But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids But Why is a show led by you, kids! You ask the questions and we find the answers. It's a big interesting world out there.On But Why, we tackle topics large and small, about nature, words, even the end of the world.Have a question? Send it to us! Adults, use your smartphone's memo function or an audio app to record your kid's question (get up nice and close so we can hear). Be sure to include: your child's first name, age and town. And then email the audio file to questions@butwhykids.org.
But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids

But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids

From VPR Classical

But Why is a show led by you, kids! You ask the questions and we find the answers. It's a big interesting world out there.On But Why, we tackle topics large and small, about nature, words, even the end of the world.Have a question? Send it to us! Adults, use your smartphone's memo function or an audio app to record your kid's question (get up nice and close so we can hear). Be sure to include: your child's first name, age and town. And then email the audio file to questions@butwhykids.org.

Most Recent Episodes

Why Do We Wear Clothes?

Have you ever been threading one leg through a pair of pants in the morning and wondered...why do we wear pants anyway? Or wondered why pockets in clothing designed for girls are sometimes smaller than the pockets in clothing designed for boys? In this episode we'll tackle your questions about clothes with fashion historian and writer Amber Butchart. Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slides | Transcript "Why do we have to wear clothes?" - Bhakti, 9, Australia Many people think we started to wear clothes for practical reasons of warmth and protection. "We don't have fur like other animals, so when modern humans started moving into colder parts of the world, we needed to protect ourselves somehow if it's cold and snowy. This is one answer, that we wear clothes for protection," said Amber Butchart. Butchart is a dress historian, author and broadcaster. She studies how the clothes we wear are connected to where we live and what kind of culture we grow up in, and what time period we're growing up and living in. Butchart says, while the protection theory explains why we have to wear something—to cover our skin from the elements, there are a lot of other answers that help explain the style of clothes we wear, or don't wear. These have to do with culture and society, and ideas about modesty as well. In this case modesty means what's considered proper, broadly accepted as not being too wild or "out there." A lot of how we dress comes down to what is considered appropriate in our current culture. "The idea is that these cultural codes built up across millennia and centuries and centuries, ideas that parts of our body should be covered up," Butchart explained. "We have these social ideas to do with what parts of the body should and shouldn't be on display, but we also have that combined with this need, especially in colder parts of the world, for protection from the elements." But when it comes to fashion, what you wear communicates something about you to the outside world, and clothing has gone through many changes throughout history. Listen to the episode to learn more! Support But Why | Newsletter Sign-Up

What's the Cleverest Thing A Hippo Can Do?

What is the cleverest thing hippos can do? This week we're answering seven quirky questions about animals! Why do elephants like peanuts? Why do cows put their tongues up their noses? Has anyone ever ridden a tiger? How do woodpeckers cling to trees? Why is some bird poop black and some is white? Why do people make animals like sharks and bears sound way scarier than they are? Answers from Keenan Stears of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Christine Scales of Billings Farm & Museum; shark researcher Kady Lyons and the Bird Diva Bridget Butler. Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript Related Episodes: Why Do Elephants Have Trunks? Why Do Things Seem Scary In the Dark? Resources: Hippopotamus facts, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Online Birding With Bird Diva What is the cleverest thing a hippo can do? – Elliot, 8, England We turned to Keenan Stears of the University of California, Santa Barbara for some help with this tricky query. "The first thing that comes to mind that highlights the intelligence of hippos," he told us, "is the ability to identify hippo friends from hippo enemies by the smell of their dung." Dung is another word for poop. "Dominant male hippos use dung middens to mark their territories. A dung midden is a place where an animal repeatedly goes to drop their dung. The dung middens act as a way that hippos can keep track of the other hippos in the area. So when moving through the environment, hippos can sniff out areas where their hippo friends live, versus areas where their hippo enemies live and they can do all of this just by smelling the dung in middens." Bet you didn't think the cleverest thing hippos can do would involve poop! And just in case it wasn't totally clear, a midden is basically a waste pile. So a dung midden is kind of like a toilet or an outhouse. It's where the hippos go repeatedly to poop. But, as Stears told us, it also serves another purpose. While humans can't tell their poop from someone else's, other animals can sniff out individuals this way, and use dung or urine—pee—to mark their territories. Hippos aren't the only animals to use dung middens this way, by the way. Rhinoceroses do this too! Other animals, like dogs, cats, rabbits and monkeys also sniff feces and urine as a way to learn about their fellow species, but they don't always leave their "messages" in the same place. Support But Why | Newsletter Sign-Up

Why Are Fireworks Bright?

What are fireworks made of, why are they bright and loud, and how do people make them? And, why do Americans celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks? We learn about pyrotechnics with licensed fireworks professional John Steinberg. And David Chavez, an explosives expert at Los Alamos National Laboratory tells us how changes to the materials used in fireworks can make them better for the environment and unleash new, more vibrant colors in the night sky. We also address firework safety and how to impress your friends by knowing what kinds of metals are in the fireworks you're watching or the sparklers you're playing with. NOTE: We know not all kids (or adults) enjoy the noise of fireworks. We do play the sound of fireworks at the very beginning and very end of the episode. And John Steinberg offers some advice to people who dislike fireworks in the middle of the episode. Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript Related episodes: Why Is Fire Orange? and How Do You Make Paint? Resources: celebratesafely.org, Sparkler Safety Video, Fireworks Colors Why are fireworks bright? –Dash, 4, Omaha, NE Steinberg told But Why that the brightness is the main purpose of fireworks. "You're painting the in sky with light. It has to be bright enough to create the color and the effect you want to in the sky. Second, fireworks are explosive. You can't be right up in front of it like a painting in an art gallery. You have to be some distance away, so the fireworks have to be bright enough for you to appreciate it," he said. Fireworks are created by burning materials that shine brightly when burned. Those fires are very hot! "The types of things we burn in fireworks burn very brightly, and they're chosen for those properties," Steinberg said. Fireworks are created by a combustion in the sky – a combustion is something that burns. "You need a fuel and you need something to burn that fuel," Chavez said. "An example of a fuel would be gasoline or wood in a fireplace. In fireworks, the fuels are the chemicals that we use to make the firework itself. The oxidizer is another chemical. When those two things burn, they burn very hot. And those high temperatures excite the coloring agents that we have in fireworks." The coloring agents are metals. "Anytime you see red, that's strontium. If you see a pinkish-purple, that's potassium. Yellow is from sodium. Orange comes from calcium. The green is from barium, but now you can use boron. Blue is from copper. And these can be mixed to make other colors. "You need a really hot fire to be able to excite these atoms, to make them give off their color. But when they are that hot, it makes the colors come out really bright." Chavez and other scientists have found ways to change the fuel source of fireworks to create less soot. Those changes also allowed them to replace barium, which can get into water sources, with boron, a greener way to create those green fireworks. Support But Why | Newsletter Sign-Up

Who Invented Noodles?

This week, we're revisiting one of our favorite older episodes from the past. We're going to learn a little bit about the history of noodles--and how to make them! We're joined by Jen Lin-Liu, author of the book On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Pasta and Love. And we also get an exciting hand-pulled noodle demonstration from Tony Wu, who was the executive chef at M.Y. China, a restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown, when we originally recorded this audio in 2019. Wu can hand-pull 16,000 strands of noodles from one lump of dough in just two minutes...while blindfolded! Narrating this noodle-pulling exhibition is celebrity chef Martin Yan, who owned the restaurant. (M.Y. China closed during the pandemic.) Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript | Video The first written references to noodles or pasta can be found in Chinese texts dating back about 3200 years. Author Jen Lin-Liu says it's likely that pasta developed in China and in the Middle East within a couple hundred years ago. But what likely didn't happen was the often repeated idea that Italian explorer and trader Marco Polo "discovered" noodles during his two decades traveling in east Asia and then introduced them to Italians upon his return. "Probably what happened," Lin-Liu told But Why, "was they were invented in China and they were also invented somewhere in the Middle East a little bit later, probably a few hundred years later. And there were two parallel cultures of noodles that developed separately. "And then," Lin-Liu continues, "because of the interactions between cultures later on, they started merging. So they were probably eating noodles in Italy and China at separate times and they didn't have much to do with each other at the beginning." On mobile? Click here to watch the video. As for how noodles are made, the ingredients are pretty basic: just flour and water. Sometimes eggs are used in place of water in Italian pasta. They can then be turned into noodles or pressed into different shapes. Sometimes they're filled with meat and cheese or other ingredients and turned into dumplings or tortellini or other filled-pasta shapes. Making pasta takes skill, both to get the consistency right and to make the perfect shapes. At Martin Yan's San Francisco restaurant M.Y. China, executive chef Tony Wu puts on a weekly show for diners, displaying his ability to hand-pull 16,000 strands of noodles from one lump of dough in under two minutes. Yan calles him a "human pasta machine," and we get to experience the excitement in this episode. Support But Why | Newsletter Sign-Up

Are Seeds Alive?

Are seeds alive? What are they made of? Here in Vermont it's planting time, and we've been getting a lot of questions about seeds from kids around the world. In this episode we'll explore the importance of preserving seed diversity with Hannes Dempewolf of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Crop Trust manages a repository of seeds from around the world at the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, above the Arctic Circle. Plus, ethnobotanist and Abenaki scholar Fred Wiseman shares a little bit about a project called Seeds of Renewal, which aims to find seeds traditionally grown by Abenaki people in our region and return them to cultivation. Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript More Plant Episodes: How Do Big Plants Grow From Such Small Seeds? The Svalbard Global Seed Vault contains an enormous wealth of seeds from around the world. Unlike other seed banks, the vault is designed not to be used unless there are no other options in other seed banks. Seed banks are places where seeds are stored for future use in case of a disaster or crop failure, and are sometimes given out to help establish new populations of heritage or rare plants and crops. Seed banks also promote genetic diversity by keeping many varieties of seeds from many different plant species. "Are seeds alive?" - Evie, 5, Hawaii Yes, seeds are very much alive! At least the seeds that we use to grow food are alive. Seeds can die if they're not properly cared for, if they get too hot or cold or wet. But under the right conditions, they're just dormant. "It means they're sleeping basically," Dempewolf says. "Seeds are dormant and they need to be activated to grow. They need light to grow, along with humidity and warmth, that's the conditions that allow seeds to grow." "Different species of plants have very different kinds of seeds and different types of seeds also need very different conditions to grow. Some grow with very, very little humidity with very little wetness, and some need a lot. Some need to be submerged in you know under water for a while until they can grow. Some need to be frozen first before they can grow. Some seeds are made that they have to first be eaten by an animal and then pooped out again, so they can grow. Some grow with very, very little wetness, and some need to be submerged underwater for a while until they can grow. Some need to be frozen first before they can grow. Seeds are amazingly complex." Support But Why | Newsletter Sign-Up

How Are Words Added To The Dictionary?

Our guest this week is a lexicographer. That's someone who studies words and, in this case, edits dictionaries. Emily Brewster is a senior editor at Merriam-Webster and host of the podcast Word Matters. Emily answers a question from 8-year-old Emma in Kentucky, who wants to know how words are added to the dictionary. But before we can answer that, we'll tackle 7-year-old Julia's question, "How are new words created?" Join us for an episode about how words are created, when they've reached a critical level of use to get their own dictionary entry, and when words are removed from the dictionary. Get ready for some word nerdery! Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript More Word Episodes: Who Invented Words? But Why Live: Words and Language Why Are Some Words 'Bad'? "How do words get added to the dictionary?" - Emma, 8, Kentucky Lexicographers like Emily Brewster read and listen a lot and pay attention to the new words that people are using. They collect these examples and determine how many instances there are of the word and what different kinds of sources are using the word. "If all the examples are only appearing on TikTok, then that tells us one thing about the word. But as soon as they're also appearing in, you know, a magazine that you would see at the dentist's office, then that tells us something else about the word's status," Emily explains. "So we are always looking for information, for evidence, of how words are being used by the people who speak the English language. And when we have enough evidence that the word is really part of the language, that it's a word that most people already will recognize when they hear it, that's when we know that it's ready to be added to the dictionary." For example, the word COVID-19 was a word created by the World Health Organization about a year and a half ago. "It got into our dictionary faster than any other word in the history of the dictionary has ever been added. Because what we knew immediately was that this word was not going away, that everybody was talking about this word," Emily says. Sometimes dictionary editors update the definition of words that were already included. For example, the definitions of "pod" and "bubble" were updated this past January to include a new meaning: people you might have grouped up with when you weren't seeing other people because of the pandemic. Other new words recently added to the dictionary include: "makerspace," where people get together in a common area and often share tools to make their own projects; "BIPOC," an abbreviation for Black, Indigenous and People of Color; and "second gentleman," in reference to Vice President Kamala Harris's husband. Once it's been established that a word is in widespread use, an editor will carefully read through evidence of the word in use and formulate a meaning in very careful language. Another editor will determine how old a word is and its earliest usage, another will look at the word's history, and the word will get a pronunciation. Then it's ready to be added to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster updates their online dictionary with new words or new definitions of words a few times a year. Emily says words don't usually get taken out of dictionaries, but editors do make choices about which words appear in print dictionaries. Support But Why | Newsletter Sign-Up

How Do You Whistle?

How do people whistle? How does whistling make a sound? Why does your tongue change a whistle higher or lower? Can you get a trophy for whistling? Can people with laryngitis whistle? Get ready, we learn all about whistling with musician and champion whistler Emily Eagen and musician Yuki Takeda. And who whistles our theme song? We'll hear from musician Luke Reynolds, and a kid whistling chorus from our listeners! Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript How do you whistle? - Aurelia, 6, New York Emily says the first thing you should do is lick your lips or use lip balm. "If your lips are dry when the air passes it doesn't feel good," she says. Then you'll make your lips kind of into a pucker, circle your lips tightly. Next, stick your tongue touching your bottom teeth. Then you make kind of a yuh, yuh, yuh sound. "But instead of saying the words, make it with a little stream of air. You want to let air pass over the top of your tongue and out your lips. You're making a tiny little instrument by curling your tongue." "I like to think about between your nose and your lips, that's a little body part called a philtrum. I like to pretend that my whistle is coming out of that. That helps me make the sound have a little focal point," she says. Emily says it helps to make little sounds when you practice. "Pretend your sipping tea with that little tiny space there. You don't want to push too much. If you blow too much air it won't work. You have to be really gentle." Once you find your first whistle, it's all about practice and playing around to see what sounds you can make. "If you move your tongue forward, the notes go up, and if you move your tongue down, the notes go down," she says. If you can make a variety of notes, then you can start putting them together to make music!

How Are Rocks Formed?

How are rocks made? Why are some rocks hard and others soft? How do rocks shine? How are geodes and crystals made? Why do some rocks have gems in them? Answers to your rock questions with Hendratta Ali, rock doctor! Ali is a geologist who studies and teaches at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript

Ethics: Is It OK To Break A Rule?

Is it OK to do something that you were told not to do and then never tell anybody? In this episode we tackle that thorny question from 10-year-old Finn from Seattle. We'll also wrestle with the question, "Why do people make really bad choices and want other people's lives to be harder?" Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript We're tackling some ethical dilemmas in this episode and we're letting kids give the answers! We also get a response from ABC Radio's Short & Curly, a podcast devoted to ethics for kids. Here's how some of our young listeners answer the question about whether it's ever okay to break a rule and lying about it: "No, because it usually just means you get in trouble." - Juniper "I think so. If you're protecting somebody or keeping a surprise." - Camille "It depends who told you. Like if your parents told you, then you shouldn't do it. Or if you do it, you should tell them you did it. But if it's like a mean person you met on the street it's ok. And it depends what it is. Because if it's a bad question, you shouldn't do it either way if it's a bad thing. If it's a good deed you should do it. And if you did that, why wouldn't you tell anyone?" -Sylvie "No, not really. If you don't tell anyone about it. It's mostly the doing it and then not telling anybody about it. Mostly what isn't the good thing about it. It's a little bit worse, if you don't tell someone you might get a feeling where you feel kind of embarrassed. And you don't tell anybody and it just sticks with you the rest of your life." - Piper

Why Do We Compete?

Have you ever felt competitive with a friend or a sibling? Competition comes up in a lot of different ways in life. Maybe you're running a race with a friend and you want to beat them! Maybe you're trying to play a song without making a mistake and you're competing against yourself. Sometimes competition feels good and fun. It can make you want to do better, and make a game more enjoyable. But not always. Sometimes competition feels bad. Like it's too much pressure, or takes away from the fun of being with your friends. Some people really don't like competition at all. 3-year-old Kai from Tokyo, Japan asks: "Why do we need to compete with other people, especially friends, for example on a sports day or at gym class?" In this episode we discuss competition with anthropologist Niko Besnier. And we'll hear from 12-year-old Harini Logan, a competitive speller from San Antonio, Texas, and 10-year-old Del Guilmette, an athlete from Monkton, Vermont. Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript We put Kai's question to Niko Besnier, anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam. One of his books is called The Anthropology of Sport, written with Susan Brownell and Thomas F. Carter. He says there are two reasons that people take part in competitions: "One is that sports are fun. It's fun to play with your friends and classmates, to run, jump, play ball. We've all experienced this rush of pleasure and fun doing these things. But the other aspect that's contradictory to the fun part is that it enables us to measure our strength, our speed, our physical ability against those of other people. It's the competition part of sport, and competition can become extremely serious. Frequently, the fun part of sport gets lost." Besnier says when competition gets out of hand it can lead to hurt feelings, and on a larger scale, competition can lead to things like war and inequality. But with the right attitude, competition, especially when we compete against ourselves, can help us get better at sports and academics. That's how it is for Harini Logan. She's a competitive speller who has made it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee twice! "Competition teaches you a lot, whether it's the preparation leading up to that competition or the outcome," Logan says. "It can teach you a lot about not only your abilities, but also new things that can change the way you look at life. When you're preparing for a competition you can learn how to work hard, and how not to give up on something. And during the competition you learn teamwork. That's one thing you learn in spelling bees, because you want to be with your community, your friends. One thing to learn if you win: sportsmanship! You don't gloat about it, you still appreciate yourself but you don't overdo it so others don't feel bad. And if you don't win it doesn't matter. [You just say:] I'm going to try harder next time." Competing also helps us get better. That's how 10-year-old Del Guilmette views it. He likes to play against tough teams when he plays sports, because that's how you get better. "The best players at the game, whatever sport it is, they didn't get better because they played teams that they knew they were going to beat. They played those teams that were better than them. They got better and they practiced!" Listen to the full episode to hear more about how these mature young competitors think about the value of competition.