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Ask Dr. Universe rcwebber

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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