalina Aragon told me all about it. As an assistant professor at Washington State University Extension, she works with communities all across the state to share information about food and how it impacts our health.

    When humans eat food, they can get lots of nutrients such as calcium, potassium, iron and sodium. Sodium is … » More …

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  • How do germs enter the body?

    Dear Amari, 

    There are many different ways germs can enter the body. Sometimes they find a way in through an opening like the mouth, nose, eyes or a cut in the skin.   

    Most of these germs—what scientists call viruses and bacteria—are so small we’d need a microscope to see them.

    My friend Leigh Knodler is a researcher at Washington State University who works with a particular kind of bacteria called Salmonella.  

    Salmonella can sometimes live on food, such as undercooked chicken or unwashed fruits and vegetables. It typically enters the body through the mouth when someone takes a bite of food.  

    If … » More …

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  • Why do people like listening to music?

    Dear Bruce,

    Think of your favorite song. Maybe it brings you happiness or joy. Maybe it makes you want to start dancing. Or maybe it’s a sad, melancholy song, but you still really like it.

    From the radio to concerts to our mobile devices, music is all around us. To find out exactly why people like listening to music, I talked to my friend Sophia Tegart.

    Tegart is a flutist, musicologist and assistant professor at Washington State University. She said one of the reasons many people like listening to music is because it can affect emotions.

    “Music is emotion you can hear,” she said.

    » More …

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  • How does hail form?

    Dear Emilio,

    During a thunderstorm, there are often lots of tiny water droplets in the clouds that form precipitation like water, snow or hail. But that precipitation doesn’t always fall right to the ground.

    Sometimes a falling raindrop will get swept back up in a current of air. The air current can carry the raindrop to higher parts of the thunderstorm cloud where temperatures are below freezing.

    Under these super cold temperatures, a raindrop will freeze. Then, other water droplets will start clinging to the frozen droplet. This is how hail, or a hailstone, begins to form.

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  • Why do things like rockets catch fire as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere?

    Dear Conner,

    When objects like spacecraft pass through Earth’s atmosphere, things can really heat up.

    To investigate the answer to your question, I talked to my friend Von Walden. He’s a professor and researcher with Washington State University’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research.

    First, he said it helps to know a bit about the differences between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

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  • How are baseballs made?

    Dear Kaden,

    There are a lot of steps that go into making a baseball. As we investigate this question, we’ll focus on the ones made for Major League Baseball.

    My friend Lloyd Smith, a mechanical engineer and director of the Sports Science Laboratory at Washington State University, told me all about it.

    A while back, he had a chance to visit a facility in Costa Rica where they make MLB baseballs. Smith said it begins with a small sphere called a pill, which has a cork center and a couple of rubber layers.

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  • How does COVID-19 affect our household pets?

    Dear Kolton,

    A lot of researchers around the world are investigating this very question. While we don’t know everything about how the SARS-CoV-2 virus affects household pets, there are some things we do know.

    My friend Dr. Raelynn Farnsworth, a veterinarian at Washington State University, told me all about it.

    The risk of household pets spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus to humans currently seems to be very low, she said. But a human who has the virus could potentially spread it to an animal, like a cat or dog, if they’ve been in close contact.

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  • Dr. Universe: How did you get your name?

    It turns out a lot of kids around the world have been wondering about the answer to this very question—after all, you don’t hear the name “Dr. Universe” every day.

    Believe it or not, I wasn’t entirely sure about the origin of my name. But my friends at the Washington State University Libraries had the answer in their historical archives. Yes, the local library is a great place to visit when you have a big question.

    As I read through the archives, I learned that I wouldn’t have my name if it weren’t for two people who worked at the university.

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  • Why does the sky turn darker in winter?

    Dear Alex,

    As winter gets underway here in North America, you may notice we don’t feel the sun’s rays for quite as many hours as we did in fall and summer.

    To find out why this happens, I talked with my friend Vivienne Baldassare, an astronomer at Washington State University.

    She said the reason we get fewer hours of daylight in the winter has to do with how Earth rotates. As our planet goes around the sun, it is always rotating. This rotation is also why we have day and night.

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  • Why do bacteria in the Yellowstone hot springs make the water different colors?

    Dear Ava,

    One of the most eye-catching hot springs in Yellowstone National Park is the bright and colorful Grand Prismatic Spring. It’s blue in the middle with bands of colors ranging from green and yellow to orange and reddish-brown.

    My friend Peter Larson is a geologist at Washington State University who is very curious about hot springs. He spent much of his research career in Yellowstone National Park.

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  • How do scientists know how to predict a solar eclipse?

    Dear Beau,

    Before humans even knew how to predict solar eclipses, they were fascinated with the phenomenon. To figure out how to predict an eclipse, astronomers asked lots of questions and made observations about the motion of our moon, sun and Earth.

    Read Story
  • What bacteria make us get stomach bugs?

    Dear Austin,

    There are all kinds of tiny pathogens, including bacteria and viruses, in our world. Some of them are helpful and do things like keep the human gut healthy—but there are others that can make us quite sick.

    I talked to my friend Alan Goodman about it. He’s an associate professor at Washington State University who knows a lot about the pathogens that can cause illness in people and other animals.

    Read Story
  • Why do we find bones in rock?

    Dear Wyatt,

    When humans want to look into the past, they often dig into the ground. Under the soil, archeologists can find all kinds of things that help us learn about life long ago.

    That’s what I found out from my friend Rachel Horowitz, an archaeologist at Washington State University who is very curious about the lives of our human ancestors.

    Read Story
  • Why do animals have different hearing?

    Dear Dorothy,

    You’re right—different animals can hear different types of sounds. To find out more about it, I talked to my friend Dr. Vishal Murthy, a veterinarian at Washington State University.

    Murthy reminded me sound comes from vibrations that travel through the air. For instance, when you feed your pet, the kibbles that fall into the bowl send out vibrations to your pet’s ears.

    Some animals, like cats, dogs, elephants and humans, have ears that stick out and can help funnel these vibrations into the inner ear.

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  • Why do leaves fall in the fall?

    Dear Kaitlyn and Aiden,

    You’re right, each year during the fall, we often see a lot of trees dropping their leaves. To find out exactly what happens when leaves fall, I talked to my friend Henry Adams, a researcher at Washington State University.

    Read Story
  • How did the sun form?

    Dear Krystal,

    Our sun may be one of the billions of stars in the galaxy, but it’s the only star right here in our solar system. It keeps us warm and gives us light, which is important for all kinds of living things on our planet.

    To find out more about how stars like our sun form, I talked to my friend Jose Vazquez, an astronomer at Washington State University.

    He reminded me that when we talk about the size of stars, we often talk about their mass. You can think of mass as the amount of “stuff” or matter that makes up an … » More …

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  • What’s the purpose of baking soda and baking powder?

    When I got your question, I headed straight to my kitchen cabinet. I grabbed some baking soda and baking powder from the shelf and made some observations.

    Not only did the baking soda and baking powder look similar to one another but both contained an ingredient called sodium bicarbonate.

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  • What are the strings inside a pumpkin?

    Dear Maggie,

    If you open up a pumpkin, you would see all kinds of different things inside. Some people call all this gooey stuff the pumpkin’s “brains” or its “guts.”

    There’s the meaty orange flesh, sticky pulp, lots of seeds, and, of course, all those little strings. The strings actually have a really big job.

    My friend Lydia Tymon is a plant pathologist. That means she is like a doctor for plants—and she was happy to hear about your question.

    The pumpkin’s strings, or fibrous strands, help the seeds get something important while the pumpkin is growing on the vine: nutrients.

    You might think … » More …

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  • Why can’t we breathe in space?

    On Earth, humans have oxygen to breathe. But there’s very little oxygen to breathe in space.

    Space is actually a kind of vacuum, which means there isn’t a whole lot of matter, or stuff, out there between the planets and the stars.

    For Earthlings like you and me, oxygen is an essential part of life. While 21% of Earth’s atmosphere is oxygen, my friend Yimo Liu reminded me it wasn’t always that way.

    Read Story
  • Sleep: Why does sleep feel short?

    That’s a great observation. When my friend Ashley Ingiosi was a kid, she remembers how napping in the car during a four-hour drive to her grandparents’ house seemed to make the time fly by. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience.

    As a researcher at Washington State University, Ingiosi is really curious about what goes on within the human brain during sleep. She was happy to help with your question.

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  • What happens when a bee stings you? What happens to the bee?

    Dear Fatima,

    A few different things happen when a bee stings you, and a few things happen to the bee, too.

    When I got your question, I called up my friend Brandon Hopkins, who works as a honeybee researcher at Washington State University.

    Read Story
  • How do human hearts beat?

    Dear Jacob,

    You have a heart that beats every single day—even when you aren’t thinking about it. It likely beats about 60 to 100 times per minute. That adds up to more than a billion beats in a lifetime.

    illustrated cartoon gray cat, Dr. Universe, wearing a white lab coat, yellow pants, and a crimson shirt with Washington State University logo

    To find out how exactly how it all works, I talked to my friend Garry Smith, a researcher at Washington State University.

    Read Story
  • What are cells made of?

    Dear Lela,

    You have all kinds of cells in your body that do lots of different things. In fact, there are about 200 different types of cells in the human body—from blood cells to skin cells to bone cells. To find out exactly what all those cells are made of, I visited my friend Deirdre Fahy.

    Fahy is a scientist at Washington State University who is curious about how and why things work, including our cells. She reminded me the human body is made up of billions of cells. You might think about each cell as if it were a tiny room. But this room, or cell, is so small, you’d likely need a microscope to see it.

    Read Story
  • How do memory cards work?

    Memory cards can help us store all kinds of information—from pictures to songs to videos.

    While some of the early computers were as big as two refrigerators, they had only enough memory to store what would today be a single photo. Now, we can store thousands of photos on a memory card the size of a fingernail.

    Read Story
  • When and why would a clam open its shell?

    Dear Teng,

    There are a lot of different reasons why a clam might open its shell. My friend Jonathan Robinson, a marine ecologist at Washington State University, told me all about it.

    If we spent some time where the ocean meets the shore, or the intertidal zone, we might observe how clams open their shells when they need to eat, breathe or move around.

    Read Story
  • What happens in our brain and body when we hear a funny joke?

    Dear Candace,

    When we hear a funny joke, there are lots of different things that happen in the brain and body. My friend Paul Bolls, the director of the Media Mind Lab at Washington State University, told me all about it.

    Read Story
  • How do we clone things?

    From frogs to sheep to cats, humans have learned to clone all kinds of organisms. Like you, I was curious how it all works, so I talked to my friend Jon Oatley, a researcher at Washington State University.

    First, he told me that mammals—like you and me—are made up of billions of building blocks called cells. Other organisms, like amoebas, are just a single cell.

    Inside each cell is a nucleus, which is like a small envelope that protects something very important: DNA.

    Read Story
  • How do lungs work?

    Dear Ellie,

    Take a deep breath. As air travels through your nose and mouth into your lungs, it brings oxygen into the body. To find out exactly how it all works, I talked to my friend Kim Chiok, a researcher at Washington State University.

    In the lab at WSU, she designs experiments to help us learn about diseases that impact the lungs and other parts of the body that help us breathe.

    When you breathe in, little hairs in your nose help filter out particles like dust, so they don’t enter the body. The air warms up as it flows into a tube-like structure … » More …

    Read Story
  • What is more effective, a face mask or a face shield?

    Dear Rhma,

    If you are like me, you’ve probably seen people wearing face masks, face shields or even both at the same time.

    Read Story
  • illustrated cartoon gray cat, Dr. Universe, wearing an astronaut suit in space with Pluto in the background with a sign, "Welcome to Pluto" Why do astronauts need astronaut suits?

    Dear Zamaria,

    When astronauts leave Earth, a spacesuit can help them stay safe in places that are quite different from their home planet.

    I learned all about it from my friends Stasia Kulsa, Lauren Reising and Ian Wells, a few members of a team at Washington State University researching how to clean moon dust from spacesuits.

    Read Story
  • Why do we have to keep things like ice cream and popsicles in the freezer?

    Dear Asia,

    You may have noticed ice cream and popsicles will melt when they are out of the freezer for too long. To find out exactly why this happens, I headed to the Washington State University Creamery.

    My friend John Haugen, the creamery manager, was happy to help with your question. He said a big part of the answer has to do with something called matter. All things in our universe are made up of matter—even ice cream and popsicles.

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  • What are some of the challenges of growing organic food?

    Dear Sabrina,

    There are all kinds of different things to think about, along with a few challenges, when it comes to growing organic food.

    My friend Lynne Carpenter-Boggs is a soil scientist at Washington State University who works with many different farmers and knows a lot about what it takes to produce food that is organic.

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  • How do mountains form?

    Dear Zane,

    When you walk around on land, you are walking on top of Earth’s rocky crust. Below the crust is another thick layer of rock. These layers form Earth’s tectonic plates and when those plates collide with each other, they often form mountains.

    To find out more about how mountains form, I visited my friend Julie Menard, a professor at Washington State University who is very curious about geology.

    Read Story
  • Why do we have to blink?

    Dear Michael and Virgil,

    If you’ve ever had a staring contest with a friend, you may have felt your eyes start to get tired and dry. Eventually, you just had to blink.

    Blinking helps our eyes stay healthy, and my friend Dr. Karen Janout, a clinical assistant professor at Washington State University, told me all about it.

    She said that with each blink, your eyelids help spread tears over the surface of your eyes—and you actually do this a lot. Humans blink an average of 15 to 20 times a minute, which adds up to somewhere around 5.2 to 7.1 million blinks a year.

    Read Story
  • How do tiny seeds make huge trees?

    Dear Robin,

    If you’ve ever eaten a handful of trail mix, you’ve likely eaten quite a few seeds from trees. Some nuts, like cashews and almonds, are also seeds that can give us energy when we hike or play.

    Seeds actually store up their own energy in the form of something called starch, which is kind of like the food a seed needs to survive. The seed will use this stored up energy to start growing into a tree.

    Read Story
  • Why does it make noise when you snap your fingers?

    When I got your question, I snapped my fingers a few times to try and find the exact source of the sound. After a few tries, I decided to ask my friend Troy Bennefield, the director of Athletic Bands at Washington State University.

    While we may start a snap with the top of our thumb and middle finger touching, he said that the snapping sound actually happens when the middle finger hits the palm area at the base of the thumb.

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  • Why are some berries poisonous?

    A lot of living things on our planet have defenses they use in the wild to help them survive. For some plants, being poisonous may help keep them from becoming someone’s dinner.

    Wendy Hoashi-Erhardt

    That’s what I found out from my friend Wendy Hoashi-Erhardt, a scientist who directs the Small Fruit Plant Breeding program at Washington State University.

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  • Trees: Why do they grow so slow?

    When you eat food, you get a lot of important nutrients that help you grow. The trees that live on our planet also need some nutrients to grow.

    Trees use their leaves to help capture energy from the sun to make their own food. But as you may have noticed, a lot of trees lose their leaves during certain times of the year.

    Without leaves, they can’t make nearly as much food, and without those important nutrients, they can’t grow very fast.

    That’s what I found out from my friend Tim Kohlhauff, a certified arborist and urban horticulture coordinator at Washington State University. He is very curious about the lives of trees.

    Read Story