Q: I’ve seen migrating geese flying in V-formation, and the sight always makes me wonder how the point bird is chosen. Is it always the same one?
— Claire Muskus | Lisbon, Connecticut
It isn’t always the same bird. Migration is an energy-intensive endeavor; when geese fly together, each one cuts air resistance for the ones behind it. Flying point requires more energy—the heart rate of trailing birds is about 15 percent slower—so the birds take turns doing it, says Autumn-Lynn Harrison, a researcher at the National Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center. By switching frequently between leading and trailing positions, the birds get where they’re going more quickly.
Q: For his artwork Preamble, Mike Wilkins celebrated the nation’s bicentennial by stringing together vanity license plates from all 50 states and the District of Columbia to phonetically spell out the preamble to the Constitution. What would he have done if any state had declined to issue him a plate?
— Kim Cropper | Bethesda, Maryland
It never came to that, though Wilkins, whose Preamble hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, says two states balked. Minnesota worried that the plate he’d requested—UN DE, for the middle syllables of “common defense”—might be misread as “undies,” but was easily persuaded. Georgia (which he wanted for FEC UNE, part of “perfect union”) said no because he had no car registered in the state. He enlisted the support of the state’s biggest newspaper, then aptly named the Atlanta Constitution, and a U.S. senator; he even joked about getting a plate from the then-Soviet republic of Georgia. And one day, he says, the plate showed up in the mail, without explanation.
Q: How does that garlic smell get into your skin, your sweat and your breath?
— Bruce Anderson | Palo Alto, California
Blame your gut. Smashing or chopping a garlic clove initiates a chemical reaction that produces a quartet of volatile organic compounds. All four contribute to garlic breath, says Joe Brunetti, a horticulturist at the National Museum of American History’s Victory Garden, but one of them, allyl methyl sulfide, or AMS, is most to blame. Your gut doesn’t break it down, so it enters the bloodstream and passes through your lungs and into your skin, whence you exhale it or sweat it out. But you needn’t swear off garlic, Brunetti says. Chemicals in apples, lemons, fresh parsley, spinach or mint neutralize (that is, not merely mask) garlic breath. And to get the odor off your hands after working with garlic, wash with salt and lemon or a dab of toothpaste—or rub your hands across a stainless-steel utensil under running water.
Q: Will my refrigerator magnets lose their power of attraction as they age?
— Leon Hoffman | Chicago
Yes—but so slowly, says Ioan Lascu, a research geologist at the National Museum of Natural History, that it will be centuries before you have to worry about your school-lunch menus falling to the floor. Man-made magnets’ atoms are lined up in the same direction, and stay that way unless exposed to extreme heat, a physical blow, or a strong magnetic field in a different direction. That would cause the atoms to vibrate out of alignment, reducing or erasing the magnet’s power.
It’s your turn to Ask Smithsonian.