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Ask Dr. Universe rcwebber

Why are people most commonly right-handed? Who/what deicides if we are left-handed or right-handed? Are you left-handed or right-handed? Mya, 8, Alexandria, VA

We don’t know exactly why so many people are right-handed, but one place we might look for answers is in the material that makes a person who they are: genes. The genes in your body help control all sorts of things from the color of your hair to your skin to your eyes. These traits can be passed down through generations—from grandparents to parents to you. My friend John Hinz, who is a right-handed professor at Washington State University, knows a lot about genes and the study of how organisms pass their genes through generations. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: How did people figure out how much a whole planet weighs? They could not have just put it on a scale! How did they do it? – Angel, 14, California

About 300 years ago during another pandemic, there was a person named Sir Isaac Newton who spent a lot of time at home thinking about the universe. He was thinking about how objects fall and started to wonder if the same force that made objects fall also kept the moon in its orbit. He called this force gravity. That’s what I found out from my friend Guy Worthey, an astronomer at Washington State University. Gravity plays a big part in the answer to your question, and we’ll explore that in just a moment. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do horses sense how you feel? –Taylor, 11, New Zealand

When I got your question, I called up my friend and veterinarian Dr. Macarena Sanz who had just finished checking up on the horses at the Washington State University Teaching Hospital. She was happy to help. “It’s a hard question to assess scientifically,” Sanz said. “But I think everybody who has worked with horses can tell you that horses really do have a certain sense about humans.” Read More ...

Hey, Dr. Universe: Why do we humans get sunburns when we are out in the sun too long? - Gavyn, 13, Indiana 

Humans need sunlight to help keep their bones, blood and other body systems healthy, but too much time in the Sun can sometimes leave people with a sunburn. Sunburns often strike when the body gets too much of a type of light, called ultraviolet light, from the Sun. As your body recognizes there is too much ultraviolet light, it turns on a defense system. The immune system, which responds to invaders like viruses and other harmful things like ultraviolet light, kicks in. Some people might see their skin get red or blistered. They might feel itchy or painful. But not everyone experiences sunburn in quite the same way. A big part of the answer to your question also has to do with human cells. My friend Cynthia Cooper, a researcher at Washington State University, knows a lot about cells and how they work. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How were Saturn’s rings made? -Amelia, 9, Washington State

We still don’t know exactly how the rings around Saturn formed, but scientists who study Saturn’s rings have come up with a couple of ideas. One common theory many scientists agree upon is that Saturn’s rings are made from the little leftover pieces of what used to be a moon. My friend David Atkinson is really curious about the solar system and told me more about it. He is a graduate of Washington State University and now works at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He also worked on the Cassini-Huygens space research mission which helped us learn more about Saturn, Saturn’s large moon Titan, and the entire Saturn system. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do trees give us air to breathe? – Jamar, 11, Vineland, New Jersey

Our planet is home to all kinds of different plants, and they help make a lot of the oxygen we breathe. To find out how plants make oxygen, I asked my friend Balasaheb Sonawane. Sonawane is a scientist at Washington State University who researches photosynthesis, or the ways plants use energy from the sun and make oxygen. He said that in a way, plants breathe, too. “They don’t have a nose or mouth,” Sonawane said. “They have tiny microscopic organs on their leaves called stomata.” Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How does toothpaste clean your teeth? -Lucy, 10, Pullman, WA

Dear Lucy, If you are anything like me, every day you squeeze a little toothpaste onto your toothbrush and brush your teeth. Toothpaste gets its cleaning power from a few different ingredients. My friend Mark Leid was happy to tell us about how they work. Leid spent part of his career teaching future dentists. He is also dean of the Washington State University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. First, he told me the outer covering of a tooth is called enamel. It’s the hardest tissue in the whole human body—even harder than bone—and it helps with things like chewing your food. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do touch screens work? -Nicholas, 11, Florida

Dear Nicholas,

When I got your question, I decided to do a little experiment. First, I tapped my paw on a tablet and sent a message to a friend. Next, I put on a pair of wool mittens and started typing, but the screen did not respond. Finally, I used a banana to see if I could use it to swipe the screen. It actually worked.

I wondered what exactly was going on here and decided to take our questions to my friend Praveen Sekhar. He’s an associate professor in the Washington State University School of Engineering and Computer Science.

Sekhar told me our … » More …

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Dr. Universe: Why does oil on the street look like a rainbow? -Jorgos, 10, Bothell, WA

When it rains, sometimes we can see oil on the street rise to the top of puddles and spread out into a rainbow of colors. One of the main reasons we see color is because of light, said my friend Cigdem Capan, a physics instructor at Washington State University. She reminded me that when our eyes sense colors, we can trace those colors back to different wavelengths of light. Perhaps you can make some waves in the air with your hand. Make small, tight waves. Now make a big, wide waves. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Do flying squirrels really fly? - Gwendolyn, 9

Flying squirrels may not really fly, but they do have flaps of skin on their bodies that act like parachutes and help them glide through the air. My friend Todd Wilson told me all about it. He’s a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and graduate of Washington State University who researches Pacific Northwest ecosystems and the animals that call them home— including flying squirrels. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do dogs and cats spin around before they sit down? – Antonio, 10, Richmond, Va.

Dear Antonio, That’s a great observation about cats and dogs. Even I wasn’t sure why cats spin around before they sit down, so I took your question to my friend Dr. Jessica Bell. She is a veterinarian at the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital and has seen quite a few cats and dogs walk in a little circle before they sit down. “It’s a common thing we observe as veterinarians, but we can't talk to cats and dogs and ask them ‘why,’” she said. “From a behavioral standpoint, it probably stems back to their wild instinct.” Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do some cheeses stink? – Cody, 11

When you take a whiff of stinky cheese, that smell is coming from one of its very important ingredients: microorganisms. Microorganisms are so small, you’d need a microscope to see them, but sometimes they give off a big stink. To find out more about stinky cheese, I talked to my friend Minto Michael. Michael is a professor of dairy science at Washington State University and told me microorganisms do a few different jobs to help make cheese. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: When frost freezes, it makes shapes like flowers and ferns. Why does it look like that? - Grace, 13, in Calgary

Dear Grace, You’re right: frost can sometimes form patterns that look like the ferns or flowers we find in nature. Those frosty shapes we see on the surface of windows start out as water in the air, said my friend Kai Carter. Carter is a meteorologist with Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet team. Kai Carter, Field Meteorologist If you’ve ever had a glass of ice water, you may have noticed droplets formed on the outside of the glass. The droplets actually came from water in the air. This water condensed from the air onto the surface of your cup, which means it turned from a gas to a liquid. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Can a shadow make a shadow? – Aven, 7, Palouse, WA

Dear Aven, When we look around our world, we can find all kinds of shadows. One way we can explore the answer to your shadow question is with a little experiment. My friend Anya Rasmussen, a physics professor at Washington State University, told me all about it. First, you will need to cast your shadow on a wall. Rasmussen reminded me shadows form when an object—such as your body— blocks light and keeps the rays from reaching a surface—like a wall. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we have seasons? -Bella, 9, North Carolina

Dear Bella,

It turns out seasons can be quite different depending on where you live. But no matter where you live, the reason for the seasons has to do with the way the Earth rotates.

To find out exactly why we have seasons, I talked to my friend Vivienne Baldassare, a physics and astronomy professor at Washington State University.

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Dr. Universe: How many black holes are in the galaxy and the universe? -Krisha, 9, New Jersey

Dear Krisha, While we can’t see black holes with our eyes, astronomers have figured out how to spot these objects in our universe. One astronomer who is really curious about understanding black holes is my friend Sukanta Bose, a researcher at Washington State University. First, he told me there are different kinds of black holes. Supermassive black holes can be millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun. We have a supermassive black hole in our own Milky Way galaxy called Sagittarius A*, which is pronounced as Sagittarius A-star. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do trees have sap? -Aliyah, 8, Kirkland, WA  

Just as blood moves important stuff around the human body, sugary sap moves important things around a tree. My friend Nadia Valverdi told me all about it. She’s a researcher at Washington State University who studies how apple and cherry trees survive in different environments. When we eat food, like a delicious apple or a handful of cherries, we get important nutrients. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do people stain glass to make it all the colors it can be? - Emily, 10, Edmonds, WA

Dear Emily, Ever since humans discovered they could use sand to make glass, they’ve been experimenting with it. They even learned how to control the colors. My friend Dustin Regul is a stained glass artist and painter who teaches fine arts at Washington State University. He told me more about where glass gets its color. “It’s actually metals that help change the color of the glass,” he said. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why does the internet go down? -Mia, 11, Sheridan, Wyoming

The internet has helped many people connect with classmates, friends and family during the pandemic. But you’re right, sometimes the connection gets lost. My friend Dingwen Tao, an assistant professor of computer science at Washington State University, said we can think about the internet like a highway of information. You may remember from our question about how the internet works that information, like the data that makes up your favorite cat video or science website, travels through electronic signals we cannot see with our eyes. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do you make cider? -Julianna, 7

We can make cider with juice from apples. There are many different kinds of apples and a few different ways to squeeze out the juice. My friend Bri Valliere told me all about it. She’s a food scientist at Washington State University who knows a lot about cider. The first step is to pick out the apples. Honeycrisp apples will make a sweet cider. Granny Smiths are more acidic and will make a tart cider. “We could make a single batch of one kind, or we could mix different kinds of apples together and see how it turns out,” she said. “No matter what, it’s going to taste good.” Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do mushrooms grow in rings? We have a lot of giant ones in our yard right now! - Layne, 8, Spokane 

When you see a ring of mushrooms, it’s likely they are exploring for food under the ground. Giant mushrooms in your backyard are not animals or plants. They are part of another class of living organisms called fungi. But like you and me, they do need food to survive. That’s what I found out from my friend David Wheeler, an assistant professor at Washington State University, who knows a lot about fungi. He said the mushrooms are just one part of fungi. The other part that explores the soil for food actually lives under the soil. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: I heard a little bit about how COVID-19 started, but I don’t know much about it. What happened?  - Colleen, 10, Louisa, VA 

It turns out scientists around the world are investigating this very question. It’s likely the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, started in an animal before jumping to humans. But exactly how it all happened is still a kind of mystery.      That’s what I found out from my friend Michael Letko, a researcher at Washington State University who studies viruses and how they cross different species. Read More ...

How does exercise help us? What is the best exercise?

When we exercise, it helps the body and mind in so many different ways. One important muscle that benefits from exercise is the heart. Maybe you’ve felt your heart beat harder and faster when you run or climb at the playground. As the heart gets stronger, it also gets better at pumping blood around the body. That’s really important because your blood is full of oxygen you need to help fuel all your body’s systems. That’s what I found out from my friend Chris Connolly, an associate professor at Washington State University who knows a lot about the science of exercise. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we get tears when we yawn? – Ella, 8, Australia

You’re right, a lot of people get tears when they yawn. When you yawn, you actually use lot of muscles in your face. Maybe you can feel the stretch in your jaw, cheeks and eyes. As the muscles in your face contract, they can put a lot of pressure on the plumbing system that is in charge of making your tears. That’s what I found out from my friend Karin Biggs, an adjunct professor at Washington State University who teaches anatomy. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do apes walk on their knuckles? - Sam, 10, Benton, Arkansas

Dear Sam, A lot of apes walk on their knuckles. Gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos use their knuckles for stability and balance. That’s what I found out from my friend Nanda Grow, an anthropologist and wildlife biologist at Washington State University who studies primates. “Gorillas and chimpanzees both do knuckle walking, but they do different kinds,” she said. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we get pins and needles when we don't move for a long time? -Joycelyn, 9

If you’ve ever had a leg or an arm “fall asleep,” the nerves in your brain and body were sending you an important message. That’s what I found out from my friend Darrell Jackson, a researcher at Washington State University who studies how drugs affect the nervous system. The nervous system is made up of bundles of nerve fibers that help humans think, feel and navigate the world. These nerves also help people sense things like temperature, vibrations, pressure and pain. Read More ...

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 ...

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 ...

Dr. Universe: Do babies have ways of communicating? –Jalen, 12, North Carolina

Dear Jalen, Babies can communicate in a few different ways. For the most part, they use their emotions. Humans come into the world crying, but that’s actually a good thing. In a way, babies start communicating from the moment they are born. Of course, it can be hard for their caregivers to know exactly what they mean with all those cries. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do you make a snow globe? – Alexa, 10, Salem, MO

Dear Alexa, If you have a long winter break ahead and are looking for a great way to spend the afternoon, you might just want to make your very own snow globe. There are a few different ways to build a snow globe, but the first thing you’ll need is the perfect container. To make a small snow globe, you might use something like an empty baby food jar. Or maybe if you want to make a bigger snow globe, you could choose an empty spaghetti sauce jar. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why are evergreen trees green all year? – Emily, 10, Silverdale, Wash.

Whenever I go for a hike in the woods, I can’t help but admire the tall evergreen trees. No matter what time of year it is, the pines, hemlocks, cedars, and spruces are usually all green. My friend Bert Cregg is also very curious about the lives of trees. He graduated from Washington State University and is a professor at Michigan State University. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do microwaves hum? – T.J., Middle School, Ohio

Dear T.J.,

Long before humans invented microwave ovens, they had to rely on stoves or an open flame to heat up their food.

These days, we can warm up food in a matter of minutes, or even seconds. A lot of parts had to be invented to make that all happen. These parts help electricity flow through the microwave in lots of different ways.

One part called a transformer helps move the electricity from one area to another. As it does so, it may vibrate or shake a little, and that tiny movement can cause a humming noise.

Electricity is actually a big part of … » More …

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Dear Dr. Universe: How do people name continents or places on earth? Thank you. - Lila Grace, 8, Virginia

Our world is full of so many different places. They get their names in lots of different ways. One way a place might get a name is from the person who explored it. The Americas are named after an Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. But Amerigo wasn’t the first person to explore these continents. There were already people living there when he arrived. Still, “America” was named after Amerigo. For the most part, people name things because they are claiming possession of a place. Because of that, sometimes the original names of places are lost or erased. That’s what I found out from my friend Theresa Jordan, a history professor who teaches a geography course at Washington State University. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do cows make milk? How do humans get milk from a cow? – John, 4, Colton, Ore.  

Quite a few things have to happen for a cow to make milk. First, the cow has to eat lots of food, such as hay, grass, or grain. You may have heard that a cow will regurgitate her food, or sort of spit it up, and then chew on it again.   A cow will chew this mashed up food, or her cud, so she can get all the good stuff out of it—protein, sugar, fat, vitamins, and other nutrients. Milk is actually mostly water, plus those good nutrients.   Read More ...

Why do we have eyebrows? -Zach, 11, Kettle Falls, Wash.

Dear Zach, Humans have hair on their heads, arms, and as you mention, even the face. If you feel your face, you might feel some small, fuzzy hairs on your cheeks and forehead. But the hair of your eyebrows is usually a bit thicker. I asked my friend Mark Mansperger why we have eyebrows. He’s an anthropologist at Washington State University. Eyebrows appear to serve two main purposes, he said. One of the purposes of eyebrows is to keep things like rain or sweat from rolling down your forehead and into your eyes. “It guards your eyes in that way,” Mansperger says. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why does the moon have phases? – Manahil, 14, Pakistan

When astronomers looked at the night sky long ago, they also wondered about questions just like this one. You know, I was also curious about why the moon looks so different at different times of the month. I visited with my friend Jose Vazquez, an astronomer at Washington State University, to learn more about it. He said that the way the moon looks to us has to do with two other objects in our solar system: our sun and earth. Read More ...

How To Properly Wear A Face Mask

Hey cool cats. I’m Dr. Universe. Whenever I go out and about, I make sure to wear my face mask. One way that germs enter the body is through the nose and mouth. The mouth and nose are interconnected. That’s why it’s so important that my face mask covers them both. I clean my hands before and after handling the mask and to avoid exposure to germs, I don’t want to touch the front of the mask. When I take off the mask, I use the loops or ties. When worn properly, this little piece of fabric can help make a big difference. We can all do our part to stay safe and healthy.

How To Properly Wash Your Hands

Hey cool cats, I’m Dr. Universe. When I come home from exploring, I always wash my hands. It takes about 20 seconds. I use soap and water. To keep track of time, I sing my ABCs. It’s important to wash the hands between the fingers and under the nails, anywhere germs might be hiding. I also wash up before making food, eating, using the bathroom, or touching my ears, nose, or mouth, places where germs can enter the body. With a little soap, water, and maybe even a song, we can all do our part to stay safe and healthy.

What does social distancing mean?

Hey cool cats, I’m Dr. Universe. When I run errands or explore the outdoors, I make sure to practice social distancing. That means keeping at least six feet of distance between me and others who do not live in my house. How wide is six feet? The length of a female lion, The wingspan of a bald eagle, or about three cats. It’s important to social distance because germs can spread from person-to-person. That’s why I like to give my neighbors plenty of space on the sidewalk and in the grocery store aisle. We can all do our part to stay safe and healthy.

What question should Dr. Universe answer next?

This time, you decide. Elementary students around the world can cast their vote and help determine which question Dr. Universe and her friends at Washington State University will answer in an upcoming column. Students anywhere around the world can submit their votes by this Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: My mom says video games and too much TV rot my brain. What does that mean? How does that happen? Does my brain turn to slime? – Tree Family Kids, 3, 5, 7, Dundee, Michigan

If you play video games or watch too much television, you don’t have to worry about your brain actually turning to slime. But it is true that some video games and television shows can take away some of your energy without giving you much in return. When we are not being active with our bodies, too much screen time can wear us down. It not only wears down the brain, but also the body. And at the same time, some video games and stories can often help us learn better. That’s what I found out from my friend Jonah Firestone, a researcher at Washington State University who knows a lot about virtual reality, video games, and learning. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What does it mean to go brain dead? – Noelle, 10, Sumner, WA

Let’s say we wanted to find out what kind of electrical activity was happening inside your brain at this very moment. Yep, you read that right: your brain is full of electricity. It actually generates enough electricity to power a lightbulb. In fact, the tiny cells in your body use electricity to send messages to each other. That’s part of what helps the brain and body communicate. I decided to visit my friend Samantha Gizerian, a neuroscientist at Washington State University, to find out more about our brains. She said if we wanted to observe activity in a human brain, we could do a test called an electroencephalogram (uh-lek-trow-uhn-seh-ful-luh-gram), or EEG for short. We’d attach some small discs with thin wires, or electrodes, to a person’s head. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: If snakes smell with their tongues, what do they do with their noses? – A.J., 5, Kennewick, WA

You’re right, snakes have an amazing sense of smell. They can use their tongues to pick up on all kinds of scents in the air. Whenever we smell something in the air, we are actually sniffing tiny building blocks called molecules. These molecules are what make up the scents of everything around us—things like baked bread, fresh-cut grass, and warm cookies. If you were a snake, you might sniff out the scent of a slug or mouse. You’d use your tongue to pull the molecules from the air into your mouth. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we have a tailbone? -Tyler, 15, East Liverpool, England

Dear Tyler,

At the very bottom of the human spine is a bone that sticks out a bit called the coccyx (cox-ix). We sometimes call it the “tailbone,” but it is actually made up of several different spinal bones.

In some animals that actually have tails, those different bones at the bottom of the spine help them move their tail around. But in humans, those bones partially fused together.

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Dr. Universe: Why do we have nightmares? -Kourtney, California,  10

You are running through the woods and a bear is chasing you, when all of a sudden you wake up in your bed and realize it was just a scary dream. Our nightmares can sometimes feel super scary, even if what’s happening isn’t real. Fear is a natural part of being a human. In fact, you may have even felt shaky or sweaty after waking up from a bad dream. It’s all part of something we call the fight or flight response. When humans are faced with something scary, this response helps them decide if they should face their fears and fight or run away by taking flight. This fight or flight response works even when you are asleep. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do people like different kinds of music? – Skyler, 14, Michigan

Dear Skyler, When I got your question, it was music to my ears. Humans have been experimenting with all kinds of sounds, lyrics, and instruments for thousands of years. There are hundreds of genres of music, so while you might like one kind, a friend might like something completely different. Or maybe you became friends because of your similar taste in music. My friend Horace Alexander Young is a musician and professor at Washington State University. When I went to visit him, he had been practicing his saxophone and offered to help out with an answer to your question. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How did the first horse change into the horses of today? -Ava, 7, Kennewick, Wash.

We can learn a lot about animals of the past from fossils, the imprints or remains we find in rocks. One fossil found in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming helped us learn about the oldest known horses. These horses are called Sifrhippus (siff-RIP-us). They had four toes on each foot and were very small. Believe it or not, these tiny horses weighed only about ten pounds. That’s just a bit heavier than your average house cat. According to the fossil records, Sifrhippus lived somewhere between 54 and 30 million years ago. When I went to visit my friend Lane Wallett, she told me all about the history of horses. As a veterinarian and a paleontologist at Washington State University, she is very curious about both horses and fossils. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do people have different accents? Why do we have them and need them? -Florrie P., 9, UK

Whether you say hello, ‘ello, hey ya’ll, toe-may-toe or toe-ma-toe, we all have a kind of accent that often comes from where we live or who lives around us. That’s what I found out from my friend Nancy Bell, a Washington State University professor who is really curious about the way language works. She told me more about why we have accents and why we need them. There are a lot of different accents. You might have friends who speak English but have a Scottish, Irish, Australian, or French accent. Even in the U.S., there are many accents from the east to the west to the mid-west to the south. In those regions, people also speak many types of English such as Chicano English, African American English, or Indian English. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do trees help the air? – Ella, 12

Take a big, deep breath. As you inhale and exhale, you can probably feel the air taking up space in your lungs. The air we breathe is made up of a few different things. It includes gases such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide—just to name a few. Animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. But in the plant world, it’s the opposite. Trees, plants, and even algae in the ocean, take in carbon dioxide from the air and, using the energy of the sun, transform it into the oxygen we all breathe. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: How do we talk? – Emmy, 7, Wash. State

Dear Emmy, When you were a little kid, maybe you played Peek-a-Boo or sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” These kinds of games and songs have a lot of the different sounds we make when we are first developing speech. A lot of humans start out playing with speech through cooing and crying. At about six months old, this cooing and crying turns to babbling. A baby might make sounds such as ma-ma, pa-pa, or ba-ba. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why are dogs important to humans? Stephani R., 9, Washington State

Dear Stephani, Dogs are important to humans in all kinds of ways. The connection between the two goes back thousands of years. A long time ago, wolves would trail along after humans on hunting trips and eat any scraps they could find. Eventually these wolves evolved into dogs that helped protect the hunters and gatherers. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do bags form under your eyes? –Sophia Ivy, 7, New Providence, NJ

Dear Sophia Ivy, If you’ve ever stayed up late and woke up really early, you may have noticed a little puffiness or swelling under your eyes. When I asked my friend Devon Hansen about the answer to your question, she said that we first have to know a bit about how sleep works. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What are shooting stars made of? – Erin, 11, Arkansas

If you are anything like me, you probably like watching for shooting stars in the night sky. A shooting star, or a meteor, is usually a small rock that falls into Earth’s atmosphere. When I went to visit my friend Michael Allen, a senior instructor of astronomy and physics at Washington State University, he told me a lot of shooting stars are no bigger than a pencil eraser. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why can’t sea turtles pull back into their shell? I was at the Saint Louis Zoo and they said tortoises and other turtles can pull back into their shells. – Tyler, 7, Missouri

There are more than 350 species of turtles that live on our planet. While many of these turtles live on land, others live in the sea. Depending on where a turtle lives, its body will be a little different. Turtles have adapted to live in different environments and they have traits that help them survive in those places. As you mentioned, a lot of turtles and tortoises on land have the ability to pull, or retract, their head into their body. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we sneeze? -Nyuma, 10, North Carolina

Imagine you are home sick from school or are just playing outside when all of a sudden—ah-ah-ah-choo! It might seem like that sneeze came out of nowhere, but a lot of things went on in the brain and body to make it happen. That’s what I found out from my friend Hans Haverkamp, a scientist at Washington State University who is really curious about the human body and how it works. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How does the moon glow? -Reece, Pullman, Wash.

Our moon is one of the brightest objects in the night sky. But unlike a lamp or our sun, the moon doesn’t produce its own light. Light can travel in lots of different ways. Moonlight is actually sunlight that shines on the moon and bounces off. The light reflects off old volcanoes, craters, and lava flows on the moon’s surface. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What’s the best story ever made in the world? – Jada, 13, New Jersey

Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. At first, they told these stories out loud, then they started to write. There are more than a hundred million published books on our planet now and to find out which one is best, I visited my friend Matthew Jockers. He’s a professor at Washington State University who combines his love of stories with computer science to research what makes some books bestsellers. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Back when cell phones weren’t a thing, how could you place a call from across the ocean? Were there wires under the ocean? -Tali, 9, Seattle, Wash.

Long before telephones, if you wanted to say “hi” to friend across the ocean you’d probably write them a letter and send it over on a ship. But in the last hundred years or so, we’ve been able to connect across the ocean much faster. And yes, it often required thousands of miles of wires, or cables, deep in the sea. That’s what I found out from my friend Bob Olsen, a professor of electrical engineering at Washington State University, who told me all about the telephone. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do people litter? – Jenny, 11, California

There is a lot of litter on our planet, but it hasn’t always been that way. For most of human history, people made stuff out of things they found in nature. They might make tools out of rocks or sticks. These things break down and become part of the soil again. It wasn’t until the invention of new materials, like plastic, that we started creating more litter. In fact, along with the rise of these new materials came the word “litterbug.” Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do we dance? – Helen H., 11, California

If we traveled around the world, we would see all kinds of dancers. We might see classical ballerinas in Russia. We might see break dancers performing on the streets of New York. We might even see tango dancers in Argentina. While the exact reasons we dance remains a mystery, there are a few theories about it. That’s what I found out from my friend Ed Hagen, an anthropologist at Washington State University who has researched the roots of dance. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do you make mummies? -Michael, 7, Arizona

When we think of mummies, we might imagine the kind from ancient Egypt wrapped up in linen. But there are lots of ways to make mummies—and they can even form in nature. That’s what I found out from my friend Shannon Tushingham, an archaeologist at Washington State University and director of the WSU Museum of Anthropology. Read More ...

Hi Dr. Universe: Are whales smart? -Tishawnie P., 9, Massachusetts

Dear Tishawnie,

Whales can learn to do all kinds of amazing things. Humpback whales learn how to blow bubbles and work together to hunt for fish. Dolphins, a kind of toothed whale, teach their babies different sounds. It’s a kind of language the young dolphin will know for life.

But to find out just how smart whales really are, I asked my friend Enrico Pirotta, a Washington State University researcher who studies how blue whales make long journeys across the ocean.

Let’s talk intelligence

Before he revealed the answer to your question, he shared a bit more about intelligence. Usually people talk about intelligence … » More …

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Dr. Universe: How do plants know when it’s spring? -Hannah, 3

When we see little green plants sprouting up from the soil, it is indeed a sign that spring has arrived. To find out how they know to grow, or germinate, I asked my friend Camille Steber. In her U.S. Department of Agriculture lab at Washington State University, she studies the source of almost all plants: seeds. A seed holds pretty much all the information a plant needs to know how to grow. The shell that holds all the seed parts inside even contains food for the plant. But the seed is very dry and needs to sense clues from outside to know when to germinate at the right time. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: How do lasers work? -Manna, 12, India

Dear Manna,

Humans use lasers for everything from scanning barcodes and putting on light shows to performing delicate eye surgery and measuring the distances between objects in space.

Cats also like to chase lasers, but I wasn’t sure how they worked. I asked my friend Chris Keane, a physics professor at Washington State University. Keane came to WSU from the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he helped work on a laser as big as a football stadium.

The light we see

First, we have to know a bit about light. Whether it’s light from our sun or your flashlight, … » More …

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Dear Dr. Universe: I have a question for you. Why do you get dizzy when you read on the road? -Rebecca, 10

Without even thinking about it, humans can use their eyes, ears, sense of touch, and brain to keep their balance. But sometimes these senses get a little mixed up. Imagine you are in the car reading your favorite book. All of a sudden the road starts winding. As you look down at your book, your eyes focus on the pages. The book doesn’t appear to be moving, so the eyes send a signal to your brain that you could be sitting still. At the same time, something is stirring in your inner ears. Lots of tiny little hairs called cilium are inside your ears doing an important job. They help you sense how your head is moving in the world. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What can I do to help stop ocean pollution? -Hailey, 10

It’s great to hear you want to help our oceans. After all, they do a lot for us. Life in the ocean provides much of the oxygen we breathe and is also a source of food for many animals, including humans. One of the most important things we can do to prevent more pollution is to keep our garbage, especially plastic, out of the ocean. That’s what I found out from my friend Richelle Tanner, a marine biologist and researcher at Washington State University. While a lot of plastic ends up in the ocean, it actually started under the Earth’s surface in the form of oil, leftovers of plants and animals that died long ago. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: How do houses get built? -OWL School Students, United Kingdom

Humans have built all kinds of houses throughout history. During the Ice Age, humans made their homes in big caves. A few thousand years later, people figured out how to fire up a hot oven and bake their own clay bricks. A lot of the first houses made of these bricks didn’t even have front doors. To get in the house, you climbed up a ladder to the roof and used another ladder to get down inside. “As soon as humans left their caves and started settling in cities, architecture has been with us,” said my friend Mona Ghandi. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do flowers smell so nice? – Miles, 5

Flowers not only smell nice to humans, but also to many insects and birds who help the flowers do a really important job. Let’s imagine that you are a bee or a butterfly. You don’t have a nose on your face, but instead use your two antennae to smell things. As you fly around, you catch a whiff of chemicals floating in the air. Down below, you see a field of daisies. The flowers are releasing some chemicals, which are the building blocks of a smell. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How many peas would fit in the sun? -Keegan, 8

Our sun is so massive, you could fit more than one million earths inside of it. To find out how many peas would fit inside the biggest object in our solar system, I decided to ask my friend and mathematician Kimberly Vincent at Washington State University. Vincent and her students said that to figure out how much of something can fit inside the sun, we need to know the volume of the sun. The volume is how much space something takes up. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: How many different types of plankton are there? Are there freshwater plankton? – Arielle, 11

We can find millions and millions of plankton in bodies of water all over the world—from oceans, rivers, and lakes to ponds and mud puddles. That’s what I found out from my friend Julie Zimmerman, a scientist with the Aquatic Ecology Lab at Washington State University. In the lab, researchers can use powerful microscopes to get an up-close look at these tiny creatures. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do gadgets need batteries? How do they work? -Shereen and Jasmine, 8, Florida

Dear Shereen and Jasmine, Batteries can power up all kinds of gadgets. To find out how batteries work, I decided to visit my friend and materials engineer Min-Kyu Song. He makes batteries in his lab at Washington State University. As you might know, materials are made up of atoms—and atoms have tiny parts called electrons. If you’ve ever felt a spark when you touched a doorknob, you’ve felt electrons making the jump from your body to the door. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we get phobias? -Ryan, 13, Hillarys, Western Australia

We all experience fear in our lives. It is a useful tool that helps humans and other animals survive. I happen to be afraid of dogs, thunderstorms, and water. But fears are quite different from phobias. A phobia is an intense fear of an object or situation, often one that you actually don’t need to fear. It can create a lot of anxiety. It can cause your heart rate to speed up, make it hard to breathe, and trigger nervousness, vomiting, sweating, or dizziness. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we get morning breath? -Stephanie, 10

Dear Stephanie, If you’ve ever caught a whiff of someone’s stinky morning breath, or even your own, you know it can be pretty rotten. We can trace the smell back to tiny culprits that live in our mouths. They are called microbes and they live around your gums, between your teeth, and on your tongue. Read More ...