Why does the woodpecker in my neighborhood peck at my aluminum gutters? There’s no food there. Please educate me (and my neighbors).
Richard Francis Shea, Harwich Port, Massachusetts
Woodpeckers—males and females alike—hammer on metal to advertise for mates and to proclaim their occupancy of a territory.
curator of birds, Natural History Museum
Where does our pronunciation of “one” come from?
Short Pump, Virginia
As the spelling suggests, “one” was originally pronounced as in “only” or “atone” (originally “at one [with]”). But “one” was often said with weaker stress than the following word in sentences, and this phenomenon—what linguists call “reduced sentence stress”—produced the pronunciation we now use today, even when we emphasize the word. By the way, the articles “a” and “an” also originated as reduced pronunciations of “one.”
linguist, Natural History Museum
Was Abraham Lincoln bald when he died? His 1865 life mask seems to suggest he was.
No, he wasn’t. His face became lined and gaunt under the many strains of the presidency, but he did not lose much of his hair. The “skull” of a life mask appears hairless because the subject’s hair would be slicked back with oil or grease to keep it from sticking to the wet plaster. But the hair would be added later when a sculpture or other figure was created.
historian, National Portrait Gallery
Can you explain why we don’t see stars in the background in photographs of the space shuttle or taken on spacewalks?
C.A. Perry Jr.,
Port Aransas, Texas
For the same reason we don’t see stars well in cities: There’s too much light. Most in-orbit photos were taken in daylight, when the ambient light was so bright the camera effectively ignored the dimmer points of light in the black background of space. At night, the shuttle payload bay was illuminated by floodlights, which had the same effect on the cameras. But the astronauts could see the stars.
space history curator, Air and Space Museum
Benjamin Banneker is supposed to have built the first clock constructed entirely of American parts (and wooden parts, no less). Does this clock still exist?
Van Nuys, California
Numerous sources report that Banneker (1731-1806) built his clock in 1753 (it is commonly described as the first American-made clock), and that it ran for decades after that. But the clock is not known to exist today—not in a historical collection, and not as a replica.
Michèle Gates Moresi
curator of collections, Museum of African American History and Culture
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