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Does interacting with animals help us?

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 about what happens when animals and humans spend time together.

One scientist who studies human and animal interaction is my friend Phyllis Erdman at Washington State University. After her day at work, she said, the first thing she does is go home and play with her dogs.

Everybody knows that we feel good when we are with animals, Erdman said. But we also need the science to back up the idea. She said one notion scientists test out has to do with different chemicals that are in our brains. Our body makes all kind of chemicals and some can make us feel pretty happy.

When babies and mothers bond, scientists often see the chemical oxytocin (ox-ee-toe-sin) at work in their brains. It turns out that oxytocin may be released when people spend time with animals, too.

The chemical helps us build trust and bond with each other. When it’s released in the brain, it lets you know that something, usually good, is happening. Maybe that thing is spending time with a whole bunch of kittens or puppies. The interaction can be good for the animal, too. We are social. And we like a good ear scratch or belly rub.

Erdman has actually worked with dogs and kids to study their interactions, too. She’s also worked with horses. Just brushing and taking care of the animal helped kids feel like they could let go of stressful things.

A lot of human and animal interaction scientists study behavior. But now many are becoming curious about actual changes in the brain itself. New studies are exploring images of the brain when animals and humans spend time together.

The field of human and animal interaction is growing, Erdman said. Perhaps by the time you get to college, we will have more answers to your question. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be one of the people to help us research big questions about how humans and animals can help each other out.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

 

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How do I program a computer?

How do I program a computer? –Ammon, 11, Magna, UT

I have some really cool game ideas. I want to learn to program and animate web sites. Do you have any ideas on how to get started? – Tyler, 10, Suisun City, CA

Dear Ammon and Tyler,

Everything our computers do, they do because we program them to do it. Maybe you want to design a game or an app that’s brand new. To create that game or app, you have to help your computer understand what to do.

And to do that, you have to learn its language. That’s what I found out from my friend Gina Sprint, a computer scientist at Washington State University. She’s really curious about how machines learn and how we can use technology to improve health.

“Our computers don’t understand English. If we want to communicate with our computers, we have to speak their language,” Sprint said.

She showed me a way to start learning about computer code with a program called Frozen Fractals. You can try it out, too. You use the programming language called Python to direct a little turtle that draws out different shapes. I was wondering how the computer knew how to respond to the directions.

“The language that computers understand is called binary. We write code in a programming language similar to English, like Python, that is translated into binary so the computer understands,” Sprint said.

Binary means you have only two options to communicate. Believe it or not, pretty much everything we program our computers to do comes back to just these two things.

In a computer, wires carry information through the machine in the form of electricity. The computer can make the electricity stop or go, switch it on or off, by recognizing zeroes and ones. Different combinations of ones and zeroes can correspond with different letters, too.

While we might say cat in English, a machine would spell out “cat” as 01100011 01100001 01110100. That’s the language of binary.

One way you can start programming and learning more about binary is with a visit to Code.org, Sprint adds. It is an organization headquartered in Seattle but anyone, anywhere can learn how to program through the website.

The main job of coders is to create programs, but a lot of time is spent fixing them. Sometimes things go wrong with your programming. You might get a bug in your code. That’s when you get to be a problem solver and fix the error. The term “bug” was popularized in 1945 by the computer scientist Grace Hopper, said Sprint. Hopper actually found a moth in her computer. Now we use the word bug to talk about problems in the code.

Remember, a computer works because of code written by a programmer. A computer knows what to do because we help it understand. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll study computer science. But really, there’s no need to wait. You can get started right now at Code.org. Sprint and I can’t wait to hear about what you learn and create.

Your friend,

Dr. Universe

Why do animals hibernate?

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do animals hibernate? -Jarrett T., 10, Edinburgh, IN

Dear Jarrett,

Animals can get through winter in all kinds of ways. Us cats like to curl up on a cozy couch. Some penguins huddle in groups to create heat. A lot of birds fly south to warmer weather. Perhaps you put on mittens and a coat. » More …