How Many Ways Can Snake Venom Kill You and More Questions From Our Readers

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Ellen Weinstein

In how many different ways can snake venoms kill humans?

Kaleb Barleen, Vancouver, Washington

There are two basic mechanisms, says Matt Evans, assistant curator at the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo. Some venoms, such as those of cobras and coral snakes, primarily attack the nervous system, leading to breathing difficulties and paralysis. Other venoms (cottonmouths, many rattlesnakes) destroy cell tissue or the cardiovascular system, leading to organ collapse and internal bleeding. And there are complex venoms that do both. Individual responses to bites from venomous snakes vary, and not all are lethal.

What did NASA do with the soil samples dug up by the Surveyor 3 spacecraft in 1967? If they weren’t returned to Earth for analysis, what scientific value did they hold?

J. Schaffer, Bethesda, Maryland

Those samples were used to study the mechanical properties of the Moon’s soil, which would help NASA choose a landing site for future Apollo missions, says Matt Shindell, curator of space history at the National Air and Space Museum. Could any given site support a spacecraft? Human movement? Surveyor 3 photographed the samples and sent the images back to Earth to help answer such questions.

I heard that wind doesn’t pull leaves off trees, but that trees push the leaves off. Is this true?

Roger Baleen, Brooklyn, New York

To a limited extent. As autumn days get shorter, limiting photosynthesis, a layer of cells forms between a leaf and its stem, says Vicki Funk, senior research botanist and curator at the National Museum of Natural History. This layer blocks the flow of nutrients to the leaf and, eventually, pushes it away from the stem. Then that leaf is more susceptible to the tug of a crisp fall breeze.

How do the original Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties align with the current Democrats and Republicans?

David Miller, Jacksonville, Florida

They don’t, says Harry Rubenstein, curator at the National Museum of American History. Some Democrats descend from Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, but the party’s core diverges on many topics, notably states’ rights. Democratic-Republicans wanted a limited central government; Democrats tend to support a strong one. Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists supported a strong central government, but his economic plan, focusing on the country’s business interests, aligns more with current Republicans.

Of all the things in the Smithsonian’s collections related to Walt Whitman, what’s the most recognizable?

Joan Lambe, New Windsor, New York

Among hundreds of Whitman artifacts in the collections are some well-known photographs of him taken in the 1880s and ’90s by Thomas Eakins. But, notes Brandon Fortune, chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery, there’s also a steel engraving of a daguerreotype taken by Gabriel Harrison. It may seem familiar because it was the frontispiece to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, in 1855, and widely reproduced.

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