Q: Did European modernists recognize Georgia O’Keeffe as a great artist?
—Clarence-Shannon Mullen | Manchester, New Hampshire
In the early 20th century, American artists looked toward Europe for inspiration rather than the other way around. O’Keeffe had her first solo exhibition in 1917 at New York’s 291, a gallery that also showed prominent European painters of the day. By 1946, she had her own exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, directly following an exhibition of the European-born artist Marc Chagall. But despite the prominence she achieved in America, O’Keeffe was never featured in a major show on the European continent during her 98 years of life. Her first retrospective in France opened in September 2021—to rave reviews.
—Stephanie Stebich, director, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Q: Was there any political significance to the flag the U.S. placed on the Moon?
—Jerry Kmetz | Camano Island, Washington
This question of raising an American flag on the Moon became contentious in 1969. The State Department worried that it would give the impression of territorial possession, which was against the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. But members of Congress argued that since U.S. taxpayers were funding Project Apollo, astronauts should be allowed to raise an American flag. In the end, NASA’s Symbolic Activities Committee decided that the astronauts should plant the American flag while also making other gestures, such as ferrying miniature flags from every other nation to the Moon and back. These flags were given along with Moon rocks as diplomatic gifts.
—Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo collection, National Air and Space Museum
Q: When did our ancestors start losing fur?
—Teresa Hall | Scarborough, Ontario
There wasn’t any one event when our bipedal ancestors left the woods for the grasslands. But after they did, starting about two million years ago, their survival depended on cooling the body. Developing a high density of sweat glands and shorter, finer body hair made cooling more efficient. But as with all evolutionary benefits, there were disadvantages—in this case, damage to cells from intense sunlight. Skin pigmentation helped regulate the damage, changing to maintain the health benefits of sunshine as humans also spread to cooler, cloudier places.
—Rick Potts, director, Smithsonian Human Origins Program
Q: Did the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs strike on land or at sea?
—Judy Schwender | Paducah, Kentucky
The asteroid impact took place 66 million years ago in an oceanic part of the proto-Caribbean. Recent studies indicate that the Earth’s crust in this area contained a lot of sulfur and hydrocarbons, which were released by the impact. This sent enormous amounts of soot and sulfates into the atmosphere, which cooled the global climate and acidified the ocean. These were probably important factors in the mass extinction. Had the asteroid hit land, or a part of the ocean where the rocks had a different composition, the effects might have been less severe. Scientists are still trying to unravel the specific reasons why some organisms disappeared while others survived.
—Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosauria, National Museum of Natural History
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