The Unanswered Questions

Whatever happened to dandruff? Plus 30 more Explainer bafflers from 2011.

It’s been a grim year for the Explainer, filled with dark questions from a suffering nation. Do animals commit suicide? Can a horse catch fire? Will your dog eat your dead body? Just how long can someone survive on beer alone? The column has answered some perennial head-scratchers, too: Was the Byzantine Empire really as complicated as they say? How did dinosaurs have sex? And, true to the Explainer spirit, it’s dispersed plenty of news that you could never ever use: Ever wondered if a bear is any softer than an angel, or why semen glows in the dark?

But after responding to more than 250 questions, the Explainer still finds himself sitting beside a mountain of unanswered reader submissions, with loose papers fluttering down like so many snowflakes from its peak. Every one of these is special, so we’ve made space to share just a few dozen more as the holidays approach—a year-end selection of inquiries that Slate felt either ill-equipped or unwilling to answer in 2011.

In keeping with Explainer tradition, we’re hoping you’ll tell us which of these is most deserving of an answer. The top vote-getter will be designated the Question of the Year for 2011, and a response will be posted in the coming weeks.

1. Why do people put their hands to their heads/faces when something goes wrong?

2. It’s not really topical, but it’s been bugging me for a while: Why do comedy clubs have such unfunny names? Not just boring—it’s hard to tell a joke in a three-word business name—but it’s usually something inane like “The Laugh Factory” or “The Chuckle Hut.” Why don’t they just name comedy clubs after comedians?

3. Why does the outside of the base of most toilet tanks show the path of the waste pipe? (Obviously, the porcelain is molded this way—but why?) This seems unnecessarily explicit to me.

4. Are the blind sleepy all the time? I was under the impression that your brain signals it’s time to sleep when it gets dark. I, for one, can’t stay awake when I close my eyes and meditate!

5. Whatever happened to dandruff? That’s my question, basically. As a kid, there were so many commercials about it, and I remember seeing people who had dandruff. Neither ever seems to happen anymore.

6. Does anyone ever get a sex change back?

7. Why do furniture stores rely so heavily on the advertising gimmick of “going out of business” sales? It seems obvious that they aren’t actually going out of business, but are just trying to drive traffic to their store. I can understand why they might do this, but the real question is, why is this so prevalent among furniture stores and no other industries? It seems the same principles that apply for furniture could apply elsewhere, but I only see these with furniture stores. I’m guessing the answer has to do with some furniture industry pioneer and his lasting legacy.

8. Why don’t roaches live in cars more often? There seems to be plenty of food in many cars to support them. Do they get motion-sickness?

9. When I fry bologna (for a fried bologna sandwich, of course) it always forms a big greasy bologna dome. None of the other meats I fry do this. What’s going on in bologna to make that weird dome shape?

10. Odd to say the least, but why do so many of our states end with the letter a? Way too many to be happenstance—there must be a reason.

11. I’m a tall guy. So when I pee, sometimes there’s a splash that exceeds the height of the bowl and lands on the floor. What is it that splashes? Is it water from the toilet or is it pee? I’m guessing it’s water from the toilet because the momentum of the pee takes it down and for it to splash out would defy the physics of liquids.

12. When you cut open a pumpkin, there is no whoosh so there must be a gas inside the pumpkin filling the “empty” space. What is it and how does it get inside.

13. When parking in a nearly full parking lot, is it quicker to a) park in the first open space you see and walk, or b) drive a few laps around the lot and grab the closest possible spot? In my experience the two ways are about even, since the extra time spent driving for “b)” means a quicker exit when you leave. Please settle this using statistics as my wife has refused to argue anymore regarding this issue.

14. Let’s say that a meteor never hits the earth, and dinosaurs continue evolving over all the years human beings have grown into what we are today. What would they be like? Would they have a society? A language? iPods?

15. Why do dogs (and other animals, for that matter) like having their bellies rubbed?

16. I have a question in regards to rap. When did we start making those hand gestures as we rap? Is a cultural phenomenon only in America or is it international? How did this originate?

17. Why don’t they ever use “presents” in advertisements? It’s always about “gift”-giving, and “gift” ideas, never a “they’ll love these as presents.”

18. Why is it wrong to say things like, “I’m not a ___ (e.g. anti-Semite, racist, whatever); half my friends are ___ (e.g. Jewish, black, whatever).” It seems logical, if not said after an offensive remark, but it seems we learn quickly in life not to make that statement because it’s quickly laughed at and discredited. No, it hasn’t happened to me in 25 years, but I’m not sure I understand why it’s taboo.

19. Why do all announcements from the National Weather Service come in capital letters? I assume back in the day when they were using the first primitive computers, that was all they had, but isn’t there some way to morph them so it doesn’t look like they’re shouting? Even using weather.com the announcements are in all caps. And the ellipses in the middle of the sentences confuse me.

20. I’ve got a mosquito bite on my tattoo. Did the mosquito get a little dose of ink along with my blood?

21. You know how when you burp, you taste something that you ate recently, but it isn’t always the thing you ate most recently? Or if you ate a bunch of things around the same time, your burp will taste like one of those things, but not all of them? What determines which food your burp will taste like?

22. Do “scare quotes” exist in all written languages that have some punctuation for denoting quotes, or only in some?

23. Why does it take 45 minutes for the pharmacy to get your prescription ready—even when no one else is waiting?

24. I am wondering why the tradition is to consider the 25th anniversary of just about anything to be a milestone: A wedding anniversary, a hit movie release, someone’s death, a big event (e.g. LiveAid concert), etc.. Except we don’t typically celebrate someone’s 25th birthday in the same way. Why is that?

25. Can you text 911?

26. We are taking my daughter to Disney World. I remember as a kid being a little scared and intimidated by the huge characters. Why are they so big? Is there a psychological study that finds this to be the appropriate size for fantasy characters; does it make them more fantastical? I think quite the opposite. It almost breaks the illusion and calls out the fakery.

27. If I flush a live insect—think roach—down the toilet, can I expect it to die? Or am I giving it a sportsman’s chance of re-entering my life, and possibly seeking revenge? I’d always assumed it would drown, but someone told me I was mistaken and wasting both water and time. Better, people tell me, to make sure they’re fully squished before disposing.

28. Whatever happened to nurses’ caps and why all the different kinds?

29. When a friend laughs at their own joke, it usually kills the joke. However, when I’m watching SNL and the actors can’t hold it together I laugh harder than I think I ever would have otherwise. The same thing happened to me watching this great piece recently on the Colbert Report about ice cream flavors. I almost died as Jon Stewart struggled to emit the word “Stewberry.” Why do giggling comic actors seem to make sketches so much funnier? Am I a sympathetic laugher? Am I laughing at the actors or with them? (I’m leaning towards “with.”)

30. Why aren’t there any topless casinos in Las Vegas? There are plenty of casinos and plenty of strip clubs in Vegas but there aren’t any combinations of the two. It seems like someone would create a casino where the dealers were topless.

31. Why are smart people usually ugly? I get this isn’t always the case, but there does seem to be a correlation. Attractiveness doesn’t predict intelligence (not all ugly people are smart), but it seems like intelligence can be a good predictor for attractiveness (smart people are usually on the ugly side). Keep in mind, I have nothing against people who are really brilliant, I’ve just always wondered.

Previous Questions of the Year:

2010: Why do boys like sticks?

2009: If a Siamese twin commits murder, does his brother get punished, too?

2008: What is the most disloyal dog breed?

2007: Why don’t we drop medical waste and nuclear waste into active volcanoes, the “ultimate high-temperature incinerators”?

2006: Can a bar of soap get dirty, or is it self-cleaning because it’s soap?