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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 ...

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 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: 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: 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 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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: 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: 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 ...

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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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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Dear Dr. Universe: Do you know how human and animal interactions help our mind grow? Does it help us? Does it do nothing? This has fascinated me for a very long time. - Gabby G., 11, Berlin, VT

Dear Gabby,

Our brains are pretty busy. They are constantly thinking, feeling, and sensing our world. One thing that can help some people relax is spending time with an animal friend. You might play fetch with a dog, sit with a cat, brush a horse, or even watch a goldfish zip around its bowl.

People who spend a lot of time with animals might tell you that something special seems to be going on here. But scientists are looking for evidence and want to find out for certain just what is going on. They want to know … » More …

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What is the smallest insect on Earth? -Laurenz, 8, Molino, Philippines 

Dear Laurenz,

When I saw your question, I set out to explore with my bug net and a magnifying glass. I was searching all around for tiny insects when I ran into my friend Laura Lavine, a Washington State University scientist who studies bugs.

She said there are nearly a million different kinds of insects on Earth. The smallest of all the known ones are called fairyflies.

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How do plants hold dirt? -Gordon, Pullman, WA

Dear Gordon,

The other day, I wandered into a Washington State University greenhouse and ran into my friend Mechthild Tegeder, a professor and expert on plants.

She gently dug a small plant out of a pot so we could take a closer look. When she lifted it up, I pawed at the clumpy soil hanging from the bottom to reveal some stringy roots.

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Dear Dr. Universe, How does a chameleon change colors? -Jasmine B. 12, Nepean, Canada & Marie F., 11, Ghana

Dear Jasmine and Marie,

There’s something about a chameleon’s darting eyes, long tongue, curled tail, and ability to climb that makes it a fascinating animal to watch. Especially when it’s changing colors.

And the latest research on your question suggests that how a chameleon changes has more to do with light than scientists once thought.

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Why do bees make hexagons in their hives? Why not any other shape? -Aditya, 10, New Delhi, India

Dear Aditya,

When bees make hexagons in their hives, the six-sided shapes fit together perfectly. In fact, we’ve actually never seen bees make any other shape. That’s what I found out when I visited my friend Sue Cobey, a bee researcher at Washington State University.

Cobey showed me some honeycombs where the female bees live and work. Hexagons are useful shapes. They can hold the queen bee’s eggs and store the pollen and honey the worker bees bring to the hive.

When you think about it, making circles wouldn’t work too well. It would leave gaps in the honeycomb. The worker bees could use triangles or squares for storage. Those wouldn’t leave gaps. But the hexagon is the strongest, most useful shape.

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I saw a caterpillar and a butterfly in the neighbor's yard. So my question is, what exactly happens inside the little sack they're in while they transform into a butterfly and HOW exactly do they do it?  -Eston

Dear Eston,

Springtime sets the stage for one of the greatest transformations in the natural world.

“It’s the construction of a butterfly or moth from caterpillar soup,” said my friend David James, an entomologist at Washington State University. James studies the science behind metamorphosis, or how a creature transforms.

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Can you grow stuff like thread, cloth, silk, and most importantly, clothing? -Jay, Colorado

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Dear Jay,

We can use all kinds of animal, bug, and plant materials to make cloth. Even some of the tiniest living things on the planet can make cloth, too.

I heard about this from my friend Hang Liu, a Washington State University professor who studies the science of materials we use and wear every day.

Read More ...