Jan
06
2009

The Friendventure is gone, but her mission remains: random science questions!

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…

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