The Explainer questions we never answered in 2008.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 17 2008 6:57 AM

The Questions We Never Answered in 2008

Digging through the bottom of the Explainer mailbag.

Speed Explainer: Can We Trust Track-and-Field Records?

The Explainer has completed another year of valuable community service. Over the last 12 months, we've told you how to interrogate a small child and given instructions for turning a human skull into a sweet bong. Regular readers learned how to survive a 47-story fall and why you can't survive falling into a black hole. And we had the final word on whether terrorists really bump fists to say hello.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

But, for all that, the column managed to address just a tiny fraction of the 8,500 messages that arrived in our mailbox. Today, as part of our Explainer holiday tradition, we present an assortment of inquiries culled from the voluminous backlog. Below are the reader questions that Slate felt ill-equipped or unwilling to answer in 2008.

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Once again, we'd like you to let us know which of these unanswered questions is most deserving of an answer. The one that receives the most reader votes will be designated the Explainer Question of the Year for 2008 and will be addressed in an upcoming column.

Click here to vote for the Explainer Question of the Year.

The Explainer's Unanswered Questions From 2008

•  What is the most disloyal dog breed?

•  Why does some music make you want to shake your butt?

•  Could you please explain why it is that squirrels are capable of such amazing athletic feats? What is it about their brains and, to a lesser degree, their bodies that allows it? I watch them at my house and have seen some amazing things.

•  Why do women like soup? Is it for perceived health benefits? Is it because it's a quasi-comfort food?

•  Is it just me, or do all national anthems the world over, no matter how rich and exotic the culture, seem to sound like European marching-band music? Wouldn't one expect China's national anthem be more "plinky"? Shouldn't Iraq's national anthem sound a little more "Arab-y"?

•  I am an 11-year-old boy and girls in my class harass me constantly and I want to file a restraining order against one of them. Is that possible?

•  It is a common baseball prank to give someone a cream pie in the face during a TV interview. Where do these cream pies come from? Do baseball teams keep cream pies in the dugout?

•  Why don't humans have a mating season?

•  When and why did the Communist Chinese change the name of their capital "PEKING" to Bazging? Sorry, I don't know how it is spelled. Thank you.

•  My toaster identifies which of the two slots should be used for making a single slice of toast. Why does it make a difference which slot I use?

•  If one gets a personal e-mail from a very famous or important person, such as the president, or the queen of England, or the Pope, or Paul McCartney, can that e-mail have monetary value? I guess not. It's just an electronic transmission on a screen. There's no original. There's no way to buy or sell it. Seems a shame tho.

•  Does indoor tanning hurt your tits if you have had a breast silicone implant put in for over 30 years?

•  Why do all of the deli guys and food cart guys call me "Boss" (well, me and everyone else)?

•  I live in Washington, D.C., and we have very long escalators coming out of the Metro. If I grabbed the handrail when I first step onto the escalator and did not let go until I was at the top, my body would be almost prostrate across the steps. As I go higher on the escalator, I have to readjust the hand that is grabbing the rubber handrail. Why can't the companies that make escalators sync the steps and the handrails so that they go the same speed?

•  If you were on a boat, what signs do sharks give if they are hungry and will attack versus if they just want to swim around the boat?

•  How did early man deal with growing toe and fingernails?

•  If someone with DNA from the Stone Age were born today, would they be normal?

•  I have been accused of assault in Ohio. The woman fell over a box in the hall backward, and my brother opened the door, saw her lying there, and started hitting me. I got him down and held him down. It was all over a fight concerning my niece. What do you think will happen?

•  I wonder what's going on with Obama's eyes. When he made his keynote address to the Democratic Convention in 2004, I noticed his eyes had a bit of a pretty eyes makeup look. I concluded that it was just the makeup they put on him for the TV cameras. But then yesterday on TV I saw some older footage of Obama and again his eyes had that same pretty look. This was before he was nationally known. I looked carefully and I think that look comes from having long eyelashes. I mentioned this to some other people and they noticed it too. But so then where did those long eyelashes go? Maybe eyelashes get shorter with age. Do they? BUT also I'm wondering if Obama has had his eyelashes shortened. If he has had them shortened, I think that's an excellent idea. Because that long lashes pretty eyes look actually doesn't look so good on a man. At least not if he's running for president.

•  During this weekend's football playoff game in Green Bay, the temperature at kickoff was 0 degrees, and by the end of the game was -4 degrees. When players get injured in such weather, do they bother putting ice on the injury? Wouldn't that warm up the injury to 32 degrees?

•  Burma's dictator has a chestful of bullshit medals. What's up with that, Explainer?

•  If there is so much oil in the Middle East, could one missile (such as the ones used to penetrate bunkers and caves) explode deep underground and hypothetically blow up a few countries?

•  How can personal coaches justify coaching athletes who are much better than they ever were? If they know so much about how to win, why aren't they competing?

•  Can men eat the Activia yogurt that is advertised exclusively to the modern woman in khakis? Will it have the same internal regulatory effects on the male system that are promised for the female bowels? If not, why not?

•  Can an average person not in politics get a pardon from the president of the United States? (Possession of forged instrument, October of 1989.)

•  Is the stomach normally full of air like a balloon, or is it squeezed flat by the other organs, like a balloon with no air that spreads open as food and water come in? Are the other organs squeezed and compressed like a squeezed sponge, or are they like a sponge not being squeezed? What about the intestines? Are they squeezed flat normally, or are they open like one of those long balloons that magicians make animals out of? I'm trying to get a picture in my mind what the inside of the body normally looks like.

•  Please explain the method of formation and origin of black holes. Are they located at the Bermuda Triangle area and why there?

•  Who made up the rule that if you wore a shirt all day, went home, and washed it, you can't wear it the next day?

•  I live in Chicago, where taxi drivers are constantly talking on their phones. To whom are they talking?

•  Why do cockroaches flip over on their backsides when they die? I sprayed RAID into a hole in my wall the other day, and by the next morning I found six cockroaches laid out on my floor, all flipped over and all very dead!

•  Why do the women gymnasts walk around between events with that goofy arm-swing gait?

•  I am 79 years old. I bring this up first to help explain my question. In the late 1930s or early 1940s, I was looking through an old stack of Life magazines, and there was a picture of an old couple sitting on the porch of a cabin (or shack) up in the mountains somewhere in Appalachia, with the notation: "The King and Queen of America?" The small article with the picture stated that if George Washington had become king of the U.S., these two would (under the usual custom) be our king and queen. I have thought of this from time to time, even doubted it. (It might have been part of the propaganda of the time, the Depression years, that we were all equal, etc.) I am dimly aware that George Washington had brothers, and that it is possible that the descent is known. As I remember, it was a lovely picture, the old couple looking out over a valley, with mist, and smoking their corncob pipes. Can you find the picture? Can you tell me whether there was truth in the assertion?

•  Why are pandas names doubled? Ling Ling, Tuan Tuan, Yuan Yuan.

•  Are the frequently used "jaws of life" really necessary or just big-boy toys for rescuers?

•  How long can humans live when they are caught on fire? For example, when a car crashes and explodes turns into a gulf of flames, but humans are alive.

•  Hi, I am Anna. I am only 11 years old! My friend told me about this black hole, and I have gotten really scared. I don't want to die! I thought if it didn't happen today, it wasn't going to happen. I did not know nothing about it happening in Spring! I find it unfair that scientists are making a machine that could possibly destroy the entire human race. Me and my friends have cried about the black hole, and I find it really upsetting. There has been barely nothing about it on the news. I am so nervous. I just think I am too young to die—is there any way we could stop it happening?

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Which of these questions is most deserving of an answer? The one that receives the most reader votes will be designated the Explainer Question of the Year for 2008 and will be addressed in an upcoming column.

Click here to vote for the Explainer Question of the Year.

Previous Questions of the Year:

2007: Why don't we drop medical waste and nuclear waste into active volcanoes, the "ultimate high-temperature incinerators"?

2006: Can a bar of soap get dirty, or is it self-cleaning because it's soap?