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Ask Dr. Universe rcwebber

Dr. Universe: Why do we need to eat and drink? -Victoria, 7, MN

Just like a car needs gas to run, food is the body’s fuel. Food gives us energy, or the power to do work. It helps us run, jump, think, and do all kinds of things. That’s what I found out from my friend Alice Ma, a dietician at Washington State University. When you take a bite of food it goes down your throat, or esophagus, and down into your stomach. In the stomach and small intestine, things like bile, acid, and enzymes help digest, or break down your food so your body can absorb the parts it needs. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What are bees’ wings made of? -Natalia, 13, Kennewick, WA

Dear Natalia, Bee wings may be small, but they are really strong. I learned all about bee wings from my friend Melanie Kirby, a honey bee researcher at Washington State University. Kirby said you can think about bee wings as if they were a kite. If you make a kite out of thin tissue, it might rip. But if you make it out of a strong plastic film it will be stronger. Bee wings are made of a material called chitin (KITE-IN) and it’s a lot like keratin, the material that makes up your fingernails. Chitin is what makes up the wings on each side of the bee’s body. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: I am wondering if birds can smell because I have chickens and have seen their nostrils! –Lila, 9, Philadelphia, PA

Birds have nostrils, or nares, on their beaks that can help them smell all kinds of things. That’s what I found out from my friend Dave Oleyar, a scientist with HawkWatch who recently taught a course on ornithology at Washington State University. He said that when an animal breathes air, they can also breathe in different scents or combinations of molecules. The nose has receptors that pick up on scents and send information to the brain, including a part called an olfactory bulb. It’s all part of the olfactory system. You have an olfactory system, too. This system can help animals navigate the world through a sense of smell. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do some birds cheep loudly while other birds cheep quietly? -Traver, 4, Indiana 

That’s a great observation. Birds make all kinds of sounds and for lots of different reasons. When I got your question, I called up my friend Jessica Tir, a graduate student at Washington State University who studies songbirds. She said one of the main reasons a bird will make a loud sound is to attract a mate. When the birds find each other, they can make a nest for their eggs and wait for babies to hatch. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What gives leaves their shapes? Please reply back. Thanks a ton! -Pronoy, 9, San Jose, CA, USA

We can find all kinds of leaves on our planet. Just think of tiny pine needles, fern fronds, ivy vines, or a big banana leaf. My friend Eric Roalson is a professor at Washington State University who is very curious about plants. He said there are a few things that give leaves their shapes. The shape of a leaf can depend on the family history of a plant, the group it belongs to, and the environment where it grows up. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Here is my question. How is paper made? I asked this question because there are different kinds of paper and I'm curious about how it is made. Sincerely, Sonakshi, 9, Michigan

We can make paper in lots of different ways. It often starts with trees. In fact, one of the first kinds of paper we know about was made in China using rags, plants, and bark from mulberry trees. These kinds of materials are made up of parts called fibers. Fibers are what help give plants strength to stand up. Humans who eat plants like lettuce or celery have actually eaten some of these fibers. A lot of the clothes we wear come from plant fibers, too. Plant fibers are called cellulose. Humans aren’t able to digest these fibers because they are really hard to break down. But strong fibers are great for making paper. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why does soap get bubbly? Samuel, 9, East Peoria, IL

When you wash your hands with soap and water, a few different things happen to make bubbles. Just like you, water and soap are made up of parts called molecules. Water molecules really like to stick together. If you’ve ever jumped in a puddle or a pool, you may have even observed how water splashes in the shape of little drops. As water sticks together, it likes to form spheres. Read More ...

How are vaccines made? - Sibagh, 7, New York City, NY

It might seem strange, but a small piece of something dangerous can protect you against something much more dangerous. This idea has been around for a long time—and it works. To learn more, I talked to Guy Palmer at Washington State University. As a scientist who studies infectious disease, Palmer likes learning about how to protect both human and animal health. Vaccines are one way to accomplish this. Read More ...