The Big Question

What’s One Fact About Your Field That’s Stranger Than Fiction?
Photo illustration by Valerie Morgan Matthew Bell Professor, School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Did you ever wonder why you hardly ever see above-grade parking garages in Washington, D.C.? The zoning code of our nation’s capital, unlike many other cities, counts all above-grade structures, no matter the use, toward the allowable development on a site. Combined with the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, this creates an incentive for developers to locate parking below grade, putting storefronts and other “live” uses on the street—much better than garages filled with cars!
Alisa Morse Clyne Associate Professor, Fischell Department of Bioengineering Of the trillions of cells in your body, most are both producing and responding to mechanical forces. For example, your heart cells contract harder to push more blood into the vessels when you run, and bones strengthen as their cells sense the push and pull of impact. These forces are essential to keeping your body healthy, which is one reason why exercise is so good for you, and why diseases like heart disease or osteoporosis can occur when cells aren't producing or responding to these forces appropriately.
Lillian Doherty Professor and Chair, Department of Classics The lyre, a stringed instrument used to accompany songs (lyric poetry!) in ancient Greece, has a connection to our campus mascot. The precocious god Hermes made one from the body of a tortoise on the day he was born, as he set out to rustle cattle owned by Apollo. Apollo loved the sound of the lyre and let Hermes keep the cows in exchange for it, and traditional Greek lyres for millennia have been constructed from tortoise shells.
Steve Fetter Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate School, Professor of Public Policy Polls show that many Americans don’t know key facts about nuclear weapons policy. For example, the U.S. and Russia each keep about 1,000 weapons that are always ready to be launched in five to 10 minutes, and it takes only 30 minutes for a missile warhead to go from launch to target. Each of these weapons can destroy a city.
Naeemul Hassan Assistant Professor, Philip Merrill College of Journalism and College of Information Studies We probably are looking at a future where there will be more news stories written by robots than reporters. For quite a while, robots have been converting data into structured news such as weather updates, sports and financial reports. With recent advancements in natural language processing and deep learning research, barriers to writing less structured, more creative news are slowly falling.
Tatiana Loboda Professor, Department of Geographical Sciences I study wildfires in cold regions like Alaska, Canada and Russia, where spectacularly massive fires burn that we rarely hear about because few people live close by. In some thankfully rare cases, these fires can “overwinter” under the snow, because the soils in cold regions often contain a lot of partially decomposed organic material where the fires can continue to smolder for months. They re-emerge next spring after the snow melts.
Neil Jay Sehgal Assistant Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management Health care is much less safe than people think. Our best estimates suggest that more than 250,000 (and up to 400,000, depending on methods of estimation) deaths occur in U.S. hospitals associated with medical errors every year. Compare this estimate to CDC rankings, and medical error may be the third-most common cause of death in America behind heart disease and cancer.
Ryan Sochol Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering Most people would be surprised to hear that 3D printing turns 40 this year. People see it as a relatively new or even “futuristic” technology, but it’s been around for longer than I’ve been alive. Share your answer or suggest a future question in the Comment section.


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