Why Is Pennsylvania Ave D.C.’s Main Thoroughfare and More Questions From Our Readers

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Cate Andrews

Was the Statue of Liberty intended to celebrate the emancipation of American slaves, as some say? Did Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s original design show an African woman?

Linda Rabben, Takoma Park, Maryland

The answer to both questions is: Not quite. Édouard de Laboulaye, the French legal scholar who proposed building a monument to America just after our Civil War, was an abolitionist and a Lincoln admirer, notes Karen Lemmey, curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Laboulaye may have been inspired by Lincoln’s assassination, but he also wanted to protest the repressive regime of Napoleon III, who had considered recognizing the Confederacy as a sovereign state. When the statue was dedicated, in 1886, it explicitly celebrated the independence the United States won—with crucial French aid—in 1776. In designing the statue, Bartholdi repurposed a concept he’d had for a statue (never built) on the Suez Canal; his early designs for that work depicted an Egyptian woman, but in the end he gave Lady Liberty features and clothing from classical Greece and Rome.

Why doesn’t Saturn’s gravity pull its rings crashing down to its surface?

Joseph A. Leist, Hamilton, New Jersey

Saturn’s rings are composed of billions of particles of rock and ice from broken-up comets and asteroids that are orbiting the planet like so many tiny moons, says Matthew Holman, senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Those particles, orbiting at speeds of 20,000 to 40,000 mph, sometimes collide with one another, but they don’t come crashing down onto Saturn’s surface because the centripetal acceleration of their orbits balances out the planet’s gravitational pull.

Why is the national capital’s main street called Pennsylvania Avenue, and not Maryland Avenue? After all, Maryland ceded the land for that part of Washington, D.C.

Donald Sebastian, Milton, Delaware

No one is quite sure. The capital’s planners referred to the avenue as “the broad one” before Thomas Jefferson made the first written reference to it as “Pennsylvania Avenue,” in a 1791 letter. But Nancy Davis, curator at the National Museum of American History, notes that the decision to move the capital from Philadelphia to the South was extremely contentious. The most common explanation is that Pennsylvania received pride of place to make up for losing the capital, while lesser avenues were named for Maryland and other states. Now, all 50 states have capital roadways named for them.

Given that modern humans originated in Africa and migrated out from there, why are there such huge population densities in the Far East, such as China and India?

P. Portoghese, Brooklyn, New York

Current population densities are very recent compared with the migration of modern humans out of Africa 60,000 to 80,000 years ago, says Briana Pobiner, an anthropologist at the Museum of Natural History. Where people settled was influenced much less by our species’ origin in Africa than by how such factors as climate, geography, technology and culture determined what type of food they produced.

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