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Ask Dr. Universe Social Sciences

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 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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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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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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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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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 ...

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.

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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 ...

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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Are we getting lazier? -Aaryan, 9, Timber Ridge

Dear Aaryan,

We cats have a reputation for being lazy. We sleep a lot. But the truth is when I got your question, I didn’t know much about laziness. So, I decided to talk about it with a couple of psychologists here at Washington State University.

My first stop was the Psychology of Physical Activity Lab. That’s where I met up with my friend, Professor Anne E. Cox.

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