Q: How come I see fireflies in New York, Illinois, Iowa and all through the South, but not in the West?
— Todd Schmidt | Chico, California
Well, you can see fireflies in the West, but you have to look a lot harder, says Marc Branham, a research associate at the National Museum of Natural History and an associate professor of entomology at the University of Florida. There’s kind of a firefly Continental Divide, and it has to do with flashing behavior among adults. Among Eastern species, males flash while they’re in flight to attract females; those species don’t live farther west than Kansas, except for a few isolated populations. Out West, it’s the adult females that glow, but only while they’re on the ground, and very faintly—so faintly their glow is hardly detectable even to a human eye fully adapted to the dark. And few people venture out without a flashlight or other light on.
Q: Of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were interned for security reasons during World War II, how many were convicted of spying against the United States?
— Ted Elswicke | Fernley, Nevada
None, despite aggressive investigating. The U.S. government did convict ten people of spying for Japan, and they were all Caucasian, says Adriel Luis, curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which formally apologized for the internment and compensated each surviving internee with $20,000. Still, the Supreme Court has upheld the government’s right to hold citizens without trial or hearing in wartime.
Q: Is the speed of light finite? Is it limited to 186,000 miles per second?
— Chris Gibbons | Evergreen, Colorado
Yes, on both counts, says Avi Loeb, a theorist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In 1905, Albert Einstein realized that the speed of light is a constant of nature. This serves as the basis of his special theory of relativity, which has been tested and confirmed by many scientists. It states that no material object can move faster than that speed and that the speed doesn’t change depending on your frame of reference. If you near the speed of light, time does slow down, so if you boarded a superfast spacecraft you would age more slowly than your relatives on Earth.
Q: Did Phyllis Diller really donate her jokes to the Smithsonian?
— Kate Patrick | Frederick, Maryland
Yes, she did, in 2003. Diller offered to make a gift to the institution after hearing that the National Museum of American History had displayed Archie Bunker’s chair. (“Even if I end up in the zoo or with the mammals, I will be honored,” she wrote to Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small.) She ended up giving her entire gag file—51 drawers containing 52,569 jokes, each typed on an index card, says Hanna BredenbeckCorp, a project assistant at the museum. The comic, who died in 2012, wrote most of them, bought some from joke writers and accepted some from fans. (Sample: “When I first got into this business I thought a punch line was organized drinking.”) BredenbeckCorp has digitized the jokes; you can see some of them at smithsonianmag.com/jokefile.