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Ask Dr. Universe rcwebber

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 ...