Union Station, Penn Station— why do so many major train stations have the same few names?
Hayley Glatter, Washington, D.C.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many railroad companies built and owned the stations on their lines. The Penn Stations in New York City, Newark, New Jersey, and Baltimore are remnants of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s network, says Travis Harry, director of museum operations at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, a Smithsonian Affiliate. But other stations—such as those in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.—were transportation hubs, serving trains from multiple companies. They were named Union Stations because that’s where different lines met up.
In the late 1800s, when immigration to the United States was hardly regulated, why were the Chinese banned?
Robert F. Rosenberg, Brighton, Michigan
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first American law that restricted immigration based on ethnicity, and it reflected a backlash against migrants who had come for the gold rush in 1848 and stayed to build the transcontinental railroad. While competition for jobs animated the arguments behind the ban, it was also linked to xenophobia, says Nancy Davis, a curator at the National Museum of American History, with racist stereotypes feeding into the “Yellow Peril” myth. Initially set to last for ten years, the ban was extended for ten years and then made permanent. It was repealed in 1943, to improve relations with China, a World War II ally, but large-scale immigration from that country didn’t resume until Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, abolishing national-origins quotas. In 2011 and 2012, the Senate and the House of Representatives both passed resolutions apologizing for the exclusion act.
How many unexamined fossils does the National Museum of Natural History have—that is, about how many new discoveries are waiting to be made?
Jack Sauce, Lakewood, Ohio
Of the 41 million fossil items in the museum’s paleobiology collection, every one was examined as it was sorted into one of 10,000 cases. But that doesn’t mean there are no potential discoveries to come, says Kathy Hollis, manager of the National Fossil Collection. This is among the world’s largest fossil collections, and only about 2 percent of the items have been the subject of published research. It already serves as a reference collection for hundreds of researchers annually, and that number will rise as Hollis’ team digitizes the fossils. The number of potential discoveries is incalculable.
Is thorium a viable potential fuel for nuclear power? Is anyone testing it?
David Ziegler, Columbia, South Carolina
Thorium is not a “fissile” material, suitable as a nuclear fuel, in its natural state. But it can be converted into a fissile material—uranium 233—in a nuclear reactor, says Roger Sherman, associate curator of the modern physics collection at the National Museum of American History. Nuclear power plants in the United States were designed to use other fuels, and converting them to use thorium would be very expensive. However, several other nations are testing thorium-based fuels.
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