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Ask Dr. Universe Academic Subjects

Dr. Universe: Why do trees grow so slow? – Ana, 7, Covert, MI

When you eat food, you get a lot of important nutrients that help you grow. The trees that live on our planet also need some nutrients to grow. Trees use their leaves to help capture energy from the sun to make their own food. But as you may have noticed, a lot of trees lose their leaves during certain times of the year. Without leaves, they can’t make nearly as much food, and without those important nutrients, they can’t grow very fast. That’s what I found out from my friend Tim Kohlhauff, a certified arborist and urban horticulture coordinator at Washington State University. He is very curious about the lives of trees. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do worms help protect the dirt? -Fisher, 7, Palouse, WA

Dear Fisher,

Worms can help the soil in a few different ways. One helpful thing worms do is move around different materials, such as leaves and grasses, and make holes in the soil. That’s what I found out from my friend Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a soil scientist at Washington State University, who was happy to help with your question. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs “Worms are actually very strong,” Carpenter-Boggs said. “They can break through soil and make holes that allow air, water and plant roots to follow those channels.” Read More ...

Why are people most commonly right-handed? Who/what deicides if we are left-handed or right-handed? Are you left-handed or right-handed? Mya, 8, Alexandria, VA

We don’t know exactly why so many people are right-handed, but one place we might look for answers is in the material that makes a person who they are: genes. The genes in your body help control all sorts of things from the color of your hair to your skin to your eyes. These traits can be passed down through generations—from grandparents to parents to you. My friend John Hinz, who is a right-handed professor at Washington State University, knows a lot about genes and the study of how organisms pass their genes through generations. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: How did people figure out how much a whole planet weighs? They could not have just put it on a scale! How did they do it? – Angel, 14, California

About 300 years ago during another pandemic, there was a person named Sir Isaac Newton who spent a lot of time at home thinking about the universe. He was thinking about how objects fall and started to wonder if the same force that made objects fall also kept the moon in its orbit. He called this force gravity. That’s what I found out from my friend Guy Worthey, an astronomer at Washington State University. Gravity plays a big part in the answer to your question, and we’ll explore that in just a moment. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do horses sense how you feel? –Taylor, 11, New Zealand

When I got your question, I called up my friend and veterinarian Dr. Macarena Sanz who had just finished checking up on the horses at the Washington State University Teaching Hospital. She was happy to help. “It’s a hard question to assess scientifically,” Sanz said. “But I think everybody who has worked with horses can tell you that horses really do have a certain sense about humans.” Read More ...

Hey, Dr. Universe: Why do we humans get sunburns when we are out in the sun too long? - Gavyn, 13, Indiana 

Humans need sunlight to help keep their bones, blood and other body systems healthy, but too much time in the Sun can sometimes leave people with a sunburn. Sunburns often strike when the body gets too much of a type of light, called ultraviolet light, from the Sun. As your body recognizes there is too much ultraviolet light, it turns on a defense system. The immune system, which responds to invaders like viruses and other harmful things like ultraviolet light, kicks in. Some people might see their skin get red or blistered. They might feel itchy or painful. But not everyone experiences sunburn in quite the same way. A big part of the answer to your question also has to do with human cells. My friend Cynthia Cooper, a researcher at Washington State University, knows a lot about cells and how they work. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How were Saturn’s rings made? -Amelia, 9, Washington State

We still don’t know exactly how the rings around Saturn formed, but scientists who study Saturn’s rings have come up with a couple of ideas. One common theory many scientists agree upon is that Saturn’s rings are made from the little leftover pieces of what used to be a moon. My friend David Atkinson is really curious about the solar system and told me more about it. He is a graduate of Washington State University and now works at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He also worked on the Cassini-Huygens space research mission which helped us learn more about Saturn, Saturn’s large moon Titan, and the entire Saturn system. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do trees give us air to breathe? – Jamar, 11, Vineland, New Jersey

Our planet is home to all kinds of different plants, and they help make a lot of the oxygen we breathe. To find out how plants make oxygen, I asked my friend Balasaheb Sonawane. Sonawane is a scientist at Washington State University who researches photosynthesis, or the ways plants use energy from the sun and make oxygen. He said that in a way, plants breathe, too. “They don’t have a nose or mouth,” Sonawane said. “They have tiny microscopic organs on their leaves called stomata.” Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How does toothpaste clean your teeth? -Lucy, 10, Pullman, WA

Dear Lucy, If you are anything like me, every day you squeeze a little toothpaste onto your toothbrush and brush your teeth. Toothpaste gets its cleaning power from a few different ingredients. My friend Mark Leid was happy to tell us about how they work. Leid spent part of his career teaching future dentists. He is also dean of the Washington State University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. First, he told me the outer covering of a tooth is called enamel. It’s the hardest tissue in the whole human body—even harder than bone—and it helps with things like chewing your food. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Do flying squirrels really fly? - Gwendolyn, 9

Flying squirrels may not really fly, but they do have flaps of skin on their bodies that act like parachutes and help them glide through the air. My friend Todd Wilson told me all about it. He’s a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and graduate of Washington State University who researches Pacific Northwest ecosystems and the animals that call them home— including flying squirrels. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do dogs and cats spin around before they sit down? – Antonio, 10, Richmond, Va.

Dear Antonio, That’s a great observation about cats and dogs. Even I wasn’t sure why cats spin around before they sit down, so I took your question to my friend Dr. Jessica Bell. She is a veterinarian at the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital and has seen quite a few cats and dogs walk in a little circle before they sit down. “It’s a common thing we observe as veterinarians, but we can't talk to cats and dogs and ask them ‘why,’” she said. “From a behavioral standpoint, it probably stems back to their wild instinct.” Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do some cheeses stink? – Cody, 11

When you take a whiff of stinky cheese, that smell is coming from one of its very important ingredients: microorganisms. Microorganisms are so small, you’d need a microscope to see them, but sometimes they give off a big stink. To find out more about stinky cheese, I talked to my friend Minto Michael. Michael is a professor of dairy science at Washington State University and told me microorganisms do a few different jobs to help make cheese. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Can a shadow make a shadow? – Aven, 7, Palouse, WA

Dear Aven, When we look around our world, we can find all kinds of shadows. One way we can explore the answer to your shadow question is with a little experiment. My friend Anya Rasmussen, a physics professor at Washington State University, told me all about it. First, you will need to cast your shadow on a wall. Rasmussen reminded me shadows form when an object—such as your body— blocks light and keeps the rays from reaching a surface—like a wall. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we have seasons? -Bella, 9, North Carolina

Dear Bella,

It turns out seasons can be quite different depending on where you live. But no matter where you live, the reason for the seasons has to do with the way the Earth rotates.

To find out exactly why we have seasons, I talked to my friend Vivienne Baldassare, a physics and astronomy professor at Washington State University.

Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How many black holes are in the galaxy and the universe? -Krisha, 9, New Jersey

Dear Krisha, While we can’t see black holes with our eyes, astronomers have figured out how to spot these objects in our universe. One astronomer who is really curious about understanding black holes is my friend Sukanta Bose, a researcher at Washington State University. First, he told me there are different kinds of black holes. Supermassive black holes can be millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun. We have a supermassive black hole in our own Milky Way galaxy called Sagittarius A*, which is pronounced as Sagittarius A-star. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do trees have sap? -Aliyah, 8, Kirkland, WA  

Just as blood moves important stuff around the human body, sugary sap moves important things around a tree. My friend Nadia Valverdi told me all about it. She’s a researcher at Washington State University who studies how apple and cherry trees survive in different environments. When we eat food, like a delicious apple or a handful of cherries, we get important nutrients. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do people stain glass to make it all the colors it can be? - Emily, 10, Edmonds, WA

Dear Emily, Ever since humans discovered they could use sand to make glass, they’ve been experimenting with it. They even learned how to control the colors. My friend Dustin Regul is a stained glass artist and painter who teaches fine arts at Washington State University. He told me more about where glass gets its color. “It’s actually metals that help change the color of the glass,” he said. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why does the internet go down? -Mia, 11, Sheridan, Wyoming

The internet has helped many people connect with classmates, friends and family during the pandemic. But you’re right, sometimes the connection gets lost. My friend Dingwen Tao, an assistant professor of computer science at Washington State University, said we can think about the internet like a highway of information. You may remember from our question about how the internet works that information, like the data that makes up your favorite cat video or science website, travels through electronic signals we cannot see with our eyes. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do you make cider? -Julianna, 7

We can make cider with juice from apples. There are many different kinds of apples and a few different ways to squeeze out the juice. My friend Bri Valliere told me all about it. She’s a food scientist at Washington State University who knows a lot about cider. The first step is to pick out the apples. Honeycrisp apples will make a sweet cider. Granny Smiths are more acidic and will make a tart cider. “We could make a single batch of one kind, or we could mix different kinds of apples together and see how it turns out,” she said. “No matter what, it’s going to taste good.” Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do mushrooms grow in rings? We have a lot of giant ones in our yard right now! - Layne, 8, Spokane 

When you see a ring of mushrooms, it’s likely they are exploring for food under the ground. Giant mushrooms in your backyard are not animals or plants. They are part of another class of living organisms called fungi. But like you and me, they do need food to survive. That’s what I found out from my friend David Wheeler, an assistant professor at Washington State University, who knows a lot about fungi. He said the mushrooms are just one part of fungi. The other part that explores the soil for food actually lives under the soil. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: I heard a little bit about how COVID-19 started, but I don’t know much about it. What happened?  - Colleen, 10, Louisa, VA 

It turns out scientists around the world are investigating this very question. It’s likely the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, started in an animal before jumping to humans. But exactly how it all happened is still a kind of mystery.      That’s what I found out from my friend Michael Letko, a researcher at Washington State University who studies viruses and how they cross different species. Read More ...

How does exercise help us? What is the best exercise?

When we exercise, it helps the body and mind in so many different ways. One important muscle that benefits from exercise is the heart. Maybe you’ve felt your heart beat harder and faster when you run or climb at the playground. As the heart gets stronger, it also gets better at pumping blood around the body. That’s really important because your blood is full of oxygen you need to help fuel all your body’s systems. That’s what I found out from my friend Chris Connolly, an associate professor at Washington State University who knows a lot about the science of exercise. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do apes walk on their knuckles? - Sam, 10, Benton, Arkansas

Dear Sam, A lot of apes walk on their knuckles. Gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos use their knuckles for stability and balance. That’s what I found out from my friend Nanda Grow, an anthropologist and wildlife biologist at Washington State University who studies primates. “Gorillas and chimpanzees both do knuckle walking, but they do different kinds,” she said. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: With the coronavirus why is it effective to wear a mask? How does it make life safer? - Marin, age 12, in Ohio

Dear Marin, Whenever I go out and about, I make sure to wear my face mask. Like you, I wanted to find out exactly how they work. First, I talked to Marian Wilson, an assistant professor and nurse at Washington State University who is curious about how face masks protect people. “When we talk, sneeze, sing, or laugh, we spread droplets into the air all the time,” she said. “With the COVID-19 pandemic going on, we know people may have virus in their droplets.” Read More ...

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

In the United States, pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and other coins are made through the U.S. Mint. It turns out, they’ve been making a lot more coins than usual during the global pandemic. But more on that in a moment. It takes both science and art to make coins. Coins are made from metals that have been mixed together. We call these kinds of metals alloys. The very first coins in the world were made thousands of years ago in Turkey from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. A penny is made from an alloy of copper and zinc. Read More ...

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

Dear Natalia, Bee wings may be small, but they are really strong. I learned all about bee wings from my friend Melanie Kirby, a honey bee researcher at Washington State University. Kirby said you can think about bee wings as if they were a kite. If you make a kite out of thin tissue, it might rip. But if you make it out of a strong plastic film it will be stronger. Bee wings are made of a material called chitin (KITE-IN) and it’s a lot like keratin, the material that makes up your fingernails. Chitin is what makes up the wings on each side of the bee’s body. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What gives leaves their shapes? Please reply back. Thanks a ton! -Pronoy, 9, San Jose, CA, USA

We can find all kinds of leaves on our planet. Just think of tiny pine needles, fern fronds, ivy vines, or a big banana leaf. My friend Eric Roalson is a professor at Washington State University who is very curious about plants. He said there are a few things that give leaves their shapes. The shape of a leaf can depend on the family history of a plant, the group it belongs to, and the environment where it grows up. Read More ...

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

When you wash your hands with soap and water, a few different things happen to make bubbles. Just like you, water and soap are made up of parts called molecules. Water molecules really like to stick together. If you’ve ever jumped in a puddle or a pool, you may have even observed how water splashes in the shape of little drops. As water sticks together, it likes to form spheres. Read More ...

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

It might seem strange, but a small piece of something dangerous can protect you against something much more dangerous. This idea has been around for a long time—and it works. To learn more, I talked to Guy Palmer at Washington State University. As a scientist who studies infectious disease, Palmer likes learning about how to protect both human and animal health. Vaccines are one way to accomplish this. Read More ...

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

Dear Alice,

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

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

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

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

Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we have spines? - Jessie, 10, Covina, Calif.

Dear Jessie,

Your spine is more than just a long line of bones. It’s the secret to jumping for joy, the base for all your best dance moves. Every time you run, climb, walk, and play, your spine is right there with you.

“Without a spine, our ability to move would be completely different,” Edward Johnson said.  Johnson teaches Human Anatomy in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University. He is very curious about how all the parts of your body work together.

All creatures with spines are called “vertebrates,” including humans. They get this name from their vertebrae: the special bones that make up the spine. Your vertebrae are different shapes and sizes, but they all connect together.

Read More ...

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

Dear Luke,

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

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

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

Read More ...

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

Dear Eden,

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

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

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

Read More ...

Why are carrots orange? - Caden, 11, N.C.

Dear Caden,

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

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

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

Read More ...

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

Dear Samantha,

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

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

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

Read More ...

Dr. Universe: how do sleeping darts work? (e.g. for elephants) - Jonathan, 7, Pullman, Wash.

Dear Jonathan,

Some people get nervous when they go to the doctor. Maybe you’re one of them. You may not enjoy all of the visit, but you understand the doctor wants to help you. (And that a treat might await you at the end.)

But if an elephant gets sick, they can’t understand a doctor’s words. They may get confused and scared, until it’s too dangerous to help them.

That’s why sleeping darts—also known as tranquilizer darts—help so much.

“It’s safer for both the humans and the elephant because the humans aren’t right next to a wild animal, and the animal isn’t being chased to try to catch it,” Dr. Tamara Grubb said. She is a veterinarian at Washington State University who specializes in anesthesiology, drugs that make animals calm, sleepy, or unable to feel pain.

Read More ...

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

Dear Joe,

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

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

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

Read More ...

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

Dear Luke,

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

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

Those same basic forces make a submarine work.

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

Read More ...

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

Dear Jalen,

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

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

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

Read More ...

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

Dear Kathrine,

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

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

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

Read More ...

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

Dear Caroline,

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

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

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

Read More ...

Where does the universe end? - Oriah, 8, Pullman

Dear Oriah,

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

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

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

Read More ...

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

Dear Natallia,

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

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

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

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

Read More ...

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

Dear Mary,

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

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

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

Read More ...

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

Dear Odin,

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

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

Read More ...

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

Dear First Graders,

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

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

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

Read More ...

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

Dear Nova,

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

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

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

Read More ...

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

Dear Jalen, Babies can communicate in a few different ways. For the most part, they use their emotions. Humans come into the world crying, but that’s actually a good thing. In a way, babies start communicating from the moment they are born. Of course, it can be hard for their caregivers to know exactly what they mean with all those cries. Read More ...

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

Dear Alexa, If you have a long winter break ahead and are looking for a great way to spend the afternoon, you might just want to make your very own snow globe. There are a few different ways to build a snow globe, but the first thing you’ll need is the perfect container. To make a small snow globe, you might use something like an empty baby food jar. Or maybe if you want to make a bigger snow globe, you could choose an empty spaghetti sauce jar. Read More ...

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

Our world is full of so many different places. They get their names in lots of different ways. One way a place might get a name is from the person who explored it. The Americas are named after an Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. But Amerigo wasn’t the first person to explore these continents. There were already people living there when he arrived. Still, “America” was named after Amerigo. For the most part, people name things because they are claiming possession of a place. Because of that, sometimes the original names of places are lost or erased. That’s what I found out from my friend Theresa Jordan, a history professor who teaches a geography course at Washington State University. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we have a tailbone? -Tyler, 15, East Liverpool, England

Dear Tyler,

At the very bottom of the human spine is a bone that sticks out a bit called the coccyx (cox-ix). We sometimes call it the “tailbone,” but it is actually made up of several different spinal bones.

In some animals that actually have tails, those different bones at the bottom of the spine help them move their tail around. But in humans, those bones partially fused together.

Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we have nightmares? -Kourtney, California,  10

You are running through the woods and a bear is chasing you, when all of a sudden you wake up in your bed and realize it was just a scary dream. Our nightmares can sometimes feel super scary, even if what’s happening isn’t real. Fear is a natural part of being a human. In fact, you may have even felt shaky or sweaty after waking up from a bad dream. It’s all part of something we call the fight or flight response. When humans are faced with something scary, this response helps them decide if they should face their fears and fight or run away by taking flight. This fight or flight response works even when you are asleep. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How did the first horse change into the horses of today? -Ava, 7, Kennewick, Wash.

We can learn a lot about animals of the past from fossils, the imprints or remains we find in rocks. One fossil found in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming helped us learn about the oldest known horses. These horses are called Sifrhippus (siff-RIP-us). They had four toes on each foot and were very small. Believe it or not, these tiny horses weighed only about ten pounds. That’s just a bit heavier than your average house cat. According to the fossil records, Sifrhippus lived somewhere between 54 and 30 million years ago. When I went to visit my friend Lane Wallett, she told me all about the history of horses. As a veterinarian and a paleontologist at Washington State University, she is very curious about both horses and fossils. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do people have different accents? Why do we have them and need them? -Florrie P., 9, UK

Whether you say hello, ‘ello, hey ya’ll, toe-may-toe or toe-ma-toe, we all have a kind of accent that often comes from where we live or who lives around us. That’s what I found out from my friend Nancy Bell, a Washington State University professor who is really curious about the way language works. She told me more about why we have accents and why we need them. There are a lot of different accents. You might have friends who speak English but have a Scottish, Irish, Australian, or French accent. Even in the U.S., there are many accents from the east to the west to the mid-west to the south. In those regions, people also speak many types of English such as Chicano English, African American English, or Indian English. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do trees help the air? – Ella, 12

Take a big, deep breath. As you inhale and exhale, you can probably feel the air taking up space in your lungs. The air we breathe is made up of a few different things. It includes gases such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide—just to name a few. Animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. But in the plant world, it’s the opposite. Trees, plants, and even algae in the ocean, take in carbon dioxide from the air and, using the energy of the sun, transform it into the oxygen we all breathe. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: How do we talk? – Emmy, 7, Wash. State

Dear Emmy, When you were a little kid, maybe you played Peek-a-Boo or sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” These kinds of games and songs have a lot of the different sounds we make when we are first developing speech. A lot of humans start out playing with speech through cooing and crying. At about six months old, this cooing and crying turns to babbling. A baby might make sounds such as ma-ma, pa-pa, or ba-ba. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why are dogs important to humans? Stephani R., 9, Washington State

Dear Stephani, Dogs are important to humans in all kinds of ways. The connection between the two goes back thousands of years. A long time ago, wolves would trail along after humans on hunting trips and eat any scraps they could find. Eventually these wolves evolved into dogs that helped protect the hunters and gatherers. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do bags form under your eyes? –Sophia Ivy, 7, New Providence, NJ

Dear Sophia Ivy, If you’ve ever stayed up late and woke up really early, you may have noticed a little puffiness or swelling under your eyes. When I asked my friend Devon Hansen about the answer to your question, she said that we first have to know a bit about how sleep works. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What are shooting stars made of? – Erin, 11, Arkansas

If you are anything like me, you probably like watching for shooting stars in the night sky. A shooting star, or a meteor, is usually a small rock that falls into Earth’s atmosphere. When I went to visit my friend Michael Allen, a senior instructor of astronomy and physics at Washington State University, he told me a lot of shooting stars are no bigger than a pencil eraser. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What’s the best story ever made in the world? – Jada, 13, New Jersey

Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. At first, they told these stories out loud, then they started to write. There are more than a hundred million published books on our planet now and to find out which one is best, I visited my friend Matthew Jockers. He’s a professor at Washington State University who combines his love of stories with computer science to research what makes some books bestsellers. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Back when cell phones weren’t a thing, how could you place a call from across the ocean? Were there wires under the ocean? -Tali, 9, Seattle, Wash.

Long before telephones, if you wanted to say “hi” to friend across the ocean you’d probably write them a letter and send it over on a ship. But in the last hundred years or so, we’ve been able to connect across the ocean much faster. And yes, it often required thousands of miles of wires, or cables, deep in the sea. That’s what I found out from my friend Bob Olsen, a professor of electrical engineering at Washington State University, who told me all about the telephone. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What can I do to help stop ocean pollution? -Hailey, 10

It’s great to hear you want to help our oceans. After all, they do a lot for us. Life in the ocean provides much of the oxygen we breathe and is also a source of food for many animals, including humans. One of the most important things we can do to prevent more pollution is to keep our garbage, especially plastic, out of the ocean. That’s what I found out from my friend Richelle Tanner, a marine biologist and researcher at Washington State University. While a lot of plastic ends up in the ocean, it actually started under the Earth’s surface in the form of oil, leftovers of plants and animals that died long ago. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do flowers smell so nice? – Miles, 5

Flowers not only smell nice to humans, but also to many insects and birds who help the flowers do a really important job. Let’s imagine that you are a bee or a butterfly. You don’t have a nose on your face, but instead use your two antennae to smell things. As you fly around, you catch a whiff of chemicals floating in the air. Down below, you see a field of daisies. The flowers are releasing some chemicals, which are the building blocks of a smell. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How many peas would fit in the sun? -Keegan, 8

Our sun is so massive, you could fit more than one million earths inside of it. To find out how many peas would fit inside the biggest object in our solar system, I decided to ask my friend and mathematician Kimberly Vincent at Washington State University. Vincent and her students said that to figure out how much of something can fit inside the sun, we need to know the volume of the sun. The volume is how much space something takes up. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: How many different types of plankton are there? Are there freshwater plankton? – Arielle, 11

We can find millions and millions of plankton in bodies of water all over the world—from oceans, rivers, and lakes to ponds and mud puddles. That’s what I found out from my friend Julie Zimmerman, a scientist with the Aquatic Ecology Lab at Washington State University. In the lab, researchers can use powerful microscopes to get an up-close look at these tiny creatures. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do gadgets need batteries? How do they work? -Shereen and Jasmine, 8, Florida

Dear Shereen and Jasmine, Batteries can power up all kinds of gadgets. To find out how batteries work, I decided to visit my friend and materials engineer Min-Kyu Song. He makes batteries in his lab at Washington State University. As you might know, materials are made up of atoms—and atoms have tiny parts called electrons. If you’ve ever felt a spark when you touched a doorknob, you’ve felt electrons making the jump from your body to the door. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we get morning breath? -Stephanie, 10

Dear Stephanie, If you’ve ever caught a whiff of someone’s stinky morning breath, or even your own, you know it can be pretty rotten. We can trace the smell back to tiny culprits that live in our mouths. They are called microbes and they live around your gums, between your teeth, and on your tongue. Read More ...

How do volcanoes erupt? –Miles, 10, Tampa, FL

Wherever we find a volcano on the surface of our planet, we can find the source of an eruption beneath it. That’s what I found out from my friend John Wolff, a volcanologist at Washington State University. Our planet is home to all kinds of volcanoes that erupt in different ways. Some eruptions are quiet and continuous, with a slow flow of lava. Other volcanoes erupt explosively and can spew ash and lava hundreds of feet up into the sky. All of this lava has its start underground in the form of something called magma. Wolff said that scientists used to think there were large pools of hot liquid beneath volcanoes. Now we know it isn’t quite that simple. Magma is not really a liquid, but rather a kind of sludge or slurry. It helps to think of it kind of like honey. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we have a belly button? – Jane, 9, Kennewick, WA

Whether you have an innie or an outie, pretty much all us mammals have a belly button. But before you had a belly button, there was actually a different bit of anatomy in its place. While you were still growing inside of your mother, a small, bendy tube on your tummy connected the two of you. This tube is how you got pretty much everything you needed to grow before you were born into the world. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What is the most smelliest fruit in the world? -Tiana, 9

Our world is full of fruits that have all kinds of delightful smells. Maybe you’ve smelled the sweetness of watermelon, pineapple, peach, papaya, or mango. But you might also be wondering about the most stinky fruit in the world. When I got your question, I asked my friend Lydia Tymon, a plant scientist at Washington State University. The first stinky fruit she thought of was the durian, a large, round fruit that grows mostly in Southeast Asia. The fruit is about a foot wide with a greenish-brown husk that has lots of spikes on the outside. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do earthquakes happen? -Aescli E., 10, Utah

We’ve had a lot of earthquakes on our planet this year. Maybe you’ve learned about them from the news or felt one shaking up your own neighborhood. First, it is important to know a bit about the Earth’s outer layer, or crust. The crust is made of seven big pieces called “plates.” They are about 60 miles thick and sort of float on the molten rock beneath them. That’s what I found out from my friend Sean Long, a geology professor at Washington State University who knows a lot about earthquakes. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we have five fingers and five toes? -Eli, 11, Edinburgh, Indiana

Dear Eli, While humans may be one of the few animals that can give a high five, they are one of many with five fingers and toes. Humans are part of the primate family, which also includes monkeys, apes, and even lemurs. As a member of the family, you also have fingernails instead of claws and pads on your fingertips that help with your sense of touch. Read More ...

Who created the very first chocolate bar? – Emma, 11, USA

Dear Emma,

For most of human history, people have enjoyed chocolate in a spicy, bitter drink. But when people discovered how to turn chocolate into a solid, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

That’s what I found out from my friend Omar Cornejo, a scientist at Washington State University who is very curious about the history and life of the cacao tree. Chocolate comes from the seeds of leathery fruits that grow on the tree.

If we cut open the fruit, we would find about 20 to 60 seeds on the inside. In ancient times, people would grind up the seeds … » More …

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Why do lizards lose their tails? -Bailey, Inwood, Iowa

Dear Bailey,

Our planet is home to all kinds of lizards. Maybe you’ve seen one climbing up the wall, scurrying through the grass, or at the pet store. Just the other day I saw a big green iguana when I visited the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in search of an answer to your question.

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Dear Dr. Universe: Why is the map the way it is? - Pablo, Spokane, Wash.

Dear Pablo,

Next time you eat an orange, try getting the peel off in one piece. Next, try to flatten out your peel. You’ll likely find it a bit tricky to make something round perfectly flat.

The same is true when we map our three-dimensional world onto a flat surface. It doesn’t work very well. That’s what I found out when I went to visit my friend Rick Rupp, a Washington State University researcher.

Rupp is an expert on geographic information systems, which can help us capture and analyze the geography of our planet. He explained that maps can show us all kinds of … » More …

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Dr. Universe: Why are there different blood types? - Sarah, Tacoma, Wash.

Dear Sarah,

At this very moment, several quarts of blood are circulating through your body at nearly 4 mph. But as you’ve pointed out, not everyone’s blood is the same.

Your question made me wonder exactly what we mean when we talk about blood types. I decided to ask my friend Amber Fyfe-Johnson, a researcher at Washington State University who studies cardiovascular diseases--diseases of the blood vessels-- in kids.

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Hello Dr. Universe: I was wondering, how does an eclipse happen? - Susan, 13, San Francisco, CA

Dear Susan,

It just so happens the Great American Eclipse is coming up on Aug. 21, 2017. This solar eclipse will be the only one visible from across the lower 48 states in nearly a hundred years. When it happens, parts of the country will experience darkness for a couple minutes during the day.

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Dear Dr. Universe: I would like to find out how ants are so strong. How is it possible that they can carry weight that is heavier than themselves? –Anita, 11

Dear Anita,

Ants are pretty good little weightlifters. My friend Rich Zack, a scientist at Washington State University who studies insects, knows a lot about ants. One kind of ant that he has studied can carry up to 20 times its own weight.

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What do astronauts eat in space? –Rhemi, 12, St. Louis, Mo.

Dear Rhemi,

Astronauts eat all kinds of different foods up in space. The food is often similar to what we have here on Earth. But in space, there's very little gravity. There’s very limited refrigeration, too. On the International Space Station, the refrigerator is only about half the size of a microwave. That means scientists who prepare and package astronaut food have to do it in ways that take up very little room and don’t need to be kept cold.

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Why do we have different feelings? - Charan and Aishwarya V., 10 & 8, Rutherford, New Jersey

Dear Charan and Aishwarya,

Imagine you are playing a game of soccer and your best friend is on the opposing team. The sun is out, you are having a great time, and you score the winning goal. You’d probably feel pretty happy and so would your team.

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Why does meat get brown on the grill? – Christina, Seattle, Wash.

Dear Christina,

You know summer is just around the corner when the smell of barbecue is in the air. It’s a great question you ask and it leads us to the Meats Lab at Washington State University. That’s where I met up with my friend and animal scientist, Jan Busboom.

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