The Puddleduck by lightning
The Puddleduck by lightningCourtesy Rick Elkins
Ahoy! Random questions have been piling up on the poop deck of the HMS Puddleduck, and I’ve been too distracted (mostly by birds) to address them. And now… now there are so many that I can’t give them the attention they each deserve! But I will try to give them something, as quickly and succinctly as I am able. It pains me to do so, but I’ll need a more nimble vessel for this sort of mission, and so I must temporarily abandon the Puddleduck for an outboard motor-equipped dinghy and…


The starting bell?! Oh man!

Q: What’s the difference between regular food and organic food?

A: It’s all about how a food or its ingredients are grown. To be considered “organic,” the food has to be produced without the use of synthetic (man-made) chemicals. So that means that organic vegetables can’t have synthetic pesticides or herbicides used to keep bugs off them and other plants from competing with them. (Synthetic fertilizers can, however, be used.) Organic meat can’t come from animals treated with hormones or antibiotics.

When a food has a sticker on it saying “certified organic,” that means that it has passed the tests of a regulating agency. In the US, a product must be made of 95% organic materials to be labeled as “organic.”

Consuming organic food might reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, but, nutritionally, organic food isn’t really a whole lot different than non-organic food.

That answer was too long. I’ll never win the lightning round this way.

Q: Do you know why there are black holes in space? Are there any undiscovered plants [sic?] in space?

A: Black holes aren’t really holes in space, exactly. You might think of them as like really really really really heavy planets. Like, when a big star gets old, it can collapse on itself, getting small, but still having the same mass. (It’s like if you were to squish a marshmallow down into a little lump. It’d take up less space, but it would still weigh the same.) Even though they’re smaller, black holes still have lots of gravity—so much gravity, that they even pull light down towards them. So they look totally black.

Undiscovered plants? … Possibly? Undiscovered planets? Definitely. There are planets outside our solar system, but they're too small and far away to actually see. But there are other ways of detecting them, involving how a planet affects the way we see its star. But I can’t get into that, because this answer is already too long too.

Q: Have you found a dinosaur as big as a jumbo jet?

A: Me personally? No. Other people? Yes. Or… just about. So, the original jumbo jet, the Boeing 747 is about 70 meters long, and it weighs about 400,000 pounds empty The long necked, long tailed sauropod amphicoelias may have been about 60 meters long (196 feet), and it could have weighed as much as 135 tons. (That’s 270,000 pounds.) Not quite as big as a jumbo jet, but near enough that I think it should get the title.

Q: Why is the sky blue, and not green or black? It looks black from outer space.

A: The sky is blue because of all the methane gas in our atmosphere. The light reaching our planet has all wavelengths of color mixed together, but certain gases scatter certain colors more than others. Blue light gets absorbed by methane molecules and then scattered around, making the sky blue wherever you look. If you were to look at the sky from the moon, yeah, it would look black. That’s because there’s no atmosphere on the moon. No atmosphere, no gas, no gas, no light scattering. No blue. It’s explained better here

Q: Is your hair alive? If not, why is it always growin?

A: Nope, not alive. No nerve, no blood vessels, no activity. It’s always growing because structures in your skin called hair follicles are always making more of it. It’s like… like a string factory, making one long piece of string. There’s stuff happening in the factory, and the material the string is made of might once have been alive, but the string itself isn’t.

Q: How old is the oldest person in the world?

A: The oldest living person is Gertrude Baines. She’s one hundred fifteen years old.

Q: Where was the biggest snake that ever lived?

A: Columbia. 60 million years ago. Titanoboa cerrejonensis is extinct now, but it is estimated to have been about 42 feet long and 2,500 pounds.

Q: How long were the dinosaurs alive?

A: Dinosaurs lived during the Mesozoic Era, which lasted from about 251 million years ago to about 65.5 million years ago. The first dinosaurs didn’t appear until the late Triassic period, though, and that was about 230 million years ago. That means dinosaurs were around for about 165 million years, give or take a few. That’s a looong time, especially when you consider that humans have only been around about 2 million years (and, really, we modern humans have only been around for maybe 200,000 years.)

Q: How long can turtles live?

A: Oooh. I like this one. Large tortoises have been known to live well into their second century (one in a Calcutta zoo was actually reputed to be around 250 years old, but it died a few years ago). But how long could they live? Most animals (including people) start to automatically break down after a certain period. Cells don’t regenerate like they used to, and organs slowly deteriorate and fail. But turtles… apparently this doesn’t happen to them. They don’t seem to have this automatic shutoff built into them, so they don’t age like other animals—a hundred-year-old turtle could have organs as fresh as a teenage turtle. Unfortunately, they can still succumb to disease, or predators, or Foot Soldiers, and eventually the odds add up and they die. From something. Neat though, huh?

Q: How do you tell butterflies and moths apart?

A: Moths tell only secrets.
Butterflies tell only lies.

Q: Where do elephants live?

A: Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, Southeast Asia, Sumatra, Borneo. And maybe some other places. And zoos.

Q: What are hiccups made of?

A: Hiccups are caused by the diaphragm muscle twitching spasmodically, causing your lungs to suck in air so quickly that your epiglottis (a little thing in your throat that keeps you from breathing in the food you swallow) snaps shut, halting the breath. But what are they made of? Babies’ dreams.

Q: How many explosions have you made while working.

A: It depends on your definition of “explosions.” Somewhere between zero and thousands.

Q: Does the science museum ever get boring?

A: No. Never. I have the scars to prove it.

Q: Can people put rabies in guns and shoot us with it?

A: Probably not in a normal gun. When a bullet is fired, it becomes very hot, and I think that could destroy any rabies viruses the in the projectile. But rabies is generally transimitted through saliva, so I wonder if one could put a sample of contaminated saliva in a ballistic syringe and fire it from a tranquilizer gun. It seems reasonable. I’d watch out for this, if I were you.

Q: Why do people cry?

A: Because living in the world can be very difficult and painful, and the frustration at our inability to cope with this sometimes manifests itself in our lacrimal apparatuses going bonkers.

Q: Do you catch snakes?

A: Not frequently, but sometimes, yes. In my last house, I had lots of holes in my bedroom floor, and sometimes garter snakes would come into the room through those holes. Considering how my room was on the second floor, I figured making the trip up to my bed wouldn’t be a big deal for them, so capture and release was necessary.

Here’s my fail-proof snake capturing strategy:

1: Spot snake in bedroom
2: Retrieve used pair of underwear from bedroom floor
3: Throw underwear over snake
4: Grab snake and underwear
5: Go downstairs, throw snake outside, keep underwear

This method is nice, because it temporarily gets rid of snakes, and it sends across the message that anything you don’t want in your room is going to get hit with your undies. (Some snakes, though, are perverts, and this may backfire on you.)


Hmm. That was a pretty weak lightning round. Real lightning is way faster than that, and it makes a stronger point. I’ll keep practicing.

Until next time, Buzzketeers, always keep dirty underwear on your floor, and not in your hamper, just in case you need it for snakes.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Thor's picture
Thor says:

Not only is your hair not alive, but it keeps growing for a while after we die....same with fingernails and toenails!!!

posted on Wed, 08/12/2009 - 3:38pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I've heard this, but I think someone told me that hair and nails only appear to grow after we die because our skin contracts a little, and it exposes more of the hair/nail that was hidden before.

I'll have to add some nail-measuring instructions to my living will.

posted on Wed, 08/12/2009 - 4:10pm
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Sorry, but that popular myth is not true. What happens is our flesh - after death - begins to dry out and pull away from our hair and fingernails giving them the appearance of still growing.

posted on Wed, 08/12/2009 - 4:18pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

HAHA this is so kewl thanks for da int

posted on Thu, 08/13/2009 - 11:25am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

see ive heard that but ive also heard that when you die your haier and skin stop growing.

posted on Wed, 08/12/2009 - 4:27pm

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