Has Anyone Ever Run for President While in Prison? And More Questions From Our Readers

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Eugene V. Debs behind bars illustration
Eugene V. Debs was in a West Virginia penitentiary when he lost the 1920 presidential election. Illustration by Edward Kinsella

Q: Has anyone ever run for president while in prison?

L. M. Frank | Los Angeles

Eugene V. Debs was in an Atlanta penitentiary, serving a ten-year sentence, when he lost the 1920 presidential election. Two years earlier, Debs, a labor leader, had spoken out against America’s involvement in World War I. He was convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, after the prosecution argued that his antiwar speech obstructed military enrollment. The 1920 loss didn’t come as a surprise to Debs, who had run four times before. His fifth and final run, promoted with a campaign button that read “For President Convict No. 9653,” brought him nearly one million votes, says Claire Jerry, curator of political history at the National Museum of American History. President Harding commuted his sentence in December 1921.

Q: When were jet streams discovered?

— John G. O’Connell III | Taylors, South Carolina

American aviator Wiley Post is sometimes credited with discovering what he called the “prevailing wind channel,” says Bob Van der Linden, curator in the aeronautics department at the National Air and Space Museum. Post noticed strong currents at around 30,000 feet and used them for a record-setting flight from Los Angeles to Cleveland in 1935. But the Japanese meteorologist Wasaburo Ooishi had already described this effect. His findings, originally published in Esperanto in the 1920s, were essentially ignored. The Japanese used Ooishi’s research during World War II: They sent balloon bombs, carried by the jet stream, to the western United States. Today, airlines don’t schedule flights based on the unpredictable jet stream, but dispatchers use it when they can. A February 2020 trip from New York to London used it to set a record for 4 hours 56 minutes.

Q: There are swarms of mosquitoes in the Arctic. How do they endure the weather?

— Michael Landau | Rome, New York

They have two main strategies, explains Yvonne-Marie Linton, curator of the National Mosquito Collection, which is housed in the Smithsonian. Adult females of some species emerge in the fall to mate and immediately seek a sheltered spot to hibernate for the winter. In spring, they become active again and lay their first batches of eggs, without needing to blood-feed. Before they can lay more, they must blood-feed on nesting birds and arctic mammals like snowshoe hares. Other species lay cold-tolerant eggs in snow-covered grassy depressions or near riverbanks. When the snow melts in the spring, the water stimulates the tiny larvae to all hatch at the same time, resulting in explosive populations of what are called “floodwater” mosquitoes.

Q: I know why birds fly south for the winter, but why do they come back in the spring?

— Ron Walski | Allen Park, Michigan

It’s pretty nice in the tropics—North American songbirds warm up down there, eating fruits, berries and nectar. But they get the urge to migrate back for one reason: insects, which provide essential protein to newly hatched chicks. The densely populated tropics don’t have enough insects to feed both the year-round species and the migratory birds. Northbound songbirds time their return to coincide with an explosion of food resources back home, explains Sara Hallager, curator of birds at the National Zoo. In northern forests, the birds face less competition and use the long summer days to gather food for their chicks.

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