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Ask Dr. Universe rcwebber

Why do bees make hexagons in their hives? Why not any other shape? -Aditya, 10, New Delhi, India

Dear Aditya,

When bees make hexagons in their hives, the six-sided shapes fit together perfectly. In fact, we’ve actually never seen bees make any other shape. That’s what I found out when I visited my friend Sue Cobey, a bee researcher at Washington State University.

Cobey showed me some honeycombs where the female bees live and work. Hexagons are useful shapes. They can hold the queen bee’s eggs and store the pollen and honey the worker bees bring to the hive.

When you think about it, making circles wouldn’t work too well. It would leave gaps in the honeycomb. The worker bees could use triangles or squares for storage. Those wouldn’t leave gaps. But the hexagon is the strongest, most useful shape.

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Dear Dr. Universe, Please answer this question: Do animals dream? What dreams do they get? I humbly request you to answer these questions. BYE! Or should I say MEOWY! -Prahlad R.

Dear Prahlad,

After a quick catnap and a stretch, I went to visit my friend Marcos Frank, a scientist at Washington State University who studies animal sleep.

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Dear Dr. Universe: I want to know how my family car works. How does the gas reach the engine and go? How does the steering wheel make the car turn and how do the brakes help us to stop? -Jordan, 6, Queens, New York 

Dear Jordan,

As a cat, car rides can sometimes make me feisty. But as a scientist, it’s fascinating to learn about the mechanics, engineering, and chemistry fueling the cars humans drive every day.

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If mollusks have such heavy shells to drag around with them, how have they spread all over the ocean? -Michel W.

Dear Michel,

Mollusks, from land snails and slugs to oysters and mussels in the sea, have a few things in common. They have a head. They have a soft middle part that holds their organs. Then, some have a muscle that’s known as a “foot.”

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Dr. Universe, How are magnets made? -Andrea, 8, Berkeley, CA 

                                                                                   

Dear Andrea,

When I saw your question, I headed straight for the Magnetics Lab and met up with my friend John McCloy. I found out the word “magnet” comes from a Greek word for the region of modern-day Turkey we once called Magnesia. That’s where people found magnets in nature.

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Dr. Universe: Are aliens real? -Lily, 10, New York City, NY Is there life on other planets? -Heidi, Cincinnati, OH 

Dear Lily and Heidi,

Well, we don’t know for certain. Looking up to the stars at night, I’ve often wondered if alien cats are out chasing alien mice or taking naps on other planets.

My imagination aside, your questions are like those scientists are asking, too. And it’s no wonder we are so curious.

With billions of planets in our galaxy, including small Earth-like worlds, the possibility of life out there is an exciting thought to many people. So, humans have set out to look for planets that might support life.

In fact, this month scientists announced the Kepler spacecraft’s discovery of … » More …

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The Science of Baseball

At the WSU Sports Science Lab, a team of engineers tests out all kinds of baseballs and bats. In the lab, canons send baseballs flying up to 585 mph. That’s nearly five times faster than the fastest human pitch on record.

They use their expert knowledge on energy, force, and speed to find out what happens when a bat and ball collide. They measure how the equipment performs and make sure the equipment is safe for athletes to use during the game.

You could be an engineer one day, too. Stay tuned for more from the Sports Science Lab. In the meantime, check out videos from the lab on their » More …

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Dr. Universe: What is something a lot of people might not know about sharks?

It’s Shark Week, so I made a visit to my friend Jon Mallatt. He’s a Washington State University biologist who has studied the jaws of ancient sharks.

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Jon Mallatt: Some of them, such as tiger sharks, cat sharks, and even great white sharks, have quite large brains—relative to their body weight— and are intelligent. They are not “primitive” animals. The shark relatives, Manta rays and devil rays, have even larger brains than any shark.

Dr. U: How long have sharks been around, anyways?

JM: At least 420 million years and maybe 460. It is … » More …

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Dr. Universe: What materials would you use to make a rocket -Freya, Scotland

Dear Freya,

Whether it’s a model rocket you build in the backyard or one that launches a space shuttle, there are lots of materials you could use. So, when I saw your question I grabbed my lab coat and safety goggles, and zoomed over to my friend Jake Leachman’s lab. He’s a rocket scientist and engineer at Washington State University.

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Why do we get jealousy? I can feel it sometimes, too, but I don't know why.  -Hailey, 10, London, Ontario

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Dear Hailey,

Cats love attention, but we don’t get jealous like humans do. It’s one of those emotions that set human beings apart from other creatures in the animal kingdom. But I can’t imagine it’s the most pleasant. The poet William Shakespeare once called jealousy a green-eyed monster. Still, it’s an emotion that can help you navigate the world.  

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How do I make a diary?  -Nimra, Kitchener, Ontario

Dear Diary,

Oh, I mean...Dear Nimra,

Making a diary is like creating your own top-secret book. So, I headed straight for a Washington State University library where there are more than a million books.

My friend Linnea Nelson was working with some of the books from the special collections when I went to visit her in the lab. She is a conservator, so part of her job is to repair and re-build old books. It preserves their history.

Some of the books had an old smell that wafted up into my little nose. The smell comes from different chemical compounds that escape into the air, including one similar to vanilla. The compounds are in the ink, paper, and other materials used to keep the pages together. And one way to keep the pages together is to bind them with thread. 

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Will electricity ever run out?  -Zoe, WA

Dear Zoe,

Scientists could see and feel electricity in nature long before they discovered how to make it. Maybe you’ve seen it during a powerful electrical storm or felt a little shock from static electricity.

It happens because of tiny parts of atoms. They’re called electrons and they are everywhere.

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I saw a caterpillar and a butterfly in the neighbor's yard. So my question is, what exactly happens inside the little sack they're in while they transform into a butterfly and HOW exactly do they do it?  -Eston

Dear Eston,

Springtime sets the stage for one of the greatest transformations in the natural world.

“It’s the construction of a butterfly or moth from caterpillar soup,” said my friend David James, an entomologist at Washington State University. James studies the science behind metamorphosis, or how a creature transforms.

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Why are ripe fruits sweet and why is it so important?  -Alexa, Schenzhen, China

Dear Alexa,

My friend Kate Evans said the answer really depends on whether you want the perspective of a person, a plant, or even a cat. Evans is a plant scientist at Washington State University in Wenatchee, where she investigates fruit in the Apple Capital of the World.

She explained how long ago, wild apples actually grew in forests. Without farmers around to plant them in orchards, trees had to scatter their own seeds to survive.

For some trees, the key to survival is growing sweet, ripe fruit.

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Can you grow stuff like thread, cloth, silk, and most importantly, clothing? -Jay, Colorado

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Dear Jay,

We can use all kinds of animal, bug, and plant materials to make cloth. Even some of the tiniest living things on the planet can make cloth, too.

I heard about this from my friend Hang Liu, a Washington State University professor who studies the science of materials we use and wear every day.

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What if gravity pulled up, instead of down? -Kyle, Cedar Lake, IN

Our universe would look so different, Kyle. You might not recognize it even if you could be here to see it. Unfortunately, there probably wouldn’t be a whole lot to see. I learned about this from Washington State University professor and physicist Matthew McCluskey, who studies the material world. He explained how gravity pulls together dust, gas, and little particles floating around space to make massive clumps of matter that form stars and planets. For example: planet Earth. Every particle in the Earth is pulling on you at this very moment--every single one. Read More ...

Do bats have habits? -Elliot 

Dear Elliot,

You are onto something. Quick, to the bat-lab! That’s where I met up with my friend Christine Portfors, a scientist at Washington State University who studies fruit bats.

Portfors explained that while bats don’t quite have habits like humans, they do have behaviors.

Bats are nocturnal. They sleep during the day and wake up in the early evening. The first thing they’ll do when they wake up is fly around and around their caves for a while.

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Dear Dr. Universe, Do bugs have hearts and brains? -Nick

Take a look inside a bug and you’ll find one brain in its head and other little brains called “ganglia” along its whole body. These tiny control centers help insects see, taste, and smell. They also help them quickly escape threats, like other bugs.

“If you had little brains everywhere else, you would also be much quicker,” says bug expert Laura Lavine. Read More ...