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Does science get harder every year?

Dear Dr. Universe: Does science get harder every year or is that just me? -Keegun, 13, WA

Dear Keegun,

We’ve got about three pounds of brain in our heads that help us look for answers and solve all kinds of problems. But it isn’t always easy. Sometimes an experiment doesn’t go the way I expect or I get stuck on a particularly tricky science question. » More …

Does interacting with animals help us?

Dear Dr. Universe: Do you know how human and animal interactions help our mind grow? Does it help us? Does it do nothing? This has fascinated me for a very long time. – Gabby G., 11, Berlin, VT

Dear Gabby,

Our brains are pretty busy. They are constantly thinking, feeling, and sensing our world. One thing that can help some people relax is spending time with an animal friend. You might play fetch with a dog, sit with a cat, brush a horse, or even watch a goldfish zip around its bowl.

People who spend a lot of time with animals might tell you that something special seems to be going on here. But scientists are looking for evidence and want to find out for certain just what is going on. They want to know more about what happens when animals and humans spend time together.

One scientist who studies human and animal interaction is my friend Phyllis Erdman at Washington State University. After her day at work, she said, the first thing she does is go home and play with her dogs.

Everybody knows that we feel good when we are with animals, Erdman said. But we also need the science to back up the idea. She said one notion scientists test out has to do with different chemicals that are in our brains. Our body makes all kind of chemicals and some can make us feel pretty happy.

When babies and mothers bond, scientists often see the chemical oxytocin (ox-ee-toe-sin) at work in their brains. It turns out that oxytocin may be released when people spend time with animals, too.

The chemical helps us build trust and bond with each other. When it’s released in the brain, it lets you know that something, usually good, is happening. Maybe that thing is spending time with a whole bunch of kittens or puppies. The interaction can be good for the animal, too. We are social. And we like a good ear scratch or belly rub.

Erdman has actually worked with dogs and kids to study their interactions, too. She’s also worked with horses. Just brushing and taking care of the animal helped kids feel like they could let go of stressful things.

A lot of human and animal interaction scientists study behavior. But now many are becoming curious about actual changes in the brain itself. New studies are exploring images of the brain when animals and humans spend time together.

The field of human and animal interaction is growing, Erdman said. Perhaps by the time you get to college, we will have more answers to your question. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be one of the people to help us research big questions about how humans and animals can help each other out.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

 

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Why are plants green?

Why are plants green? –Nadia, 8, Australia

Dear Nadia,

A lush tropical rainforest, a field of sunflowers, a garden in your neighborhood. Our Earth is home to all kinds of plant life. From trees to catnip, there are thousands of different species of plants. Most of these plants are green, but not all of them.
» More …

Where do bumble bees live?

Dear Dr. Universe: We have a lawn full of clovers that bumble bees love. Where do bumble bees live? Do they have hives or live underground? I love watching them. Do they live through winter? –Karen, Arizona

Dear Karen,

When it comes time for bumble bees to find a home, it’s pretty much up to the queen bee.

That’s what I found out from my friends Rachel Olsson and Elias Bloom. They are graduate student researchers here at Washington State University and really curious about bees, too. » More …

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How do I program a computer?

How do I program a computer? –Ammon, 11, Magna, UT

I have some really cool game ideas. I want to learn to program and animate web sites. Do you have any ideas on how to get started? – Tyler, 10, Suisun City, CA

Dear Ammon and Tyler,

Everything our computers do, they do because we program them to do it. Maybe you want to design a game or an app that’s brand new. To create that game or app, you have to help your computer understand what to do.

And to do that, you have to learn its language. That’s what I found out from my friend Gina Sprint, a computer scientist at Washington State University. She’s really curious about how machines learn and how we can use technology to improve health.

“Our computers don’t understand English. If we want to communicate with our computers, we have to speak their language,” Sprint said.

She showed me a way to start learning about computer code with a program called Frozen Fractals. You can try it out, too. You use the programming language called Python to direct a little turtle that draws out different shapes. I was wondering how the computer knew how to respond to the directions.

“The language that computers understand is called binary. We write code in a programming language similar to English, like Python, that is translated into binary so the computer understands,” Sprint said.

Binary means you have only two options to communicate. Believe it or not, pretty much everything we program our computers to do comes back to just these two things.

In a computer, wires carry information through the machine in the form of electricity. The computer can make the electricity stop or go, switch it on or off, by recognizing zeroes and ones. Different combinations of ones and zeroes can correspond with different letters, too.

While we might say cat in English, a machine would spell out “cat” as 01100011 01100001 01110100. That’s the language of binary.

One way you can start programming and learning more about binary is with a visit to Code.org, Sprint adds. It is an organization headquartered in Seattle but anyone, anywhere can learn how to program through the website.

The main job of coders is to create programs, but a lot of time is spent fixing them. Sometimes things go wrong with your programming. You might get a bug in your code. That’s when you get to be a problem solver and fix the error. The term “bug” was popularized in 1945 by the computer scientist Grace Hopper, said Sprint. Hopper actually found a moth in her computer. Now we use the word bug to talk about problems in the code.

Remember, a computer works because of code written by a programmer. A computer knows what to do because we help it understand. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll study computer science. But really, there’s no need to wait. You can get started right now at Code.org. Sprint and I can’t wait to hear about what you learn and create.

Your friend,

Dr. Universe

Why does stuff decay?

Dr. Universe: I have a ginormous question for you. How come non-biodegradable take like a million, billion, zillion years to decay? -Madeline C., age 8

Dear Madeline,

You’re right. It can take a really long time for some things to decay.

If we buried an apple peel in the backyard it might only take a few weeks to break down into the soil. But if we buried a plastic water bottle, it would probably still be there hundreds of years from now.

There are a lot of living creatures in nature that help break down things. In fact, our trash cans are almost like an all-you-can-eat-buffet for tiny creatures called microbes. Well, an almost all-you-can-eat-buffet. There are some things that they can’t really feast on. It all depends on what’s in our trash bins.

For billions of years, microbes have been munching on plants and animals. They’ve also had some help from fellow decomposers, like worms, flies, and fungi.

The environment where they work can also speed up or slow down the process. The conditions of dirt, air, water, temperature, and sunlight can change the speed of decomposition.

These decomposers are pretty great at breaking down a lot of things we find in nature. But they aren’t as good at breaking down some other materials, such as plastic.

To find out why, I visited my friend Shuresh Ghimire, a scientist who studies biodegradables at Washington State University. He is also really curious about finding ways to decrease the amount of plastic waste in our world, particularly on farms.

Plastics were introduced in the 1930s, he explained. Now, that may seem like a long time ago to us. But for microbes that have been around for billions of years, that’s still a pretty new material.

Both an apple peel and a plastic bottle are made up of different kinds of atoms. Those atoms are bonded and held together in different ways. In an apple, the bonds between atoms are pretty weak. Microbes don’t have to use a lot of energy to break them into smaller parts.

But the plastic bottle has really strong bonds—especially where a carbon atom bonds with another carbon atom. It makes the material sturdy, but it also makes it pretty indestructible. Most microbes don’t recognize these bonds as something they can break down, at least not yet.

“There is a possibility that evolution of microbes over many years in the future may enable more of them to recognize bonds in plastics,” Ghimire said.

In fact, a group of scientists in Japan recently discovered a microbe that looks to be pretty good at eating plastic. They might be able to help us manage some of the plastic waste, but we can help, too.

A water bottle might last hundreds of years buried underground or in a land fill, but it could have a new purpose in our own lifetime if we remember to reuse or recycle it.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe