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Website of the Week — Ask the Van


Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week we’re surfing over to a website for the curious, a place where thousands of mostly schoolchildren have written in with questions about physics and related areas of science, and where the answers are written so youngsters and other smart and curious people can understand them.

WEISSMAN: "Ask the Van is a website where we try to answer questions that come in from all over the world. All age groups, all different types of topics which we're more or less competent on. We don't answer all the ones that come in. There are just too many that come in, but we try to do as many as we can."

Mike Weissman is a physics professor at the University of Illinois and one of the volunteers who answers questions sent in to Ask the Van. The website is an outgrowth of the university's Physics Van program, which sends undergraduate students out to do science shows in area schools. There is a tremendous range of topics on Ask the Van. Some recent questions were about lasers, black holes, and the efficiency of a battery made out of a potato. There are almost 2,500 others.

WEISSMAN: "Ones about what would happen if you were traveling at the speed of light, or ideas about some invention that somebody's thinking of. Or practical questions about how hot does somebody have to get some industrial process before the vapor pressure of water is high enough to get things to dry quickly enough. It's just an enormous variety."

In addition to the questions and answers, there's a special note on the reliability of information you find through Internet research. Mike Weissman says that little note — about how not everything online is 100 percent accurate — is actually more important than any of the actual answers.

WEISSMAN: "I think that the idea that science is maybe less fallible than other things people do but still fallible and that we make mistakes is just absolutely crucial. As I said, if people forgot all the specifics of what we said an only remembered that, I'd feel like the site had done something of value."

Ask your own questions, or check out the answers at Ask the Van at van.physics.uiuc.edu/qa/, or get the link from our site, voanews.com

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