Why Is Ivory So Precious? And More Questions From Our Readers

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Illustration of elephant and tusks
In Africa, ivory has been a status symbol because it comes from elephants, a highly respected animal, and because it is fairly easy to carve into works of art. Illustration by Sonia Pulido

Q: What makes ivory so precious?

C.B. | Redwood City, California

It has no intrinsic value, but its cultural uses make ivory highly prized. In Africa, it has been a status symbol for millennia because it comes from elephants, a highly respected animal, and because it is fairly easy to carve into works of art. Chiefs and elders used it to promote their economic power through control of valued resources and via trade with others, says Christine Mullen Kreamer, deputy director and chief curator of the National Museum of African Art. The high point of the African ivory trade was from the 15th through the 19th centuries, and expanded to Europe, the Arab world and beyond. In the 19th and 20th centuries, increasing demand for ivory piano keys, billiard balls and luxury items led to the precipitous decline in the elephant population. Since the 1980s, conservation groups and governments have implemented regulations to protect the endangered species.

Q: I’ve heard that the Air Force considered testing a nuclear bomb on the moon during the Cold War. What would the ramifications have been?

Camden Wehrle | Seneca Falls, New York

There would have been none for us, because the distance is so great. Any nuclear weapon on the moon would carve out a crater, and would contaminate the area with radiation. But the explosion would not likely affect Earth or its near-space infrastructure, says Michael Neufeld, senior curator in the space history department at the National Air and Space Museum. The Air Force did not follow through on its 1958 moon proposal, but the United States and the Soviet Union both detonated nuclear weapons a couple hundred miles above Earth between then and 1962. The 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty banned “weapons of mass destruction” in space—and no major powers have tried to violate it.

Q: Why don’t carnivorous mammals choke on feathers and fur?

Stephen Ross | Rodney, Michigan

Eating small prey means consuming a lot of fur, feathers and difficult-to-digest tissues. These are called “animal fiber,” explains Mike Maslanka, head of nutrition sciences at the National Zoo, and, in some measure, they’re actually good for the digestive tract of the carnivore. As animal fiber makes its way through the digestive tract, microbes partially ferment it. That contributes to the carnivore’s dietary energy and possibly helps create a healthier digestive system.

Q: When did “red” and “blue” get their current political connotations?

Patricia Clark | Washington, D.C.

While those terms have clear meanings to us now, it’s a relatively recent development in American political history, says Harry Rubenstein, retired curator of political history at the National Museum of American History. In the 1970s, as television news started relying more on color graphics, red and blue, and once yellow, were used to represent the parties’ victories on the election night map. The broadcasts weren’t yet standardized, so there are examples from the 1970s and 1980 where red stands for Democrats and blue for Republicans. By the 1990s, there was a trend toward the current party-color connection. The 2000 election is credited as the one that truly solidified it.

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