ask smithsonian


Smithsonian Magazine - - Ask Smithsonian - Text by Anna Di­a­mond

Q: I’ve seen mi­grat­ing geese fly­ing in V-for­ma­tion, and the sight al­ways makes me won­der how the point bird is cho­sen. Is it al­ways the same one?

Claire Muskus | Lis­bon, Con­necti­cut

T ISN’T AL­WAYS the same bird. Mi­gra­tion is an en­ergy-in­ten­sive en­deavor; when geese fly to­gether, each one cuts air re­sis­tance for the ones be­hind it. Fly­ing point re­quires more en­ergy—the heart rate of trail­ing birds is about 15 per­cent slower—so the birds take turns do­ing it, says Au­tumn-Lynn Har­ri­son, a re­searcher at the Na­tional Zoo’s Mi­gra­tory Bird Cen­ter. By switch­ing fre­quently be­tween lead­ing and trail­ing po­si­tions, the birds get where they’re go­ing more quickly.

Q: For his art­work Pre­am­ble, Mike Wilkins cel­e­brated the na­tion’s bi­cen­ten­nial by string­ing to­gether van­ity li­cense plates from all 50 states and the District of Columbia to pho­net­i­cally spell out the pre­am­ble to the Con­stitu-- tion. What would he have done if any state had de­clined to is­sue him a plate?

Kim Crop­per | Bethesda, Maryland

IT NEVER CAME TO THAT, though Wilkins, whose Pre­am­ble hangs in the Smithsonian Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum, says two states balked. Min­nesota wor­ried that the plate he’d re­quested—UN DE, for the mid­dle syl­la­bles of “com­mon de­fense”—might be mis­read as “undies,” but was eas­ily per­suaded. Ge­or­gia (which he wanted for FEC UNE, part of “per­fect union”) said no be­cause he had no car reg­is­tered in the state. He en­listed the sup­port of the state’s big­gest news­pa­per, then aptly named the At­lanta Con­sti­tu­tion, and a U.S. se­na­tor; he even joked about get­ting a plate from the then-Soviet repub­lic of Ge­or­gia. And one day, he says, the plate showed up in the mail, with­out ex­pla­na­tion.

Q: How does that gar­lic smell get into your skin, your sweat and your breath?

Bruce An­der­son | Palo Alto, Cal­i­for­nia BLAME YOUR GUT. Smash­ing or chop­ping a gar­lic clove ini­ti­ates a chem­i­cal re­ac­tion that pro­duces a quar­tet of volatile or­ganic com­pounds. All four con­trib­ute to gar­lic breath, says Joe Brunetti, a hor­ti­cul­tur­ist at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory’s Vic­tory Gar­den, but one of them, al­lyl methyl sul­fide, or AMS, is most to blame. Your gut doesn’t break it down, so it en­ters the blood­stream and passes through your lungs and into your skin, whence you ex­hale it or sweat it out. But you needn’t swear off gar­lic, Brunetti says. Chem­i­cals in ap­ples, lemons, fresh parsley, spinach or mint neu­tral­ize (that is, not merely mask) gar­lic breath. And to get the odor off your hands af­ter work­ing with gar­lic, wash with salt and lemon or a dab of tooth­paste—or rub your hands across a stain­less-steel uten­sil un­der run­ning water.

Q: Will my re­frig­er­a­tor mag­nets lose their power of at­trac­tion as they age?

Leon Hoff­man | Chicago

YES—BUT SO SLOWLY, says Ioan Lascu, a re­search ge­ol­o­gist at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory, that it will be cen­turies be­fore you have to worry about your school-lunch menus falling to the floor. Man-made mag­nets’ atoms are lined up in the same di­rec­tion, and stay that way un­less ex­posed to ex­treme heat, a phys­i­cal blow, or a strong mag­netic field in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. That would cause the atoms to vi­brate out of align­ment, re­duc­ing or eras­ing the mag­net’s power.

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