Stories tagged random questions

Aug
12
2009

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…

DING

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.)

DING!

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.

Jun
23
2009

Not the real HMS Puddleduck: Just a mirage.
Not the real HMS Puddleduck: Just a mirage.Courtesy Myriam Thyes
A… hoy.

This heat. Am I right? Am I right? Here on the HMS Puddleduck, triviaship, we haven’t been spared from the heat you feel on land. If anything, it’s worse out here at sea.

The heat has made Captain JGordon listless. In my weakened state, I don’t feel fit to hold a pen or operate the keyboard of a computer. Therefore, I am dictating this entry from the Puddleduck’s crow’s-nest. My crew, having been born and raised in such sweaty, squalid conditions as I now find myself in are more accustomed to this heat, and I have ordered them to paint my words in meter-wide letters on the deck of the ship. This way, the answers to today’s random questions can be easily read from my perch, and transferred to the Internet at a later time. The crew will scrub the deck clean again tomorrow afternoon.

On with it, then. These questions were obtained from the galleries of the science museum, but the answers were divined by yours truly from the movements of the stars.

Question: How come you can see reflections in mirages if they aren’t really there?

Answer: How timely. The questioner is wise to bring up mirages—please, Buzzketeers, be certain of the veracity of all bodies of water might find in front of you on hot days like today before you go chasing after them.

Mirages, it should be noted, are “really there.” They aren’t figments of your imagination, they’re real natural phenomena. And it’s not exactly a reflection that you see—it’s a refraction. In reflections, light bounces off of something to go in a new direction. In a refraction, light bends passing through something. This happens because light travels at slightly different speeds when traveling through different materials. Light that passes from air to water, for example, has to slow down when it moves into the water. If the light enters the water at a non-perpendicular angle, the direction of the light usually changes.

When you see a mirage, you’re seeing a refraction light of the sky (which looks watery), or of an object on the other side of the mirage (like when you see “reflections” of other cars in mirages on the road). The light is refracting because it’s passing through a couple different “mediums.” Instead of air and water, in this case, the light is passing though cooler air and warmer air. When the ground or pavement is very hot, the air immediately above it is going to be hotter too. Because hot air is less dense than cool air, light travels at a different speed through it. So… light moves from cooler air a little ways above the ground to hotter air immediately above the ground, and it gets refracted—it sort of bends away from the ground without ever actually touching it. And that light zooms up to your eyeballs, and it looks kind of like a reflection. Ta-da.

Question: Why does my butt hurt?

Answer: You know, this question comes in kind of a lot. Seriously. Almost as often as “I like cheese,” and “I like pie,” which aren’t really questions. Go figure. Usually I pass it over, but I think you deserve a real answer this time.

Anyway, a common cause of butt-hurt is hemorrhoids. I’m afraid I can’t link to that, because the picture is icky. But I’m guessing you have hemorrhoids. What’s happening to you is the veins in your anus are becoming swollen and inflamed. (And very sore, I’m sure!) This is probably happening because the stress and strain on those blood vessels has recently increased. Have you been suffering from diarrhea or constipation recently? Because that can to it. Don’t worry, though—usually hemorrhoids go away in a few days, and your butt should stop hurting at that point.

Question: What in the brain triggers kids/people to not be considerate & waste paper that is actually set out for writing questions instead of “Hello” “Hi” “Stupid” and more?

Answer: Interesting question. Thank you for using the paper more productively, though. I’m sorry to let you down.

Question: Could the storm on the sun destroy Earth?

Answer: Huh. Probably not?

For clarity, Junior Buzzketeers, the sun doesn’t have storms like Earth. But from time to time, things up there do get a little dicey now and again. There are occasional events called “solar flares” in the sun’s atmosphere, where a huge amount of energy from deeper in the sun very suddenly explodes into space, and similar events called “coronal mass ejections,” where a bunch of energy and matter are shot out of the sun. I suppose these things are sort of like storms, in that they’re sort of violent events in the outer layers of the sun, but they’re not like Earth storms, seeing as how nearby space rarely has to worry about being pelted by rain and lighting during one of our thunderstoms.

As for danger… hmm. If you spend a lot of time out in space, or on another planet with a less robust atmosphere and magnetosphere than Earth (like Mars, or the moon), one of these solar events might cause you a lot of trouble. See they release a tremendous amount of energy. What reaches other planets isn’t the sort of energy that blows you up or fries you like an egg, though. It’s the sort of energy that passes through your body and gives you radiation poisoning, or cancer. If an astronaut didn’t have sufficient shielding during a big solar flare, the dose of radiation could be fatal. It’s something to consider if you’re planning a trip to the moon or mars (which we are).

Earth’s magnetic field, however, does a pretty good job of protecting all of us from these solar blasts. They can interfere with radio transmissions, but generally they don’t cause much trouble. But really big events, like interplanetary coronal mass ejections, can be followed by a shock wave of solar wind (again, not like wind here—solar wind is mostly protons and electrons flying through space) which can temporarily disrupt the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, and affect the ionosphere (the topmost level of our atmosphere). Still, the biological affects on the residents of Earth aren’t much to speak of. The danger lies more in the affect these storms can have on our infrastructure. When crazy electrical fields are created around power lines, they can do crazy things to the whole electrical system; components can break, protective devices trip, and power gets disrupted. Events this severe are very rare though.

I seem to recall reading an article recently that discussed the cyclical nature of powerful solar events, and the author was of the opinion that we are coming up on a particularly active period for the sun, and if we don’t prepare our electrical and communications systems, we are going to be in serious trouble. He also mentioned that it was going to coincide with the 2012 apocalypse, however, at which point I sort of tuned out.

But, in answer to your question, no, storms on the sun won’t destroy the Earth. But there’s a chance that they could make modern life here a lot more difficult.

Question: What’s the most valuable rock?

Answer: Weeellll… this sort of depends on who you ask and what you want if for. Generally, though, you can’t go wrong with higher quality Led Zeppelin.

Now I must return to my air-conditioned cabin. It seems cruel to have the men cranking on that generator if I’m not even going to be in there.

May
15
2009

The best questions we bury for later: We also bury the worst questions.
The best questions we bury for later: We also bury the worst questions.Courtesy Ed Fitzgerald
Ahoy, Buzzketeers! Captain JGordon here, waltzing on the poop deck of the HMS Puddleduck, pride of the Science Museum’s little navy, and harvester of the juiciest, richest random questions.

Usually.

See, when I answer random questions, it generally goes something like this: I grab the stack of question cards and shuffle through them, “Good, good, garbage, good, garbage, garbage, garbage, good, delightful, garbage.” It’s not that I think any of your questions are garbage, of course, it’s just that many of the cards consist of vulgar personal attacks against celebrities, some are illegible, and a few are just too greasy for me to touch. And sometimes there are simply too many of them for me to address, so I select the choicest questions, to construct an enjoyable and inclusive didactic experience.

But it’s springtime, and the Puddleduck is currently taking a leisurely cruise up the coast of Knowledgarnia. (Knowledgarnia is the union of the formerly independent states of The Republic of Knowledge and Narnia. Think about Czechoslovakia, only in reverse.) The water here in the warm seas off Knowledgarnia is so shallow and clear that you can see the facts swimming lazily just beneath the surface. It is… glorious. And it suits a much more lackadaisical attitude toward question selection.

Last night, in the grips of a wild upswing of Springmania (the union of the two formerly independent psychiatric disorders spring fever and bipolar disorder) I was firing my captain’s revolver randomly into the ocean. When I woke up on the deck the next morning and crawled over to the rail, I saw that a good handful of truly random questions had been shot and killed by my… enthusiasm. Perhaps an angel guided those bullets, or perhaps it was pure chance. Either way, here they are, just as I found them:

Q: Would you eat the moon if it were made of ribs?

A: Yes, but I would eat only some of it. This is partly because I would want to leave some of the moon for people to look at, but also because the moon is too big for me to eat by myself. The mass of the moon is 7.3477 x 10^22 kg. That’s… let’s see… 73,477,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg, or 161,649,400,000,000,000,000,000 pounds. Now, if a rack of ribs weighs about 2 pounds, that means that the moon should be made of about 80,824,700,000,000,000,000,000 racks of ribs. Now, if I were to live another 60 years, and eat 2 racks of ribs a day, every day, I’d be able to eat only 43,830 racks of ribs. This would not make any appreciable dent in the mass of ribs that is the moon. Plus, I think most of them would go bad before I even got there.

Q: Why are flamingos pink?

A: Ooh! Okay! Flamingos are actually born (hatched?) gray. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this ridiculous little creature. It’s the flamingos’ food that eventually turns them pink. Flamingos eat by getting beaks full of water, and then straining out all the liquid until just little shrimp and algae are left. The shrimp and algae (which are eaten) have lots of the vitamin beta carotene in them. Beta carotene is a colorful vitamin (eating too much of it can turn your skin a little bit orange), and it makes the flamingos’ feathers pink. Viola! (In zoos, though, where flamingos might not get all the beta carotene they would in the wild, the birds are sometimes fed the pigment additive canthaxanthin, which has the same effect.)

Q: The “swine flu” was named H1N1. Why did they decide to call it H1N1?

A: Another good one! We’re all about the swine flu here at the museum (It’s interesting! Really! Look here!) so I was ready for this one. See, the “swine flu” is a form of the disease influenza, which is caused by viruses. There are a bunch of different viruses that cause influenza. They’re all related, but each variety, or strain, of virus has some subtle differences in the molecules that they’re made of. Scientists use two molecules in particular to identify different strains: hemaggluten (that’s where the “H” comes from), the molecule that allows the virus to stick to our cells and infect us, and neuraminidase (that’s the “N”), the molecule that allows viruses to exit a cell to spread the infection throughout more of the body. The numbers after H and N correspond to different variation of the two molecules. So this year’s swine flu is H1N1. The bird flu, or avian flu, in Asia that people have been concerned about for the last few years is H5N1. Does that make sense?

Q: How long can you tread water before drowning?

A: Hmm. Well, if you’re asking me, the answer is about 30 seconds. I have a narrow, dense body, and I’m not very strong, so I sink like a glass rod. I suppose it sort of depends on the person, and on the water. See, salt water is more dense than fresh water, so objects in it are more buoyant—they float better. So treading water in the ocean is easier than treading water in a lake. Also, if the water is cold, your body is going to use up more energy to keep you warm, and you’ll have less energy for treading water. A powerful swimmer can tread water for hours on end, and even after your energy is gone, you could always float on your back, keeping your face above water. I suppose, at that point, it’s just a matter of staying awake and fending off the sharks.

Q: Why is it 3 levels? I spend 11 dollars for this bull ****.

A: Sir! Well I never! Perhaps you should have saved those eleven dollars to spend on soap for your filthy mouth! Seriously, though, those three levels are jam-packed. You explored the mysteries of the human body. You floated a ball on a jet of air, and watched a tornado form from steam. I mean, did you not see the dinosaurs? Realtalk, bro: what more could you ask for?

Q: Do you know anything about Area 51, or its space objects?

A: Well… is the government watching? No? OK. Let’s do this.

“Area 51” is a nickname for a military base in Nevada. It’s part of the huge piece of land that is the Air Force’s “Nevada Test and Training Range.” Civilians generally aren’t allowed on it, and the airspace around it is restricted. There are a lot of conspiracy theories surrounding Area 51 involving time travel technology, New World Order junk, energy weapons development, etc, etc, etc. The most popular theory, of course, involves “space objects,” as you put it. Or, more specifically, space aliens. Some folks are convinced that Area 51 is used to study the remains of an alien spacecraft that crashed in Roswell, NM in 1947. Unfortunately, the argument that this is Area 51’s real purpose, or if there ever actually was alien material at Roswell, is pretty much based on conjecture, some creative interpretation of government documents, and a few personal accounts of people that claimed to have worked there. It’s not a lot to go on, and an Internet search for “Area 51” will tell you as more than I can here. I just wouldn’t write any school papers on it.

But “space objects” or no, Area 51 is a pretty interesting, sneaky sort of place. And there’s probably plenty of science (of a sort) happening there, because area is used for development and testing of new weapons and aircraft. Several stealth fighter and bomber planes got their start there, and those are pretty neat, even if aliens didn’t invent them.

Q: What do you foresee in the future for humanity in regards to our evolution, and what role might technology play in that?

A: Huh. Well, how a species evolves depends on the natural pressures that are placed on it. And evolution takes place on a huge timescale—it can be millions of years before enough changes accumulate in a species for another species to emerge from it.

But what natural pressures will humans face over the next million years? Modern humans haven’t even been around that long so far (we’re a pretty young species, at about 200,000-years-old), so saying where we’re going to end up in millions of years is awfully tricky. As the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it in this MSNBC article on the future of human evolution, “it’s a question that any prudent evolutionist will avoid.”

But that’s a boring answer. It’s not an answer at all, I suppose. If you want to predict how we’ll evolve, I’d learn about the principles of evolution (time, natural selection, adaptation, etc), then imagine what the world of the future will be like, and then try to think how we’d need to be different to fit into that world. Will the climate be dramatically different? If we haven’t got technology to protect us from the elements, maybe our skin will change to better protect us from solar radiation, or we’ll be harrier to deal with the cold. Maybe, on average, human body types will be taller and more slender to get rid of the heat, or shorter and thicker, to reduce mass to surface area and conserve heat. Maybe we’ll have to adapt internally to deal with more or less oxygen in the air, or our digestive systems will change to eat different kinds of foods (try eating everything a goat eats—you couldn’t, because you don’t have a four-chambered stomach). Or maybe the Earth will change faster than we can, and we’ll die out altogether. It’s a creepy thought, but mass extinction events have happened over and over again in Earth’s history, eliminating thousands of species before they even got the chance to evolve.

But your mention of technology is a good point. It seems likely at this point that people might influence their own evolution through technological means. This concept is sometimes referred to as “participant evolution.” The rate at which we’re figuring out how to integrate technological components into our bodies seems to be moving a lot faster than any natural adaptations we might be undergoing. Prosthetics are getting awfully sophisticated, as are the ways we’re able to interface them (and other technology) with our brains. I mean, we’ve got monkey brains controlling robot legs and people posting to twitter using just their brains (and some fancy equipment). It seems pretty reasonable to assume that this stuff is only going to get more advanced and more common.

But participant evolution wouldn’t be restricted to just computer chips and electric motors. There’s also biotechnology; we’ve mapped the human genome, and we’re constantly advancing our genetic engineering abilities. So augmenting human evolution with technology might not necessarily lead to dudes with robot eyes and laser fingers so much as populations that have genes that protect them from cancer, allow them to live far beyond our current lifespan, and fart clouds of lavender. (I’m hoping for the lavender thing most of all.)

It’s all sort of sci-fi stuff, but when you’re dealing with what’s going to happen thousands or millions of years in the future… why not?

Q: What shampoo do you use? Why?

A: I, um, don’t really use a lot of shampoo. Why? I ran out a couple months ago, and decided it wasn’t a huge priority.

Q: How much wood can woodchucks chuck?

A: Very little, possibly none. I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by “chuck.” If “chuck” means to, like, stand next to, then I guess a woodchuck could potentially chuck lots and lots of wood. But if “chuck” means to eat, or chew, or throw, or whatever, then I’d have to stick with “very little” as my answer.

See, the name “woodchuck” probably comes from the Algonquian (a Native American language) word for this big North American rodent, “wuchak.” It sounds a little like “woodchuck,” doesn’t it? But it’s got nothing to do with wood or chucking.

One of the animal’s other names, groundhog, is maybe a little more fitting. If you were to have asked, “how much ground can a groundhog hog if a groundhog could hog ground?” I’d have said, “A groundhog actually can hog ground, and when digging a burrow (they live underground, not in trees), groundhogs have are estimated to move about 700 pounds of dirt. So 700 pounds is your answer!”

But that’s not what you asked.

Gosh. All things considered, I think that random question session went pretty well. I’ll have to do it this way more often. Until then… avast. Or whatever. It’s lunchtime.

Apr
13
2009

An early Hawaii-area triviashipman: Hopefully this triviashipman will come to a better end. I've tried to be courteous to the locals, at least.
An early Hawaii-area triviashipman: Hopefully this triviashipman will come to a better end. I've tried to be courteous to the locals, at least.Courtesy Artmechanic
The Puddleduck has crossed the Pacific! They said it couldn’t be done. But they also said that double-stuff Oreos would fail, and they said that Wham! would never play in China, and they said that Dances With Wolves could never win an Academy Award.

So here we are, on the northern tip of Polynesia, getting ready to answer some random questions.

How did I get random questions? Pff. Duh. I took them with me, of course. I never go anywhere without a few extra randoms, even if it means leaving my anti-psychotics out of my backpack for the extra space.

Man the guns, Buzzketeers! Random questions to port! Let us rake them to Swiss cheese, and send them to Davey Jones. (As answers.)

Elise asks: Are polar bears really bears?

Ka-boom!
Heck yeahs, Elise, polar bears is bears alright. The polar bear belongs to the family ursidae, just like all other bears. It is a pretty unique bear, though, so I can see how the confusion might arise. Polar bears, along with Kodiak bears (they’re big brown bears), are the largest meat-eating land animals. They’re also sometimes considered to be “marine mammals.” When you think about other marine mammals, like whales, seals, and dolphins, that might sound pretty weird, because bears seem pretty different from all of them. Polar bears, however, are excellent swimmers, and they spend months every year living on sea-ice, far away from land.

But, yeah. Polar bears are indeed bears.

Anonymous asks: Do they still say, “Ontology recapitulates phylogeny”?

Swab! Load! Ram! Spark the touchhole!
Um, no, they don’t. Sometimes they say, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” but for the most part nobody says stuff like that. I mean… are you serious? You could have asked about naked mole rats, and this is what you came up with? Shhh… I think I hear your old professor calling. She says that class has been really quiet since you left. Better go fix that.

Anonymous 2 asks: Why does poop smell?

Blam! Direct hit! I think we decapitated someone with that!
See? This is what I’m talking about! Sure, this is a joke question… but so was the last one, and at least this is an answer we can take to the bank. Why, when we eat delicious smelling foods, does poop smell so… bad?

It’s because after we eat food, as we digest it, bacteria inside our bodies help break that food down into other materials we can use for energy, or to build our bodies. But when bacteria do this, they also produce chemicals that don’t smell great. Some of them smell really bad! A lot of the worst smelling chemicals—the ones that make farts so gross too—contain the element sulfur, like the gas hydrogen sulfide, or the chemicals indole and skatole. Skatole smells so bad that its name comes from the Greek word for poop: “skato.” The food we eat can also change the smell of out poop. Undigested spices can show up in the odor, and sometimes eating lots of meat can make it smell worse too.

Lots of animals don’t really mind the smell of poop, but people probably think its bad because having too much contact with poop can make us sick (it can have some pretty bad germs). When we smell that smell, we know it’s something we should probably avoid for our own health.

Annika (with the help of a parent) asks: Why do blue leaves not grow?

Boom!
Good question, Annika. We have blue flowers sometimes, but leaves are usually green. Why? We have to go a couple steps back to get a good answer, I think.

Plants grow with the help of sunlight. They absorb air (or carbon dioxide from the air) and use the energy in sunlight to turn that air into more plant material. “Photosynthesis” is the fancy word for this. Plants use a green chemical called Chlorophyll, and that gives plants their green color. When white sunlight (remember, white light is made up of all colors of light) hits those leaves, the leaves reflect green light back to our eyes, but they absorb all the other colors of light, especially red and blue light. The energy in that light can then be used to help the plant grow.

Oh, man, those questions have been mutilated! I’ve got a thirst for blood now. Let’s sail on, and see which questions are foolish enough to fall into the range of our science cannons. So, until next time…

PS—It’s still Easter in Hawaii right now, by the way, so Happy Easter. (If that’s your thing.) I’m afraid JGordon is alone this Easter, but don’t get too concerned. I’ve got plans. I’m going to spin around until I almost throw up, and then I’m going to take a basket of eggs and scatter them wherever I happen to stagger. When I get my equilibrium back, I’ll go try to find the eggs. It shouldn’t be so hard—the eggs will certainly be uncooked, and the whole thing will take place in an empty parking lot.

Feb
27
2009

This bear is full of love, questions: Although I'd like to trade a capitalization for an apostrophe.
This bear is full of love, questions: Although I'd like to trade a capitalization for an apostrophe.Courtesy aussiegall
To quote the wise and indomitable Tyra Banks: “Hey y’all!”

It’s Friday (I think) and relationships still exist (that’s what I hear) so it’s time again for everybody’s favorite Friday Science Buzz feature: The Friday Relationship Extravaganza!

This week’s relationship feature promises to be especially… extravagasmic, because today we’re pairing it up with some good old fashioned random questions.

See, on Thursday night, all the Buzz blog features went out for drinks after work. Random Questions promised itself that it would just have two drinks, but you know how that sort of thing goes… Pretty soon the ginger ale was flowing, and next thing you know Random Questions is waking up in Extravaganza’s bed.

OMG, right?

But don’t even worry about it. Nothing happened. Extravaganza slept on the couch. Still, these are work friends, not friend friends, and they had to talk about something when they got to the office. And so…

Friday Relationship Extravaganza: Random Questions Edition

So paddle around with me in the HMS Puddleduck, won’t you?

Question: Why do praying mantis females eat their mates?

Answer: Hmm… This is a hard one. If relationships weren’t tricky enough, relationships that involve cannibalism are particularly troublesome. I mean, look at Jeffrey Dahmer.

It’s also difficult to answer because it seems like scientists are sure exactly why mantises behave this way. Originally it was thought that female mantises bit off their mates’ heads because removing the head caused the male to start, er, mating like crazy (and why not, I guess.) Plus, the lady mantis gets a snack.

Then, some scientists pointed out that this behavior could be influenced by the fact that the mantises were being watched—whether in the field or in a laboratory, the bright lights and steamy glasses of sweaty-palmed scientists might be a little distracting and stressful for mantis lovers, and could cause them to behave a little irrationally.

Other scientists then observed that if a female were fed before mating, she would be less likely to snap at her mate (as it were). With the threat of having his head bitten off lessened, a male mantis will sometimes even engage in elaborate courtship behavior (and why not, I guess.)

Recently, researchers have determined that male mantises, in fact, don’t like getting eaten, and will approach a female with tremendous caution and attempt to couple from a greater distance to avoid it.

So, what are we left with? Removing a mating male’s head can increase that male’s chance of successfully reproducing (because of the mating like crazy thing). But not getting killed on a lucky date can also increase a male’s chance of reproducing (because he can maybe go on to have more dates with other females). And being watched my scientists while having sex can be stressful. And being hungry while having sex can lead lady mantises to do things they might later regret.

Is that close enough to a real answer?

Question: (This question card is actually two questions. “Why can’t boys have babies?” was written first, and then scratched out. A more logical rephrasing of the question follows: “How long would it take to grow a boyfriend?” Because I’m the acting commander of the HMS Puddleduck, choosing which question to answer is my prerogative. So I will answer both. This is an extravaganza, after all.)

Why can’t boys have babies?

Answer: Well… I can see why you decided to re-write this question. Because, of course, boys can have babies. If I were to see a baby sitting on the street, and if I were to take that baby, guess what? I’d technically have a baby. (And don’t get all sassy about how I shouldn’t go around just taking babies willy-nilly. Would you rather I left that baby sitting in the street?)

Also, according to the research presented in Junior, men can make their own babies, no problem. But until that technology is released to fertility clinics, boys can’t have babies because… well, just because. That’s how things worked out.

We have evolved to use internal fertilization—that is, we don’t just release eggs and sperm into the ocean in the hopes that they’ll mix around on their own. And thank God, because where would the Relationship Extravaganza be if we all acted like fish and amphibians? No place good.

And so, I don’t know… one of the two sexes got stuck with carrying fertilized eggs/babies around, and it’s usually the female (Seahorses are an interesting counterexample, however). And, at this point, human males couldn’t really do it, because we haven’t got the equipment. I mean, the underwhelming birth canal is really the least of the issues here (and that’s saying something.)

Sorry if I’m being vague on this answer, but I think it might be a good question for our current Scientist on the Spot, PZ Myers. I think this question comes down to evolution, and why it makes sense for just one sex to carry developing offspring. PZ is the expert on evolution, so click on these pink words and see if he has any thoughts on the subject.

How long would it take to grow a boyfriend?

Answer: I guess it depends on how you like your boyfriends. If you like your men young, I’d say you could have a boyfriend ready in about nine months. If you want some kind of loving, responsible and mature boyfriend, you might have to wait… what, about 35 years? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Then again, “accelerated aging” seems to be a staple of all cloning-related sci-fi, so maybe we should look into that…

When a mad scientist makes my perfect double to replace me after I get kidnapped, accelerated aging techniques will be essential to ensuring that the clone and I are indistinguishable. After all, a regular (non-mad) scientist might be able to clone me now, but the clone would be a baby, and it wouldn’t be a very convincing replacement. (I pee my pants so rarely these days, it’s hardly worth brining up.)

However, it seems like accelerated aging might be an unintended consequence of some cloning techniques already, and doesn’t even require special tanks and serums. When Dolly the sheep was cloned, scientists found that she suffered from arthritis and lung disease at a relatively young age, leading them to believe that she was prematurely aging. One thought is that Dolly’s telomeres were too short. Telomeres are pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes, and their deterioration is responsible for aging. Telomeres prevent chromosomes from accidentally combining with each other. If the chromosomes were to combine with each other, it could result in the cell becoming cancerous, so when a telomere runs out or wears down, the cell is usually destroyed. The shortening of telomeres puts a limit on the number of times a cell can divide, and when cells don’t divide anymore, you start to age. They aren’t sure exactly what caused Dolly’s telomeres to be short (if that was indeed the cause of her rapid aging).

But that’s sort of the downhill part of aging—if you were to clone or genetically engineer your perfect boyfriend, and somehow shorten his telomeres (if it didn’t happen automatically from the cloning) you’d probably end up with some sort of odd Benjamin Button situation, and that might not be what you want.

To even things out, you might have to affect the pituitary gland in some way. The pituitary controls hormones that cause growth, and disorders with the pituitary gland can sometimes cause kids to grow very large very quickly. Many of the world’s tallest people have had pituitary disorders.

I’m thinking that you’d still need eight or nine years to balance out the pituitary and telomere stuff in your grown boyfriend. And he might not thank you for it.

And there we are! Another heartwarming Relationship Extravaganza, spiced with random questions. But the Puddleduck must be off—I still have a stack of questions here that require answers from the far off reaches of knowledge. And several of them have swearwords in them that I have to rephrase, which isn’t easy, if you want to keep the spirit of the original question. (And I do.)

Jan
09
2009

Another lazy day on the Puddleduck: This seems... smaller than I remember.
Another lazy day on the Puddleduck: This seems... smaller than I remember.Courtesy Olpl
Ahoy, Buzznauts! As small and oddly colored as she may be, the Puddleduck is a fast ship, and her tubby belly can hold buckets of that rich, greasy knowledge we prize so highly.

To be clear, when I say “buckets,” I don’t mean that literally. Puddleduck can hold lots and lots of buckets, but usually we have more practical containers. “Buckets” just means “lots” here. Also, when I refer to the Puddleduck as a “she,” I only do so for the sake of nautical tradition. Thankfully, most ships boast neither male nor female genitalia. Neither do ducks, for that matter, as far as I can tell. (I’ve had plenty of ducks fly over me, and darned if I can see anything distinguishing there.)

The Puddleduck has sailed into some heady waters recently—intellectually dangerous territory, certainly, but with the greater risk comes the chance of greater rewards. And so… more random sciencey questions. (I have a stack of these raw, unadulterated questions in my cabin at all times. It’s one of the many benefits of a lieutenancy aboard a science vessel.)

Question: Is there anything smaller than an electron?

Answer: Oh my, yes. Or… sort of. There are particles so small that thinking about them will cause every blood vessel in your brain to immediately burst. This is why particle physicists have to be so extensively trained—they’re like brain-ninjas. Where a real ninja can prevent his or her own body from exploding after being forced to swallow an explosive device, so too can a particle physicist protect their brain from the tremendous pressures of the hard sciences.

See, it seems like electrons are “point particles.” That means that they don’t really have any size at all—they don’t take up any space. (Although the electric charge of an electron could be used to define a radius.) Despite having no size, electrons do have mass, and there are particles that weigh even less than electrons. Neutrinos, for instance, have only a fraction of the mass of an electron. I can’t get into what a neutrino is because I can already feel the pressure in my head building, but if you want to learn more about the most fundamental particles of existence, check out Jeremiah Mans’ Scientist on the Spot feature.

Question: Is the universe still expanding?

Answer: This is another one of those brain-poppers, but, yes, the universe is still expanding. But it’s not expanding into anything—it’s not like a balloon filling up a room, it’s like the room itself getting bigger in every direction from every point in the room.

With sensitive enough equipment, scientists can actually see the “edge” of the universe. Again, it’s not like they can look to a point in space, beyond which is a big, blank are. In a way it’s more like they’re looking at the beginning of the universe. The universe, in the first moments of its existence, expanded from the tiniest of tiny points. Some of the energy from this initial expansion/explosion is still around, and it’s further and fainter than anything else you might try to observe, so looking at it (with special equipment) is kind of like looking at the edge of the universe, as well as a snapshot of the beginning of the universe. (For more, check out Shaul Hanany’s SOTS.)

Oh, that’s too much. Let’s try something a little softer.

Question: What’s the grossest thing you have ever seen?

Answer: In third grade Mikey Helke threw up during lunch, and I just about lost it. Looking back, I think that it was mostly chocolate milk, but it seemed pretty gross at the time.

Bot fly larva emerging from human skin is pretty gross too, according to the internet videos I’ve seen.

Oh, also, a couple years ago, I took a big, daring bite out of a piece of old cake. As I closed my mouth to chew, a puff of smoke blew out from between my lips. I opened and closed my mouth again, and it happened again. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the situation until I spat the cake out, and realized that the bottom of it was covered in thick mold, and I was expelling a cloud of spores each time I closed my mouth. I thought the whole thing was pretty interesting, but most of the people I’ve told about that reacted poorly.

Question: What is the circumference of Earth?

Answer: I like this one. It’s nautically applicable, and it’s so easy to answer while sitting at a computer (I have a computer on the Puddleduck, obviously). Depending on the direction you measure, the circumference is slightly difference. If you were to walk around the world starting at the North Pole, and going through the south pole, you’d have to go 40,008 km, or 24860 miles (and this is assuming you could walk on water without much trouble). If you walked around the world at the equator, however, you would have to travel 40,075 km, or 24,901 miles. The difference comes from the fact that Earth isn’t a true sphere—it’s just a little bit squashed on its axis.

And that’s all for now, Buzznauts. There’s a situation on the poop deck that requires my immediate attention.

Jan
06
2009

The HMS Puddleduck: Right now it's mostly loaded with lifejackets.
The HMS Puddleduck: Right now it's mostly loaded with lifejackets.Courtesy Moondyne
Oh, mateys. This is… sad news. The goodship Friendventure has gone to Davey Jones’ locker. Sunk.

We were sailing around the horn (which horn? The worst one) with a hold full of trivia, and we were hit by a squall the likes of which you’ve never even imagined. I did everything I could to save it, but the vessel was smashed to toothpicks against the rocks of the horn. The Buzznauts, every last man and woman, went down with the ship—I only survived because I was knocked unconscious by a falling spar as I was trying to punch out a shark (there were lots of sharks). Apparently I fell into the Friendventure’s only dinghy, which was then cut free of the ship by another, sharper falling spar. I must have either rowed to shore while unconscious (somnambulism is an issue in my family), or, more likely, I was towed to land by friendly dolphins. If only those dolphins had made an effort to rescue some of my shipmates! Damn them!

Still, the mandate of scientific knowledge that drove the Friendventure remains. The organization has purchased a ship, less grand than the Friendventure, but a trusty craft nonetheless: The H.M.S. Puddleduck!

All that remains now is to find a replacement crew. And as we’re a little short on funds after buying the ship, we’ll be resorting to press-ganging. What’s a press gang? Why, it’s like a free trip to Disney Land, only more fun! So all aboard! We’ve got no time to lose! Lieutenant JGordon has a stack of awesome science questions from the museum floor, and we need answers!

Question The First: Is there more girls or boys in boys in the world? –Lucia M.

Answer: As of 2006, at least, there were more boys than girls in the world: about 3,360,742,768 males to 3,310,483,706 females. That’s about 102 boys to every 100 girls. If the battle of the sexes ever comes to violence, it’s going to be a very close fight—too close to call, probably.

Question Twain: What was the year guinea pigs were discovered?

Answer: Interesting… Well, guinea pigs originate from the Andes mountains region of South America. We aren’t exactly sure when the first humans arrived in South America, although there’s an archaeological site in Chile (where much of the Andes are) that dates back to about 13,000 years ago. People might have been in South America before that, but we can be pretty certain that someone discovered that cuddly little rodent by about 11,000 BC. Guinea pigs were probably domesticated about 5000 years ago (the were domesticated for food, though, not for pets).

Europeans weren’t exposed to the delights that are guinea pigs until thousands and thousands of years later, around the 1500s, when Spanish traders came to South America.

Question thrip: Why can’t people fly in space when they don’t have an astronaut suit?

Answer: Ah! Well people can fly in space without a space suit—they’d just have to be dead to do it for very long. If you jumped out of a space shuttle (while it was in outer space) you wouldn’t pop or immediately freeze, ala Mission to Mars. You would freeze eventually, but you’d be long dead by then from suffocation. See, space is a vacuum. That means that there’s no air or anything, and anything that did have air in it would lose it quickly. Have you every sucked the air out of an empty pop bottle? If the bottle is glass (and won’t crumple like a plastic bottle) a vacuum will start to form inside of it, and it will kind of feel like the bottle is sucking back at you. That’s because the air pressure inside the bottle is so much less than the air pressure outside the bottle, and it’s trying to make things even. Being in space without a space suit would be like having empty bottles like that all around you: all the air would be sucked out of your body. Even the oxygen in your blood would be sucked out.

In addition to this, the fluids in your body would start to boil, even though you’d be cold—liquids can evaporate at low temperatures in a vacuum. So all that evaporating fluid in your body would cause you to inflate to a couple times your normal size. Here are a couple descriptions of similar situations.

Question 4: Where does broccoli come from?

Answer: Broccoli farms. Next.

Question flive: Why do we have hair? – Grace G.

Answer: Good question, Grace. I’m going to assume that “we” refers to humans. (I know, I shouldn’t go out on a limb like that, but fortune favors the bold—except for the whole Friendventure thing.)

Humans have 3 different types of hair. There’s lanugo hair, which is fine, downy, and grows on babies while they’re still in the womb. It’s what I like to call “the grossest hair,” because babies shed it before they’re born, and consume it with their amniotic fluid. People who are anorexic or seriously malnourished will sometimes grow a lanugo hair again to insulate their bodies (to make up for the loss of insulating fat).

Then there’s vellus hair, which is also fine, downy, and very short, but everybody has it. It’s similar to lanugo hair, but not nearly as thick.

Finally there’s terminal hair, the head and body hair we know and love. Longer, thicker, darker. Terminal hair.

The real question, however, might be why we humans have so little hair. Most mammals are covered in hair, or fur if you’re going to be sassy. It makes sense to be covered in hair—it’s warm, it can at an extra layer of protection, it can be used as camouflage, etc… but humans lost most of their hair about 3 million years ago. Some people think that this is because people evolved to hunt on the warm plains of the African savannah, and hair was too hot. There are other species that hunt in similar environments that do have plenty of hair, but humans evolved to cool themselves by sweating, and that wouldn’t work with lots of hair.

The hair we kept often serves some function: eyelashes and eyebrows help keep foreign objects out of your eyes, nose hairs help filter air you breath through your nose, and my beard makes me look like I can bite very hard (and, in fact, I can!). This article also points out how hair retains each person’s personal odor—their unique chemical signature. We don’t really notice them, but there have been studies done that seem to show that people respond to these smells, or pheremones, without even thinking about it.

Final question: Why is pee yellow?

Answer: I actually looked this up the other day! (Don’t ask me why—I’m kind of on a pee kick these days.) I’m not even going to use the internet to answer this one. The yellow color of pee mostly comes from a pigment called “urochrome.” Urochrome is a waste product made by the kidneys when they break down the hemoglobin in our blood (hemoglobin is what allows are blood to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body). Kidneys break down old hemoglobin, hemoglobin is turned into urochrome (among other things), urochrome goes to the bladder, and pee is yellow.

I’ve got some more questions still, but they’ll have to wait. It’s lunchtime on the Puddleduck, and as the ranking officer aboard, I must be served first. And so…

Dec
12
2008

He missed the boat: Actually, Friendventure sailed without him on purpose. We told him to go buy some more gatorade for the trip, and split as soon as he was out of site. You can see it in his eyes.
He missed the boat: Actually, Friendventure sailed without him on purpose. We told him to go buy some more gatorade for the trip, and split as soon as he was out of site. You can see it in his eyes.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Ahoy, Buzznauts, the goodship Friendventure has set sail once again. We’ll be traveling through the treacherous waters of the horn (some horn or other—I’m not sure which), where many a young scientist have been sent to their frigid, watery dooms, like so many Leonardo DiCaprios. So set your wills straight, harden your hearts, and focus on the wealth of knowledge at journey’s end!

Let’s see here… what random questions from the science museum are hiding in Lieutenant JGordon’s Random Question Bag? Here we go…

Q) Why aren’t the insides of sweet potatoes white? —Angela

A) Good Q), Angela, but I’m afraid that I might not have a great A) for you. But we’ll see. First of all, sweet potatoes aren’t white like potatoes because they aren’t potatoes. Sweet potatoes are related to “normal” potatoes, but only distantly so—sweet potatoes and potatoes belong to the same order, but different families, genera, and species. That means that sweet potatoes and potatoes are about as closely related as humans are to howler monkeys. And while humans and howler monkeys are probably more or less the same color on the inside, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to plants.

So… sweet potatoes are, in fact, the edible root of a plant very similar to the morning glory flower. They get their color from the compounds in their flesh, compounds that regular potatoes might not have much of. Orange sweet potatoes, for instance, are high in the vitamin beta carotene, the darker they are, the more beta carotene they have. Red, purple, and blue shades of sweet potatoes get their color from anthocycanins, healthy flavonoid molecules that seem to be beneficial in combating cancer, aging, inflammation, diabetes, and bacterial infections. How about that?

Man, that was a great A)! I can’t believe I ever doubted myself.

Q) When did the dinersors die? And why?

A) I appreciate your spelling of “dinosaurs,” friend. Very rich and earthy. Well, sir, when the dinersors died is something we can answer with some certainty—the last of the dinersors died off about 65 million years ago. It was a very sad period for the planet, because dinersors were the most awesome. Let’s put that time (65 million years ago) into perspective: your mom was born about 35 years ago; the cotton gin was invented 215 years ago; the last wooly mammoth croaked about 3700 years ago (don’t argue! We’re talking pygmy mammoths on Wrangel Island); cheese was invented between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago; modern humans evolved about 200,000 years ago; hairy cave people probably figured out how to control fire around 1 million years ago; the Rocky Mountains finished growing about 40 million years ago; and the last dinosaur thought “Wait a second… I haven’t had to wait in line for months!” about 65 million years ago. No dinosaur fossils appear from after that time.

The “why” is trickier, especially if you mean it in a philosophical way. It’s pretty well agreed upon that a six-mile-wide meteorite hit the Earth near where Mexico is today and made life very difficult (impossible) for the dinersors. This doesn’t mean that every dinosaur was literally crushed to death by the meteorite—something that big would certainly have killed a lot of animals immediately, but it would have also thrown so much dust and smoke into the air that temperatures around the planet would drop significantly. It’s like the whole planet was made a little bit shadier for a long time. Even a small change in temperature can have huge effects for some animals—if a lot of plants died from the change in temperature, plant-eating dinosaurs would also die, and then meat-eating dinosaurs would die. Something like that.

There are also some scientists who think that something else entirely, or a combination of things, could have caused the dinersors to all die. One of the main alternative theories is that a series of huge volcanic eruptions in an area of India called the Deccan Traps, finished off the dinosaurs. The eruptions occurred at around the same time as the meteorite impact, and lasted for about 30,000 years. The volcanoes would have had what is scientifically referred to as a “double-whammy” effect on the world of the dinersors: dust from the eruptions would have blocked sunlight, killing off plants, and the massive amounts of volcanic gas released could have contributed to rapid (geologically speaking) global warming on a dramatic scale. Just like with global cooling, an increase in temperature that occurs too quickly can cause extinction for slow-adapting organisms.

Q) Why do turtles have shells?

A) I’m not even going to look this one up. Turtles have shells to protect themselves from the ninja stars of the Foot Clan.

Q) Can any fish breathe air?

A) A nautically themed question! Yes! And, yes, some fish can breathe air.

All fish breath oxygen, but most do it by absorbing gas that is dissolved in water through their gills. The fish that breath air air, if you follow, do it in different ways. Some eels can absorb oxygen right through their skin. Some catfish can gulp air, and absorb it through their digestive tracts. Lungfish and bichirs actually have a pair of lungs, similar to mammals.

Some air-breathing fish will only do so if there is too little oxygen in the water for their gills to work, but some are “obligate air breathers”—they need to breath air occasionally, or they will suffocate. The electric eel is, of course, my favorite obligate air breather. 80% of the oxygen used by electric eels is obtained through breathing air.

And that’s all we have time for right now. Answering random questions is serious business, but then again so is sailing.

Dec
02
2008

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.