Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Ask Dr. Universe

Dr. Universe looking through a microscope


Subscribe to Dr. Universe’s weekly e-mail

Sign-up for the weekly e-newsletter to get the latest answers, activities, and videos!

The Latest Questions and Answers

Episode 18: Underwater Volcanoes and Crystals

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

Dr. Universe and a group of junior scientists from Palouse Prairie Charter School learn about underwater volcanoes and crystals. Another big thank you to Northwest Public Broadcasting for help with recording! You can find sources for information about underwater volcanoes and crystals in the transcript.

Apple podcast badge APPLE PODCASTS   Spotify podcast badge SPOTIFY   Stitcher podcast badge STITCHER


  • How do gems form underground?

    Dear Jett,

    When I was a kitten, I loved collecting rocks and gems. So, I was very excited to talk about your question with my friend Johannes Haemmerli. He studies minerals at Washington State University.

    Minerals are solids that form from non-living elements in nature. They have a very specific structure for how those elements are arranged. Haemmerli told me that nearly all gems are minerals or sometimes mixtures of minerals.

    You’re right that gems form underground. A diamond forms when the element carbon is buried nearly 100 miles deep inside the Earth. It’s super-hot and there’s tons of pressure down … » More …

    Read Story
  • Who invented books?

    Dear Nicole,

    Some people only like paper books. But I love the library app on my phone. It’s like having stacks of library books in my pocket.

    To learn more about books, I talked with my friend Greg Matthews. He’s the rare books librarian at Washington State University. “The short answer would probably be the Romans,” Matthews said. “But Rome was a really vast empire. So, it could have been a Roman in North Spain. It could have been a Roman in Egypt.”

    Read Story
  • What are microorganisms?

    Dear Trystan,

    One of my favorite things to do is look at pond water with a microscope. I love to see all the teeny tiny critters zooming around in a single drop.

    I talked about microorganisms, also called microbes, with my friend Claire Burbick. She’s a microbiologist at Washington State University. She told me the key trait for microbes is size. Microbes are micro—which means extremely small.

    Read Story
  • Native American Heritage Month: What is a land acknowledgement? Why does representation matter?

    WSU’s campuses are on ceded land belonging to the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) Tribe and Palus people, traditional Cowlitz lands, traditional lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and historical Spokane Tribe lands. This story was written on land belonging to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

    November is a great time to honor historical figures and Native American scientists changing the world right now.

    I talked about this with Sara Mills, a Prevention Science graduate student at Washington State University. She’s a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes.

    Mills’ research centers Native American … » More …

    Read Story
  • Do animals feel home-like in wildlife sanctuaries?

    Dear Haniya,

    There are lots of things that make a place feel like home. Your home is probably full of sights, sounds and smells that feel familiar and cozy. Those things are important for animals in captivity, too.

    To find out more, I talked with Charles Robbins, a wildlife biologist at Washington State University. He started the WSU Bear Center. It’s the only grizzly bear research center in the United States.

    “The most important thing to bears and probably most animals is a feeling of safety—that they’re not being hurt, and the food is good,” Robbins said. “Probably all the same things that … » More …

    Read Story
  • When was the first bee made?

    Dear Henry,

    It’s easy to love bees. They’re furry and buzzy. Along with other insects, birds and bats, they pollinate about one-third of the plants we eat.

    I talked about how long bees have been buzzing around Earth with my friend Silas Bossert. He’s an evolutionary biologist in the Department of Entomology at Washington State University.

    “The oldest bee fossil that is really without doubt a bee is between 65 and 70 million years old,” Bossert said.

    Read Story
  • How does the brain transfer signals to each body part to move?

    Dear Yulissa,

    Your brain weighs less than 3 pounds but has the power to move your whole body. That’s because it’s part of your nervous system.

    Your brain and the spinal cord that runs down your back make up your central nervous system. You also have a peripheral nervous system made up of nerve cells. These connect your brain and spinal cord to all the other parts of your body.

    Read Story
  • How did life begin?

    Dear Kelsey,

    The universe is a big place. Thinking about how we fit into it is part of what makes humans (and cats like me) special.

    I talked about your question with my friend Afshin Khan who studied astrobiology and environmental science at Washington State University. Astrobiologists explore how life began. They also look for signs of life outside Earth.

    Khan told me your question is a huge mystery.

    “We have very good ideas about what could have happened,” she said. “In different labs around the world, we’ve gotten very close to simulating some of those conditions. But simulations can only get so … » More …

    Read Story
  • How does honey last forever?

    Dear Gillian,

    Archaeologists exploring ancient Egyptian tombs sometimes find honey. It’s thousands of years old, but you could still safely spread it on your toast!

    I talked to my friend Brandon Hopkins, professor in the WSU department of entomology, about why honey lasts so long. He told me honey is one of the only foods that never spoils.

    Read Story
  • How was the moon formed?

    Dear Barbara,

    Why do moon rocks taste better than Earth rocks? They’re a little meteor! In all seriousness, your question is something humans wondered about for a long time.

    I talked to my friend Michael Allen, astronomy professor at WSU about how the moon formed. He told me we figured out the answer in 1972. That’s shortly after humans visited the moon for the first time.

    Read Story
  • What is octopus ink?

    Dear Henry,

    An octopus has three hearts and long arms with suction cups. It probably seems very different from you. But you have the main ingredients of octopus ink in your body, too!

    I talked about octopus ink with my friend Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, associate professor in WSU’s School of the Environment. She told me that ink isn’t just an octopus thing. Most animals called cephalopods (sef-uh-luh-pods) make it. These include octopus, squid and cuttlefish.

    Cephalopods including octopuses use color a lot. They have sacs of colored pigments all over their bodies. They use those sacs to change their body color. That helps … » More …

    Read Story
  • Do spiders sleep?

    Dear Peter,

    At the end of the day, you probably curl up in a cozy bed for a little shut eye. Unlike you, most spiders have eight eyes, and they never shut any of them. They don’t even have eyelids!

    I talked about spider sleep with my friend Richard Zack, an entomologist and professor in WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. He also runs the biggest insect museum in the state of Washington at WSU. He told me that spiders and insects do rest. They nestle into a safe spot and enter a “stupor,” which means they’re very still.

    Read Story
  • How come some rocks are easy to break and some are hard?

    Dear Natalie,

    If you draw with a pencil, you can tell how soft the graphite inside is. Pieces of graphite break off to leave the pencil mark. But can you imagine drawing with a diamond? Diamonds and graphite are both what you might call rocks. How come they’re so different?

    To find out, I talked to my friend Katie Cooper, a geologist and associate professor in the Washington State University School of the Environment. Geologists often study how different types of rocks and minerals form—and that’s the secret to whether they’re easy or hard to break.

    Rocks are made of minerals, and minerals are … » More …

    Read Story
  • How can plants help rivers?

    Many types of plants grow around rivers and help keep rivers healthy by filtering pollutants and more.

    Read Story
  • How do ants communicate with each other?

    Humans use way more than words to communicate. Animals like ants have many ways of communicating, too, like special chemicals released into the air.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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 …

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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).

    Read Story
  • 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 …

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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 …

    Read Story
  • 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 …

    Read Story
  • 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 …

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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 …

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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 …

    Read Story
  • 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.

    Read Story
  • 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