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Ask Dr. Universe Engineering

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.

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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.

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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: 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 ...

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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Dear Dr. Universe: I want to know how my family car works. How does the gas reach the engine and go? How does the steering wheel make the car turn and how do the brakes help us to stop? -Jordan, 6, Queens, New York 

Dear Jordan,

As a cat, car rides can sometimes make me feisty. But as a scientist, it’s fascinating to learn about the mechanics, engineering, and chemistry fueling the cars humans drive every day.

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