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Ask Dr. Universe Academic Subjects

Why did people stop exploring the ocean? I heard they only explored 5% of it. – Dakota, 11, New Mexico

Dear Dakota,

When I think about exploring the ocean, I think about the discovery of giant tube worms. They live in super- hot, mineral-rich water deep in the ocean. They don’t do normal things like eat or poop—but they can live for 300 years or longer. Scientists were shocked when they found them—and there’s probably much more to find.

[caption id="attachment_7794" align="alignnone" width="396"] These are tube worms that live by underwater volcanoes near the Galapagos Islands. The feathery red part is like a gill. It's filled with blood. It absorbs chemicals from the water and the volcano vent. Image: NOAA[/caption]

I talked about ocean exploration with my friend Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens. She’s a biological oceanographer and plankton ecologist at Washington State University.

She told me that you’re right that we’ve only explored about 5% of the ocean. But it isn’t because we stopped trying. The ocean is just massive.

The ocean contains more than 321 million cubic miles of water. To imagine that, think of something that’s about a mile away from you. You might need to use a map app. Or ask a grownup for a landmark.

Now picture a giant 3D cube that same distance on each side. It’s 1 mile long, 1 mile wide and 1 mile deep. You would need 321 million of those to equal the ocean. Or think of a 1-gallon milk jug. All the water in the ocean would fill about 325 quintillion jugs.

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How is ice cream made? - Israel, 7

Dear Israel,

It just so happens that July is National Ice Cream Month. To celebrate, I decided to whip up some homemade ice cream. You can try it at home, too.

Put milk, sugar and vanilla into a freezer bag and seal it up tight. Fill another gallon freezer bag with ice and rock salt. Place the liquid mix bag inside the bag of ice and give it a good long shake. Some scientists might call this part "agitating." After five minutes or so, you'll notice the liquid mix in your bag becomes solid. Then you can dig in with a spoon.

After making my own homemade tuna-flavored ice cream, I decided to take a trip to the Washington State University Creamery to see how the professionals make ice cream for Ferdinand's Ice Cream Shoppe.

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Recently there was an online news article that mentioned cold magma that was flowing on the land. What is cold magma? – Matt, 7, Illinois

Dear Matt,

When I think about volcanoes, I picture molten magma deep inside the Earth. Or burning hot lava pouring down the side of a mountain. But you’re right that there have been news reports that mention cold lava.

I talked about what that could be with my friend Katie Cooper. She’s a geologist at Washington State University.

She told me the news may be using “cold lava” to describe a lahar. That’s a mix of water and rocky debris that sometimes whooshes down the side of a volcano. It's also called a debris flow or a volcanic mud flow.

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Why do people like cute animals more than ugly ones? – Brayden, 9, Ohio

Dear Brayden,

Not to brag, but when I was a kitten, humans would see me and squee. Maybe it was my big, sparkly eyes or my teeny, fluffy paws.

I asked my friend Giuseppe Giannotti why people found me so adorable. He’s a scientist at Washington State University. He studies the brain.

He told me that humans like cute animals because they remind them of babies.

“We’re drawn to find traits in animals that are similar to what we think is cute in humans,” Giannotti said. “The cutest things in humans are babies—you know, big heads, giant eyes, soft cheeks—and we project this to everything around us.”

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Why do birds sing in the morning? – Alexandria, 9, Wisconsin

Dear Alexandria,

I usually write answers to kids’ science questions early in the morning. I like how it’s so quiet—except for my bird neighbors singing and singing.

I asked my friend Jennifer Phillips what’s going on. She’s a bird scientist at Washington State University.

She told me birds sing in the morning to tell other birds that their territory still belongs to them.

“The morning time is usually a little bit more calm, especially in windy areas,” Phillips said. “So, it's a good time to broadcast your song and for that song to potentially travel a little farther.”

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Why do we need to hydrate? – Victor, 9, Ohio

Dear Victor,

Is there anything better than lapping up cool water on a hot day?

I talked about why we need to hydrate with my friend Ed Johnson. He teaches classes about the human body in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University.

It turns out that up to 60% of an adult human’s body is water. A kid’s body contains even more water than a grown up. When you were a baby, you were about 78% water.

Humans use that water for all kinds of things. It keeps you cool when you sweat. It removes waste when you pee. It moves important stuff around inside your body. It even cushions your brain and spinal cord.

But staying hydrated is really about your cells.

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How does your voice make sound? – Bianca, 6, California

Dear Bianca,

Think about all the ways you use your voice: talking, singing, whispering, shouting, yodeling. Humans make so many sounds with just their voices.

I talked about how it works with Alisa Toy. She’s a professional singer who teaches in the School of Music at Washington State University.

She told me that the human voice is the smallest instrument in the world. The parts that make the sound—called the vocal folds or vocal cords—are about as long as your thumbnail.

So, where are those tiny vocal folds and how do they do it?

Inside your throat you have two tubes. The esophagus … » More …

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What safety measures can we take during extreme weather conditions? – Zadok, 8, Kenya

Dear Zadok,

When I was a kitten, a tornado tore through the neighborhood I was visiting. It got eerily quiet outside. Then the sky turned green. My littermates and I climbed into an empty bathtub to stay safe. After that, it got super loud.

I talked about extreme weather with Nathan Santo Domingo. He’s a weather scientist at Washington State University.

He told me that how to prepare depends on where you live. Different places have different kinds of extreme weather.

“Keep an eye on the forecast and know what's coming your way,” Santo Domingo said. “Be smart about what happens in your area.”

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What is the most dangerous insect in the world? – Juan Simon, 9, Chile

Dear Juan Simon,

The deadliest animal on Earth isn’t a shark or a bear. It’s an insect. Mosquitoes kill way more people than any other animal.

I talked about it with Jeb Owen. He’s an insect scientist at Washington State University.

He told me mosquitoes are dangerous because of the way they sometimes eat.

“Through blood feeding, mosquitoes can transmit pathogens that make people and animals sick,” Owen said.

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Why do we have nose hairs? – James and Zion, 10, Virginia

Dear James and Zion,

Despite being a curious science cat, I must confess I haven’t spent much time looking up human noses. But I have noticed that human nostrils can be a bit…furry.

I talked about what’s inside your nose with my friend Edward Johnson. He teaches classes about the human body in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University.

He told me that nose hairs only grow in your nose’s vestibule. That’s the inside of the part of your nostrils that you can flare out. The nose hair’s job is to filter the air you breathe in through your nose.

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Why do we need the sun? – Samai, 9, Ohio

Dear Samai ,

Right now, the sun is shining through my window. It feels warm on my muzzle.

I talked about the sun with Guy Worthey. He’s a professor of astronomy and physics at Washington State University.

He told me that our lives depend on the sun.

“The sun keeps you warm and powers everything,” Worthey said. “Without it, Earth would be a frozen nightmare.”

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Why do we change our minds? – Stella, 10, Tennessee

Dear Stella,

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.

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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.”

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Do babies open their eyes when they are in their mom's tummy? – Neela, 6, Washington state

Dear Neela,

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 … » More …

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Why are cats scared of cucumbers/snakes? — Aurelia, 8, Canada

Dear Aurelia,

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.

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How are plants considered living if they don't have a heart or brain? – Lily, Pennsylvania

Dear Lily,

You and I are both animals with backbones, so we have lots in common. Our ways of being alive look similar. We have hearts to pump blood. We have brains that help us think and communicate.

But plants don’t have the same body systems we do.

I talked about your question with my friend Michael Knoblauch. He’s a plant scientist at Washington State University.

He told me plants are seriously good at being alive. In fact, 80% of all the living things on Earth are plants.

“Go out in the forest and look around,” Knoblauch said. “You might see birds and … » More …

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What would happen to female honey bees if male bees didn't exist? – Emmie, 12, Arizona

Dear Emmie,

When I want something sweet, I pull out a jar of honey made by my bee friends at Washington State University. I talked about your question with one of the insect scientists there, Rae Olsson.

They told me a honey bee colony includes one female queen, many female workers and, depending on the time of year, some male drones.

Workers have lots of jobs. They gather nectar and pollen. They take care of each other, the queen and the baby bees.

A drone’s only job is to mate with a queen from another colony.

The queen’s only job is to … » More …

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Why do plants need water? – Emma, 9, New York

Dear Emma,

When I’m thirsty, I pick up a glass of water with my paws and drink it—just like you do. But plants don’t have paws or mouths, so how (and why) do they drink it?

To find the answer, I talked with my friend Helmut Kirchhoff. He’s a scientist at Washington State University. He studies plants and biochemistry.

He told me plants need water inside their cells. Water makes plant cells strong and flexible. It also dissolves stuff. That makes it possible for chemical reactions to happen inside plant cells—like the reactions a plant uses to make energy during photosynthesis. Plants also need water to move around nutrients and other molecules required for life.

“Water is essential for life, but plants must move nutrients from the soil to the leaves,” Kirchhoff said. “So, they have this very nice transport system called xylem. Xylem is an ancient Greek word that means wood. It works like a straw to move water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves.”

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Where do frogs go in the winter? – Landon, 13, Washington

Dear Landon,

When the cold weather comes, I bundle up in a sweater and explore the snow.

But my frog friends are never around then. In fact, I’ve never seen a frog in a sweater.

I asked my friend Erica Crespi why that is. She’s a biologist at Washington State University. She studies frogs and other amphibians.

She told me frogs are different from you and me. We’re warm-blooded. Our bodies use energy to make heat. When it’s cold outside, it’s still warm inside our bodies. We just put on warm clothes to keep our heat from escaping.

But frogs are cold-blooded. They don’t spend a lot of energy making heat. So, when it’s cold outside, it’s cold inside a frog’s body, too. That could be bad news during a winter freeze.

Crespi told me that’s why most frogs living in places with cold winters find a slightly warmer place to hunker down.

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How are the insides of an insect different from a human? – Landon, 11, California

Dear Landon,

I love taking selfies with my insect friends. They’re so tiny and look so different from a big cat like me.

But my friend Rich Zack told me that insects and humans have lots in common. He’s an insect scientist at Washington State University.

“There are body systems that every animal needs,” Zack said. “Insects are relatively advanced animals, so they do a lot of things like humans do.”

That means many of an insect’s body systems are like yours. But there are three body systems that are super different for insects. Those are the skeletal, circulatory and respiratory systems.

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Why are dolphins mammals and not fish? – Evie, 9, Washington

Dear Evie,

As fellow mammals, you and I have a lot in common. It’s easy to see our similarities because humans and cats spend lots of time together. We may even be roommates or family.

But humans and cats don’t usually have dolphin besties. It’s harder to see what we have in common when our bodies and lives are so different.

To better understand mammal life, I talked with my friend Kevin Turner. He teaches marine biology at Washington State University.

“The name mammal comes from the presence of mammary glands,” Turner said. “So, the major characteristic of mammals is that we have mammary glands to produce milk for our offspring.”

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Why does milk cure the spicy feeling in your mouth after you eat something spicy but water doesn't? – Eloise, 10, Minnesota

Dear Eloise,

My work as a science cat has introduced me to human foods—like chips and salsa. I love the spicy taste of salsa, but I always keep a saucer of milk handy.

I talked about why milk calms the spicy feeling with my friend Emily Cukier. She’s a chemistry librarian at Washington State University.

She told me that the spicy feeling comes from something called capsaicin. The amount of capsaicin in a pepper determines how hot it is.

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How do people get ear infections? – Lydia, 9, Illinois

Dear Lydia,

Ear infections aren’t fun. They can make your ears hot, itchy or painful. They can cause lots of pressure or make it harder to hear. Sometimes fluid leaks out of your ear.

I asked my friend Bevan Briggs why that happens. He’s a nurse practitioner and professor at Washington State University.

He told me people usually get outer ear or middle ear infections.

Your outer ear includes the flappy part attached to your head—called the auricle or pinna. It also includes the ear canal. That’s the tunnel that goes into your head. At the end of the ear canal, there’s a thin, flexible barrier of tissue called the eardrum. That’s the boundary between your outer ear and your middle ear.

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Why do we have to go to sleep at night, but the other side of the world is having morning? – Braelyn, 12, Ohio

Dear Braelyn,

If I drew a straight line through the Earth to the opposite side of the planet from me, I’d hit a place called Port-aux-Français. That’s an island near Antarctica. Mostly scientists live there.

Right now, it’s 12 PM, or noon, on Friday for me. But those scientists are probably snoozing in their beds. For them, it’s after 12 AM, or midnight, on Saturday. They’re already living in my tomorrow. Weird!

I talked about why that is with my friend David Luftig. He’s a science librarian at Washington State University. Science librarians are experts in two things: science and helping people find information for research and learning.

He told me it’s all because of Earth’s rotation. As the Earth rotates, or spins, the sun shines on one part of the Earth at a time.

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Why do marine mammals have horizontal tails, but fish have vertical tails? – Peyton, 11, Washington

Dear Peyton,

When you think about a whale, you probably picture an enormous sea creature without legs. But what if I told you the first whale had four legs and could walk on land?

I talked about whales and other marine mammals with my friend Kevin Turner. He teaches marine biology at Washington State University.

He told me marine mammals have horizontal tails because they flex their bodies up and down to move. Fish flex their bodies side to side. Scientists think it has to do with the way different animals evolved.

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How do animals breathe underwater? – Kinsley, 9, North Carolina

Dear Kinsley,

Have you ever seen a diving beetle? They’re one of my favorite animals. They live underwater and breathe air from a bubble attached to their butts.

I talked about all the ways animals breathe underwater with my friend Wes Dowd. He’s a marine biologist and animal physiologist. He studies how living things interact with the world around them.

Animals need oxygen. For air-breathers like us, oxygen is mixed into the air. For water-breathers, oxygen is mixed into the water. To get oxygen into our bodies, we all need organs and tissues made of very thin material with lots of surface area. That means lots of places that touch the air or water where oxygen can pass through. Like inside lungs or gills. Or the skin of frogs, toads, newts and salamanders that can live on land or underwater.

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How can we help bees survive harsh winters? – Carla, 10, Texas

Dear Carla,

I keep mason bees. They sleep in cardboard tubes all winter long. I worry about my little bees until I see them chew out of their nesting tubes in the spring.

I talked about how mason bees and all kinds of bees survive winter with my friend Brandon Hopkins. He’s an insect scientist at Washington State University. He manages the honey bees on campus.

The honey bees we see in North America today first arrived with Europeans in the 1600s. We love honey bees because they pollinate our crops and make delicious honey. But there are lots of bees that have always lived here—like bumble bees, squash bees and mason bees. Those are native bees.

Most native bees survive the cold by overwintering in the nests where they were born. That could be tucked into the soil or leafy debris. It could be nestled inside hollow plant stems, holes in wood or tubes like my mason bees. Some native bees like bumble bees live in colonies. Only the queen survives the winter. She digs into the earth or finds a hollow tree and hibernates there.

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Why do birds circle when they find food instead of just going and eating it? – Eden, 7, Michigan

Dear Eden,

I live close to a natural area with lots of birds of prey like hawks and eagles. I love to watch them sit in ginormous nests on top of electrical poles. Or swooping around in big circles while they search for a meal.

I talked about why they circle with my friend Jennifer Phillips. She’s a wildlife ecologist at Washington State University. She studies the relationship between birds and the environment.

She told me that birds of prey fly in a circle because they’re riding warm air currents called thermal updrafts or thermals. As the sun heats the Earth, some pockets of air get hotter than others. That warmer air rises. Birds can hop on those warm, rising thermals and ride them. That saves energy.

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Why do some people just seem so much smarter than others, no matter how hard I try to be good at studies? – Alexa, 12, Hong Kong

Dear Alexa,

As a science cat, I talk to some of the smartest scientists on the planet. It can be intimidating. Especially when I talk with people who are experts at things that are hard for me.

I talked about what it means to be a good student with Kira Carbonneau. She’s an educational psychologist at Washington State University.

She told me that everyone grows and learns at different rates. Just like people learn to walk or talk or ride a bike at different rates.

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What is pi? – Johsan, 10, Alabama

Dear Johsan,

One of my favorite holidays is Pi Day. On March 14, people who love the math constant called pi celebrate by eating the other kind of pie. Like apple pie, pumpkin pie and even pizza pie.

I talked about the number pi with my friend Kristin Lesseig. She studies how kids learn math.

She told me pi is the ratio between the distance around a circle and the distance across a circle. A ratio is the relationship between two numbers. We usually think of pi as about 3.14—but there’s more to it than that.

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What and where is the rarest plant in the world? – Thomas, 7, Virginia

Dear Thomas,

Every few years, a smell like a rotting corpse wafts around a stairwell at Washington State University Vancouver. But it’s not really a dead body. It’s the bloom of the corpse flower plant.

There are fewer than 1,000 corpse flower plants left in the wild. It’s one of the rarest plants in the world.

But the list of rare plants is massive. If you look at all the plants we know about in the world, there are about 435,000 different kinds of plants—and many more we don’t know about. Some scientists say that more one-third of all plants are “exceedingly rare.”

I asked my friend Dawn Freeman what makes a plant rare. She’s responsible for the WSU corpse flower.

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How does your body heal cuts and scrapes? – Liam, 11, California

Dear Liam,

Did you know your skin is the largest organ in your body? The average 5th grader has more than 6 pounds of skin. Whoa.

Skin protects the inside of your body from the dirty outside world. It keeps your insides from drying out and ensures a steady body temperature. It lets you feel things you touch.

Your skin also has the incredible ability to heal itself. I talked about that with my friend Edward Johnson. He teaches classes about the human body in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University.

“Skin is the point of contact between you and everything in your environment,” Johnson said. “So, it's evolved the ability to regenerate.”

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Why do cats rub their cheeks on stuff? – Lara, 10, New York

Dear Lara,

Sometimes I get an overwhelming urge to rub my face on things I love—like my microscope. Other times I’m so happy to see my tortoiseshell roommate that we bump our heads together.

I talked about why I do that with my friend Dr. Jessica Bell. She’s a veterinarian at Washington State University.

She told me that cats rub their cheeks on things when they’re happy or want to say that thing belongs to them.

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Are mermaids real? Is there a species that contains DNA that’s half human and half fish? – Maite, 12, Texas

Dear Maite,

People have thought about mermaids for a long time. Ancient people even drew humans with fish tails on cave walls. So, did they really see mermaids or were they drawing from imagination?

The marine experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say that no mermaids have ever been found in the ocean.

But we’ve fully mapped only about one-quarter of the ocean floor. There are probably between 700,000 and one million different kinds of plants and animals in the ocean. At least two-thirds of those are still unknown to us.

Does that mean mermaids could be swimming around in parts of the ocean we haven’t explored? Maybe. But our best guess is that people mistook other sea animals for mermaids—like manatees and their relatives.

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How do plants that need very little water survive? – Alivia, 11, Maryland

Dear Alivia,

My neighbor has a very prickly garden. It’s full of cactuses—including one thorny plant nearly as tall as my house. That’s not something you see every day in the Pacific Northwest. Cactuses usually live in dry places like deserts.

I talked about your question with my friend Linda Chalker-Scott. She’s a garden scientist at Washington State University.

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What is mutualism in nature? – Luke and Wade, 10, Maryland

Dear Luke and Wade,

When I get the same question from different kids, I know it’s a good one.

So, I talked about your question with my friend Angeliqua Montoya. She’s a graduate student at Washington State University. She works on a mutualism between pea plants and bacteria.

“I study ecology, which is looking at interactions between different species,” she said. “Mutualisms are interactions where both species benefit.”

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How did one comet kill all the dinosaurs? If crocodiles, snakes and birds came from dinosaurs, did it actually kill all of them? — Mya, 11.4, Virginia

Dear Mya,

It’s hard to imagine that one space rock wiped out the dinosaurs. But it did more than that. It killed 75% of the plants and animals on Earth. Me-OW.

I talked about that with my friend Barry Walker. He teaches geology classes about Earth’s history at Washington State University.

Walker told me that we call a space rock that hits Earth a meteorite. The meteorite that took out the dinosaurs set off changes on Earth. Those changes lasted for thousands of years. That’s how it killed so many things.

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How do fish hear? — Lamarcus, 8, Ohio

Dear Lamarcus,

My goldfish roommate hates when people tap on his tank. The tapping sound he hears in the water is loud and scary.

I talked with my friend Rikeem Sholes about how fish hear. He’s a fish scientist. He studies salmon hearing at Washington State University.

He told me that a fish’s hearing system includes sensory cells in the inner ear and in a line along the outside of the fish’s body and head. Some fish also use their swim bladder to have super hearing.

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Besides telescopes and spaceships, how do we really know that there are other planets? – Ia, 12, Montana

Dear Ia,

I looked through a high-power telescope for the first time in college. I couldn’t believe how many stars I saw. It’s hard to imagine all the planets orbiting all those stars.

I talked about how we know those planets are out there with my friend Jose Vazquez. He’s an astronomer at Washington State University.

He told me that scientists look for planets outside our solar system using a number of instruments—like a photometer. That's a tool that attaches to a telescope and measures light.

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Why do cats purr? – Kaylee, 11, Kentucky

Dear Kaylee,

I purr all. the. time. I purr when I get a good question like yours. I purr when I finish answering a question. I even purr when I’m struggling to find an answer.

Luckily, Dr. Sarah Guess says that’s normal. She’s a veterinarian at Washington State University. She told me that cats purr when they’re content and when they’re stressed out. It can be a little confusing for humans.

Scientists have two ideas about why cats purr. It could have come from the way mother cats care for kittens. Or it could keep their bones and tissues healthy.

But experts don’t agree on the answer yet.

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What do robots eat? Why do they have mouths if they don’t eat food? – Oliver, 4, Virginia

Dear Oliver,

I just scarfed down tuna with a side of kibble. That’s how I get the energy I need to investigate your questions.

To do that, I talked with Ming Luo. He’s a robotics scientist at Washington State University.

He told me that robots don’t eat like we do.

“A human has a digestive system,” Luo said. “That’s how food can be converted to energy. But a robot can’t do that. The robot can just take in energy directly.”

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Why do dolphins and beluga whales have echolocation and what is it? – Carolyn Grace, 8, Virginia

Dear Carolyn Grace,

Toothed whales—like dolphins and belugas—might live in the ocean, but they have some big things in common with cave-dwelling bats. They’re all mammals that live in dark places and use echolocation.

That’s why I talked about your question with my friend Christine Portfors. She’s a biologist at Washington State University. Her lab keeps a colony of bats.

Many bats sleep in caves and zoom around at night. Their world is dark, so they use sounds and their echoes to perceive the world around them, which is called echolocation. Toothed whales live in dark oceans or murky rivers and lakes. That’s why they use echolocation, too.

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What makes fireflies light up at night? – Asher, 7, Maryland

Dear Asher,

When I was a kitten, there were tons of fireflies in my grandparents’ yard. My litter mates and I loved to gently catch them and let them go.

I talked with my friend Richard Zack about how and why fireflies light up. He’s an insect scientist at Washington State University.

Those glowing insects are a kind of beetle. But we call them fireflies or lightning bugs. Their glow is a form of bioluminescence. That’s when a chemical reaction inside a living thing makes it light up.

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What are butterfly cocoons made of? — Anabelle, 8, Massachusetts

Dear Anabelle,

When I was a kit, I looked a lot like the adult cat I would become—even though I was smaller and fluffier. But wiggly caterpillars don’t look like butterflies at all.

I talked about this with my friend Allan Felsot. He’s an insect scientist at Washington State University.

He told me cocoons are mostly silk. But they’re usually made by moths. A butterfly “cocoon” isn’t really a cocoon at all. It’s called a chrysalis.

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Why do owls stay up at night? – Zelezina, 8 ½, Maryland

Dear Zelezina,

I love how humans use figures of speech about animals to describe their behavior. An early bird is someone who likes to get up early. A night owl is someone who loves to be awake late at night—like an owl.

I talked about why owls stay up all night with my friend Dr. Marcie Logsdon. She’s a wildlife veterinarian at Washington State University.

She told me that for many owls, the dark is a good time to catch a meal.

“Owls are just taking advantage of a time when they can excel at finding prey because there are a lot of other things that are active at night, too—like rodents,” Logsdon said.

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How does hair grow? – Aidric, 9, Ohio

Dear Aidric,

My whole body is covered in thick, glossy cat fur. Humans look mostly furless. But people grow hair on every part of their bodies except the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Most human hair is just super fine and hard to see.

That’s what my friend Edward Johnson told me. He teaches classes about the human body in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University.

He also told me hair grows from follicles. Those are special organs in the top layer of the skin. Everything you need to grow hair is inside the follicle.

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Why don't birds get electrocuted when they sit on power lines? – Angel, 14, California

Dear Angel,

I’ve never sat on a power line. I like to keep my paws firmly on the ground. But birds love resting there, especially in winter. Power lines give off a little heat, so it’s a good spot for birds to snuggle together and stay warm.

I talked about how they do that safely with my friend Javier Guerrero. He’s a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Washington State University.

He told me birds do get electrocuted on power lines sometimes. But that won’t happen if the bird touches just the power line—and doesn’t touch other lines or the pole at the same time.

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Why do dogs have tails? – Bailey, 7, Ohio

Dear Bailey,

My best friend is a golden retriever. When I get home, she greets me with a goofy smile and a big wag of her fluffy tail.

I talked about why she has a tail with my friend Jillian Haines. She’s a veterinarian at Washington State University.

She told me dogs use their tails for lots of things. Tails help dogs balance while running, jumping or swimming. Tails help dogs communicate with each other and other animals. Some dogs in the Arctic—like sled dogs—use their tails to stay warm. They curl up and cover their noses with their fluffy tails.

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Why do we get rashes on our skin? – Claire, 9, Virginia

Dear Claire,

I’ve been allergic to fleas ever since I was a kitten. Flea bites give me an itchy, red rash.

I talked about why that happens with my friend Bevan Briggs. He’s a nurse practitioner and professor at Washington State University. Nurse practitioners are nurses with advanced training. They diagnose illnesses, order tests and prescribe medicine.

Briggs told me that often rashes happen when the immune system gets turned on. The immune system is the body’s defense system.

“It's the way our body tries to protect us from germs and poisons,” he said. “Rashes happen because your immune system identifies something as foreign—either an infective agent or some kind of toxin.”

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Why do all insects have six legs? – Charlie, 10, Ohio

Dear Charlie,

There are about 40 kinds of cats out there—like me. There’s only one kind of human on Earth now. But there are more than a million kinds of insects. That’s just the insect species we know about.

Every single one of those insects has six legs.

I talked about why that is with my friend Allan Felsot. He’s an insect scientist at Washington State University.

He told me there must be some evolutionary reason insects have six legs—like better stability when walking.

“In biology, every ‘why’ question has the same answer,” Felsot said. “Things are the way they are because of adaptations that have allowed organisms to live longer.”

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Do fish and sharks drink water? – Copper, 9, Florida

Dear Copper,

All living things need water. It’s how life works on Earth. But do animals that swim in water drink water?

I talked about that with my friend Nora Hickey. She’s a fish veterinarian at Washington State University.

She told me it depends on the kind of fish. Saltwater fish constantly drink water. Freshwater fish drink hardly any water.

It’s all about the salts inside their bodies. Those salts make their muscles and nervous systems work.

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Who invented the calendar? – Audrey, 9, Oregon

Dear Audrey,

I use a calendar to keep up with my work as a science cat. I also love calendar apps that count down to big events—like my birthday. People have always tracked time for work and holidays.

I talked about this with my friend Nikolaus Overtoom. He’s a professor of ancient history at Washington State University.

He told me we use the Gregorian calendar today. That's a revised version of the Julian calendar. The Romans invented the Julian calendar.

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What diseases spread on pirate ships? – Anika, 9, Georgia

Dear Anika,

A pirate’s life was dangerous. They attacked other ships and battled other pirates as well as the law. But they were also at the mercy of another foe: sickness.

I talked about this with my friend Lawrence Hatter. He’s a history professor at Washington State University.

He told me the big era for pirates was 1710 to 1730. It was a time when lots of sailors were out of work. Some of them became pirates.

Here are four kinds of disease they might face on the job: scurvy, mosquito-borne diseases, infectious diseases and gangrene.

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Why do babies cry? – Camren, 7, Indiana

Dear Camren,

I was a very quiet kitten. I only cried when I needed something. But some kittens in my litter cried all the time.

I talked about this with my friend Masha Gartstein. She’s a psychology professor at Washington State University. She studies how babies develop different temperaments. That’s how you relate to the world around you in a way that’s unique and fairly consistent.

Gartstein told me babies cry because they’re helpless. They need a way to signal that they need something.

“Babies are born into this world needing a lot of assistance—and without a lot of communication tools,” she said. “Crying is a very powerful communication tool.”

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What organisms do you think would survive an apocalypse of extreme radiation? – Marshall, 11, New Zealand

Dear Marshall,

Sometimes I get x-rays at the veterinarian. They work by sending a small amount of powerful energy—called radiation—through my body. X-rays only contain a small amount of radiation. Too much radiation would harm my cells.

The organisms most likely to survive extreme radiation might be microbes. These creatures are so tiny you need a microscope to see them.

To learn more, I talked with my friend Cynthia Haseltine. She’s a microbiologist at Washington State University. She studies extremophiles. These microbes love intense environments. Boiling heat? Freezing cold? Blistering acid? Yes, please.

Haseltine told me the amount of radiation an organism can survive is measured in grays. Just 5 grays of radiation will kill a human. Here are five organisms that can survive way more than that.

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Why do crickets make sound? – Carola, 7, Virginia

Dear Carola,

Have you ever read the book “The Very Quiet Cricket?” It’s about a young cricket who can’t chirp until he grows up.

My friend Rich Zack reminded me of that book when we talked about your question. He’s an insect scientist at Washington State University.

He told me only adult male crickets make sound. Sometimes they chirp to defend their territories. It’s how they tell other male crickets to stay away.

But the main reason they chirp is to find a mate. Cricket chirps are mating songs. That song will be different for different kinds of crickets—and the song changes when the female cricket shows up.

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I want to know how snake venom in the antidote makes sense? – Raagini, 10, New York

Dear Raagini,

One of my roommates is a corn snake named Buddy. He’s not venomous. But he’s a very private individual and really likes his space.

Buddy and I talked about your question with my friend Blair Perry. He’s a biologist at Washington State University. He’s an expert on snakes and venom.

Perry told me antivenom doesn’t contain actual snake venom. It’s made with antibodies to snake venom.

Antibodies are proteins. They’re part of your immune system. They travel in your blood to fight germs or dangerous molecules—like those in venom—that could hurt you. Sometimes we get vaccines to boost our antibodies so they’re ready when something harmful shows up.

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Do your eyeballs grow? – Ashlynn, 8, Utah

Dear Ashlynn,

I was the cutest kitten. I bet you were an adorable baby, too. Like me, you probably had a big, round head with chubby cheeks and huge eyes.

The fact babies have big eyes made some people think babies are born with adult-sized eyeballs. I talked about this with my friend Edward Johnson. He teaches classes about the human body in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University.

“It’s a very good question because there’s a lot of misinformation about it,” Johnson said. “Eyeballs do grow—but not very much compared with other parts of the body.”

He told me to … » More …

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Do insects have blood in their bodies? – Raman, 7, Washington

Dear Raman,

You probably don’t look like an insect. You don’t have feelers or wings. You keep your skeleton inside your body instead of on the outside. But what about blood? Do insects have blood like yours?

I talked about this with my friend Richard Zack. He’s an entomologist at Washington State University.

“Insects have hemolymph,” he said. “It’s very similar to blood.”

Zack told me hemolymph moves differently through the body, and it doesn’t do everything blood does.

Humans and other mammals have closed circulatory systems. That means their blood travels in blood vessels. A heart pumps the blood all over the … » More …

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How did our planet get to be the one with breathable air? – Jacob, 11, Idaho

Dear Jacob,

When I wake up from a cat nap, I stretch and take a deep breath. It feels good to fill my lungs with oxygen.

But that wasn’t always possible on Earth.

I talked about this with my friend Sean Long. He’s a geologist at Washington State University.

“The cool thing is the answer has to do with life,” Long said. “Early life forms on Earth gave us all the oxygen. They were single-celled bacteria.”

Our planet is about 4.5 billion years old. There’s been life on Earth for 3.5 billion years. The first life forms were made of just one cell. They were bacteria and their cousins called archaea.

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How do you tell if your betta fish is happy or depressed? – Neely, 10, Oregon

Dear Neely,

As a science cat, I handle going to the veterinarian better than most. I see it as a meeting of scientific minds. But I had no idea some veterinarians specialize in fish.

I learned all about fish medicine from my friend Nora Hickey. She’s a fish veterinarian at Washington State University. She works in the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. She helps fish at zoos and hatcheries stay healthy.

Hickey told me you can watch a betta's behavior to see if it's happy. Happy bettas swim around. They interact with things in their tanks and act interested when you come close.

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What happens if you get sucked up by a black hole? – Amari, 10, North Carolina

Dear Amari,

I was fascinated by black holes as a kitten. I liked them because they were scary. But they’re also far away so I knew I was safe.

I talked about this with my friend Vivienne Baldassare. She’s an astronomer at Washington State University.

Baldassare told me a black hole is an area in space with lots of gravity. That’s the same force that pulls your body toward the Earth.

“If we want to send a spacecraft somewhere else in the solar system, it has to travel fast enough to escape the gravity of Earth—so the rocket doesn't just fall back down to Earth,” she said. “A black hole is a place where that escape speed is the speed of light. Nothing can move faster than the speed of light. So, nothing can escape from inside the black hole.”

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Are unicorns real? – Emma, 8, Minnesota

Dear Emma,

My favorite animated GIFs are the ones with cats riding unicorns. I’m delighted to tell you about a real unicorn that lived a long time ago: the Siberian unicorn.

The Siberian unicorn was bulky and furry. It had a big hump on its back. Its horn was three feet long. That’s as big as a human preschooler!

This real-life unicorn was a kind of rhino from Eurasia. But it was bigger than modern rhinos and probably galloped like a horse.

Scientists have known about Siberian unicorns since 1808. For a long time, they thought the unicorns went extinct 200,000 years ago. Recently, that changed. Now they think the unicorns went extinct closer to 39,000 years ago.

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How does evolution work? – Aubree, 10, Kentucky

Dear Aubree,

When I thought about evolution, I always pictured big changes that happened over long time periods—like how birds evolved from dinosaurs.

But then I talked with my friend Jeremiah Busch. He’s a biologist at Washington State University. He told me evolution is happening all the time.

“As soon as you see that evolution is occurring around us, it changes the way you think about the world,” Busch said.

There are a few ways evolution happens. These include mutation, gene flow, genetic drift and natural selection.

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Do ants hibernate in the winter? – Garrett, 10, Illinois

Dear Garrett,

When most people think about hibernation, they picture bears snoozing away the cold winter in their dens. You’re right that other animals do that, too.

I talked about your question with my friend Laurel Hansen. She’s an entomology professor at Washington State University. Her specialty is carpenter ants.

“We think most ants in our temperate climate will have diapausing larvae and what I would call overwintering adults,” Hansen said.

Diapausing and overwintering are like hibernating but not quite the same. There are a few things to know about ants to understand what these terms mean.

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How many beetles are there in the world? – Tu, 12, Utah

Dear Tu,

If beetles seem to be everywhere, that’s because they are. Some beetles stand out because they’re colorful. Think about jewel beetles and ladybugs. Others play useful and weird roles in the ecosystem—like the poop-rolling dung beetle. Their ancestors probably even ate dinosaur poop.

Nobody knows exactly how many beetles there are, but scientists have some ideas. I talked about it with my friend Joel Gardner. He’s the collection manager for the insect museum at Washington State University.

When scientists find a new species, they describe what it looks like. They give it a name. They publish that information so other people know about it. That’s called describing a species. Scientists describe new insect species all the time.

Gardner told me scientists have described about 400,000 species of beetles so far. There are many more beetles we don’t know about yet. Altogether, there are probably between 1 million and 2 million beetle species.

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What is the difference between B cells and T cells in the immune system? – Tanveer, 11, California

Dear Tanveer,

Everyone who heard your question agreed that it’s a sophisticated one. To get my paws around the answer, I talked with my friend Phil Mixter. He’s an immunology professor at Washington State University.

He told me all living things need to protect themselves from microbes that could make them sick. These are called pathogens. They can be bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites.

“Almost every organism I can think of—from plants to animals and beyond—has a defense system to handle the possibility that another organism might sneak in,” Mixter said.

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Did dinosaurs eat humans? – Brileigh, 10, North Carolina

Dear Brileigh,

If you looked inside a T. rex mouth, you’d see some 12-inch teeth. That’s longer than my tail!

I asked my friend Aaron Blackwell if dinosaurs used those big chompers on humans. He’s an anthropologist who studies human biology at Washington State University. He told me dinosaurs and humans didn’t live at the same time.

“Dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago—before there were even primates,” Blackwell said. “So, they could never have eaten a human or even a monkey.”

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What if there were no predators to eat the birds? – Katy, 10, Hawaii

Dear Katy,

Don’t let the lab coat fool you. I enjoy chattering at birds as much as the next cat. Staring out the window and vibrating my mouth to “chirp” helps me relax after a long day.

My wild cousins do take things a bit further—namely, predation. It’s not pretty, but it’s an important part of keeping life in balance.

I talked about predators with my friend Travis King. He’s a Ph.D. student at Washington State University. He studies big cats like lynx and jaguars.

“It's a balancing act between predators, disease, food and space,” King said. “If you take away predators, you lose one of the factors keeping an ecosystem in balance.”

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Who invented games? – Kinzie, 6, Ohio

This column first published February 17, 2023. It was updated to include Ice Age rondelles and republished December 18, 2023.

Dear Kinzie,

Board games, video games, a long piece of yarn… I love them all. I took a break from batting around a catnip-filled mouse toy to talk about your question with my friend, Washington State University professor Jordan Clapper, who told me the answer is a mystery.

“That's almost impossible to know—for some really fun reasons,” Clapper said. “Every culture has games. It even extends beyond being human. If you've ever seen a dog or a cat play, they're playing a game. “

The earliest board game we’ve found is more than 4,600 years old. Archaeologist Leonard Woolley dug it up in a tomb from Sumer (modern-day Iraq). That tomb was in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, so he named it the Royal Game of Ur.

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Celebrate Black History Month

February is a great time to celebrate Black scientists who changed the world—and those transforming science right now.

I talked about Black History Month with Amir Gilmore. He’s a professor and associate dean in the College of Education at Washington State University.

“There are so many things that Black people have created that we just don't think about,” he said. “So, when I think about Black History Month, it gives me joy that other people made these inventions. Where would we be without refrigerated trucks or stoplights? Where would we be without telephone technology? I'm thankful that Black people thought about what the world needed and provided those things.”

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Is it true that seven human years equals one dog year? – Cameren, 12, Kentucky

Dear Cameren,

Humans have kept dogs as pets for more than 14,000 years. That close friendship inspires scientists to explore questions like yours.

I talked about how dogs age with my friend Ryan Baumwart. He’s a heart doctor for dogs. He teaches in the veterinary hospital at Washington State University.

I asked Baumwart if a dog year is equal to seven human years.

“I think it's a good general rule,” he said. “But some larger breed dogs like bullmastiffs and Great Danes have a shorter lifespan of 6 to 8 years. So if you do the math, they get shorted. Then some small breed dogs like Chihuahuas seem to live forever.”

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What causes the oceans to rise? – Ash, 11, Kentucky

Dear Ash,

There are two ways to answer your question. One looks at why the ocean rises and falls every day. The other explores what’s causing sea level to rise over time.

I talked about both with my friend Jonathan Robinson. He’s the Beach Watchers coordinator at Washington State University Snohomish County Extension.

If you’re at the beach during high tide, the beach looks smaller because the water comes up higher onto the beach. The tides are what make that happen, Robinson told me.

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How do animals teach their kids how to survive if animals can't talk? — Riley, 11, Texas

Dear Riley,

There’s really nothing cuter than baby animals. Many animal parents invest lots of time into caring for their young and teaching them to survive.

I talked about your question with my friend Amber Adams-Progar. She’s an animal sciences professor at Washington State University. She’s also an expert in dairy cow behavior. She told me that non-human animals learn in ways that are like how humans learn.

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If an animal has poison inside them, how are they not affected by their own poison? – Jad, 10, Georgia

Dear Jad,

From jellyfish to snakes to spiders, lots of animals use poison or venom. It helps them catch prey and defend themselves. Even the platypus and one very spicy primate called the slow loris use venom.

I talked about your question with my friend Blair Perry. He’s a biologist at Washington State University. He’s also a snake expert.

Perry told me the difference between poison and venom. They’re both toxic mixes of mostly proteins. But they get into your body in different ways. Poison is eaten, breathed in or absorbed through the skin. Venom is injected through a bite or sting.

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How does sleeping charge us up?  -Joaquin, 10, Illinois

Dear Joaquin,

I love curling up under a pile of blankets at bedtime and waking up refreshed in the morning. You might be surprised to hear that scientists aren’t sure why sleep makes us feel that way.

I talked about how sleep works with my friend Marcos Frank. He’s a brain scientist who works in the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University.

“Without sleep, we do poorly on a lot of tasks, and our brains and bodies don't work as well,” Frank said. “But why is not entirely clear.”

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Why do you get acne? – Joey, 12, Illinois

Dear Joey,

Whether we call them pimples, spots or zits, acne is something most people experience. As many as 95% of people have some acne sometime. That’s nearly everybody.

I talked about acne with my friend Sarah Fincham. She has a clinical doctorate in nursing. She’s a nurse and a professor in the College of Nursing at Washington State University.

If you look at your skin, you’ll see tiny openings called pores. These pores connect to oil-producing glands under our skin. They’re called sebaceous glands, and the oil they make is called sebum.

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How is inflation caused? – Raymond, 12, California

Dear Raymond,

When I reached out to my friend Christopher Clarke with your question, he said, “That’s so cool that a kid is asking about inflation!” I agree.

Clarke is an economics professor at Washington State University. He told me inflation is the average rise in prices for goods and services.

So, what are goods and services? Let’s say you go to a restaurant and order enchiladas. The enchiladas are goods. You can see them, touch them and taste them. Services are the other parts of your dining experience. The people who take your order, cook your food and wash your dishes are all providing services.

The price you pay for goods and services changes over time.

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How long do you have to train to become a scientist? – Katelyn, Texas

Dear Katelyn,

Maybe you dream of pointing your telescope toward distant galaxies. Or zooming in on microscopic life on Earth. Being a scientist is an amazing job. You can also do science for fun—no matter your age or anything else about you. It belongs to everyone.

I talked about science training with my friend Kalli Stephens. She’s earning her bachelor’s degree in genetics and cell biology from Washington State University. WSU has a strong undergraduate research program. So, Stephens has been working as a scientist while going to school.

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Do animals have religion like humans? – Anna, 12, Hong Kong

Dear Anna,

When I read your question, I thought about elephants. There’s evidence that elephants have complex emotions—like grief when their relatives die or affection for humans who help them. Whales, dolphins, non-human primates and even dogs sometimes seem like they have complex emotions, too.

It makes us wonder if animals seek comfort and meaning the same ways humans do—like through religion. We truly don’t know the answer to your question. It’s something people have wondered about for a long time.

Exploring deep questions is the work of my friend Joe Campbell. He’s a philosopher at Washington State University.

We often think of religion as beliefs and behaviors. They relate to the supernatural—something beyond us and what we see in the natural world.

Campbell told me that underneath many religious beliefs and behaviors is a feeling: awe. It’s a proto-religious attitude. Proto means first.

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How do I make compost without a compost maker? – Miracle, 15, Nigeria

Hi Miracle,

My office is just down the road from the Washington State University composting facility. It processes more than 10,000 pounds of organic waste every month. That’s a lot of compost!

I talked about compost with my friend Jim Kropf. He works for WSU Extension. Extension programs connect universities with local communities. They offer classes and trustworthy, science-based resources that anyone can use online.

Kropf told me that composting is how nature recycles. “In the forest, leaves fall on the ground and come in contact with soil,” he said. “Worms, centipedes, microorganisms and fungi all work on those leaves to break them down into organic matter.”

Making compost is copying nature to make fertilizer for healthier gardens. It’s also a way to help our planet.

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How do starfish eat? – Hailey, 7, Maryland

Dear Hailey,

Starfish might have the coolest—and strangest—way of gobbling up a snack.

I learned all about it from my friend Cori Kane. She studied coral reefs when she was a biology Ph.D. student at Washington State University. Now she works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She writes policies to help protect the ocean and the animals that live there.

“Sea stars are probably one of the weirdest creatures. I don't know any other organism that basically barfs out its stomach to eat,” Kane said.

Yes, you heard that right. She said sea stars barf out their stomachs.

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How do gems form underground? – Jett, 11, Kansas

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 in the School of the Environment 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 there. Eventually the pressure pushes the carbon atoms together to form the mineral we call diamond. Above ground, where there is much less pressure, the same carbon can come together and form a mineral we call graphite. That’s the “lead” of your pencil.

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What are microorganisms? –Trystan, 11, North Carolina

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.

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Do animals feel home-like in wildlife sanctuaries? – Haniya, 8, Pakistan

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 …

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When was the first bee made? – Henry, 7, Illinois

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.

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How does the brain transfer signals to each body part to move? Yulissa, 11, Virginia

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.

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How did life begin? Kelsey, 10, Texas

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 …

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How does honey last forever? Gillian, 7, Illinois

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.

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How was the moon formed? - Barbara, 10, Texas

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.

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What is octopus ink? – Henry, 6, Maryland

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 them blend into their environment.

They also make and store a dark pigment in special ink sacs.

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Dr. Universe: Do spiders sleep? - Peter, 10, South Dakota

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.

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Dr. Universe: How come some rocks are easy to break and some are hard? - Natalie, 10, Russellville, Kentucky

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 made of elements, which are substances made of a single type of atom. You can get to know the Earth’s elements by looking at a Periodic Table.

Some minerals are made of a single element, like diamond and graphite, which are both made of carbon. Others are a mix, like limestone, which is made of calcium and carbon.

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Dr. Universe: How does electrical power travel through metal? - Gabriel, 4, Illinois

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 More ...

Dr. Universe: How are sea animals affected by water pollution? - Natalia, 10, Florida

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 More ...

Dr. Universe: Why does the sky turn darker in winter? - Alex, 6, Cincinnati

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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Dr. Universe: What’s the purpose of baking soda? What’s the purpose of baking powder? What’s the difference between the two? - Kyle, 9, Florida

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 More ...

Dr. Universe: Why does sleep feel so short? - Brooklyn, 12

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 More ...

Dr. Universe: What are cells made of? – Lela, 10, Bogart, GA

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 More ...

Dr. Universe: When would a clam open its shell? Why do the shells open? As far as I know, it opens when boiled for food. - Teng, 5, China

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 More ...