Was Jakob Brodbeck First in Flight? And More Questions From Our Readers

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The Wright brothers' 1903 flight made history, regardless of other claims about earlier flights. Illustration by Michael Hirshon

Q: Texas has a marker stating that Jakob Brodbeck was the first person to fly an airplane. I was taught it was the Wright brothers. What gives?

— Richard DeLong | San Antonio, Texas

Ignore the plaque. Even before Orville and Wilbur Wright made history in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, there were dozens of claims about and by other inventors of having achieved flight and they are all, including Brodbeck’s, discredited or unsubstantiated. What’s remarkable about the Wright brothers’ achievement isn’t just that they were the first to get a plane off the ground, explains Peter Jakab, chief curator of the National Air and Space Museum. They wanted to create what they called “a machine of practical utility.” And with the 1903 Wright Flyer, they engineered a design that could evolve into a lasting technology. Every airplane that followed that machine—to this day—flies on the same basic principles.

Q: How does a hippopotamus swim so fast?

— Derrick McPheely | Hughson, California

They’re actually galloping, explains Tony Barthel, a curator at the National Zoo. Hippos, which spend up to 16 hours a day in water, don’t swim. They either walk underwater or bounce and propel themselves off the riverbed with their webbed toes. Though they can weigh over four tons, their low bone density and their fat increase their buoyancy, making it easier to move through water. And it helps that they can hold their breath for minutes at a time.

Q: What is at the center of neutron stars?

— Mai Cwajbaum | Morgan Hill, California

Neutron stars, the compact relics of collapsed massive stars, are largely made out of neutrons and some protons. Beyond that, things are hazier, says Patrick Slane, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. When a massive star collapses into a neutron star, the neutrons and protons at its center are squished together at such a high density that it might create new particles, like quarks, kaons and pions. Scientists are currently unable to recreate that high-density, low-temperature state of matter in terrestrial experiments. But NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) mission might get to the core of the issue. An X-ray-tracing device on the International Space Station, NICER will measure the mass and radius of the neutron stars. With that data, scientists can calculate the pressure on the inside of the star, which will offer hints about its composition.

Q: Did Japan ever compensate and apologize to the American civilians held captive in the Philippines during World War II?

— Darren Feit | Troy, West Virginia

Not formally, says Frank Blazich, curator of modern military history at the National Museum of American History. Many civilian internees received token restitution from the U.S. War Claims Commission, which liquidated assets seized from Germany, the Imperial Japanese Empire and other Axis parties, and distributed more than $13.6 million to over 9,000 internees of the Japanese in the 1950s. When Japan and the Allies re-established relations in 1951, the multilateral Treaty of Peace waived reparations, citing Japan’s lack of resources as it rebuilt its economy. But despite statements of regret from Japanese politicians, Japan has never offered reparations or an unambiguous apology to U.S. captives.

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