I was going to write to Ask Marilyn, but she probably gets so much mail, I’d never get an answer.
If there is one.
I hope you don’t think my question’s dumb. But astronomers say stars eventually burn out. How come the constellations, which are thousands of years old, don’t burn out?
And how do geese know who will lead? They are always in a V formation. There’s one in the front. Is he a male? Has research been done on that?
Hope you can help, Crabby. I wonder every time I see a flock of geese.
A Faithful Reader
How dare you mention my nemesis?
Let me tell you a little something about your precious Ask Marilyn. She and I both come from advice-columnist families, going back generations. And, like the rivalry between the Hatfields and McCoys, ours has been defined by violence and unmitigated hatred. The Marilyns and the Crabbies are now, have always been and always will be mortal enemies. I assume you had no way of knowing this very (not at all) true story. So I’ll let it slide this time. But please, don’t utter her name in my presence and don’t mention her again in correspondence.
OK. On to the questions, both of which have pretty interesting answers and only one of which is dumb. I’m not saying which one.
About the stars: Thousands of years is nothing in the lifespan of a star. The largest stars burn out fastest, and even they live a few million years. The smallest stars live trillions. That’s nuts. Just an imponderably long time. So the odds of a star dying out sometime in the thousands of years since we started playing connect-the-dots with them are infinitesimally small. That’s why the constellations haven’t visibly changed.
About the geese: If the lifespan of stars wasn’t enough to make you marvel at the splendor of the universe, this might. Geese have a highly evolved energy-efficient migration system, developed over the 10 million years or so of goose life on this planet. The way it works is that a bird saves energy by flying in the wake of another bird; there’s less wind resistance. So the geese right behind the lead goose have a little easier flight than the guy up front. And the geese behind those geese have it a little easier still. And so on, and so on, until you get to the back.
That’s amazing, right? But what about that poor guy, huffing and puffing and working his tiny bird butt off flying point? Here’s the best part: When that guy gets tired, they switch spots. Another goose from farther back in the V takes point for a while. That way they all get to rest a little during the migration, and the lead bird is always fresh, making the whole operation even more efficient.
I bet Ask Marilyn didn’t know any of that.
Hope that helps.