One of my favorite holidays is Pi Day. On March 14, people who love the math constant called pi celebrate by eating the other kind of pie. Like apple pie, pumpkin pie and even pizza pie.
I talked about the number pi with my friend Kristin Lesseig. She studies how kids learn math.
She told me pi is the ratio between the distance around a circle and the distance across a circle. A ratio is the relationship between two numbers. We usually think of pi as about 3.14—but there’s more to it than that.
Every few years, a smell like a rotting corpse wafts around a stairwell at Washington State University Vancouver. But it’s not really a dead body. It’s the bloom of the corpse flower plant.
There are fewer than 1,000 corpse flower plants left in the wild. It’s one of the rarest plants in the world.
But the list of rare plants is massive. If you look at all the plants we know about in the world, there are about 435,000 different kinds of plants—and many more we don’t know about. Some scientists say that more one-third of all plants are “exceedingly rare.”
I asked my friend Dawn Freeman what makes a plant rare. She’s responsible for the WSU corpse flower.
Did you know your skin is the largest organ in your body? The average 5th grader has more than 6 pounds of skin. Whoa.
Skin protects the inside of your body from the dirty outside world. It keeps your insides from drying out and ensures a steady body temperature. It lets you feel things you touch.
Your skin also has the incredible ability to heal itself. I talked about that with my friend Edward Johnson. He teaches classes about the human body in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University.
“Skin is the point of contact between you and everything in your environment,” Johnson said. “So, it's evolved the ability to regenerate.”
People have thought about mermaids for a long time. Ancient people even drew humans with fish tails on cave walls. So, did they really see mermaids or were they drawing from imagination?
The marine experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say that no mermaids have ever been found in the ocean.
But we’ve fully mapped only about one-quarter of the ocean floor. There are probably between 700,000 and one million different kinds of plants and animals in the ocean. At least two-thirds of those are still unknown to us.
Does that mean mermaids could be swimming around in parts of the ocean we haven’t explored? Maybe. But our best guess is that people mistook other sea animals for mermaids—like manatees and their relatives.
My neighbor has a very prickly garden. It’s full of cactuses—including one thorny plant nearly as tall as my house. That’s not something you see every day in the Pacific Northwest. Cactuses usually live in dry places like deserts.
I talked about your question with my friend Linda Chalker-Scott. She’s a garden scientist at Washington State University.
It’s hard to imagine that one space rock wiped out the dinosaurs. But it did more than that. It killed 75% of the plants and animals on Earth. Me-OW.
I talked about that with my friend Barry Walker. He teaches geology classes about Earth’s history at Washington State University.
Walker told me that we call a space rock that hits Earth a meteorite. The meteorite that took out the dinosaurs set off changes on Earth. Those changes lasted for thousands of years. That’s how it killed so many things.
My goldfish roommate hates when people tap on his tank. The tapping sound he hears in the water is loud and scary.
I talked with my friend Rikeem Sholes about how fish hear. He’s a fish scientist. He studies salmon hearing at Washington State University.
He told me that a fish’s hearing system includes sensory cells in the inner ear and in a line along the outside of the fish’s body and head. Some fish also use their swim bladder to have super hearing.
I purr all. the. time. I purr when I get a good question like yours. I purr when I finish answering a question. I even purr when I’m struggling to find an answer.
Luckily, Dr. Sarah Guess says that’s normal. She’s a veterinarian at Washington State University. She told me that cats purr when they’re content and when they’re stressed out. It can be a little confusing for humans.
Scientists have two ideas about why cats purr. It could have come from the way mother cats care for kittens. Or it could keep their bones and tissues healthy.
Toothed whales—like dolphins and belugas—might live in the ocean, but they have some big things in common with cave-dwelling bats. They’re all mammals that live in dark places and use echolocation.
That’s why I talked about your question with my friend Christine Portfors. She’s a biologist at Washington State University. Her lab keeps a colony of bats.
Many bats sleep in caves and zoom around at night. Their world is dark, so they use sounds and their echoes to perceive the world around them, which is called echolocation. Toothed whales live in dark oceans or murky rivers and lakes. That’s why they use echolocation, too.
When I was a kitten, there were tons of fireflies in my grandparents’ yard. My litter mates and I loved to gently catch them and let them go.
I talked with my friend Richard Zack about how and why fireflies light up. He’s an insect scientist at Washington State University.
Those glowing insects are a kind of beetle. But we call them fireflies or lightning bugs. Their glow is a form of bioluminescence. That’s when a chemical reaction inside a living thing makes it light up.
I love how humans use figures of speech about animals to describe their behavior. An early bird is someone who likes to get up early. A night owl is someone who loves to be awake late at night—like an owl.
I talked about why owls stay up all night with my friend Dr. Marcie Logsdon. She’s a wildlife veterinarian at Washington State University.
She told me that for many owls, the dark is a good time to catch a meal.
“Owls are just taking advantage of a time when they can excel at finding prey because there are a lot of other things that are active at night, too—like rodents,” Logsdon said.
My whole body is covered in thick, glossy cat fur. Humans look mostly furless. But people grow hair on every part of their bodies except the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Most human hair is just super fine and hard to see.
That’s what my friend Edward Johnson told me. He teaches classes about the human body in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University.
He also told me hair grows from follicles. Those are special organs in the top layer of the skin. Everything you need to grow hair is inside the follicle.
I’ve never sat on a power line. I like to keep my paws firmly on the ground. But birds love resting there, especially in winter. Power lines give off a little heat, so it’s a good spot for birds to snuggle together and stay warm.
I talked about how they do that safely with my friend Javier Guerrero. He’s a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Washington State University.
He told me birds do get electrocuted on power lines sometimes. But that won’t happen if the bird touches just the power line—and doesn’t touch other lines or the pole at the same time.
My best friend is a golden retriever. When I get home, she greets me with a goofy smile and a big wag of her fluffy tail.
I talked about why she has a tail with my friend Jillian Haines. She’s a veterinarian at Washington State University.
She told me dogs use their tails for lots of things. Tails help dogs balance while running, jumping or swimming. Tails help dogs communicate with each other and other animals. Some dogs in the Arctic—like sled dogs—use their tails to stay warm. They curl up and cover their noses with their fluffy tails.
I’ve been allergic to fleas ever since I was a kitten. Flea bites give me an itchy, red rash.
I talked about why that happens with my friend Bevan Briggs. He’s a nurse practitioner and professor at Washington State University. Nurse practitioners are nurses with advanced training. They diagnose illnesses, order tests and prescribe medicine.
Briggs told me that often rashes happen when the immune system gets turned on. The immune system is the body’s defense system.
“It's the way our body tries to protect us from germs and poisons,” he said. “Rashes happen because your immune system identifies something as foreign—either an infective agent or some kind of toxin.”
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.”
Sometimes I get x-rays at the veterinarian. They work by sending a small amount of powerful energy—called radiation—through my body. X-rays only contain a small amount of radiation. Too much radiation would harm my cells.
The organisms most likely to survive extreme radiation might be microbes. These creatures are so tiny you need a microscope to see them.
To learn more, I talked with my friend Cynthia Haseltine. She’s a microbiologist at Washington State University. She studies extremophiles. These microbes love intense environments. Boiling heat? Freezing cold? Blistering acid? Yes, please.
Haseltine told me the amount of radiation an organism can survive is measured in grays. Just 5 grays of radiation will kill a human. Here are five organisms that can survive way more than that.
Like most cats, I don’t love wet fur. I check a weather app every morning to see if I need an umbrella. But how rain happens was a mystery to me.
So, I talked about rain with my friend Nathan Santo Domingo. He’s a field meteorologist with AgWeatherNet of Washington State University. That’s a weather tool for farmers, gardeners and other people in Washington.
“The first thing to remember is that Earth's surface is 71% water,” Santo Domingo said. “We also have a giant orb in the sky—the sun—that’s feeding energy into the atmosphere and reaching down to Earth's surface.”
The sun’s energy changes the water in the oceans, rivers and lakes. The water changes from a liquid to a gas called water vapor. That water vapor floats up into the bubble of gas that surrounds Earth—called the atmosphere.
One of my roommates is a corn snake named Buddy. He’s not venomous. But he’s a very private individual and really likes his space.
Buddy and I talked about your question with my friend Blair Perry. He’s a biologist at Washington State University. He’s an expert on snakes and venom.
Perry told me antivenom doesn’t contain actual snake venom. It’s made with antibodies to snake venom.
Antibodies are proteins. They’re part of your immune system. They travel in your blood to fight germs or dangerous molecules—like those in venom—that could hurt you. Sometimes we get vaccines to boost our antibodies so they’re ready when something harmful shows up.
I was the cutest kitten. I bet you were an adorable baby, too. Like me, you probably had a big, round head with chubby cheeks and huge eyes.
The fact babies have big eyes made some people think babies are born with adult-sized eyeballs. I talked about this with my friend Edward Johnson. He teaches classes about the human body in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University.
“It’s a very good question because there’s a lot of misinformation about it,” Johnson said. “Eyeballs do grow—but not very much compared with other parts of the body.”
As a science cat, I handle going to the veterinarian better than most. I see it as a meeting of scientific minds. But I had no idea some veterinarians specialize in fish.
I learned all about fish medicine from my friend Nora Hickey. She’s a fish veterinarian at Washington State University. She works in the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. She helps fish at zoos and hatcheries stay healthy.
Hickey told me you can watch a betta's behavior to see if it's happy. Happy bettas swim around. They interact with things in their tanks and act interested when you come close.
I was fascinated by black holes as a kitten. I liked them because they were scary. But they’re also far away so I knew I was safe.
I talked about this with my friend Vivienne Baldassare. She’s an astronomer at Washington State University.
Baldassare told me a black hole is an area in space with lots of gravity. That’s the same force that pulls your body toward the Earth.
“If we want to send a spacecraft somewhere else in the solar system, it has to travel fast enough to escape the gravity of Earth—so the rocket doesn't just fall back down to Earth,” she said. “A black hole is a place where that escape speed is the speed of light. Nothing can move faster than the speed of light. So, nothing can escape from inside the black hole.”
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.
March is a great time to celebrate women’s history and women in STEM.
I talked about Women’s History Month with Pamela Thoma and Jan Dasgupta of Washington State University. Thoma leads the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. Dasgupta is the director of the Data Analytics program.
“The folks represented in different history and heritage months have always been important to the history of the United States—even before it was the United States,” Thoma said. “They push us to achieve its ideals.”
Those ideals include things like fairness.
Dasgupta is concerned about fairness in data science. Lots of decisions are made using data rules—called algorithms.
“If the people who are writing these algorithms are a very small, non-diverse group of people, it's not a very good thing,” Dasgupta said. “We don't like legislation without representation.”
That means people affected by rules should have a say in those rules.
If beetles seem to be everywhere, that’s because they are. Some beetles stand out because they’re colorful. Think about jewel beetles and ladybugs. Others play useful and weird roles in the ecosystem—like the poop-rolling dung beetle. Their ancestors probably even ate dinosaur poop.
Nobody knows exactly how many beetles there are, but scientists have some ideas. I talked about it with my friend Joel Gardner. He’s the collection manager for the insect museum at Washington State University.
When scientists find a new species, they describe what it looks like. They give it a name. They publish that information so other people know about it. That’s called describing a species. Scientists describe new insect species all the time.
Gardner told me scientists have described about 400,000 species of beetles so far. There are many more beetles we don’t know about yet. Altogether, there are probably between 1 million and 2 million beetle species.
Everyone who heard your question agreed that it’s a sophisticated one. To get my paws around the answer, I talked with my friend Phil Mixter. He’s an immunology professor at Washington State University.
He told me all living things need to protect themselves from microbes that could make them sick. These are called pathogens. They can be bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites.
“Almost every organism I can think of—from plants to animals and beyond—has a defense system to handle the possibility that another organism might sneak in,” Mixter said.
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.”
Board games, video games, a long piece of yarn… I love them all. I took a break from batting around a catnip-filled mouse toy to talk about your question with my friend, Washington State University professor Jordan Clapper, who told me the answer is a mystery.
“That's almost impossible to know—for some really fun reasons,” Clapper said. “Every culture has games. It even extends beyond being human. If you've ever seen a dog or a cat play, they're playing a game. “
The earliest board game we’ve found is more than 4,600 years old. Archaeologist Leonard Woolley dug it up in a tomb from Sumer (modern-day Iraq). That tomb was in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, so he named it the Royal Game of Ur.
February is a great time to celebrate Black scientists who changed the world—and those transforming science right now.
I talked about Black History Month with Amir Gilmore. He’s a professor and associate dean in the College of Education at Washington State University.
“There are so many things that Black people have created that we just don't think about,” he said. “So, when I think about Black History Month, it gives me joy that other people made these inventions. Where would we be without refrigerated trucks or stoplights? Where would we be without telephone technology? I'm thankful that Black people thought about what the world needed and provided those things.”
Humans have kept dogs as pets for more than 14,000 years. That close friendship inspires scientists to explore questions like yours.
I talked about how dogs age with my friend Ryan Baumwart. He’s a heart doctor for dogs. He teaches in the veterinary hospital at Washington State University.
I asked Baumwart if a dog year is equal to seven human years.
“I think it's a good general rule,” he said. “But some larger breed dogs like bullmastiffs and Great Danes have a shorter lifespan of 6 to 8 years. So if you do the math, they get shorted. Then some small breed dogs like Chihuahuas seem to live forever.”
There’s really nothing cuter than baby animals. Many animal parents invest lots of time into caring for their young and teaching them to survive.
I talked about your question with my friend Amber Adams-Progar. She’s an animal sciences professor at Washington State University. She’s also an expert in dairy cow behavior. She told me that non-human animals learn in ways that are like how humans learn.
From jellyfish to snakes to spiders, lots of animals use poison or venom. It helps them catch prey and defend themselves. Even the platypus and one very spicy primate called the slow loris use venom.
I talked about your question with my friend Blair Perry. He’s a biologist at Washington State University. He’s also a snake expert.
Perry told me the difference between poison and venom. They’re both toxic mixes of mostly proteins. But they get into your body in different ways. Poison is eaten, breathed in or absorbed through the skin. Venom is injected through a bite or sting.
When I reached out to my friend Christopher Clarke with your question, he said, “That’s so cool that a kid is asking about inflation!” I agree.
Clarke is an economics professor at Washington State University. He told me inflation is the average rise in prices for goods and services.
So, what are goods and services? Let’s say you go to a restaurant and order enchiladas. The enchiladas are goods. You can see them, touch them and taste them. Services are the other parts of your dining experience. The people who take your order, cook your food and wash your dishes are all providing services.
The price you pay for goods and services changes over time.
Maybe you dream of pointing your telescope toward distant galaxies. Or zooming in on microscopic life on Earth. Being a scientist is an amazing job. You can also do science for fun—no matter your age or anything else about you. It belongs to everyone.
I talked about science training with my friend Kalli Stephens. She’s earning her bachelor’s degree in genetics and cell biology from Washington State University. WSU has a strong undergraduate research program. So, Stephens has been working as a scientist while going to school.
When I read your question, I thought about elephants. There’s evidence that elephants have complex emotions—like grief when their relatives die or affection for humans who help them. Whales, dolphins, non-human primates and even dogs sometimes seem like they have complex emotions, too.
It makes us wonder if animals seek comfort and meaning the same ways humans do—like through religion. We truly don’t know the answer to your question. It’s something people have wondered about for a long time.
Exploring deep questions is the work of my friend Joe Campbell. He’s a philosopher at Washington State University.
We often think of religion as beliefs and behaviors. They relate to the supernatural—something beyond us and what we see in the natural world.
Campbell told me that underneath many religious beliefs and behaviors is a feeling: awe. It’s a proto-religious attitude. Proto means first.
My office is just down the road from the Washington State University composting facility. It processes more than 10,000 pounds of organic waste every month. That’s a lot of compost!
I talked about compost with my friend Jim Kropf. He works for WSU Extension. Extension programs connect universities with local communities. They offer classes and trustworthy, science-based resources that anyone can use online.
Kropf told me that composting is how nature recycles. “In the forest, leaves fall on the ground and come in contact with soil,” he said. “Worms, centipedes, microorganisms and fungi all work on those leaves to break them down into organic matter.”
Making compost is copying nature to make fertilizer for healthier gardens. It’s also a way to help our planet.
Starfish might have the coolest—and strangest—way of gobbling up a snack.
I learned all about it from my friend Cori Kane. She studied coral reefs when she was a biology Ph.D. student at Washington State University. Now she works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She writes policies to help protect the ocean and the animals that live there.
“Sea stars are probably one of the weirdest creatures. I don't know any other organism that basically barfs out its stomach to eat,” Kane said.
Yes, you heard that right. She said sea stars barf out their stomachs.
When I was a kitten, I loved collecting rocks and gems. So, I was very excited to talk about your question with my friend Johannes Haemmerli. He studies minerals in the School of the Environment at Washington State University.
Minerals are solids that form from non-living elements in nature. They have a very specific structure for how those elements are arranged. Haemmerli told me that nearly all gems are minerals or sometimes mixtures of minerals.
You’re right that gems form underground. A diamond forms when the element carbon is buried nearly 100 miles deep inside the Earth. It’s super-hot and there’s tons of pressure down there. Eventually the pressure pushes the carbon atoms together to form the mineral we call diamond. Above ground, where there is much less pressure, the same carbon can come together and form a mineral we call graphite. That’s the “lead” of your pencil.
Some people only like paper books. But I love the library app on my phone. It’s like having stacks of library books in my pocket.
To learn more about books, I talked with my friend Greg Matthews. He’s the rare books librarian at Washington State University. “The short answer would probably be the Romans,” Matthews said. “But Rome was a really vast empire. So, it could have been a Roman in North Spain. It could have been a Roman in Egypt.”
One of my favorite things to do is look at pond water with a microscope. I love to see all the teeny tiny critters zooming around in a single drop.
I talked about microorganisms, also called microbes, with my friend Claire Burbick. She’s a microbiologist at Washington State University. She told me the key trait for microbes is size. Microbes are micro—which means extremely small.
WSU’s campuses are on ceded land belonging to the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) Tribe and Palus people, traditional Cowlitz lands, traditional lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and historical Spokane Tribe lands. This story was written on land belonging to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
November is a great time to honor historical figures and Native American scientists changing the world right now.
I talked about this with Sara Mills, a Prevention Science graduate student at Washington State University. She’s a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes.
Mills’ research centers Native American student voices. She wants to figure out what makes those students feel like they belong.
“Representation is huge,” she said. “If you can see yourself in these spaces, then you're more willing to put yourself out there and be in those spaces. I met Native American faculty right away when I got to WSU. I don't know if I would have been able to visualize myself here if I hadn't.”
There are lots of things that make a place feel like home. Your home is probably full of sights, sounds and smells that feel familiar and cozy. Those things are important for animals in captivity, too.
To find out more, I talked with Charles Robbins, a wildlife biologist at Washington State University. He started the WSU Bear Center. It’s the only grizzly bear research center in the United States.
“The most important thing to bears and probably most animals is a feeling of safety—that they’re not being hurt, and the food is good,” Robbins said. “Probably all the same things that … » More …
Your brain weighs less than 3 pounds but has the power to move your whole body. That’s because it’s part of your nervous system.
Your brain and the spinal cord that runs down your back make up your central nervous system. You also have a peripheral nervous system made up of nerve cells. These connect your brain and spinal cord to all the other parts of your body.
The universe is a big place. Thinking about how we fit into it is part of what makes humans (and cats like me) special.
I talked about your question with my friend Afshin Khan who studied astrobiology and environmental science at Washington State University. Astrobiologists explore how life began. They also look for signs of life outside Earth.
Khan told me your question is a huge mystery.
“We have very good ideas about what could have happened,” she said. “In different labs around the world, we’ve gotten very close to simulating some of those conditions. But simulations can only get so … » More …
Why do moon rocks taste better than Earth rocks? They’re a little meteor! In all seriousness, your question is something humans wondered about for a long time.
I talked to my friend Michael Allen, astronomy professor at WSU about how the moon formed. He told me we figured out the answer in 1972. That’s shortly after humans visited the moon for the first time.
An octopus has three hearts and long arms with suction cups. It probably seems very different from you. But you have the main ingredients of octopus ink in your body, too!
I talked about octopus ink with my friend Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, associate professor in WSU’s School of the Environment. She told me that ink isn’t just an octopus thing. Most animals called cephalopods (sef-uh-luh-pods) make it. These include octopus, squid and cuttlefish.
Cephalopods including octopuses use color a lot. They have sacs of colored pigments all over their bodies. They use those sacs to change their body color. That helps them blend into their environment.
They also make and store a dark pigment in special ink sacs.
At the end of the day, you probably curl up in a cozy bed for a little shut eye. Unlike you, most spiders have eight eyes, and they never shut any of them. They don’t even have eyelids!
I talked about spider sleep with my friend Richard Zack, an entomologist and professor in WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. He also runs the biggest insect museum in the state of Washington at WSU. He told me that spiders and insects do rest. They nestle into a safe spot and enter a “stupor,” which means they’re very still.