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Humongous Science Questions

I was at the Carnegie Institution this morning, listening to the Human Space Flight Review committee, and found myself distracted by something out in the hallway: Lots of science questions. The institute has posted 100 big science questions [can't find an online link -- can someone dig it up?] that have been harvested from scientists around the country. Some of the questions are obvious -- how does life originate, is there life on other worlds, can earthquakes be predicted, and so on. Some are surprising, like how does a flatworm regenerate, and what do plants do when they have more sunshine than they need for photosynthesis. How do cell membranes form? And how does a plant cell know to become a root and not a stem?

I guess I didn't realize plants were so enigmatic.

There was one question I didn't quite grasp that asked something to the effect of "Should the second law of thermodynamics be modified to take into account emergent properties?" Apparently, entropy may need an asterisk.

As you know, I'm a questionmonger from way back. I fear that schools may make science boring in part by failing to show science as a series of big, interesting questions. Instead science is taught as answers -- stuff already known, already discovered, and which now exists as a big fat stack of data and rules and principles that the kid is supposed to memorize.

Even those of us who do science writing tend to forget to frame the question sometimes. Or we may diminish the unknowns as we cobble together our tales of discoveries.

So many of the biggest questions remain just about as puzzling as ever, from why the universe exists at all, to why is it so finely tuned to enable the evolution of life, to what are the essential features of living things vs. nonlife.

To me the single most exciting Big Question of the moment -- because we may soon have an answer -- is, "How many Earths are out there?" You've got telescopes on land and space trying to figure that out as we speak. Finding an Earth -- a blue planet with an atmosphere and water at the surface -- would be amazing.

Sure, it wouldn't be as big a game-changer as making contact with ET, but I'm on record as highly skeptical that there are any ETs anywhere nearby, co-existing with us in our little patch of cosmic spacetime. But if there's blue-green algae out there on a little rocky planet in our stellar neighborhood it won't have the option of remaining invisible.


Many years ago I had a story on big unknowns in the Post (and used this in my aliens book). Excerpt:

Here are five simple questions that many scientists might accept as a core curriculum of the unknown:

1. Why does the universe exist?

2. What is matter made of?

3. How did life originate?

4. How does consciousness emerge from the human brain?

5. Is there intelligent life on other worlds?

Within each question reside thousands of smaller mysteries. Never mind why the universe exists: How big is it? Is it infinite or finite? How old is it? Is its geometry curved or flat? Will it expand forever or someday collapse upon itself?

Ask about human consciousness and you must quickly deal with machines: Will they ever think? Can consciousness emerge from silicon chips?

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 17, 2009; 1:12 PM ET
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Why does the dog next door bark all the time?

Posted by: seasea1 | June 17, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Gee, Mistah Fader, for a smart guy you sure got a lotta questions.

--R. Roseannadanna (Ms.)

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 17, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Silicon may result in intelligence, but probably not silicone.

Posted by: ScienceTim | June 17, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Because he doesn't have mailmen, bones, or frisbees to bite, Seasea.

I suggest tossing treats in and then developing a relationship that eventually leads to you training the dog to bite the idiots who leave him out in the yard all the time and ignore him instead of actually, you know, meeting his social needs.

And I propose a poem by Billy Collins to toast this common problem:

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | June 17, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

By the way, from previous kits to Yoki: Thank you for that aural description of dressage.

I love watching horses do dressage, but I never knew that it was poot-ry in motion.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | June 17, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Are those questions going to be on the mid-term?

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 17, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps we could ask uncle the solution to these questions as his answer to climate change - expelling the aliens was brilliant - because it makes so much sense - D-oh

Posted by: dmd2 | June 17, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Why do we drive on parkways but park on driveways?

Posted by: yellojkt | June 17, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Better questions:
1. Why does reality TV exist?
2. What are Twinkies made of?
3. How did the Moonies originate?
4. Was W ever conscious?
5. Is there intelligent life on THIS world?

Posted by: groundhogdayguy | June 17, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

My whole career is pretty much based on bending the second law of thermodynamics to its breaking point. If you change it now, I'm back to working the salad bar at Wendy's. Are there still Wendy's with salad bars?

Posted by: yellojkt | June 17, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, yello, for the summary skinny on the ammonia systems' inefficiencies. I will poke my nose elsewhere. There's something attractive about "no moving parts" which is probably more relevant in theory than actual practice. A good o-ring design and material can handle a lot of cycling.

if achenquestion not (0 OR 1)
then recurse (achenquestion);

Posted by: Jumper1 | June 17, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Why do college sports programs frequently receive more money than college science programs?

For those of you who may feel like signing a petition...

The information below is only part of the text I received yesterday from Frances Froidevaux, eldest daughter of well-known Wyoming geologist J. David Love, who was profiled in author John McPhee's "Rising from the Plains." She's asking for help. I helped.:

At the moment, as many friends and acquaintances as I can contact, and I, are working feverishly to save the Geology Museum on the University of Wyoming campus. Ten days ago, the univeristy abruptly cut 45 jobs, including my son's, and announced that it would close the Geology Museum and terminate the job of curator Brent Breithaupt, who has worked tirelessly for the past 28 years on a shoe-string budget to make the museum grow. (Meanwhile, our losing athletic teams receive untold millions of dollars, an indoor football practice building and now a $35 million VIP lounge at the top of the foodball stadium.) My father is probably spinning in his grave!

Would you be willing to sign the petition below? [You may sign as Anonymous.] Any help we can get to save the museum would be most appreciated.

Frances Froidevaux

Invite your friends, tell your family, get the word out before July 1, 2009!!

Sign this petition:

Posted by: laloomis | June 17, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Good afternoon, all.

Just a flyby - Joel, I don't know that we're going to have more than a slightly more educated guess about the answer to the "How Many Earths" question?

If we do visually identify *one*, that's great, but assuming that all the gin joints in all the stars in all the galaxies in all the superclusters in all the visible universe (much less everything on the other side of our visual horizon, as the expansion of the visual universe is to great for light to get Here from There, or the dark stuff) are enough alike that we can make resonably accurate estimates - well...

I don't see it.

Seeing another Earth would be cool.
But I suspect it'll drive real estate prices even lower.


Posted by: -bc- | June 17, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

I like these questions. I also like groundhogdayguy's questions. I particularly like seasea's questions, though I'd amend it to add why one of dogs in my own yard barks all the time. It has bones, food, a big old tub of water, companionship, people, stuff to play with, things to do. Actually it doesn't bark all the time; it just gets excited easily. "Look! a squirrel! a firefly! an ant!" "Look! the grass is moving in the wind!" "Look! the other dog dug a hole!"

More big science questions:

Why are there wasps? Ticks? bloodsucking vermin generally? IF we must have them, why must they create bites that itch?

How can it be cool enough to sit outside with a refreshing beverage but too hot to mow?

Why does it take so much energy (read: resources) to make energy (read: fuel sources)? I don't mean the math, I mean more generally why must it work that way?

Posted by: Ivansmom | June 17, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

The sports program vs. museum issue is deeply irritating. The claim perennially made is that sports programs generate income for universities through ticket sales and TV rights. Is this really true? Do they generate enough income to break even, much less provide support for the rest of a university? If so, then depriving the sports program of its funding is eating the seed corn. I just don't know whether it's true or not. Then there's the more intangible supposed benefits -- attractiveness to students, attractiveness to alumni giving. I find those issues somewhat doubtful -- I hypothesize that college students who are not themselves student-athletes are only trivially motivated by the success of the school's teams.

I'll give Ms. Froidevaux's petition a look. Before I sign, I need to know the answers to those questions about income/outgo balance, or at least whether the petition assumes such an answer.

Posted by: ScienceTim | June 17, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

On the topic of how many Earths: darn tootin' we'll have an answer. Within about 5 years the Kepler mission will give us a census of Earth-size planets in a particular sample of 100,000 stars. Given known physical principles governing what fraction of orbiting planets will be detectable, we will be able to deduce the actual number of Earth-size planets in the galaxy and, in particular, address whether any are likely to be sort of nearby. Follow-up missions will be required to determine whether Earth-size results in planets that are Earth-like.

Posted by: ScienceTim | June 17, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

My memory of C syntax is shameful.

Does this suggest Betelgeuse is soon going to go supernova? (I asked myself)

Posted by: Jumper1 | June 17, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Ivansmom, seasea... you may have to see the movie Up... your questions may be answered. Let's just say it includes a "tiny mailman."

But isn't the real humongous question 'What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?'

Posted by: -TBG- | June 17, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

All 100 questions: 42.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 17, 2009 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Maybe Betelgeuse is on the South Beach diet? (Deeply philosophical question for experts in Doppler mechanics: can a red giant be a shrinking violet?)

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 17, 2009 4:17 PM | Report abuse

The really ambitious off-the-gridders are combining PV arrays, fuel cells and ground source heat pumps for full net-zero energy buildings.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 17, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

And as bad a rap as fluorocarbons get, they became so popular because they seemed to be a fantastic improvement over the previous generation of refrigerants, namely ammonia and propane. Both of which have very nasty toxic and or flammable properties that made them dangerous to work with. You would think twice about air-conditioning your house if there were a risk of it exploding or asphyxiating you.

That would be a great Big Science question: What is the best heating and cooling system with the least environmental impact when ozone depletion, global warming, sustainability, and personal safety are all factored together?

Me? I favor scantily clad slave girls waving palm fronds.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 17, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Weather forecast: rain for every day of the next seven days.

Fortunately, I have mad skilz in ark construction.

And this time, no freakin' snakes on board. I told the Old Man last time it was a lousy idea.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 17, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

I think Joel's questions will benefit from some editing-

1. Does the universe exist?

2. Is matter made?

3. Did life originate?

4. Does consciousness emerge from the human brain?

5. Is there intelligent life?

And of course-

6. Why does my dog Mick love to stick his head out the window of a car in motion, but hate it when anyone blows into his nose?

Posted by: kguy1 | June 17, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

If you could smell your own breath, you wouldn't have to ask, kguy ;).

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | June 17, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

I did specify "anyone".

And Mudge, an Ark with no snakes is rodent heaven. Careful what you wish for.

Posted by: kguy1 | June 17, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

How did God make sure that only two of each species of fish/whale/shark etc survive the flood? and if it wasn't just two of each of them - why. And what about birds.

I thought about this the other day. I don't read much of the bible, so perhaps the answer is there just never heard it before.

Posted by: dmd2 | June 17, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Still, imagine anybody's breath blown full force in your nose...

Wilbrodog sniffs my breath once in a while, but I never blow it in his nostrils.

(And on this subject... "blow in my ear, I'll follow you anywhere" is a lie. You're more apt to get decked by a roundhouse than bedecked with adoration if you try it. Inform all boys 8 years old and up of this.)

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | June 17, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse


Do you mean an African or a European swallow?

Posted by: rashomon | June 17, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

dmd, here is Genesis 6:18-21:

"But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them."

Of course, there is also this, Genesis 7:2-3:

"Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth."

Genesis is a cool book.

Posted by: slyness | June 17, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Joel's right about how schools treat Science.

I think the kids who end up liking Science as a subject in school (from a young age) are the ones who innately understand that it's a course of questions rather than answers. They are the ones who tend to continue their science education into adulthood.

Those of us who waited for the teacher to explain the whole question thing... not so much.

Posted by: -TBG- | June 17, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Joel, I'm not sure how much pull you've got with Google and/or the Post, but the A-blog widget on my homepage has a link for what appears to be a kit entitled "Featured Advertiser", which actually brings up a Progressive insurance website.

I feel cheated, baited and switched.

Posted by: tomsing | June 17, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Seriously bad headline on the Web page now: "Man Fights Ticket over Flashing" The article is actually about a driver who flashed his headlights as a warning about a speed trap.

Posted by: -pj- | June 17, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

TBG, I think there's a different facet of the bugs-eye view of how science is taught, more along the lines of how science is learned. Three out of four years of high school, T2 (the girl child) after receiving the science award would say "I really think they should give the award to someone who likes science." Yet what's she doing in college? Environmental Science. I think she couldn't see (or wasn't helped enough by Those Who Know?) how science coordinated like wallpaper with Who She Is. Until college. (I sincerely hope that times have changed enough that it wasn't because she's female.)

Posted by: LostInThought | June 17, 2009 6:28 PM | Report abuse

Reality doesn't speak the same language as we do. The further we get from ordinary experience the more difficult it is to describe things outside of highly specialized mathematics.

Consider an example. When I was a kid I wondered why glass was clear. That is, why light could pass through glass but not, say, aluminum foil. This, to me, was a big question.

And now I know the answer. Glass is clear because the electrons are so tightly bound that they are unable to move to the higher quantum states needed to absorb the energy of a photon, and hence they have no choice but to re-emit the photon energy essentially unchanged.

Metals, like aluminum, have loosely bound electrons and hence are free to move to higher quantum levels. Therefore, they can absorb and hold the photon energy.

Now, outside of those who know physics, are these really satisfactory answers? Indeed, they really aren't even to me because they are based on Quantum Mechanics which is awfully hard to understand in an intuitive way.

So my concern is that when the answers to many of the truly Big Questions of science are found, they might only be comprehensible to a tiny group of scientists. And even then these scientists will be constantly arguing about the proper interpretation.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 17, 2009 6:34 PM | Report abuse

Hi kguy! I like your version of the Five Big Questions - and the addition of your sixth.

Howdy to tomsing - and to rashomon, who beat me to the punch answering TBG's question.

The Boy's science teacher gave him an award this year: "Most Intriguing Student in Science". I told him I didn't want to know.

RD, "Reality doesn't speak the same language as we do." This is so true. I hope you're not right about the answers being incomprehensible to all but a few, if that. I'll venture to suggest that we redefine the concept of "answer" so that, should incomprehensibility follow, we can say that wasn't the answer at all. It must be simple at least, if not pellucid.

Posted by: Ivansmom | June 17, 2009 6:46 PM | Report abuse

Also, the first question is sort of unanswerable. At least if you read "why" as meaning "for what purpose." One could claim that the reason why the universe exists is so that we can ponder its existence. That's as good of an answer as any.

Now, if one is really asking "How did the universe come about," well, that's a more legitimate question for Science.

But really, there is a very good chance we aren't going to like the answer.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 17, 2009 6:48 PM | Report abuse

I thought of that, kguy. I'm doubling up on cats, anteaters and spiders.

Posted by: curmudgeon-1 | June 17, 2009 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Every time laundry day comes around, I ask myself: Why do adolescent girls need 23 sets of underwear? Why does my son need a gazillion pairs of socks? How many different microorganisms are there in toe cheese?

Posted by: -jack- | June 17, 2009 7:05 PM | Report abuse

I have a question related to #2 and maybe some others: Is it possible to employ reductionism past the point it is useful, yet still keep getting results that seem meaningful?

Posted by: Jumper1 | June 17, 2009 7:07 PM | Report abuse

What makes individual socks disappear in the dryer? (I suspect it has something to do with quantum mechanics and brownian motion.)

Posted by: rashomon | June 17, 2009 7:29 PM | Report abuse

Of course, in my little screed above one can see my physics bias showing. Not all the Big Questions will have answers that require advanced math. And not all Biq Questions will require complex answers. (The "intelligent life" question probably has a simple yes or no answer.)

But I do believe that the vast majority of the Big Answers will, of necessity, be expressed in specialized scientific language only understandable by a relative few.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 17, 2009 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Oh rashomon, if only it were that simple....

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 17, 2009 7:31 PM | Report abuse

*Tim, re. your 3:44P, I respectfully disagree, sir.

As I was alluding in my 3:19P, the question of "How many Earths are out there?" -- even the Kepler mission will only give us an approximation for the Milky Way Darn tootin' (ahem) we'll have a better estimate about *that*. And a model which we can extend to visible spiral arm galaxies like ours.

If you can tell how many galaxies there are in the entire universe that are like the Milky Way, then that's one part of the answer. And even that's a bit of a trick because we can't even tell exactly how many of those there are, because we probably can't see Everyhing (again, what can we not see because the far reaches of Cosmic Expansion relative to us exceeds C?).

Another component of the answer would involve how many Earths there are in galaxies and stellar groupings unlike ours. And how many of *those* there are, and so on. Seems to me we're an awfully long way from knowing answers to questions like that, even by figuring out the general sequencing of the stars in those galaxies and the frequency of Earthlike planets is similar given the stellar populations.

I believe the answer is: we can can talk about what we can see, but we start getting into some serious SWAGs fairly quickly. Didn't someone say 'we don't know what we don't know' in here recently?

And I'm not even going down the paths of Many-Worlds Interpretations of QM and other theories that involve nearly infinite branching of timelines and parallel (and not-so-parallel) multiverses.

Ok, my friend, I'll admit it -- I'm yanking your chain a bit here.

I'm glad we're still looking (yes, I participate in the Galaxy Zoo work), but from my perspective - and the way I think (probably waaaay too big to be of any practical use), still curious, and still willing to learn - we're some pretty huge leaps away from having Cosmic Certainty.

I, for one, am intensely curious, but also spiritually and intellectually humbled when I ponder the cosmos.

Except when I'm wondering who to Blame For All This.


Posted by: -bc- | June 17, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

Oh no no no...

The Rilly Beeg Questions are:

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
Does Anyone Really Care?


Posted by: Scottynuke | June 17, 2009 7:40 PM | Report abuse

When in doubt, bc, blame me.

Seems to be the default at work, anyway...

Posted by: Scottynuke | June 17, 2009 7:42 PM | Report abuse

It's 25 or 6 to 4, thanks for asking.

My really big question is why entropy? How does that relate to having to clean and mow the lawn on a regular basis?

Is there really a larger purpose in suffering or are we delusional?

How do we know the point of no return?

Posted by: -dbG- | June 17, 2009 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Jack, just thank god you're not trying to teach your kids why they SHOULD wear underwear.

And consider teaching your kids to do their own laundry...

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | June 17, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

What is love?

Posted by: Yoki | June 17, 2009 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Does anybody love anybody anyway?

Posted by: Scottynuke | June 17, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

Well, if anybody knows the answer to that question, it is you yourself, Scotty!

Posted by: Yoki | June 17, 2009 8:07 PM | Report abuse

I think love has something to do with tennis, Yoki, but it has been a long time since I took lessons (you notice I do not say "played").

Occasionally the point of no return is specified on the receipt. Otherwise it is often negotiable.

Posted by: Ivansmom | June 17, 2009 8:10 PM | Report abuse

Why are there so many rabbits in my yard? Why didn't we buy one inch chicken wire instead of two inch? Will the repellent pellets (that's fun to say!) I got at the farm store work? How about the mixture I made of cayenne, garlic powder and soap? Will we ever get three days in a row of decent and warm weather this summer?
I'm sorry I'm not more interested in the universe and the big questions, maybe if I find the answers to the above I can start to ponder the more esoteric ones but because I wasn’t interested in science back in high school, I don’t think so.

Posted by: badsneakers | June 17, 2009 8:11 PM | Report abuse

Is she really going out with him?

Why does love got to be so sad?

Have you ever loved a woman?

"What'll you do when you get lonely,
and nobody's waiting by your side?
Layla, darling won't you ease my worried mind?"
[I'm cheating a bit on that last one.]

Posted by: -pj- | June 17, 2009 8:21 PM | Report abuse

badsneakers, if you find a successful rabbit repellant please let me know, they are everywhere here, ate my lillies this year along with a couple of other plants - I am not amused.

After going through the bills today, why or why do companies feel the need to stuff the envelopes with so much crap mail.

Posted by: dmd2 | June 17, 2009 8:23 PM | Report abuse

I was looking at lawn-sized patches of runner oak this afternoon, wondering whether they mingle with saw palmetto (seemingly some, but not much), whether runner oak is really a distinct oak species rather than some tree-sized oak that puts up with getting its above-ground parts burned every two or three years (it is), and assuming it's a distinct species, how its need for regularly-burned lawn-like habitats allows it to persist in a Southeastern US where such habitats are vanishing.

I was at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, where the vegetation is knee-high and you can speculate a bit about seeing the curvature of the earth.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | June 17, 2009 8:24 PM | Report abuse

dmd, you sound like you’re in the same type of mood that I am in. I just ordered something online and printed the confirmation, it was three pages, only one of which had any useful printing on it. And I just paid some bills and now have a waste basket full of cr@p also.

Well the pellets haven’t deterred the baby bunnies, they invaded the garden the minute we walked back into the house. I have some hope for the spray, but with the rain coming, who knows when I’ll get to try it?

Love is a many splendid thing.
Love stinks.
Take your choice.

Posted by: badsneakers | June 17, 2009 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Rd_Paouk: It's really only a hunch. When jack brought up the esoteric realm of laundry physics, I couldn't let it pass without bringing up the enduring question at the center of that field. An associate always argues that the answer lies in higher dimensions and the Copenhagen Interpretation, while another invokes string theory. Then again, he invokes string theory when he mislays his car keys.

Posted by: rashomon | June 17, 2009 8:40 PM | Report abuse

Ouch. Sorry for the misspelling, RD. I'm using an Apple keyboard and the keys stick.

Posted by: rashomon | June 17, 2009 8:48 PM | Report abuse

Good dogs on duty
Busy using keen wabbit noses
are quite wepellant.


Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | June 17, 2009 8:52 PM | Report abuse

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Posted by: seasea1 | June 17, 2009 9:15 PM | Report abuse

Took three teenage girls out for pizza tonight. Oh my.

Lots of chatter, lots of nonsense (to me, at least) and some talk about stuff I didn't really want to hear about. Maybe these were the answers to all of Joel's questions.

Posted by: -TBG- | June 17, 2009 9:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm so glad we're not overrun with rabbits here. A few years ago I saw the neighbor's pet rabbit outside quite a bit, and was afraid it might wreak havoc, or find other rabbits to reproduce, but apparently that didn't happen. Or the neighborhood cats took care of them. Probably don't want to analyze this too much.

Posted by: seasea1 | June 17, 2009 9:19 PM | Report abuse

Who put the bomp in the bomp buh bomp buh bomp?
Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?
Who put the bop in the bop shoo bop shoo bop?
Who put the dip in the dip dee dip dee dip?

Posted by: yellojkt | June 17, 2009 9:34 PM | Report abuse

Who wrote the book of love?

Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's Flavor On The Bedpost Over Night?

Posted by: yellojkt | June 17, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

I am *loving* the song references. seasea, Blowin' in the Wind is one of my life-long favourites. Thank you!

TBG, I know a thing or two about this. Weren't we in exactly that place, month or two ago? Lovely, isn't it? And, you are one funny Boodler.

Posted by: Yoki | June 17, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Come on baby, do you do more than dance?
Im hot blooded, hot blooded

If it feels alright, maybe you can stay all night
Shall I leave you my key?
But you've got to give me a sign, come on girl, some kind of sign
Tell me, are you hot mama? You sure look that way to me.

Are you old enough? Will you be ready when I call you bluff?
Is my timing right? Did you save your love for me tonight?

Posted by: yellojkt | June 17, 2009 9:39 PM | Report abuse


What's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?

Posted by: rashomon | June 17, 2009 9:40 PM | Report abuse

yello, you crack me up. Thanks, Yoki, I thought BITW might be too cliched...or that we'll start down the Dylan road and not come back (ok by me). Thanks to Scotty and pj for the inspiration.

TBG, I'm astounded by how some teenage girls chatter, having had just a taciturn teenage boy.

And isn't it interesting to have kguy and rashomon here in the same Boodle?

Posted by: seasea1 | June 17, 2009 9:48 PM | Report abuse

seasea... "chatter" is too taciturn to describe what these girls were like tonight.

Tomorrow is the last day of school (they only go for about an hour or so)... that may have had something to do with it. This time.

Posted by: -TBG- | June 17, 2009 9:56 PM | Report abuse

Is it question game time?

Posted by: DNA_Girl | June 17, 2009 9:58 PM | Report abuse

Am I the walrus?

Where is the pompatus of love?

Posted by: ScienceTim | June 17, 2009 10:08 PM | Report abuse

Eldest teen girl asked me if I wanted to look at her scrapbook project she had prepared for school, there were pages for letters, notes etc from friends. Not only do the girls chatter, but they manage to write exactly like they speak - Like OMG its crazy! :-)

Posted by: dmd2 | June 17, 2009 10:11 PM | Report abuse

dmd, your quiet wit oversets me.

Posted by: Yoki | June 17, 2009 10:24 PM | Report abuse

And some can talk/write like that in both official languages dmd. We had three of them doing their final review before their science exam yesterday (this exam was this morning). Voices that can pierce concrete. This was a 4 ibuprofen night.

Last exam is tomorrow morning but Witch no. 2 studied alone tonight.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | June 17, 2009 10:29 PM | Report abuse

And they talk/write in both official languages at the same time I might add.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | June 17, 2009 10:31 PM | Report abuse

What would you do if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and walk out on me?

Posted by: Jumper1 | June 17, 2009 10:46 PM | Report abuse

How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall?

Posted by: rashomon | June 17, 2009 10:50 PM | Report abuse

Why does a VW run better when the humidity is high? Why is my favourite leather handled hammer always hiding when I need it most? Why do the heads of screws suddenly shear off when the head is nanometers away from doing a perfect fastening job? Why does any plumbing job I undertake invariably leak in the most inopportune places? Why do accessories, like belts, vapourize for months at a time, only to be rediscovered in the kitchen junk drawer? Why is there always a kitchen junk drawer? Why is there belly button lint? Why do people collect it? Why do people enshrine their kidney stones?

Posted by: -jack- | June 17, 2009 10:52 PM | Report abuse

What is this thing called love?

Who is Sylvia? What is she, that all her swains commend her?

If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can't I?

Posted by: Ivansmom | June 17, 2009 11:00 PM | Report abuse

This links to Neil covering BITW, taken from the '01 Bridge School benefit. One of his sons is autistic and he established the Bridge School in order to implement innovative teaching methods that address the needs of these children. A donation to the Bridge School Foundation goes a long way.

Posted by: -jack- | June 17, 2009 11:01 PM | Report abuse

why don't we do it in the road?

Posted by: -jack- | June 17, 2009 11:13 PM | Report abuse

Road rash?

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | June 17, 2009 11:28 PM | Report abuse

Finally, a question I can answer!!

Jack: "For a particular temperature and pressure, the number of molecules in a volume of gas is a constant, and therefore humid air is less dense than dry air. (Hydrogen from the water has less mass than other air molecules.) Since the presence of water vapor displaces some portion of the other components of air, there isn't as much oxygen available to the engine for combustion. The mixture is then richer than it would be with dry air, and for many vehicles that results in ''better'' performance." -- from

Oh, and I also know what this thing is called, love, but I better not say it. And I know who wrote the Book of Love (Erich Segal).

Now, as to the Pompatus of Love. I cannot tell you its location, except to say that it may (or may not) reside in everyone's heart and/or fantasy. It seems the "pompatus" was originally called the "puppetudes" of love, meaning "a secret paper-doll fantasy figure [thus puppet], who would be my everything and bear my children." This was coined by a young Watts teenager named Vernon Green, who was a member of a singing group called the Medallions, in a song called "The Letter" in 1954.

Steve Miller heard the song and it rattled around in his head for years, and he probably forgot where he'd even first heard or. But when he wrote "The Joker," that's where he got it from. It has been variously spelled pompidus, pompitudes, etc., but eventually morphed in pompatus.

Credit for tracking all this down belongs to actor Jon Cryer, of the TV show "Two and a Half Men." Read about it here:

Vernon Green died in 2004.

So where is the pompatus of love? In your heart, baby, in your heart.

Where it belongs.

Posted by: curmudgeon-1 | June 17, 2009 11:32 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the clarification, Mudge.

Links to a couple of great commercials for the Washington State Lottery. The first one started playing a few days ago - the only line is at the end, when a voice over says, "I dream of being my dog's best friend" :
I thought of the Boodle as soon as I saw it, for some reason.

This is an older one - I love it too:

Posted by: seasea1 | June 17, 2009 11:45 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, 'Mudge. I assume that you'll be Admiral of the Fleet when the cloud generation research grants are awarded. I designated you as such in my grant proposal. Of course, the proposal not fly since one of the line items is: "...rum, for general maritime purposes...".

Posted by: -jack- | June 18, 2009 12:04 AM | Report abuse

Joel's questions in tanka:

Why does it matter?
What, pray tell, is the matter?
How does it matter?
When on earth does it matter?
To whom else does it matter?

Posted by: DNA_Girl | June 18, 2009 12:09 AM | Report abuse

I thought you might appreciate this, DNA Girl. A bit dated.

Posted by: -jack- | June 18, 2009 12:23 AM | Report abuse

Loved the lottery commercials, Seasea, really good! Thanks.

Posted by: nellie4 | June 18, 2009 12:31 AM | Report abuse

Try this. Charles Rodrigues.

Posted by: -jack- | June 18, 2009 12:38 AM | Report abuse

Wow Jack,

Lemons sacrificed;
a summer lemonade stand
extracts a steep price!

I going to sleep now, laughing. Thanks.

Posted by: DNA_Girl | June 18, 2009 12:41 AM | Report abuse

hi there all

Posted by: omnigood | June 18, 2009 1:30 AM | Report abuse

omni, how the heck are you? I'm turning in, but maybe someone else is up somewhere...

Posted by: seasea1 | June 18, 2009 1:51 AM | Report abuse

Why are bankers the world over such a pain in the rear?

Posted by: rainforest1 | June 18, 2009 3:07 AM | Report abuse

Ouch. Hillary broke her elbow in a fall.

Posted by: rainforest1 | June 18, 2009 3:22 AM | Report abuse

Who knew that Duckie was such a music scholar?

Posted by: yellojkt | June 18, 2009 5:34 AM | Report abuse

The Ghost in the Machine?

Wait until someone is reincarnated as a machine. Then you will know if it is conscious or not.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | June 18, 2009 5:51 AM | Report abuse

And the little treatise on the pompitudes of love raises another rhetorical musical question:

You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.
But I look around me and I see it isn't so.
Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs.
And whats wrong with that? I'd like to know.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 18, 2009 5:54 AM | Report abuse

'Morning, Boodle.

Certainly a quiet morning among the GOP over Sen. Ensign's indiscretions, as Milbank points out. Bunch of *&^%$ hypocrits. Maybe the GOP is just suffering from severe sex scandal whiplash. This guy is as wacky as John Edwards-- both of them thinking about running for president and hoping nobody finds out about the mistress who happens to be on staff. And the wife of his chief of staff, yet. And even the woman's son was on the payroll, poor kid.

Meanwhile, poor Obama's taking a beating over his relative silence over Iran, which is actually the right course, methinks.

Today in Nautical and Aviation History

June 18, 1916: German ace Max Immelman, inventor of the famous flight maneuver called the Immelman turn, is killed during a dogfight near Lens, France.
1944: Sisterhood is powerful: On her maiden voyage submarine USS Cavalla (SS-244, Cmdr. Herman Kossler) torpedoes and sinks Japanese carrier IJN Shokaku (a veteran of both Pearl Harbor and the Coral Sea) during the Battle of the Philippine Sea. In a completely separate attack many miles away, the Cavalla’s sistership, USS Albacore (SS-218, Capt. James Blanchard) torpedoes and sinks the Shokaku’s sistership carrier IJN Taiho. Cavalla today is a tourist attraction in Galveston’s Seawolf Park; Albacore was lost (probably by striking a mine) with all hands in November 1944.
1983: Mission specialist Sally Ride, a physicist, becomes the first American woman in space, aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

Posted by: curmudgeon-1 | June 18, 2009 6:16 AM | Report abuse

Morning, all. No rain overnight here, a good thing in the short term.

Does WaPo have anything about the Sec of State fracturing her elbow? I had to go to to find a story. I hope Madam Secretary is taking calcium!

This must be the week for stupid injuries. The son of a friend suffered a burn on his foot Tuesday when somebody accidentally dropped a cup of hot water on him. It was bad enough that they gave him narcotics. I gotta check in and see how he's doing today.

Time to start the day, everybody have a delightful one!

Posted by: slyness | June 18, 2009 7:01 AM | Report abuse

A somewhat different question this morning...

Norton Buffalo or Magic [Richard]?? (didn't wanna invoke the Wirty Dird Filter's contextual subroutine)

Don't worry slyness, all the rain's up here... *SIGH*

OMNI!!! E-mail me, pleeze.

'Mudge, the Albacore lives! Well, its namesake, anyway -- experimental sub (fastest non-nuke ever?) permanently berthed (drydocked? beached??) right offa I-95 in Portsmouth, N.H.

*on-the-downslope-to-the-weekend-and-hoping-there-hain't-no-speedbumps Grover waves* :-)

Posted by: Scottynuke | June 18, 2009 7:36 AM | Report abuse

'morning all. I've seen a huge beaver, a small muskrat, a goose with her goslings and a merganser with her merganslings on my way to work. What kind of omen is that? Is the Deluge coming?
There is a bit of a sad attitude at the office these days as the Big Boss is retiring. Most people were happy to work for this department, even when the minister(s) were not up to snuff, because of him. The local paper this morning managed to mangled his replacement's name and used the wrong gender to address her. Mudge would say that's typical editing in these time.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | June 18, 2009 7:36 AM | Report abuse

A 'classic breakfast' this morning... a cup of coffee and a brownie.

Posted by: russianthistle | June 18, 2009 7:54 AM | Report abuse

No no, Weed...





Posted by: Scottynuke | June 18, 2009 8:05 AM | Report abuse

Scotty, we’ve been on the Albacore and I must say that if I wasn’t claustrophobic then, I never will be. Great breakfast Weed, wish I could eat like that. I assume that everyone has seen the video of Obama and the fly. PETA apparently came out with a statement wishing that the fly had been treated humanely. I thought that group was becoming a bit less wacko, but I guess I was wrong.

Posted by: badsneakers | June 18, 2009 8:13 AM | Report abuse

I'm going with what I got. Best part... I didn't make it. It just appeared like magic, man. Wow.

Posted by: russianthistle | June 18, 2009 8:14 AM | Report abuse

Sneaks, that had to have been a joke (PETA). Since I have friends in PETA, I guess I should fess up and say that I am or was during my post college years (while working at that local university) a "little game" hunter. Our office would occasionally get invaded by big rogue flies and I had my rubber bands ready. I was pretty accurate up to about 15 feet and would mount the trophies on the top edge of our large white board on push pins.

Occasionally, someone new to our office would be in a meeting and notice the display--quite funny.

I suppose I should have used tranquilizer bands and trucked the beasts to the wilds and released after tagging.

Posted by: russianthistle | June 18, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Yes Sneaks, they used every cubic inch inside that hull, didn't they?

Yoki, last evening I was quoting one H. Jones, circa 1980-something... Love is the one constant among humanity, I'd say.

Posted by: Scottynuke | June 18, 2009 8:29 AM | Report abuse

I knew that, Scotty.

Posted by: Yoki | June 18, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

I know you knew, Yoki.

We're a knowledgable Boodle.


Posted by: Scottynuke | June 18, 2009 9:11 AM | Report abuse

I've always been intrigued by this definition of love:

Love is affirmation blended with altruism and seasoned with passion to taste. It is a heady brew, which can sometimes go bad, resulting in wicked dry heaves.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 18, 2009 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Oh, I remembered it wrong. It goes like this:

Love is affirmation mixed with altruism and seasoned with passion to taste. It is a heady brew, which can sometimes go bad, resulting in wicked dry heaves.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 18, 2009 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Here's the PETA story, badsneaks. I used to think PETA kinda tiptoed back and forth over the line of sanity, but sometimes I gave them the benefit of the doubt. No longer. They've crossed over into pretty solid wacko territory. If they feel that way about flies, how do they feel about mosquitoes? Ticks? Scorpions? Black widow spiders? How about intestinal parasites and tapeworms? Jaysus.

Thanks for the update on Son of Albacore, Scotty. I didn't know she was still in Pahtsmith (where she was built), but I did know she was the first of the "teardrop" sub designs that all followed. I've been aboard maybe half a dozen WWII-era subs, but never been aboard a post-WWII or any nukes, though.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 18, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Idiot. I forgot the PETA link.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 18, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

I know I am, but what are you!?

Posted by: russianthistle | June 18, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I'm an idiot, too. I thought I made that pretty clear.

Got any more of those brownies?

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 18, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

The brownies vanished just like they arrived.

One of the world's greatest mysteries, Mudge.

Here's a website for you Mudge:

Posted by: russianthistle | June 18, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 18, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Sign the paperwork here
For best friendship interviews;
No gnomes need apply.


Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | June 18, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Ulp. No gnomes because--
I have one as my best friend?
Yeah! That's it! Wilbrod?
Gnome?... I think I'm in trouble.
Gotta go wag and mend fences...


Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | June 18, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

OK, I've been staring at this WaPo headline for a few hours (off and on, of course), and I still don't like it: "Obama Wades Into Gay Issues."

The fact is, he *didn't* wade into them. First, the phrase "wade into" connotes a pretty major advance into something. If one said a person "waded into the fight," that would imply a very substantial and hearty diving into the fray, yes? If you want to continue the "wade" metaphore, it would imply one was getting deeply into it, "up to the waist," etc.

Second, no one, not even Obama himself nor the White House (let alone his critics) has said he really waded into this issue. If anything, the gay community is, at best, still somewhat miffed that he hasn't done nearly enough (or anything) in their eyes. Even the White House says there is still plenty more to do. A few people have said that what he did yesterday kind of tip-toed into it, and by leaving out medical care and pensions he avoided the overwhelmingly expense parts of the benefits package.

I don't think it matters where one stands on this issue; I just don't see how anyone can say he "waded" into it. He barely got into it up to his ankles, and I don't think there's any disagreement about that.

(Even the anti-gay people who are vehemently opposed might say what he did yesterday was already "too much," but saying it is "too much: is NOT the same as saying he waded into it.)

In short, lousy headline-writing.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 18, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Obama Dips Toe In Gay Issues...

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | June 18, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Nah, Mudge, the image is still lousy even when accurate.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | June 18, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Why not just write a straight (no pun intended) news hed: Obama Extends Benefits to Gay Feds.

That omits the need to somehow characterize "how much" he did or didn't do [whatever].

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 18, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Kristof today wighing in at the NYT about bullets and tweets in "Tear Down This Cyberwall."

Tweets are only the mechanism or tool for expressing ideas--I think of Silicon Valley and Adam Osborne dinner speech decades ago about how computers are tools for communication. Ultimately, I think the ideas expressed via tweet-tweet topple brutality--baton's beat-beat or bullet's bang-bang.

My science question--and I don't know that scientists have an answer, perhaps they do: Why do dominant genes dominate? Why do they dominate over recessive genes? Why does the dominant gene for brown eyes dominate over the recessive gene for blue eyes? My disorder is a dominant-gene disorder. Why is that gene or that set of genes dominant? Who decides? *l* Really, what mechanism decides?

Posted by: laloomis | June 18, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: -TBG- | June 18, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Milbank on GOP reaction to Ensign scandal-

I especially liked the quote from Sen. Tom Coburn: "I have no thoughts." Truer words were never spoken!

Posted by: kguy1 | June 18, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Mudge, not even the Growler at the Intrepid museum?

Posted by: engelmann | June 18, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Never been to the Intrepid, Emann. Would love to go.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 18, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Been wondering, K-guy. Are you related to rashomon? There's just too much coincidence there for me to handle.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 18, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Whenever I think of Intrepid - this is what comes to mind. Sadly nothing of this exist today - a great piece of history gone.

Posted by: dmd2 | June 18, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

I think that question about emergent phenomena and the second law of thermodynamics is dumb. Joel is right to question that question.

Time to mow.

Posted by: Jumper1 | June 18, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Hey, you're right. I mean, what are the odds that 59 years after the release of a film recognized worldwide as a classic masterpiece of cinematic art, a film so well known that its title has become a catchphrase for multiple POV storytelling, a film which has been remade(badly) by Hollywood ("The Outrage") and will be remade (probably badly) as "Rashomon 2010", that that film and its director, himself an international icon and widely recognized genius of the art form, should inspire two completely unrelated individuals to use similar referential online pseudonyms? Whatever the odds are, they must be "inconceivable".

Posted by: kguy1 | June 18, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Howdy Boodle, back in town after managing two 11 hour drives without incident. I'm still back-boodling, but one mystery question is really eating at me:

Why do dogs stink when they get wet?

Posted by: Southwester | June 18, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Or not

Posted by: Jumper1 | June 18, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

My question:

What the h3ll happened to my pants?


Posted by: -bc- | June 18, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

@kguy1: that's not how I remember it.

Posted by: Southwester | June 18, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Or this

Posted by: Jumper1 | June 18, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

A possible substitution for my question:

What the h3ll happened to my genes?


Posted by: -bc- | June 18, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Not buying it, K-guy. And that was neither an admission or a denial. It was a deflection.

Excellent question, SW. But we have to be tactful how we talk about this subject. A certain haiku-writing canine hereabouts is very sensitive about certain things.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 18, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse


That's not how the dogs see (or smell) it.

Posted by: Scottynuke | June 18, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

@Mudge: Well a certain large, fluffy dog I know required two walks in the rain Monday night and I suspect he did it on purpose just to stink up the joint. I suspect a canine conspiracy to make us love things that have water activated stench glands.

Posted by: Southwester | June 18, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

kguy1 is me at work. kguy11 is me at home. I don't know rashomon. rashomon is not a friend of mine. And Senator, I'm no rashomon.

SW is going to have state the question, if there is one- just seems like a statement to me, a little more clearly than "that's not how I remember it."

Posted by: kguy1 | June 18, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Sw, your dog only stinks when it's wet? Lucky you!

That's in cases like this that co-pilots come in handy.
"Mid-air drama as pilot dies in flight"

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | June 18, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

@Southwester: Welcome back.

Posted by: Yoki | June 18, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Hey Southwester. It's always a relief to arrive home safely from long journeys, especially when there are small people involved. I hope she did as well as the canine.

Posted by: slyness | June 18, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

This may have to do with my lack of formal understanding of entropy (art school and all of that), how exactly does entropy display emergent properties? Is it like when someone makes a game, then suddenly finds that the players are doing things it was never designed to do? Or is it more like entropy flipping the universe the bird and adding a zig and zag to the straight line?

Posted by: tidalwv | June 18, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

@Southwester: maybe you need to change brands of dog shampoo. 'Cuz my big fluffy puppy actually smells *better* after he's rained upon.

Here's my burning question: when the h3ll is it going to stop raining?

Posted by: Raysmom | June 18, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

New Kit!

Posted by: Yoki | June 18, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

What kguy said. And I don't even have a dog. My condo association doesn't allow them.

Posted by: rashomon | June 18, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

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