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Ask Dr. Universe rcwebber

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 ...

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.

Read More ...

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 ...