Blue Sky Science

Blue Sky Science is a weekly Q&A video series that gives the public a forum to pose curiosity-driven questions about science. The project is a collaboration of the Morgridge Institute for Research and the Wisconsin State Journal.

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  • Sign up for Blue Sky Science, a weekly Q&A video series, to ask your most curious questions and hear answers from top scientists.

  • How do bees make honey?

    Most bee species do not make honey, but those that do—as you might guess—are specifically called honey bees.

  • How does electricity move through wires?

    It’s a complicated process, but there are charges inside wires and these charges can be acted on by an electric field. They can move through the wire in something that’s called an electric current.

  • Can brain injuries sustained while playing sports be fully recovered from?

    A concussion is defined as a traumatic blow to the head coupled with some kind of altered consciousness. Some people refer to it as seeing stars, getting your bell rung. People may feel disoriented for a period of time.

  • How does virtual reality work?

    A broad definition says virtual reality is the idea of combining the physical world and the artificial world in such a way that the two are indistinguishable. How could technology provide all of the sensory sensations or different ways that people see, feel and hear the world such that the artificial and physical are blended together?

  • How does the moon affect the tides?

    The tides are the result of the moon exerting its gravitational force on the ocean and bulging it both toward and away from the moon. The tide is higher, the ocean is higher, at the location closest to the moon and on the opposite side of the Earth.

  • Why do some viruses cause cancer?

    Infectious agents—both bacterial and viral—are responsible for about 25 percent of all human cancers. The virus infection does not by itself cause cancer, but can interfere with a cell’s normal maintenance of things.

  • How do animals evolve and get new traits?

    How animals evolve and develop traits is basically the foundation of evolutionary biology. Whether it be animal or plant, bacteria or fungi, there is one organism that gave rise to all those types of life.

  • How long would it take a tree to grow in space?

    It’s a complicated question because, while researchers have grown spruce seedlings on the International Space Station, they haven’t grown full-size trees. Using knowledge of how trees operate on Earth, scientists can guess what’s going to happen when they’re grown in space.

  • Why are snowflakes individually unique?

    Two important factors influence the shape of snowflakes. One is the ambient temperature, and the other is humidity. A snowflake needs to grow under the condition of a super saturated environment.

  • How does the epiglottis distinguish between water, food and air?

    Swallowing is one of the most obvious functions the epiglottis serves, because it hoods over the airway, or larynx, when you eat and drink. When you swallow, the muscles in your throat respond by pulling the voice box up and underneath the tongue, and the epiglottis is pulled to cover over the larynx.

  • Can all mosquitos transmit viruses like Zika?

    Not all mosquitos can transmit the Zika virus, and that’s the case with any mosquito-borne pathogen. There are about 3,000 species of mosquitos in the world and only a handful—about 150—are considered vectors of pathogens, capable of spreading viruses.

  • Why do we have freckles?

    Freckles are composed of an ingredient called melanin, which protects against damage caused by UV light. Your body makes melanin to protect itself from sun damage.

  • How does thunder form?

    Thunder is formed by the intense heating produced by lightning. The thunder you hear is made up of vibrations that travel as sound waves through the air until they reach your ear.

  • Why do chickens lay different-colored eggs?

    Genetics is the simple answer to why chickens lay different-colored eggs. Some chickens lay white shell eggs and some lay brown shell eggs, similar to the way hair color varies in people.

  • How do temperature and wind affect traffic noise?

    In terms of temperature, sound waves move faster in warm air and slower in cold air. So as sound moves through the atmosphere, some parts of the wave will be moving faster than the rest.

  • How do we make robots?

    Imagine building a robot in three stages.

  • How does a 3D printer make color?

    3D printing involves making an object layer by layer. There are many 3D printing techniques, and they all differ in how each layer is constructed. Each type of printer has a different opportunity or mechanism for adding color.

  • What is a solar flare?

    A solar flare is a release of magnetic energy from the sun. The energy is stored as a magnetic field around the sun, and then it is released with energetic particles and waves coming from the solar surface.

  • What is cedar-apple rust disease?

    Cedar-apple rust is one of several plant diseases that are all caused by different species of a fungus called gymnosporangium. All of these diseases are referred to as gymnosporangium rust diseases.

  • Why (and for how long) do butterflies stay in a cocoon?

    Caterpillars start out as very small, tiny creatures. In the beginning they eat lots of food—just like the book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”—and get bigger and bigger.

  • What precautions are recommended in regards to Zika virus and pregnancy?

    Many people travel to areas that have active, ongoing transmission of Zika virus disease.

  • Why do we have wisdom teeth?

    Wisdom teeth are the third set of permanent molars that typically come in between the ages of 17 and 25. Some people don’t form them anymore, and a lot of people that do need to have wisdom teeth taken out.

  • Why do the northern and southern lights only appear near the poles?

    The formation of the northern and southern lights—known as aurora borealis and aurora australis—begins with solar flares from the sun. The solar flares eject groups of electrons from the sun that act as a wind and flow toward the Earth.

  • Why do some logs float and some sink?

    Whether an object floats or sinks in water is determined by the ratio of its weight compared to its volume. If an object of a certain volume weighs more than an equal volume of water, it sinks because the water can’t hold it up. If an object weighs less than an equal volume of water, it floats because the water can support its weight.

  • Could we harness energy in space for use on Earth?

    When thinking about collecting energy from a source in space, the natural answer is the sun.

  • How are moons created?

    Anything that orbits a planet is a moon, and moons can form in several different ways.

  • What are bacteria?

    Bacteria are amazing single-celled, simple organisms. They’re found everywhere on the planet in all sorts of environments from your gut to the soil to the Arctic and Antarctic.

  • How do toys affect a baby’s development?

    Virtually every theory of child development says that play is crucial to development in every way. It impacts cognitive development, social and emotional development, as well as language development.

  • Could we use viruses to fight cancer?

    Cancer is, essentially, cells that have started to grow uncontrollably and stop behaving like normal cells. Viruses are an attractive treatment tool because they, by their very nature, are manipulators of cells. It may be possible to reengineer viruses in a way that could either stop cancers from growing or kill cancer cells.

  • Why do beavers, rabbits have the same kind of teeth?

    Squirrels, beavers, chipmunks and rabbits all have similarly-shaped teeth, because all of those animals have teeth that continually grow throughout their lives.

  • Are there wormholes that lead to other galaxies?

    Wormholes can exist within the framework of general relativity, Albert Einstein’s theory that governs how space-time interacts with matter in our universe.

  • What determines the melting or boiling point of a substance?

    Before we can answer that question, we need to know first: What is a solid? What’s a liquid? What’s a gas?

  • How long does it take a GMO product to grow?

    Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, refer to any plant or animal that has been genetically modified by humans. For centuries, breeders have been able to do this through selective breeding practices.

  • Does an earthquake ever form a new tectonic plate?

    Most earthquakes occur when a geological fault, fractures within the earth’s crust, slip and release energy. Individual faults, some of which form the tectonic plate boundaries, build up strain over decades and centuries to eventually break in large earthquakes.

  • How do fireworks get their color and shape?

    Fireworks, as you can tell from the name, involve fire. To get a fire you need fuel, oxygen and heat, and that’s true in fireworks also.

  • Could we make a living creature using only stem cells?

    Stem cells are special cells inside your body that can multiply indefinitely, or make copies of themselves. They can also differentiate, meaning they can become every cell type that’s present in your body.

  • What makes a mammal? Is an octopus a mammal?

    It’s a great guess, but an octopus is not a mammal. An octopus is an invertebrate animal, which means it has no spine. More specifically, an octopus is a cephalopod, like squid and cuttlefish. They’re some of the smartest invertebrates.

  • How did dinosaurs go extinct?

    When it comes to dinosaur extinction, the working idea is what’s called the bolide impact. This is the hypothesis that a meteorite came to the surface of the Earth, hit the Earth, and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

  • How are waterfalls made?

    It basically it takes four things to make a waterfall.

  • Why is it difficult to predict which flu vaccine will be most effective?

    A vaccine is meant to train your immune system to recognize a virus so it can fight off that virus if you ever come in contact with it.

  • What’s going on in the brain when people sleepwalk?

    When we sleep we go through different types of sleep stages. You have slow-wave sleep, which is like your deep sleep, and then there’s dream sleep, which is called REM sleep.

  • How do hovercrafts work?

    To understand how a hovercraft works, we have to understand a few things about matter. We, and all ordinary matter, are made of little tiny things called atoms and clumps of atoms called molecules.

  • How did animals evolve from water to land?

    Water to land evolution is a complex question, and one that is still actively researched today.

  • Why do supercomputers have to be so big?

    We need supercomputers because scientists are doing really awesome work that requires lots of computing time. For some of this work, if we weren’t using supercomputing to break up tasks and make processing faster, it would take years or decades to complete.

  • Do plants produce nectar every day?

    Not all plants produce nectar, only plants that are visited by animal-type pollinators. Plants that are wind pollinated, for example, will not produce nectar.

  • When will a human trip to Mars be possible?

    We could send humans to Mars whenever we want to. We have the technology to do it today, though we would need to build new rockets that use that technology.

  • Can people have the abilities of animals?

    This question brings up all kinds of interesting issues about who we are as humans and how we compare to other animals.

  • How does someone get two different-colored eyes?

    When the eye color, or iris color, is different between the two eyes, the condition is called iris heterochromia.

  • How did scientists find out about electricity?

    Electricity is a complex topic that drives the world as we know it today, from Thomas Edison’s iconic light bulb to the satellites that enable our cell phones. Fundamentally, electricity is just the presence and flow of electric charge.

  • How do some plants grow without dirt?

    The principal purpose of soil is to provide mineral nutrition for the plant.

  • How do scientists find fossils?

    There are a number of steps that go into a researcher finding a fossil, something I spend a majority of my summer doing. First you have to figure out what kind of fossil you want to find.

  • What’s the science of leap year?

    2016 is a leap year, meaning we insert an extra day, February 29, into the calendar. We do this once every four years in order to keep our calendar aligned with the Earth’s seasons.

  • Do you think there’s life on other planets?

    The short answer to the question is that we don’t know. The closest planets to Earth are located millions of miles away, so it’s very difficult to go off and find evidence directly.

  • How is spider silk made?

    Spiders have silk-producing glands in their bodies, specifically in their abdomen. In these glands they have the chemical components already put together to produce silk, but it’s in a liquid form.

  • Why can people eat the same diet or take the same medication and have different outcomes?

    This is a question scientists are still trying to figure out. We know that it has to do with the specific genetic makeup, and everyone has slight differences in metabolism.

  • What and where is the Yahara watershed?

    The Yahara watershed is a geographic area in south central Wisconsin. It is comprised of about 370,000 people and 359 square miles home to the city of Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and this chain of lakes we refer to as the Yahara lakes.

  • How many species of snakes are there?

    There are more than 3,400 species of snakes worldwide, and they exist on every continent except Antarctica. We have about 50 snake species in the United States and 21 different snake species in the state of Wisconsin.

  • Can we use stem cells to treat brain injury or neurological disorders?

    The simple answer to the question is yes. It is possible to regenerate parts of the brain with stem cells, just like we can in other organs.

  • Does space go on forever?

    We really don’t know if space goes on forever. The universe is big enough that we can’t see all of it for a number of reasons. And there are ways that we could live in a space that doesn’t go on forever, but still has no actual edge to it.

  • How do we hear?

    Sounds reach our ears from different locations and first travel through the ear into the ear canal. Then tiny bones inside the middle ear end up vibrating and pushing on a small window. This then gets a special membrane inside our ear to vibrate.

  • Why do hissing cockroaches hiss?

    Madagascar hissing cockroaches and some of their relatives can produce an audible hissing noise that almost sounds like a cat hissing.

  • How does your brain form memories?

    The first step in forming a memory is called encoding, and encoding starts with perception. If you remember back to the first time you met your best friend, you encoded or perceived a lot of information about them.

  • Why can dogs hear a dog whistle but people can’t?

    Humans can hear sounds in a range from about 20 hertz to 23 kilohertz at the upper range of their hearing ability. The hearing range of dogs is almost double that.

  • Why do some colors make you feel emotions?

    Over the years you’ve learned to associate certain colors, certain shapes, certain things that you see with specific emotions.

  • What is a neutrino?

    In high school you learn that matter is made of atoms, atoms are made of electrons and nuclei, and nuclei contain neutrons and protons. That’s a basic picture of matter, but it’s an incomplete one. Missing in that picture is a full particle called neutrinos.

  • What is machine learning?

    Machine learning is an area of computer science that focuses on building computer programs that help machines learn by example. This is similar to the way young children learn about the world around them.

  • How are crystals formed?

    The word “crystal” comes from the Greek “krystallos,” meaning clear ice. A crystal is defined as a solid material consisting of a three-dimensional periodic ordering of atoms, molecules or ions. Crystals form by a process called crystallization that signifies a transition from chaos to perfection.

  • How is a gummy bear made?

    Gelatin is the basis of what makes a gummy bear a gummy bear, but we first start with sugar, corn syrup and water.

  • How fast could a human theoretically run?

    The current world record for running speed is held by Usain Bolt at roughly 28 miles per hour, and it’s difficult to imagine running faster.

  • How do we identify new species from fossils?

    When we try to identify different species in nature today, we usually think of that question in terms of interbreeding. We look at different populations, whether they look different or the same, and ask, do they ever interbreed with each other or encounter each other in nature?

  • What is gene editing?

    Gene editing involves changing the sequence of letters in the DNA. Researchers like to edit genes so they can understand the function of them, particularly genes that relate to various types of disorders that physicians have seen in the clinic. We can use this information to generate new hypotheses of how genes influence diseases.

  • Why is the sky blue?

    Light from the sun comes in many different colors including colors we can see and some colors we can’t see. And just like sound waves or waves on the water, light travels in waves as well.

  • Why is light faster than sound?

    Light and sound are very different. Sound is actually a mechanical disturbance through air or another medium. Sound always needs a medium to travel through and the type of medium determines its speed.

  • How are volcanoes formed?

    Some volcanoes, like the Cascade Volcanoes up in Washington and Oregon, are of the type called stratovolcano. These steep volcanoes sometimes erupt explosively, and other times have calmer lava flows that just spill out on the surface. The material from eruptions, like lava and ash, build up and cause these volcanoes to have a character like a layer cake.

  • Why do clouds have water?

    Not only do clouds have water, they consist almost entirely of water. And that water comes from the earth’s surface, including the ocean, lakes and streams and even the ground.

  • How do seedless plants start?

    Plants can propagate in two ways: sexually and asexually. Sexual propagation is through seeds. Seeds develop from the sexual organs of flowers. But some plants take a very long time to be able to propagate by seeds.

  • How does a hot air balloon work?

    Directionally you never know where a balloon is going to go because the wind controls it, I don’t. I can send a balloon higher or lower, but not steer it in specific directions. So before we send passengers up in a hot air balloon, we send up a small hydrogen balloon that tells us the wind speed and direction.

  • How do cows make milk?

    First the cow has to get pregnant, so she has to be able to have a baby before she can make milk. Once the cow gets pregnant, hormones, specifically estrogen and progesterone, begin to increase. As they increase in the blood, the cells inside the mammary gland, or the big udder that you’re used to seeing, start to grow and grow a lot. By the time the cow finishes her pregnancy, about nine months long, her cells are completely ready to go. They’ve been primed to make lots and lots of milk.

  • How do planes fly?

    Imagine this: Stick your hand out of the window of a car that travels at around 60 mph, and you will notice how lift is being produced as you twist your hand up and down. As the car accelerates, you will notice that no matter how you shape your hand, lift is always being produced.

  • What is the purpose of the appendix?

    For decades, scientists and physicians have believed that the appendix really doesn’t have a function in human beings. It may have had a purpose in some living thing tens of thousands of years ago, but that purpose never persisted in humans.

  • What is the Kuiper belt?

    The Kuiper belt, named after astronomer Gerard Kuiper, is a massive, icy region of our solar system that exists just beyond the planets. Actually shaped more like a donut than a flat belt, the Kuiper belt is best known as home of the dwarf planet Pluto.

  • How do we purify dirty water?

    What we use to purify water depends a lot on where the water’s coming from and what we want to do with it. If we’re going to drink water it needs to be very clean and very safe. There are lots of regulations that we have to meet.

  • Why is Pluto considered a dwarf planet?

    Before Pluto was discovered, it was predicted. Astronomers had observed that massive objects can affect the orbits of its neighbors, and, after seeing deviations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, assumed something substantial existed beyond their orbits.

  • How do the sun and rain make rainbows?

    Rainbows are really cool because they’re a blend between art and science. It required a number of scientists to actually explain how they form, including Isaac Newton.

  • How does autopilot work?

    An autopilot is a flight control system that allows a pilot to fly an airplane without continuous hands-on control of the airplane. It allows the pilot to focus on higher-order tasks such as navigating, communicating with air traffic control, planning for weather contingencies and rerouting associated with any kind of emergency circumstance.

  • How are video games used in research?

    Video games are used in about five different ways.

  • How can we use stem cells to build tissues and organs?

    There are two major properties of a stem cell, and the first one is its potency. By that we mean its ability to give rise to specialized cells.

  • Is it possible to bring back extinct animals?

    De-extinction, as it’s been termed, hasn’t happened in over 3 billion years of life on earth, so it will be an epic event if and when it happens.

  • What can your center of gravity help you with?

    Gravity is this invisible force that pulls objects toward one another. And one of the things that gravity does is pull us toward the earth. So it’s important to know that’s what gravity is. And then center of gravity is sort of this middle point where all of a body’s weight or an object’s weight is.

  • How does cancer form and is there a cure?

    Cancer occurs when one of the tissues in our body decides to grow uncontrollably, and our immune system is not able to recognize and destroy it. So the tissue continues to grow and can eventually break off into pieces and attach to other parts of the body and affect our health.

  • Do trees get viruses?

    Definitely trees get viruses. There are a wide range of different plant viruses that go not only to trees but to other types of plants as well.

  • What is 3-D printing?

    3-D printing refers to a kind of manufacturing where a part is built up layer by layer. With a typical machine, you take a block of material and subtract away. With additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, you start with nothing and you add layer by layer until you have a final part.

  • How does the brain get the heart to constantly beat?

    Interestingly, in the course of the day, your heart will beat somewhere around 100,000 times and over a calendar year might beat up to 35 million times. Over the course of a lifetime then, your brain and your heart have to work together to engineer 3 billion heartbeats.