QUESTION: Why are people with orange hair called redheads?

ANSWER: Naturally we turned to the Color Association of the United States for help. This is a real organization. They give advice to the fashion industry. Associate director Margaret Walch confirmed our suspicions: Redheads are actually orangeheads. "The hue is orange, but we call it red," Walch said.The Standard Color Reference of America lists 198 individual colors. One is "henna," which as a hair coloring is designed to make someone a redhead but which Walch describes as "terra cotta orange." We asked her to clarify that and she said it was "rust colored." Unfortunately the chromatically illiterate Why staff comprehends only red, blue, green, yellow, orange, brown and purple, and so we insisted on a simpler description, finally getting: "It's a brown-orange."

So why do we call it red?

"I think there is a psychological connotation here. Red has positive connotations, as opposed to orange, which has a banal, pedestrian quality," she said. "Red implies more energy, more drama."

Incidentally, if you've ever wondered why fashionable people use such absurd terms for colors - you know, "cardinal" instead of "red" - it's because those are the official colors according to the Standard Color Reference of America. There is no red in there. But there is "scarlet" and "geranium." There's also "flax," "toast brown," "grotto blue," "amber light," "mosstone," which is green with a touch of gray, and the bizarre "leghorn." It's a sort of phlegm yellow. To use an unofficial term.

QUESTION: Why has life originated only once on Earth?

ANSWER: Here's the real question: Why doesn't primitive one-celled scuzz appear in the ocean anymore and gradually evolve into giant new batches of, say, trilobites? Why can't we originate some more life, and start the evolutionary process over again from scratch, so we can someday have real dinosaurs instead of millions of tiresome museum exhibits?

The answer is: The weather. It's too nice nowadays. The volcanic activity in the early period of the Earth filled the atmosphere with gases, which were then absorbed into the ocean. The sea was a thick soup of nutritious molecules, just waiting for something to come alive and eat them. When that incredible moment came, the first living cell was able to chow down like there was no tomorrow. Most of the yummy bits were eaten and today, instead of a delicious stew, the ocean is a thin gruel.

"It may have taken hundreds of millions of years to create the first cell, but within a relatively short time, perhaps only a few years, that cell's offspring probably filled the world's oceans, consuming much of the organic raw materials and greatly reducing the chance that any other type of cell would spontaneously arise," write Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil in "Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy."

The puzzle that no one can answer is why that first living cell came into existence. We asked an expert, cell biologist Christian de Duve of Rockefeller University, and he said, "There is no why. Scientists don't answer questions such as `why.' They only answer questions such as `how.' "

There goes HIS free subscription to the Why column. And in any case, he and his colleagues can't explain how, either.

In 1953, University of Chicago researchers Stanley Miller and Harold Urey tried to replicate the primordial ocean in a jar, pouring in ammonia, methane, water and hydrogen gases. Within a few days, the liquid turned brown and revealed the creation of amino acids, which are necessary for the construction of proteins. But nothing "alive" ever started doing the backstroke in there.

So complex a structure is the simplest cell that the genesis of a self-replicating organism - or even a single bit of ribonucleic acid (RNA) - seems ridiculously unlikely even over millions of years. Until we figure out the trick, we'll just call it a miracle.

QUESTION: Why do birds fly in formation?

ANSWER: You might think that it would be smart for them to fly single-file, "drafting" behind one another like race-car drivers. Instead they prefer the V shape, though sometimes one side of the V is only slightly realized or completely absent.

"Formation flying" has a distinct aeronautical advantage: As the lead bird flaps its wings, it creates a vortex out near the wing tip, and the trailing bird rests its wings on the updraft. Thus it's easier for the trailing bird to stay aloft, and so on down the line. The birds take turns being the leader. (Only large birds fly in formation. Geese. Sea gulls. Pelicans. That's because only large birds can exploit the aerodynamics of their own beating wings.)

A 1970 study published in Science magazine stated that a flock of 25 birds can extend their flight range by 70 percent by flying in formation.

This is not to be confused with flying information, which is what you find on an airplane in the seat pocket directly in front of you.

1991, Washington Post Writers Group