Front Ears of Science

Our exclusive science feature usually reports from the far corners of human knowledge – new discoveries in research and new atrocities in pseudoscientific and antiscientific mandates from officials of church and state, talk radio, and Fox News.

This time we ignore all that and report on questions instead of answers.


Holly looked up the other day from an article in the Times Science Section and asked,

“What would a dinosaur need with feathers?”

What indeed! A splendid question to incite class discussion at any grade level from kindergarten to graduate school.

But there it was – paleontologists have unearthed yet another fossil of yet another feathered dinosaur species – this time in Russia – yet another proof that dinosaurs are the ancestors of modern birds. That would seem to indicate that feathers conferred some evolutionary advantage to the survival of the species – which is Holly’s question.

What advantage?

I could think of half an answer. In the case of pterosaurs — flying species such as pterodactyls – feathers had the same advantage they have for birds.

But a number of feathered species turn out to be in the same group as T-Rex. In a rare burst of paleontological humor, lead researcher Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute mused:

“Maybe T-Rex was some kind of big chicken.”


Barb has long been troubled by a related question—Why aren’t we finding bird beaks all over our back yards? Their hard chitin is not readily compostable (as feathers usually are – which is why it took so long for science to discover them on dinosaurs).

As Barb concludes her doctoral dissertation on the subject,

“Why aren’t we up to our asses in bird beaks?”


The youngest inquirer on today’s panel, eleven year old Elena, has the rare talent of reducing a hundred questions to a two or three word essence.

Worried because she had heard her grandfather was sick, Elena asked him if his heart had gotten better. After getting an evasive answer, she looked at him closely, then asked:

“Can you run?”

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About Al

Editors of The Horse You Rode In On (listed below) hail from Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All contributions are signed. When guest contributors are included, their comments will be signed in a manner consistent with their needs for discretion, witness protection, or yearning for personal adulation.