The Explainer Explains the Unexplained

Madeleine Brand talks to Slate's Daniel Engber about questions he didn't answer in his 2006 explainer columns at Slate.com. One example: If the universe is expanding, what is now in the space that will eventually be taken over?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

Is the water on Mars drinkable? What do you do when your eye falls out of its socket? How can Sunnis and Shiites tell each other apart?

Just three out of about 200 questions Daniel Engber has tackled this year. He writes the Explainer column for the online magazine, Slate. And some of those explainers end up here on DAY TO DAY.

Welcome, Dan, to the program.

DANIEL ENGBER: Thanks.

BRAND: Well, first of all, these questions generally come from readers and I think you get thousands a year. How do you pick?

ENGBER: Well, there are two basic criteria. First, it has to be something that's sort of related to what's going on in the news that week, and the second thing is, it has to be a question that we can answer.

BRAND: Were there several questions that were the most popular questions that you were able to answer?

ENGBER: The question about how the Sunnis and Shiites can tell each other apart has been immensely popular. I got asked that question dozens of times, and then I answered it. And then people continued to ask the question for months after.

BRAND: What is the answer, by the way?

ENGBER: Well it's - one that's hard sum up in one sentence, but by the way people dress, by the names they have and by the neighborhoods they live in and the mosques where they worship.

BRAND: Okay, now you posted some of the questions you didn't answer on Slate, and readers are trying to answer these for you. And let's give some examples from the unanswered questions from 2006.

ENGBER: What comes after 999 trillion? Why is smooth peanut butter cheaper than nutty? Is it possible to collect all the cookie dough in chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and actually bake cookies from it?

BRAND: One personal favorite of mine is the soap question.

ENGBER: How clean is a bar of soap in a public bathroom?

Right. And the reader adds, it seems like a health hazard to me.

BRAND: I would love an answer to that question.

ENGBER: Ever since reading that question, it's something I've thought about when I'm in public bathrooms.

BRAND: Now, what about there are, sort of, grander state of the universe, state of being questions as well, not just your prosaic soap and cookie dough questions. If the universe is expanding, what's on the other side where it has yet to expand - can you even answer this?

ENGBER: That is going to be a tricky one. I think a lot of people a lot smarter than I have been working on that question. When we published a column, we ask readers to vote on the question they most like to have answered, and that one is leading in the voting so far. So I may be stuck answering that question some time in the next few weeks.

BRAND: And I understand the dolphin question is a close second?

ENGBER: Do dolphins actually save people? If so, why do they do this?

This question - the first part of it seems pretty straightforward - do dolphins save people? Maybe they do, maybe they don't. The second part, why they save people? That's going to be the tricky part.

BRAND: Is there a question that has plagued you, personally?

ENGBER: If you were asleep, and someone hits you in the head so hard that if you were awake, it would knock you out, what would happen? It's sort of a ridiculous question but if you think about it, I mean, the person asks, would you wake up and then get knocked out, or would you just stay asleep? That's probably my all time favorite Explainer question.

BRAND: Daniel Engber writes the Explainer column for the online magazine, Slate. And his article on the unexplained questions from 2006 is not up on Slate.com. Thanks, Dan.

ENGBER: Thank you.

BRAND: Coming up on the program, we have a few questions of our own - what were your regrets of 2006? We have some answers, coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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