Ask Dr. Universe

Episode 1: Coins, Robots, Bees, Food, Dogs, Microbes

September 09, 2020 Larry
Ask Dr. Universe
Episode 1: Coins, Robots, Bees, Food, Dogs, Microbes
Show Notes Transcript

Hello, young scientists. I’m Dr. Universe and if you’re anything like me, you’ve got lots of big questions about our world. 

On this episode, we’ll talk with researchers at Washington State University about how coins are made, robot languages, bee wings, how food gives us energy, if dogs can tell time, and explore a tiny world of microbes.  

A big thanks to our friends Natalie and Sierra who helped read the questions on this episode. Thank you to Elizabeth Reilly Gurocak, Manoj Karkee, Melanie Kirby, Alice Ma, Lynne Nelson, and Viveka Vadyvaloo for helping with the science. 

You can learn more the different topics or send in a science question of your own at Who knows where your questions will take us next. 


Opening (music):

 Dr. Universe: Hello, young scientists. Yes, you, listening to this podcast. I’m Dr. Universe and if you’re anything like me, you’ve got lots of big questions about our world. On this episode… we’ll talk with real researchers about how coins are made, robot languages, bee wings, how food gives us energy, if dogs can tell time, and explore a tiny world of microbes. A big thanks to our friends Natalie and Sierra who helped read the questions on this episode. Let’s get started. 

Natalie: Hi I’m Natalie, This question comes from Dahlia, 10, in Olympia, Washington: How are coins made?

Dr. Universe: Thanks, Natalie. Our friend Elizabeth Reilly Gurocak, an economist at Washington State University was happy to help with this question.                         

Gurocak: Every coin that we use to buy anything in the United States was made at one of the U.S. Mint facilities.

Dr. Universe: It turns out they’ve been making more coins than usual—but we’ll get to that in a second. It takes both science and art to make coins. According to the U.S. Mint, an artist first designs the coin. Sculptors then take that design and model it in clay or on a computer. The model can be made into a plaster cast that gets scanned into a computer. Computer software helps us engrave the design into the end of a metal cylinder. This is like a big stamp that will be used to make more stamps, or dies, that can press the design into metal. Meanwhile, a big machine cuts out circle shapes called blanks from huge sheets of metal.

Gurocak: What they do with the blanks is that they heat them, they soften them, so they hold the image better, then they cool, wash, and dry them off, and get them all spiffy so they look nice and shiny. 

Dr. Universe: Finally, they go through machines that raise the edges of the blanks and stamp the coin designs. Due to COVID-19, a lot of people aren’t using coins and stores are short on change. The U.S. Mint is producing extra coins for the rest of the year. 

Gurocak: What is also interesting is they are asking people to start spending their coins, break open that piggy bank and get those coins out.

Dr. Universe: You can take coins to the bank to exchange for paper money, a coin kiosk, or use them at the store—together we can help solve the problem. Now we turn from economics to engineering… 

Sierra: "Hi, I'm Sierra. This question comes from Hank, age 8, in Virginia. Do robots have their own language? And is there a translator?

Dr. Universe: Thanks, Sierra. Here is our friend Manoj Karkee, an engineer at Washington State University

Karkee: Computers, and for that matter robots, run with ones and zeroes which is either presented with voltage and no voltage, or current and no current. These days when we have to tell computers or robots to do something, we don’t provide ones and zeroes, rather we provide instructions in a language that is not like our human language, but quite understandable by humans

Dr. Universe: Karkee and his team help program robots to do things like pick apples or pull weeds. 

Karkee: Do we have translators? In a way, programmers are translators, from English or the language we speak as humans, into the language computers understand, programmers convert our needs that we understand to the instructions that the computers understand.

Dr. Universe: Programmers have even helped computers gain the ability to translate different languages. 

Karkee: There are intelligent programs that can convert Spanish into English or English into Nepali. There’s that aspect, but again, computers have their own language, which is different than ours and we as programmers are translators between natural language and the computer language. 

 Dr. Universe: Engineers and robots can help us out in all kinds of ways—even in agriculture and on the farm. You know, beekeepers—and bees—are really important to agriculture, too. 

 Sierra: Another great question comes from Natalia, age 13, in Kennewick, Washington: What are bee wings made of? 

 Dr. Universe: Thanks, Sierra. Bee wings may be small, but they are really strong. Melanie Kirby, a bee researcher at WSU, said you might think about wings like a kite. If you make a kite out of thin tissue, it might rip. But if you make it out of a strong plastic film it will be stronger. Bee wings are made of a material called chitin (KITE-IN) and it’s a lot like keratin, the material that makes up your fingernails. The veins are also kind of like the cross-sections of the sticks in a kite. During their lifetime, bees fly from flower to flower. They move tiny grains of pollen around to help plants grow things like nuts, fruits, and vegetables. It’s called pollination. Kirby said bees can put about 500 miles on their wings in a lifetime. The next time you hear the buzz of a bee’s beating wings remember how important they are to our world and how they help us have food to eat. And that’s a great segue to our next question.

 Natalie: Victoria, age 7, in Minnesota wonders: Why do humans have to eat and drink?

 Dr. Universe: Here’s WSU dietician, Alice Ma. 

 Ma: In the simplest sense, humans need food and water, similar to you know ‘cars need gas’ because we are essentially machines and we need energy from food and water to power the things we do every day.

 Dr. Universe: Carbohydrates can give us a lot of energy, especially when they come from foods like grains, pasta, rice, veggies, breads, legumes, and nuts. Here’s how it works…the body breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars, which get absorbed into your blood. Sugar levels rise and your pancreas—an organ down on the right side of your belly—release something called insulin, which helps move the sugar into your cells. Your cells can now use the sugar to produce energy, or store the sugar for later use. Water is also really important for our bodies. 

 Ma: Our body is mostly water, similar to the way the earth is mostly water. We use it for a number of things, we use water for a number of things in our body. It makes up most of our blood and blood is important for carrying things through our body to our cells. We lose a water every single day through breathing, going to the bathroom, and sweating so we need to replace that water regularly in order to power those processes.

Dr. Universe: While food and drinks are important to our health, they are also a big part of culture. Humans celebrate entire days about food and throw festivals to appreciate different cuisines. Here’s a question for you: What kinds of foods do you celebrate in your family? Tell us about it sometime at, that’s D-R-dot-universe at W-S-U dot E-D-U.

You know who always seems to know when it’s time to eat? Dogs. Sam, age 8, in Indiana writes in: Can dogs tell time? Dogs might not use clocks to tell time like humans do, but they are pretty good at following a schedule. They often know when it is time for a walk, dinner, or sleep.

Nelson: They know when they normally eat and so they start to get hungry before then and then they start to bug their owners even before that to put the food out.

Dr. Universe: That’s Lynne Nelson, a veterinarian and researcher at WSU.A lot of animals rely on something called a circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle, to help them figure out when it is time to do different things. This system is sort of like an inner clock. Humans have a circadian rhythm too but we also have language—and calendars and planners—to talk about time.

Nelson: We may not rely on those biological rhythms as much as animals do because they don’t have that language they can communicate to us with. They rely a little bit more on their innate senses and rhythms than maybe we do.

 Dr. Universe: In a way, humans have helped dogs learn to tell time. When humans train dogs, dogs learn how to interact with both their humans and their environment. It also helps that they like food. 

Nelson: Animals that are food motivated, which is often times bears and dogs become especially attuned to telling time because of the special treats.

Dr. Universe: We are wrapping up this episode with a question that comes from Jevauni, age, 9, in Canada. How many microbes are there in the world?

This one is great reminder that not all questions have perfect answers! Here’s Viveka Vadyvaloo, a microbiologist at WSU.  

 Vadyvaloo: Microbes, they can be defined by a large number of different organisms that can’t be seen by the naked eye.

Dr. Universe: Usually, to see a microbe, we need a microscope. One of the microbes that Vadyvaloo studies is the cause of bubonic plague.  

Vadyvaloo: The name of the bacteria that I study is Yesinia Pestis. 

 Dr. Universe: It’s one of trillions of microbes on the planet that scientists study. 

Vadyvaloo: These biologists, these ecology and evolutionary biologists, have tried to use, you know, what we already know about the population of microbes and try to predict how many there might be. They come up with ‘oh there are trillions of these bacteria. There are more bacteria than there are stars in the galaxy’. We apparently only know 1,000 of 1% of the trillion which means we effectively know zero!”

Dr. Universe: But scientists learn about microbes all the time, as animals, including humans get infected from bacteria or viruses, by culturing different microbes in the lab, or by studying their DNA. 

Vadyvaloo: That helps also with estimations of how many microbes there are out there.

Dr. Universe: And it’s an amazing world out there.

Closing (music plays)

 Dr. Universe: Thanks again to Natalie, Sierra, everyone who submitted a question and our friends at Washington State University who helped with the answers. And thanks to you for listening. You make this podcast possible! As always, you can submit your own question at Who knows where your questions will take us next.