Could Humans Survive Unprotected Outside of Earth’s Atmosphere for Even Ten Seconds?

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Earth Illo
Outside of Earth, is there any place a human could survive unprotected for even ten seconds?

  Illustration by Señor Salme

Outside of Earth, is there any place a human could survive unprotected for even ten seconds? Caroline Mueller Loane | Hoboken, New Jersey

If you were to land on the surface of Venus, for instance, you’d be crushed right away by the atmospheric pressure, which is the equivalent of being about a mile below the surface of the ocean. You’d also be roasted by the temperature, which is more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, if you stepped out into the vacuum of space and held your breath, you might last ten seconds before dying from asphyxiation. We may find planets where humans could step right out of a ship into hospitable atmospheres, but we don’t yet know where they might be. —Matthew Shindell, curator of space history, National Air and Space Museum

Would the Revolutionary War have happened if Britain had given the American colonies seats in the House of Commons? Ed Feuer | Winnipeg, Manitoba

It’s an interesting idea, but getting a seat in the British Parliament would not really have addressed colonial concerns. There were roughly 550 men in the House of Commons already, and the voices of a handful of North American delegates would surely have been drowned out. What’s more, the wealthy men who served in Parliament considered the views and interests of less wealthy Britons secondary to their own. The chances of getting them to prioritize the well-being of middling farmers in Pennsylvania, merchants in Boston or tobacco planters in the Chesapeake would have been slim to none. —Barbara Clark Smith, curator of political history, National Museum of American History

What do we know about the development of a sense of humor in humans? Ken Zogas | Lyndonville, Vermont

Humor relies on complex communication and physical laughter—neither of which is preserved in the prehistoric record. We do know that chimpanzees (our closest living relatives) cannot laugh as we do because of their quadrupedal anatomy. (Standing on two legs freed the thorax and let our ancestors vocalize more freely.) Some researchers suggest that great apes’ relaxed open-mouth displays during playful activities may have been present in our earliest ancestors as a kind of “preadaptation.” Others propose that humor only really emerged in modern humans, related to our sophisticated social abilities and the evolution of language. —Briana Pobiner, Human Origins Program research scientist, National Museum of Natural History

How do we know salmon and turtles come back to the same spots where they hatched? Gillean Wilsak | Racine, Wisconsin

Fish can be tracked as they move from the stream where they were born to the ocean and back. One way is to insert passive integrated transponders, also called PIT tags. Researchers catch fish and anesthetize them in a special bath before inserting the tag with a tiny syringe. The process doesn’t hurt the fish, since it only affects the scale level, comparable to human fingernails. These tags can also be used for sea turtles, and their shells can be marked so scientists can spot them when they return to their natal beach. —Dennis Whigham, senior scientist, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

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This article is a selection from the September/October 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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