QUESTION: Why is there a city in Virginia called Newport News?

ANSWER: A newspaper, we could understand. But this is no proper name for a city. We are told by Tim Morgan, professor of history at Christopher Newport College in Newport News, that in Colonial days the word "news" sometimes meant a place where information was dispensed. Newport News was the port where admiral Christopher Newport first stopped on his voyages from England. He learned about the Indian situation, and the locals learned about events in Europe.One rather wacky theory, Morgan says, is that the Irish settlers in Virginia named the city after a place called Port Nuce in Ireland. You know, New Port Nuce. In other words the town may have gotten its name through a sort of knock-knock joke.

Tragically, there is no local newspaper that calls itself the Newport News News. Instead we have to content ourselves with such great names as The Tiller & Toiler of Larned, Kan., The Logansport Pharos-Tribune, the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil, the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, and the ambitiously named Brattleboro Reformer.

QUESTION: Why is aluminum foil shiny on one side and dull on the other?

ANSWER: This has an astonishingly dull (har!) answer, but one with the seed of profound truth.

We spent days debating the shine. Surely, some argued, you had to wrap a baked potato with the shiny side facing in, to reflect heat and gamma rays and whatnot. Of course we couldn't figure out how shininess would be advantaged in a dark oven.

Eventually, Jim Rowland, a metallurgical engineer at Reynolds Metal in Richmond, Va., gave us the answer: "It's not something that's functional. It's the result of processing."

Indeed, the shininess has no purpose. See, they have these shiny steel rolling pins. They feed the aluminum along the pins to flatten it out. Because foil must be really thin, and it's hard to set the pins at a narrow enough gauge, the manufacturers cheat a little by simultaneously feeding in two sheets of foil, one on top of the other. The two outer sides that touch the shiny steel pins become shiny and polished-looking. The inner sides stay dull.

The profound truth: Some things don't have a profound answer.

QUESTION: Why don't people die after they stop producing offspring, the way beans and tomatoes do?

ANSWER: Consider the rest of nature. Pacific salmon swim thousands of miles upstream, spawn, then die. Bamboo grows for 100 years, flowers and dies. Mayflies live a few hours, mate and die. When a queen bee stops cranking out babies she's murdered by the workers. Look around nature and the cold-hearted message is ubiquitous: Make babies and then get outta here.

Fortunately, we are social animals, and we get to break the rules. Post-menopausal pilot whales still breast-feed young whales. Among baboons, a male will sometimes try to attack his son, due to a perceived threat of sexual rivalry, but will be stopped by the grandmother. And among humans, the elderly are typically the leaders of society. So here's a simple, feel-good answer: The elderly exist because we are social creatures and need wise elders.

That leads us to a more complicated question.

Why do we die?

Despite all kinds of medical advances, people still don't live beyond 115. There's not much give at the margin. Why must we deteriorate and die?

The short answer is that no one knows. "There's a Nobel Prize to be had there," says Dr. Richard Sprott, associate director for the Basic Aging Program at the National Institute on Aging.

One theory we like for purely aesthetic reasons is that oxygen is toxic. We always suspected as much! Oxygen atoms have a tendency to run around as "free radicals," meaning they are highly reactive and tend to scuff up our cells and break things. So we just get banged up by random hits.

The problem with this theory is that all species have such a precise maximum life span that it suggests we don't die randomly, but accordingly to some kind of genetic schedule. It may be that we're programmed to rust and die.

Of course, people don't die because their cells die. A person of 90 makes new red blood cells as well as a nine-year-old. What usually kills us is some larger systemic problem like cancer or heart disease. These diseases aren't an inevitable part of being alive: The Pacific rock fish doesn't get cancer or heart disease and can live to be 100 or more years old. They don't die so much as get killed. Theoretically, a rock fish could live to be 200. It's likely that the rock fish is simply lucky; the genes causing cancer and heart disease have never entered the fish's gene pool.

No such luck with us.

1990, Washington Post Writers Group