Q: I’ve seen fashion designers promoting clothing based on kente cloth from Ghana. Is it insensitive for non-Ghanaians to wear it?
—Lilia Morris | New York City
Colorful kente cloth—made of handwoven silk and cotton—has been part of Ghanaian tradition for hundreds of years. The colors and patterns in any given piece tell a story. Within Ghana, kente designs are used for specific occasions and are even protected by law. Diana Baird N’Diaye, a cultural specialist at the Center for Folklife and Culture Heritage, thinks it’s fine for Americans, especially those of African ancestry, to wear appropriate kente patterns to events such as graduations and funerals, as long as the cloth itself was handwoven in Africa. When designers make abstract patterns based on the look of kente, she thinks they should make it clear to the public where they’re getting their inspiration. But they shouldn’t copy actual kente patterns. “It’s not just a decorative print,” she says.
Q: How do zoos keep infectious diseases from spreading among animals? Are there special vaccines for lions or bears?
—Christopher Hu | Shaker Heights, Ohio
Many zoo animals can thank pets for their vaccines, says Kailey Anderson, a veterinary resident at the National Zoo. Most vaccine research has been done on domesticated animals. So when vets want to inoculate a giant rat, for instance, they’ll use a vaccine developed for pet rodents. Sometimes a species isn’t related to a common pet or farm animal, so vets will look at factors like diet, metabolism and behavior. That’s why elephants get vaccines designed for horses, and bears get vaccines designed for dogs.
Q: Does paved-over soil have any microbial life? If not, can the microbes ever return?
—Dorothy West | Reston, Virginia
Before workers pour cement or roll asphalt, they strip away the top level of the soil where many tiny life-forms thrive. Microbes need plants to thrive and vice versa, says Pat Megonigal, biogeochemist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The tiny organisms decompose dead plant parts, turning them into nutrient-rich soil. Even after pavement has been removed, it can take hundreds of years for the soil’s ecosystem to recover. But scientists speed up the process by introducing nutrient-rich compounds that help both microbes and plants flourish.
Q: My son-in-law and I differ on why the moon is always larger when it’s close to the horizon. He says it’s an illusion caused by distance. I think it’s the moisture in the atmosphere acting as a magnifying prism. Is either of these ideas correct?
—Paul Ziebarth | Buffalo, New York
The atmosphere can play a role, especially in changing the moon’s color. But the “moon illusion,” which has fascinated humans since ancient times, has a more widely accepted explanation, says David DeVorkin, curator of space history at the National Air and Space Museum. When the moon is on the horizon, it’s often positioned near objects like trees and houses, causing it to seem larger than it does when it’s isolated high up in an empty sky. Still, this isn’t the whole story. Astronauts in space also see the moon appearing to change size, even when there’s nothing in the foreground. The reasons for the illusion are still a bit mysterious—a reliable topic of conversation while standing under the night sky.
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