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Ask Dr. Universe jaime.chambers

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.

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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.”

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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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Why won’t a female sea turtle lay her eggs in the ocean? How do baby turtles know where the ocean is when they hatch from their eggs? - Jasmine and Shereen, 8, Gainesville, Fla.

Dear Jasmine and Shereen,

Sea turtles spend almost their entire lives in the ocean. Even as babies, sea turtles’ bodies have special traits for living at sea, helping them glide and paddle through the water. After emerging from their eggs, baby sea turtles (called “hatchlings”) scramble to the ocean to live the rest of their lives. Only female sea turtles return to land as adults, to lay eggs and begin the cycle again.

I talked with my friend Frank Paladino to learn more about sea turtles. He completed his Ph.D. at Washington State University. Today he is a professor at Purdue University-Fort Wayne and former president of the International Sea Turtle Society. He is especially interested in leatherbacks, the largest living turtle.

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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: 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: 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.”

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