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Ask Dr. Universe rcwebber

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do garden spiders hang upside down in the middle of their webs? -Abree, 10, New Jersey

Dear Abree,

That’s a great observation. Garden spiders and other orb-weaver spiders can crawl all around their webs, but we often see their heads pointing down toward the ground.  

My friend Todd Murray, an entomologist at Washington State University, told me about a group of scientists that had a question a lot like the one you’ve asked.

These scientists used mathematical models to learn about orb-weaver spiders and how they move around the web. They discovered spiders that wait with their head down for prey can reach prey faster than spiders that wait with head up for their prey.

While there are exceptions, … » More …

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Dr. Universe: With the coronavirus why is it effective to wear a mask? How does it make life safer? - Marin, age 12, in Ohio

Dear Marin, Whenever I go out and about, I make sure to wear my face mask. Like you, I wanted to find out exactly how they work. First, I talked to Marian Wilson, an assistant professor and nurse at Washington State University who is curious about how face masks protect people. “When we talk, sneeze, sing, or laugh, we spread droplets into the air all the time,” she said. “With the COVID-19 pandemic going on, we know people may have virus in their droplets.” Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How are gummies made? -Hayden, 11, Webb City, MO

Gummies can come in all different shapes and flavors. Maybe you’ve had gummy worms, gummy bears, or peach rings. It turns out that gummies require just a few simple ingredients. That’s what I found out from my friend Connie Remsberg, a pharmacist at Washington State University. She said making gummies requires a little gelatin, water, a mold, and some help from a grown-up. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do ants build mounds? – Isabelle, 4, Eagan, MN

Ants build mounds in all shapes and sizes. Beneath those piles of dirt, ants are building their underground homes.   That’s what I found out from my friend Rob Clark, an entomologist who studies bugs on plants. His job is to figure out if bugs make a plant sick or help the plant grow.   He told me ants are one of the most diverse insect families. Scientists know about nearly 13,000 species—and each ant species makes a different kind of nest. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Do robots have their own language? And is there a translator? - Hank, 8, Virginia

Robots do have their own language—and yes, there’s a translator. That’s what I found out from my friend Manoj Karkee, an engineer at Washington State University who is also really curious about robots. Karkee and his team work on lots of robots that help farmers do important jobs. They can program robots to do different tasks such as pick apples or pull weeds. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How are coins made? -Dahlia, 10, Olympia, WA

In the United States, pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and other coins are made through the U.S. Mint. It turns out, they’ve been making a lot more coins than usual during the global pandemic. But more on that in a moment. It takes both science and art to make coins. Coins are made from metals that have been mixed together. We call these kinds of metals alloys. The very first coins in the world were made thousands of years ago in Turkey from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. A penny is made from an alloy of copper and zinc. Read More ...

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 ...