Dec
02
2008

Random Question Extravaganza! The first voyage of the Friendventure.

The ship in the middle looks kind of like the Friendventure: except Friendventure has pink sails this week.
The ship in the middle looks kind of like the Friendventure: except Friendventure has pink sails this week.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Ahoy, Buzzketeers, and welcome aboard the goodship Friendventure!

That’s right, mateys, no longer are you soldiers of knowledge in the Buzzketeer army. While you’re on the decks of Friendventure, you will be sailors in the Buzz armada. It’s not an easy life, and some of you will be ripped to shreds by the screaming cannonballs of ignorance, but the rewards will make it all worthwhile… we’ll sail over glittering schools of trivia, past vibrant thought reefs, to the shining shores of Knowledge! Yes!

What I’m getting at is that we’re going to be answering the random science questions from the floor of the Science Museum of Minnesota.

But, wait, you say, doesn’t Buzzketeer Joe usually deal with the random questions, and isn’t he the captain of Friendventure? Yes and no: Joe does usually answer the odds and ends questions, but he is, in fact, a Commodore, not a captain. However, the Commodore is distracted at the moment (ordering more sailcloth and hardtack, hiring a new shoe polisher, something like that), and Lieutenant JGordon is absconding with the ship on a risky mission through the waters of curiosity. I can just picture a furious Commodore Joe: “Lieutenant, if you try to pull one more of these insane schemes of yours… I just might have to promote you!”

Anyway, away we go.

Q: Why do feet smell? (There were some backwards letters on the actual question card, but my keyboard won’t accommodate for that, even when I turned it upside down.)

A: If you have recently stepped in something horrible, like the chest cavity of a dead animal, that could do it. But normal, every day foot stink is caused by… bacteria! Microscopic bacteria consume the sweat and dead skin on your feet, and then they sort of go to the bathroom on you. Which stinks. But keeping your feet clean and dry, and wearing clean and dry shoes and socks can keep those bacteria under control. For more information, check out this old post on foot-stink.

Q: How do volcanoes erupt? From Maeve Kruser

A: First off, Maeve Kruser is a great name. Maybe the best name. Congratulations. But volcanic eruptions? Well, an eruption happens when the rock that makes up the Earth’s “upper mantle” (a layer of the Earth, deep underground) melts from the friction of Earth’s tectonic plates moving around, and the liquid rock (magma) rises to the surface and comes out through a rift or hole in the ground. Big, explosive eruptions, where lava is thrown up into the air, are caused by pressure from hot gas dissolved in the lava—a little like what happens when you shake up a bottle of soda. Boom.

Q: What is air?

A: Air is a French ambient/electronica band on the Astralwerks label. Air is also the invisible stuff all around us that we breathe. This second kind of air is made up of a bunch of different gases. We need the oxygen in the air to live, but oxygen only makes up about 21% of the air in our atmosphere. Most of what we take into our lungs with each breath is nitrogen gas (air is about 78% nitrogen). Argon gas, carbon dioxide, and water vapor, along with itty-bitty amounts of other gases make up the rest of Earth’s air.

Q: Where is Jupiter—like, how far is it from this museum?

A: The planet Jupiter is, like, a long ways away. Because the planets are all rotating around the sun, and because they don’t rotate in synch with each other, the distance between them can vary greatly. For example, if you had two beads glued to the spokes of a spinning bicycle wheel, they’d always be the same distance from each other. But if you had two beads glued to two different wheels spinning at different speeds around the same spot (the sun, in this case) the distance between the beads would always be changing. That’s what the planets are like. However, last night (December 1, 2008), Jupiter was about 540 million miles away from this museum.

Q: Why are aliens attacking us?

A: I didn’t know that we were under attack, but I’ll assume that they simply want your knowledge.

Q: How did butterflies get their name?

A: Etymology! Very nice! The word “Butterfly” probably comes from the Old English word buttorfleoge (which just means “butter-fly”). Some people think that butterflies were called that because of the belief that butterflies (or, even better, witches disguised as butterflies) would consume any butter or milk that was left uncovered. Others say that they were named for the pale yellow wings of some species (boring). There’s also theory that says that “butterfly” comes from the Dutch term boterschijte, which is more or less a description of the color of the insects’, ah, poop.

Q: How do head lice start?

A: Head lice are little blood-sucking insects that can colonize in your hair. You can get them by direct, head-to-head contact with someone who already has lice, or swapping headgear, scarves, etc. with an infested person. Lice can’t fly, and they don’t jump like fleas do, so there has to be some sort of direct contact. The lice attach their eggs, or “nits,” to the hair itself. The nits hatch into nymphs (baby lice), which grow to about the size of a sesame seed as adults.

Q: Why is carbon monoxide (CO) deadly, while carbon dioxide (CO2) not deadly? Why is that extra oxygen atom bad?

A: So, right, carbon monoxide is a single carbon atom bonded to a single oxygen atom, and carbon dioxide is a single carbon atom bonded to two oxygen atoms. So why is carbon monoxide so deadly? Well, scientists don’t understand the exact way CO induces toxic effects, but, basically, when we breathe in CO, it can easily bond to several different compounds in you body: it bonds to hemoglobin, the chemical in your blood that carries oxygen, and sort of suffocates all your cells; it bonds to myglobin, a chemical in your muscles that should also attach to oxygen, and interferes with muscle function (which is very bad when you think about, say, the muscles of the heart); and it binds to the “cytochrome oxidase” in your mitochondria, which I don’t really understand, but it’s bad. Details here.

Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, doesn’t bond so readily to all this stuff, and therefore isn’t quite so toxic. CO2, however, isn’t totally harmless. The air we breath is less than 1% carbon dioxide, but if CO2 concentrations rise to even a few percent by volume, it can start to have negative effects. When concentrations get up to about 8%, people can become sick and die. Fortunately, this isn’t something most people have to worry about, unless they live on a spaceship or a submarine. Huge quantities of CO2 can also suddenly be release from CO2-rich lakes in what are called limnic eruptions—in 1986 almost 2,000 people in Cameroon were killed by the limnic eruption of CO2 from Lake Nyos.

Oh, man. I think that’ll do it for today, sailors.

Land ho.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Joe's picture
Joe says:

Excellent work Lieutenant!

posted on Wed, 12/03/2008 - 12:47pm
Thor's picture
Thor says:

Now I know that "nit-picking" isn't such a bad thing....it's even to be encouraged.

posted on Wed, 12/03/2008 - 3:13pm
Azia's picture
Azia says:

we need to take the water manners very seriously. when you really think about it the way we are abusing water is selfish. some places dont have clean water like (africa)

posted on Fri, 03/06/2009 - 2:21pm

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