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Ask Dr. Universe Archives

How was popcorn discovered? - Jalen, 12, Benson, N.C.

Dear Jalen,

There’s nothing like popcorn in progress: the snapping kernels, the warm buttery smell, and the knowledge that a delicious snack will be ready in minutes. It gives you some good time to think and wonder: how did humans first start doing this?

To find out where popcorn came from, I visited my friend Erin Thornton, an archaeologist at Washington State University. Archaeologists study how humans lived in the past—including the things they ate.

To learn the story of popcorn, we have to trace the history of maize.

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What is a sinkhole? What causes one? - Kathrine, 12, Calgary, Canada

Dear Kathrine,

Sinkholes can be scary to think about. They don’t happen too often, but when they do, they can take people by surprise. The solid ground disappears, and a hole suddenly appears.

It might seem like sinkholes appear out of nowhere. But they actually need specific conditions to form.

To have a sinkhole, you first must have a cave.

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How are seashells formed? And why are they different colors? Can seashells live or die? - Caroline, 9, Crestwood, Ky.

Dear Caroline,

Seashells come in an astounding variety. Some are curved and round, others long and tube-like. Some are smooth, others bumpy. Some are large, others small. Plus, they come in a rainbow of colors: red, green, brown, purple, pink, and more.

All that variety comes from the same source: little animals called mollusks, with a mighty muscle called a mantle.

I found out all about them from my friend Richelle Tanner, a scientist at Washington State University. She is very curious about the ocean and knows a lot about mollusks, a type of animal with a soft, moist body.

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Where does the universe end? - Oriah, 8, Pullman

Dear Oriah,

When you look up at the night sky, it can feel like the universe is a big blanket of stars above you. But unlike a blanket, the universe doesn’t have corners and edges. Far beyond what humans can see, the universe keeps going. As far as humans know, it never stops.

When I saw your question, I went straight to my friend Michael Allen to learn more. He is a Senior Instructor of Physics and Astronomy at Washington State University.

The universe is bigger than the biggest thing you’ve ever seen. It’s bigger than the biggest thing this cat can imagine. It’s so big that even your question has more than one very big answer.

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Why are bears called bears when they can be called anything else, not just a bear? - Natallia, 8, Yakima, Wash.

Dear Natallia,

You’ve noticed something very important: there’s no natural reason for the words humans use. Any sound could be used to describe a big mammal that eats berries and salmon.

But people who speak English choose “bear.” People who speak Spanish use “oso.” People who speak Maricopa say “maxwet.” They’re all different, but they’re all correct.

That’s what I learned from my friend Lynn Gordon, a linguist at Washington State University.

“Why do we call bears ‘bears’?” she said. “Because we’ve agreed to.”

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Dr. Universe: Why are brains mushy? – First Graders, Waller Road Elementary, Puyallup, Wash.

Dear First Graders,

You’re right, brains are quite mushy. It turns out the three-pound organ between your ears is mostly made up of water and fat.

I found out all about brains from my friend Jim Peters, a neuroscientist at Washington State University.

“It’s gooey. It really is squishy,” he said. “When it is warm, it is kind of like butter.”

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Dr. Universe: Do babies have ways of communicating? –Jalen, 12, North Carolina

Dear Jalen, Babies can communicate in a few different ways. For the most part, they use their emotions. Humans come into the world crying, but that’s actually a good thing. In a way, babies start communicating from the moment they are born. Of course, it can be hard for their caregivers to know exactly what they mean with all those cries. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why are evergreen trees green all year? – Emily, 10, Silverdale, Wash.

Whenever I go for a hike in the woods, I can’t help but admire the tall evergreen trees. No matter what time of year it is, the pines, hemlocks, cedars, and spruces are usually all green. My friend Bert Cregg is also very curious about the lives of trees. He graduated from Washington State University and is a professor at Michigan State University. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: How do people name continents or places on earth? Thank you. - Lila Grace, 8, Virginia

Our world is full of so many different places. They get their names in lots of different ways. One way a place might get a name is from the person who explored it. The Americas are named after an Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. But Amerigo wasn’t the first person to explore these continents. There were already people living there when he arrived. Still, “America” was named after Amerigo. For the most part, people name things because they are claiming possession of a place. Because of that, sometimes the original names of places are lost or erased. That’s what I found out from my friend Theresa Jordan, a history professor who teaches a geography course at Washington State University. 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 ...