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Why is the map the way it is?

Dear Dr. Universe: Why is the map the way it is?

– Pablo, Spokane, Wash.

Dear Pablo,

Next time you eat an orange, try getting the peel off in one piece. Next, try to flatten out your peel. You’ll likely find it a bit tricky to make something round perfectly flat.

The same is true when we map our three-dimensional world onto a flat surface. It doesn’t work very well. That’s what I found out when I went to visit my friend Rick Rupp, a Washington State University researcher.

Rupp is an expert on geographic information systems, which can help us capture and analyze the geography of our planet. He explained that maps can show us all kinds of things and even help us solve problems.

For example, maybe you want to find the quickest way to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Believe it or not, that’s why the map in a lot of classrooms looks the way it does. It was designed to help sailors navigate the seas.

If you look at this map, you’ll see the U.S. and South America on the left, Africa, Europe Asia, and Australia on the right. There’s the Arctic up north and a big landmass of Antarctica down south.

Since it’s hard to get something three-dimensional translated to two-dimensional surface, map makers have to find the best way to communicate the information. Sometimes they make what are called projections. The map we see in many classrooms is a Mercator projection, named after the map maker Geradus Mercator who made it in the 1500s.

While this map might be great for getting across the Atlantic, you might want to find a different map if you are looking to find precise location and sizes of different lands.

Rupp said that on this map Greenland looks just about as big as Africa. But Greenland is actually about 16 times smaller than Africa. And while Alaska looks like a giant frontier, it’s actually smaller than Mexico.

Satellite imaging in the last few decades helped us get a better 3-D image of our planet. We can’t see our whole planet at once, so satellites out in space take pictures of our Earth. This is helping us put together the puzzle of our planet’s geography.

Maps have all kinds of purposes and Rupp has even helped farmers map different kinds soils in Africa from his office right in Washington State. If you made a map, what might it look like? Maybe it would help solve a problem. Maybe it can take you on an adventure. Grab a paper and pencil. Maybe you’ll map out your house, your neighborhood, or even your state. Tell me how it goes sometime at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

 

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

3 Ways to Your Explore Your World from Dr. Rick Rupp

  • Try out a new view of your world. Compare different map projections here.
  • Play with this interactive map to explore actual sizes of countries.
  • Make your own map. Here are some ideas from kids featured on National Geographic.

Do bugs get headaches?

Dear Dr. Universe: I have a question for you about ants. From what I searched on Google, an ant has a nervous system, blood, open circular system, muscles, and a brain. So, Dr. Universe, the question is, do ants or other insects get headaches? Cause they work hard.

–Joseph, 14, Singapore

Dear Joseph,

If you’ve ever had a headache, it might have felt like pain was radiating right out of your brain. » More …

Why are there different blood types?

Dr. Universe: Why are there different blood types?

-Sarah, Tacoma, Wash.  

Dear Sarah,

At this very moment, several quarts of blood are circulating through your body at nearly 4 mph. But as you’ve pointed out, not everyone’s blood is the same.

Your question made me wonder exactly what we mean when we talk about blood types. I decided to ask my friend Amber Fyfe-Johnson, a researcher at Washington State University who studies cardiovascular diseases–diseases of the blood vessels– in kids.

Believe it or not, she said, there are more than 20 different blood groups. We’ll stick to the main one for now: ABO. There are 4 different types in this group: A, B, O, and AB.

You have trillions of blood cells. Each blood type refers to a specific marker on a red blood cell. It’s kind of like a little flag.

In the early 1900s, an Austrian doctor named Karl Landsteiner discovered three of the little flags. Today, we call these three flags A, B, and O.

These little markers make blood types compatible with each other. If a person with Type A blood is given Type B blood, his or her body sees the Type B surface flag as foreign and rejects it.

Meanwhile, Type O doesn’t have those surface markers. There is nothing on the surface of the red blood cell to reject. Type O blood can be transferred to pretty much anyone who needs it.

Fyfe-Johnson explained that the blood types we have today evolved a very long time ago. Type A is the most ancient blood type and has been found in hominids – or pre-humans. Scientists can use DNA from some blood cells found in fossils to help figure this out. Type O probably originated next, about 5 million years ago. Scientists are still trying to pinpoint when exactly each blood type evolved.

As is often the case, there are a few ways to think about the answer to your question.

One way to think about it is that our parents pass genetic information about our blood types down to us. It’s part of our DNA. Sometimes there’s a change, or mutation, in DNA.

“These different blood types evolved as a result of genetic mutations, but what caused certain blood types to be more successful is likely exposure to infectious diseases or other environmental pressures,” Fyfe-Johnson said.

The kinds of blood types that survive infections are often the ones that outlive the others.

For example, cells that are infected with a disease called malaria don’t stick to Type O or Type B red blood cells. Those with Type A blood who are infected with malaria are more likely to have clumps of cells form that can be harmful. Especially when they form in places like the brain or heart.

People with Type A blood are more likely to have serious complications or die as a result of malaria, whereas people with other blood types could survive. This happens with many kinds of diseases, she said.

“The short story is that blood types probably evolved as a way to fight infectious diseases or other environmental pressures,” she said. “Blood types that survived were more likely to be successful.”

In a way, it’s all about survival of the fittest blood.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Why do weeds grow sooo fast?

Dr. Universe: Why do weeds grow sooo fast?

– Leah, 9, British Columbia

Dear Leah,

If you’re like me, you’ve picked up a little dandelion fluff ball and blown the seeds around. Weeds like these make a lot of seeds. They get picked up by the wind and planted far and wide. And as you observe, they grow pretty fast, too. » More …

How does water in the ocean move?

Dear Dr. Universe:

HOW DOES WATER IN THE OCEAN MOVE? I THINK IT’S BECAUSE OF THE WIND.

–Case, 5, Yakima

Dear Case,

You know, most cats like to stay a comfortable distance from water.

But when I got your science question about our big ocean, I was ready to jump right in.

Ocean water moves in all kinds of ways. Waves curl and crash on the shore. Big conveyer belts of water, currents, flow for thousands of miles around our planet. The tides go out and come back in.

And yes, the wind plays a big part in all of it. That’s what I found out when I went to visit my friend Jeff Vervoort, a geologist and professor of oceanography at Washington State University.

If you stand on the shore, you can often hear and feel the ocean breeze. On windy days, waves start stirring. The smallest waves, called capillaries, start growing as the wind blows across their surfaces.

The stronger the wind blows, the bigger the waves can get. They can reach great heights—some as tall as six-story buildings. When the wave reaches shallower waters, it will start to curl, then break.

If you’re anything like me, you might be wondering where the wind comes from, too. Vervoort explained that our planet is rotating around on its tilted axis. The sun heats the Earth unevenly as it turns. These conditions actually affect the air and wind patterns on the planet surface. All of this moving air pushes the water in the ocean around.

Vervoort pulled down an Earth-shaped beach ball from the shelf in his office. He explained that winds blow in different directions. If Earth wasn’t rotating on a tilted axis, winds would blow very differently.

But, because of the Earth’s spin, wind belts in the northern hemisphere bend to the right. It also makes the winds in the southern hemisphere go to the left. Ocean currents bend in the same way, caused by the Coriolis effect.

The moving water can sometimes also act like a food delivery system. Some currents deliver important sources of nutrients and oxygen down to animals that live in the deep ocean.

Other currents bring up nutrients for animals that live near the surface. These nutrients allow tiny organisms—plankton—to live and grow to great numbers. These very tiny plankton get eaten by bigger animals like krill. Krill are an important food source for even bigger animals such as whales.

Meanwhile, back up on the surface tides go in and out. While wind impacts the tides a little bit, they mostly happen because gravity from the moon, and a little less from the sun’s gravity, pull water on Earth.

For the most part when it comes to water moving in the ocean, your hypothesis is correct, Case. It’s wind that mostly keeps our ocean surface in motion.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

 

Find this article printed in Washington State Magazine!

How does an eclipse happen?

Hello Dr. Universe: I was wondering, how does an eclipse happen?

– Susan, 13, San Francisco, CA

 

Dear Susan,

It just so happens the Great American Eclipse is coming up on Aug. 21, 2017. This solar eclipse will be the only one visible from across the lower 48 states in nearly a hundred years. When it happens, parts of the country will experience darkness for a couple minutes during the day. » More …

How are ants so strong?

Dear Dr. Universe: I would like to find out how ants are so strong. How is it possible that they can carry weight that is heavier than themselves?

–Anita, 11

Dear Anita,

Ants are pretty good little weightlifters. My friend Rich Zack, a scientist at Washington State University who studies insects, knows a lot about ants. One kind of ant that he has studied can carry up to 20 times its own weight. » More …

Why can’t we just print a bunch of money to make everyone rich?

Why can’t we just print a bunch of money to make everyone rich?

– Daniel, 8

Dear Daniel,

It sure sounds like a nice idea. Print a bunch of money and everyone gets rich. We could buy anything we wanted. Ah, if only it were that easy. It turns out printing more money would have a much different outcome than we might like to imagine. » More …