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Questions, We Have Questions …

Barbara Brotman

It’s not just young children who want to know why the sky is blue or what croaking frogs are saying. We are all driven by questions. Luckily, College of Arts and Sciences faculty have answers.


Photo of a frog

Photo by Michael Benard

What are frogs saying when they croak?

Frogs make all kinds of sounds, from croaks to something like a banjo string being plucked or a thumb dragged across a comb’s teeth, said Michael Benard, PhD, associate professor and chair of the Department of Biology. But whatever their sounds, frogs— mostly male—vary them to mainly make three types of calls. The advertising call attracts females; the encounter call warns another male that he’s too close; and the release call tells a male that, perhaps mistakenly, grabs onto another male—rather than a female he intends to mate with—to back off.


Why do we use our hands when we speak?

“We gesture for the same reason we speak (or use sign language)—to communicate and organize our own thoughts,” said Fey Parrill, PhD, a professor and chair of the Department of Cognitive Science and director of the college’s Language and Cognition Lab. Language is actually speech plus gestures. Hand movements help promote understanding. Some people gesture more, especially if they are extroverts. Some cultures feature more conversational gestures, like those that speak Romance languages. “But everybody gestures —and it’s spontaneous.”


What’s a word we think is recent, but has been around a long time?

OMG! As in the abbreviation for “oh my god,” said Kimberly Emmons, PhD, the Oviatt Professor of English and an associate professor. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1917 a retired British admiral wrote to young Winston Churchill, then minister of munitions, to complain about the flurry of knighthoods—with their three-letter abbreviations—being given out. “I hear that a new order of Knighthood is [under discussion]” he wrote. “O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)— Shower it on the Admiralty!!”


Photo of audio equipments

Photo by Getty Images

Is soundtrack music for cartoon characters different from music for live actors?

First, you have to get over the these-things-were-never-alive-in-the-first-place mentality. A cartoon’s creator may rely on a composer to give an animated character a musical boost of vitality, said Daniel Goldmark, PhD, an associate dean, music professor and director of the Center for Popular Music Studies. But there is nothing inherently different about music for animation. “Plenty of live-action feature music sounds like cartoon music, and plenty of cartoon music sounds like feature music. It depends on what the music and visuals do together.”


Illustration of a ghostly image smiling down at a sleeping child

Image by Getty Images

How do you reconcile supernatural explanations for events that naturally occur?

Many people see supernatural entities like gods or spirits as working indirectly through natural events, said Julie Exline, PhD, a professor specializing in the psychology of religion and spirituality. They may see birds at their window after a death and believe it’s their loved one communicating. It depends on your worldview. “If you see God or the devil or spirits as being able to affect people’s lives and events,” she said, “you can see the world as, in a way, enchanted.”


A round futuristic glowing, golden quantum computer unit

Photo by Getty Images

What is quantum computing—and why the excitement?

Quantum computing represents a new era in computing—one using principles of quantum mechanics to solve particular classes of problems more efficiently than today’s standard “classical” computers, said Mhlambululi Mafu, PhD, a visiting assistant professor of physics specializing in quantum communication and computing. Early quantum computers are in the market, but Mafu expects that fully harnessing the technology could take 10 to 15 years. While classical computers use “bits,” that is zeros or ones, quantum computers use “qubits,” with the zeros and ones existing at the same time in a linear combination. That allows them to solve complex problems in powerful new ways. Mafu expects the technology will revolutionize fields including medicine, finance and artificial intelligence. “It’s exciting,” he said, “and it’s exciting everyone.”


Do you have an intriguing arts, humanities, natural sciences or social sciences question you’d like a faculty member to answer? Email us at and we’ll publish answers in future issues. 

Page last modified: January 16, 2024