Did the Pilgrims Really Land on Plymouth Rock and More Questisons From our Readers
Where do hurricanes start, the Big Bang, sea gulls and other answers from the Smithsonian’s experts
- By Smithsonian Magazine
- Smithsonian magazine, November 2012, Subscribe
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Did the Pilgrims really land at Plymouth Rock?
Dixon, New Mexico
It’s hard to be certain. According to oral tradition, the Mayflower Pilgrims landed near the landmark rock in 1620—but first-person accounts of their arrival make no mention of it. The legend is attributed to Thomas Faunce, an acquaintance of the earliest Pilgrims, who recalled hearing it as a boy.
William L. Bird
Curator, National Museum of American History
Why do I see sea gulls in large parking lots miles from any water?
Plainfield, New Jersey
Gulls often stop to rest (and forage for French fries) in parking lots when they’re migrating, usually in spring and fall. And while most gull species are coastal, the Franklin’s gull inhabits the prairies of central North America.
Ornithologist, Museum of Natural History
If the universe began with the Big Bang, with celestial bodies traveling away from the point of origin, can the center of the universe be pinpointed by backtracking their trajectories?
Glen J. Venable
The Big Bang wasn’t so much an explosion into space as an explosion of space itself. If we were to backtrack the expansion, we would end up with an infinitesimally small point—space itself would disappear, along with the concept of location. Picture a balloon on which we drew little dots to mark galaxies; when we inflate the balloon, all the dots expand away from each other, yet on the two-dimensional balloon surface we cannot pinpoint any center of this expansion.
Astrophysicist, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Why do hurricanes originate off the southwestern coast of Africa? And is there a similar point of origin for typhoons?
Robert Bruce Barton
Charlotte, North Carolina
Tropical cyclones—storms called “hurricanes” in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific and “typhoons” in the western Pacific—always originate near the Equator, where solar heating provides energy to develop large storms. Atlantic hurricanes originate near Africa and move toward North America because of global atmospheric circulation patterns.
Geographer, National Air and Space Museum
Can an animal’s (or human’s) diet be determined through the analysis of bones that are tens of thousands of years old?
Parsippany, New Jersey
We can’t determine exactly which plant or animal an individual ate, but we can reconstruct its food web. We can analyze chemicals in bones up to about 50,000 years old, and we can examine wear patterns and other physical qualities in many older ones. From bones, we can tell whether an animal was an herbivore, carnivore or omnivore; whether an herbivore ate mostly grasses or leaves; and how much meat a carnivore generally ate.
Physical scientist, Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute
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