Why is purple the color of royalty?and more questions from our readers | at the Smithsonian

One reader wondered: Since purple dye is scarce, why don’t people combine blue and red?
Illustration by Aurélia Fronty

Q: I’ve heard that purple is called the royal color because purple dye used to be scarce. Why don’t people combine blue and red? Dan Warnock | Baker City, OR

In fact, many of the purples in historical fabrics were the result of coloring the fabric with blue dyes (such as indigo or isatis) and red dyes (such as madder). But the “Terrian violet” associated with royalty – believed to have originated in Phoenicia (modern Lebanon) as early as 1200 BC – was obtained from snails found along the Mediterranean coast through an expensive and labor-intensive process. Made from mucus. Ancient writings suggest that the dye was popular not only for its vibrant hue, but also for its ability to remain colorfast over time. Similar sea snails are found around the world, and some cultures, such as the Mixtec weavers in Oaxaca, Mexico, still use them for dyes today. —Jennifer Cohlman Bracchi, Cooper Hewitt Librarian, Smithsonian Design Museum

Q: Are there any invasive species that actually improve the American ecosystem? Frank Gregorio | Manassas, VA

The short answer is no, because by definition, invasive species are species that threaten native ecosystems. Many arrived unexpectedly, hiding in containers or fleeing the garden. Sometimes non-native species are introduced with good intentions – for example, to help prevent soil erosion or control other non-native species. However, whenever a non-native species is introduced into an ecosystem, it is possible for the newcomer to displace the native species through attack or competition. The best way is to avoid introducing them altogether. —Gary Krupnick, director of plant conservation at the National Museum of Natural History

Q: How is the body of a violin formed? Edwin Anderson | Glendora, CA

Bowed instruments have been around for over a thousand years, but early examples, such as those found in Arabian lands, had only a few strings and no narrow “waist”. By the 1400s, Spanish instrument makers were making violas with up to seven strings. These instruments have a narrow waist so musicians can bend the top and bottom strings without hitting the sides. It is widely believed that Andrea Amati of Cremona, Italy, made the first four-string violin in the 16th century, following the general shape of the viola da gamba. The violin family (including violin, viola and cello) was refined by his grandson Nicolo Amati and followers of Nicolo, including Antonio Stradivari. —Gary Sturm, Director Emeritus, National Museum of American History

ask: Does the brain of a butterfly or moth retain the memory of when it was a caterpillar? Philip Grant | Pasadena, CA

We used to think metamorphosis completely dissolved the caterpillar and rearranged its components. But in a study published in 2008, caterpillars were trained to associate the smell of ethyl acetate with a mild electric shock. Emerging adults showed similar aversion to the odor of ethyl acetate in the absence of electric shock as larvae did when paired with electric shock, suggesting that some synaptic pathways were preserved. So while adult moths and butterflies may not remember the details of being a caterpillar, certain associative memories can persist into adulthood. —Floyd Shockley, Entomology Collection Manager, National Museum of Natural History

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