Quirks & Quarks

June 25: The Quirks & Quarks listener question show

Why don't humans have a tail? Why is bird poop white? Why can't we remember our early years? What happens when you die in space? And much, much more

Why don't humans have a tail? Why is bird poop white? What happens when you die in space? And much more

A graphic of Bob McDonald surrounded by raised hands and question marks
You had lots of great questions - and we found you some answers. The 2022 Quirks Question show is here. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

We end our season with our ever-popular, always riveting Quirks & Quarks Listener Question Show

Evelyn Campbell in Vancouver, British Columbia asks: If you were out in space and died, would your body decompose?

For the answer we reached out to Daryl Haggard, an astronomer in the Department of Physics at McGill University and the McGill Space Institute. She explained there aren't any microbes in space that would act to decompose your body, although it would persist in a 'freeze-dried' state.

An astronaut in a space suit floating above Earth's clouds.
If you were to die in space, your body would not decompose, even inside a spacesuit. (NASA)

Bernie Buzik from Wainwright, Alberta asks: Why are there concentrations of metals in some areas and not others around the world? Basically — why is there not a concentration of gold in my backyard?

For the answer we turned to Peter Hollings, an NOHFC Industrial Research Chair in Mineral Exploration in the Department of Geology at Lakehead University. He says that where minerals get deposited depends on complex geological processes, and which metals collect in which places has to do with the physical and chemical conditions particular to those substances, which result in concentrations of different metals in different parts of the world.

A man with a metal pan standing in a rocky stream
An amateur gold digger pans for gold near Mercenac in France. (Georges Gobet/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Bob Ennenberg from Vancouver, B.C. asks: Why can't the immune system get rid of the herpes viruses like it can with other viruses? 

According to Jennifer Corcoran, a virologist at the University of Calgary, herpes viruses have a unique ability to hide from the immune system, whether it's the chickenpox virus that can later manifest as shingles or one of the herpes simplex viruses that cause recurring mouth or genital sores. Until some kind of stress triggers their reactivation, the viruses essentially remain invisible by not making viral proteins that would otherwise alert the immune system to their presence. 

A man with a rash on his back
The herpes virus family includes herpes simplex, which can cause cold sores, and varicella, which causes chickenpox and shingles. These viruses can hide from the immune system in nerve cells. (Shutterstock)

Bill Yates from Lethbridge, Alta. asks: If space is at absolute zero, and the Earth has been racing through it for millions of years, how does the centre of the Earth maintain its heat to remain molten?

There are two reasons why the Earth's core remains molten under these conditions according to Jesse Rogerson, an astronomer and astrophysicist from York University in Toronto. One is that heat does not escape the planet because the geological plates that cover the surface act as a giant insulating blanket. And the other reason is that the decay  or radioactive elements within the Earth provides a constant source of heat.

A cutaway illustration of the Earth's layers down to the core
This illustration shows a cross-section of the varying layers of the Earth. (Goddard Media Studios/NASA)

Sheena Sharp in Toronto, Ontario asks: Why is poop brown in most animals, but white in birds?

For the answer we asked Emma Allen-Vercoe, a professor and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Guelph. She says it comes down to how birds get rid of waste. They only have one waste oriface, called a cloaca, and their equivalent of pee is a white pasty substance. They mostly excrete their poop and pee at the same time, all mixed up in one gross mess.

A bird of prey standing on the bird-poop covered head of a statue
Bird poop includes a white pasty substance that is the equivalent of mammalian urine. (Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

Doug McDougall, an expat Canadian living in Newcastle, California asks: I watched [the documentary] "The Octopus Teacher" a while ago and I was just really curious: what possible evolutionary advantage can there be to having this animal only laying one batch of eggs before they self-destruct?

To find out why octopus mothers die soon after laying her eggs, we went to Stefan Linquist, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph who specializes in ecology and genomics and has an interest in octopuses. He said female octopuses stop hunting and eating in order to protecting their eggs from predators and give them best chance of surviving into adulthood, maximizing the chance that her lineage will survive.

A close up image of an octopus's eye
The Netflix documentary, The Octopus Teacher, tells the story of the year Craig Foster spent with a wild octopus. (Craig Foster/Sea Change Project/Netflix)

James Schoening from Vancouver, B.C. asks: Animations for the new James Webb Space Telescope show that it's orbiting an empty point in space called the Lagrange 2 Point. How can it do this if there is no actual mass there to gravitationally attract it?

To help explain this far out question, we went to Nathalie Ouellette, an astrophysicist at the University of Montreal and the outreach scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope in Canada. She said to imagine spacetime in the solar system as a big rubber sheet with a big dip in the middle for the Sun and another for Earth that follows its groove all the way around the Sun. The Lagrange points are like flat areas on that rubber sheet where an object like the telescope can stay, like a parking spot in space. 

An animation of a space telescope circling around the sun.
Animation of the James Webb Space Telescope's orbit at the Lagrange 2 point. (GSFC/NASA)

Bill Bean from Kitchener, Ont. asks: The lack of memory of our first years of life is explained, by some, as infantile amnesia. Yet many things learned in this period, like how to speak and how to walk, are not forgotten. Why are some toddler events wiped clean from memory?

We spoke with Myra Fernandes, a professor in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo. She says the main theory is that the hippocampus, which is where memories are stored, just isn't developed enough to consolidate memories at that age. Also, at that age the brain is primed to learn through repetition, like how we learn to walk and talk, rather than preserving unique details from a single event. 

A toddler in a shopping cart
We don't tend to remember things from our early childhood because the part of the brain where memories are consolidated isn't fully formed yet. (Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock)

Elva Kellington from Salt Spring Island, B.C. asks: Is there any similarity in the spinning water around a drain when the plug is pulled, a hurricane and the rotating stars around the black hole in our Milky Way galaxy?

For this mind twister, we spoke with Hari Kunduri, a mathematician at Memorial University of Newfoundland who's moving to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He said the angular momentum of each of these systems remains constant, so just as spinning figure skaters speed up when they pull in their arms, the material spinning around the central axis in these systems also speeds up the closer it gets to the point it's spinning around.

whirlpools in the ocean off a coastline
Spinning whirlpools are seen following the 2011 tsunami and earthquake off the coast of Fukushima, Japan. (Yomiuri/Reuters)

Anna-Marie Weiler in Ottawa, Ont. asks: Humans have a coccyx, also known as a vestigial tail. Did we once have a tail, and if so, when did we lose it?

Caroline Parins-Fukuchi from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto explains that the coccyx is part of our tail bone, which is really a tail, just a short one. We need to go back at least 20 million years to find a common ancestor of all apes, including us, with traditional long tail. 

This photograph shows a piece from a 2021 exhibition in Madrid, "Body Worlds, el ritmo de la vida" by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens. You can see the small triangular-shaped bone known as a coccyx at the base of the spinal column through the skeleton's pelvis bones. (Oscar Del Pozo/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

(Online and podcast only)

Jane Sly from Ottawa, Ont. asks: How much protection from concussions can we get from helmets? 

For the answer, we went to Blaine Hoshizaki, the director of the University of Ottawa's Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory. He says traditional rigid foam cycling helmets were only designed to break apart upon impact to prevent catastrophic brain injuries, not concussions, unlike today's hockey and football helmets that tend to have softer interior materials with some degree of concussion protection. 

Miami Dolphin players perform practice drills while wearing extra helmet protection to prevent concussion injuries during their 2021 training camp in Miami. (Mark Brown/Getty Images)

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